“Sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things…
Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands;
lift up your voice, rejoice and sing.
Sing to the Lord with the harp,
with the harp and the voice of song.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
shout with joy before the King, the Lord….
Let the rivers clap their hands,
and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord,
when he comes to judge the earth.”
Psalms 98: 1-5-7-9
So with the 98th Psalm’s cascading bursts of sheer exultation ringing in my ears, I’m thinking that maybe we need an 11th Commandment which would consist of just one word: “Enjoy!”
I know, it sounds a little heretical—but I think it’s consistent with Jesus’ gospel—after all, isn’t he quoted as saying “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly” and “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full”?
And it seems to me this is what Psalm 98 shouts from the rooftop: Enjoy!—and I don’t mean “enjoy” in the current, casual, offhand sense of “have a nice time” but in the sense of the original Latin, “rejoice.”
Psalm 98 describes a Divine circuitry of joy that pulses through grass and fields and leaping salmon and also through us.
So maybe we need to understand God less as rule giver and more as the giver of abundant Life, as the God who delights in our having a good time, as the God who enjoys our enjoyment, as the God who enjoys through us.
To be a child of God, as the baptismal service reminds us, is to be imbued with the gift of joy and wonder—and we know that young children who’ve been given half a chance are experts at rejoicing and singing a new song.
I was reminded of this the other night when we took our 4 year old granddaughter to a restaurant and, while we were waiting for a table, she found just enough open space in which to perform a series of frisky cartwheels, handstands, and jumping jacks—while we amused grown-ups looked on and marveled at this spectacle of joyful energy.
But as for us seasoned, battle-scarred adults, singing a new song is often just out of the question—the most we can muster is half-heartedly singing the same, tired, old song.
For us adults, rejoicing is often the furthest thing from our minds.
Often for us, the first and only order of business is just making it, getting by, plowing through the muck and debris, keeping our head above water, enduring, coping, surviving.
Our God-given capacity for enjoyment, for loving life, can so easily get buried under a boat load of fretful care.
So how to recover the wherewithal, the zestfulness, to truly enjoy and sing a new song of gladness?
Tolstoy wrote that “the task of the writer is to seize the reader by the back of the neck and force him to love life.”
Actually I think that’s a pretty good description of the preacher’s task—there have been times when I have heard sermons that have turned my glumness into joy, that have propelled me into rejoicing.
Sometimes it just takes a nudge or a little prodding from an unexpected source to set us right—I remember sitting in a Seattle café having breakfast and overhearing the proprietor who looked like a young Yul Brynner calling out to a couple who had just paid their bill and were going out the door, “Don’t forget, folks, live life to the fullest!”—and I took this as a message intended for me as well.
But sometimes we require a real jolt to shake us out of our ho hum, nothing new under the sun complacency and remind us just how dear this existence is to us.
Yes, strangely enough, it is often trouble, serious trouble, that jars us into singing a new song—it is often trouble that actually provokes us into rejoicing.
You’re flying at 37,000 feet over the Atlantic and you’re one hour out of Atlanta—suddenly the pilot comes on the intercom and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had a threat called in against this airplane—we’re pretty sure it’s a hoax—but as a precaution we’re heading for the nearest airport which is New York’s JFK.”—following this announcement, the flight attendants start rifling through the overhead bins, presumably looking for anything suspicious—and in that moment you realize with absolute clarity how much you love life, how much you enjoy the exquisite pleasure of aliveness, how even the most ordinary of days is a spectacular gift.
Even the slightest brush with the angel of death—a worrisome call from the doctor, a car accident—can bring home to us with full force just how we cherish this teeming, surging, inexhaustible life that God continually breathes into us, how, in spite of anxieties and troubles galore, we are overwhelmingly glad to be alive—and in that instant we vow never again to take a day or even an hour for granted—but, of course, in spite of our resolve, we will once again before too long lapse once again into a care-worn, distracted, blasé state of just going through the motions, and we will have to learn our lesson again.
But, fortunately, we are given reprieve after reprieve, wake up call after wake up call—indeed, every morning that we wake up and discover that we are somehow still of sound mind and that our limbs move is a reprieve, a new beginning, a fresh invitation to sing to the Lord a new song.
And often the reprieve, the wake up call, the new lease on life, is hand-delivered to us by someone who stops us in our tracks by showing us a joy that is deeper than trouble and who thus awakens our own joy.
