When I was growing up as a member of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin (“Tosa” to those in the know), I found the Psalms to be exceptionally boring. There was so much repetition from Psalm to Psalm; the language and topics were archaic; there were no good stories, only a bunch of little verses that didn’t seem to fit together. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found the Book of Psalms to be among the most meaningful parts of scripture. I now know that there is a story in the Psalms– it is the story of the human condition, whether it be joy, or pain, or bewilderment, or whatever other state we might find ourselves in. The language is from the heart or the gut, not as much from the head.
For example, in many Christian churches Psalm 22 will be read or chanted on Holy Thursday. The Psalmist writes:
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax, it is melted in my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; thou dost lay me in the dust of death. (Psalm 22, v. 14 – 15; RSV)
I know of few other scriptural passages that so viscerally describe a person in agony. And, yet, a few verses later after once again crying out for deliverance, the Psalmist says: “I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.” (Psalm 22, v 22; RSV) In so many instances, a single Psalm will tell of the joy and pain, the praise and bewilderment that lie just beneath the surface of every human life.
When I learned of the suggestion that the devotions for this week of Lent be focused on creation, I immediately thought of my favorite creation Psalm, Psalm 104. It is full of wonderful descriptions of donkeys filling their thirst, birds singing among the branches, lions seeking their food from God. There are streams and rivers that flow in their boundaries; the moon marks the seasons, and the sun knows when to rise and set. God created the seas, where ships go to and fro and Leviathan, a primordial sea serpent, frolics in the water. One Biblical scholar translates verse 26 a bit differently – in essence, that God made whales for God’s own sport and pleasure in seeing them play in the water, showing God’s sense of humor. But then – at the end in verse 35, the Psalmist pleads to God that “sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more.” Once again, amidst the beauty of creation there is recognition that there is evil in the world and that sin and death must be eradicated. Joy and pain, this time specifically focused on God’s created world.
You may have heard of Antonio Carlos Jobim, a Brazilian musician who died in the 1990’s. In this country, he is probably best known for the bossa nova sound and “The Girl from Ipanema”. However, he is most beloved in Brazil for “The Waters of March”, a gorgeous song that in its repetitions reinforces the interplay between life and death. As far as I’m concerned, the iconic recording of it is sung by Suzannah McCorkle. She sings in both English and Portuguese and even though one may not understand the Portuguese, the beauty of the language shines through. In these elegant but unsettling verses, Jobim focuses on the changing of the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere. The “Waters of March” in Brazil signal the end of the warm weather and the coming of winter. Interestingly, with only a few word changes, the lyrics were made to apply to the Northern Hemisphere. Rather than foretelling the cold time of year, these “Waters of March” denote the coming promise of spring.
The “Waters of March” describe the world created by God and re-shaped by humans. God’s hand is seen in “the oak when it blooms, a fox in the brush, the nod of the wood, the song of the thrush.” The human reality is recognized in “the plan of the house, …the car that got stuck, it’s the mud, it’s the mud.” Much of it is joyful, particularly the repeated refrain: “And the riverbank talks of the Waters of March; it’s the promise of life, it’s the joy in your heart.” But sometimes the wording of the refrain changes slightly, and rather than talking of the promise of life, Jobim talks of “the end of all strain” – the time of death when we and the fox and the thrush are no more. Here we have the duality of creation and destruction and their intimate relationship – for us in the Northern Hemisphere, the dying that occurs in fall and winter is necessary for the birth that occurs in the spring – and the dying that occurs in our mortal lives points to the joy that is as yet unknown.
We are now in the season of Lent, a time of introspection that looks ahead to the death and grieving of the Three Days followed by the joy of Easter. Whether in the ancient poetry of the Psalms or the haunting rhymes of Jobim, we are faced head on with the dichotomy of creation and demise, of joy and pain, of life and death. During these Forty Days, may we find the time to ponder these mysteries, perhaps assisted by the evocative language of others.
Let us pray...
Dear God, we ask that you keep us ever mindful of your creation. Let us focus on the mysteries of your handiwork as well as the complexities of our lives. We ask that you be with us as we travel on our Lenten journeys and help us to better feel the depth of your love for us, your beloved children. In God’s name we pray, Amen.