We meet these wake-up specialists in person, we meet them in print, we meet them in plays and movies—in fact, we can meet them almost anywhere.
These mentors, these life instructors, all testify to a God-given joy, wonder, and love of life that are deeper than trouble, and through this testimony they teach us how to once again enjoy and sing to the Lord a new song.
There’s something about New York City, that gritty, tough, beautiful city, that has always rejuvenated me—it also rejuvenated Janice Beeghly who was taught a thing or two about joy by an anonymous gentleman, a revealer of joy, on the subway—she recounts:
A few years ago I moved to Manhattan from Connecticut to be part of the New York Teaching Fellowship. I instantly loved everything about the city. It seemed that something wondrous was happening every other minute.
One evening I was returning from a study date in Forest Hills and boarded a Manhattan-bound train. Although it was only about 10 at night, I was the sole passenger in that particular car.
At the next stop, an elderly man boarded the train and stepped into my car. I noticed that he was formally dressed, complete with top hat, and was carrying a beautifully carved wooden chest.
As the train moved forward, he somehow unfolded four legs from the chest and set it on the subway floor. He then proceeded, for the next several minutes and without ever uttering a word, to perform an entire magic act just for me.
I sat there in absolute enchantment while he did tricks with silk handkerchiefs, coins, and, finally, a real live white rabbit!
Three stops later he packed everything up, tipped his top hat to me and exited the train.
We might even come across a testimony to the Spirit’s gift of joy that is deeper than trouble in our local paper—in a recent column in the Dayton Daily News, Leonard Pitts Jr. offered this tribute to an 80 year old Holocaust survivor named Joe Engel who now lives in Charleston, South Carolina—
“Joe is a survivor of the Holocaust, one of the one in three European Jews who escaped the Nazis alive. He survived the Warsaw Ghetto. He survived Auschwitz. When Allied troops closed in on the death camp, the Nazis loaded their captives on a train and ran. Joe jumped from the train, hid beneath 8 feet of snow. He made his way to a barn, concealed himself under a mound of hay. German soldiers, searching for runaways, stabbed the hay with bayonets. Later, the barn wound up in a crossfire between the Germans and the Russians, gunfire punching through the walls. Joe survived all this, too.
Sometimes, I know, he wonders why. Others were bigger, others were stronger, others had more faith. Sometimes he wonders why he was one of the few who lived. I think maybe he lived so that he might someday lift a glass or bask in the beauty of a woman. Or dance. Not just to do these things but to be ’seen’ doing them. That’s an affirmation, isn’t it? Testimony to the rest of us of the stubborn resilience of life….
So I want to be like Joe when I grow up. I remember seeing him at dinner in Poland one night after a somber day spent touring death camps. The table talk had been of genocide and human cruelty. Then the band struck up ‘Hava Nagila’ and Joe found a pretty woman and started dancing. In my notes, I wrote that he danced as if his bones were made of joy.”
Even a cartoon dog can witness to this gift of indomitable joy that is deeper than trouble and that defies reason, common sense, and the pronouncements of doomsayers—as Snoopy whirls and twirls in a non-stop jig of joy, Lucy hollers, “Floods, fire, and famine!….Doom, defeat, and despair!”—and when Snoopy, undeterred and undiscouraged, keeps right on dancing, Lucy says to Charley Brown, “I guess it’s no use (sigh)—nothing seems to disturb him!”
And what these wake-up specialists and witnesses are all trying to impress upon us is the importance, the urgency, the necessity of singing a new song today, of enjoying today.
So enjoy sipping your coffee over the morning paper, enjoy watching your kids frolic, enjoy knitting, enjoy puttering, enjoy watching Carol Burnett re-runs, enjoy waiting in the express lane which turns out to be the slowest lane of all, enjoy donning your apron and serving up waffles, enjoy talking to your cranky neighbor, enjoy the hum and rhythm of the city and its fabulous parade of human faces, and, most certainly, enjoy the fellowship of the forgiven!
For the more thoroughly we enjoy, the more profoundly we enjoy with the joy of life God unceasingly pours into us, the more we will be moved to forgive everyone and everything, the more we will be filled to overflowing with kindness and mercy for one and all.
“This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Sing to the Lord a new song!
The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio 11-11-2007