When you hear the word ‘anthem’, I wonder what comes to mind. Do you think of standing and singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner” at the beginning of a sporting event, or maybe you think of a piece that the choir sings in worship during the offering.
National Public Radio is presenting a yearlong series called, “American Anthem,” in which they’re exploring “songs that can rouse and rally huge masses of people at once, whether they’re chanting in a stadium, marching in the streets or sweating it out on the dance floor.”
Over the course of the year, they are identifying 50 pieces of music that have anthemic status in American life and unpacking why they have come to mean so much to us. They might be songs of celebration, songs of protest, or songs of solidarity.
Over 40 songs have been named so far, including:
- Woody Guthrie’s, “This Land is Your Land”
- Dolly Parton’s, “9 to 5”
- Helen Reddy’s, “I Am Woman”
- “Let It Go,” from the movie, “Frozen”
- Aaron Copeland’s, “Fanfare for the Common Man”
- Bruce Springsteen’s, “Born in the USA”
- “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
- “This Little Light of Mine”
The earliest anthems were religious, and on Friday, they spotlighted a song by U2, the Irish band, that is a rock ‘n’ roll hymn inspired by American roots music. It’s called, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” That’s right, a rock ‘n’ roll hymn. It starts like this:
I have climbed the highest mountains,
I have run through the fields
only to be with you…
but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
U2’s lead singer and songwriter says it’s a gospel song with a restless spirit. It connects with the human emotion of yearning. One of the verses continues:
I believe in the Kingdom come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
But yes, I’m still running…
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for
The song is over 30 years old, and when the band performs it, the crowds still own the song and belt it out. Thus, its designation as an American anthem. Some who hear it may not realize it’s a song of faith. “Our songs are a prayer of a kind,” Bono says.
A few years ago, Fuller Seminary produced a video of a conversation between Bono and Eugene Peterson, the author and translator of “The Message Bible.” They are two very different men who have devoted their lives to interpreting the Bible through words either sung, spoken or written. They talked about the Psalms. Both were deeply impacted by the Psalms at an early age.
It was a fascinating conversation. Later, Bono asked for a second interview. He had more to say about the Psalms. His interviewer challenged him to give one-word answers to a series of questions:
Q. What’s one thing you’ve learned about God through your reading of the Psalms?
A. God listens.
Q. What’s one thing you’ve learned about God through your reading of the Psalms?
A. I don’t listen enough.
Q. What’s one difficult or troubling thing the Psalms have required of you?
We’ve spent seven weeks this summer in a sermon series called, “Dirty Work, Beautiful Work,” and we have been reflecting on the Psalms, especially related to care of creation and care of one another. There are 150 Psalms, so spending seven weeks on them offers just a taste. Indeed the Psalms are honest, as Bono said. Sometimes uncomfortably honest, and we’d like to edit out the parts we don’t like.
There are some psalms that are well known and well-loved, and we turn to them for a comforting image of loving God, and we find that in Psalm 23 and 121. But pick up a Bible sometime, if you’re not already in the habit of that, and read through the Psalms. Read until you find something that catches your eye, and underline it. Meditate on it. But keep going. Recognize those parts that make you uncomfortable. There are plenty of those psalms, too. Psalms of complaint, they’re sometimes called.
As a whole, the Psalms are brutally honest. They recognize that life is not always full of apparent blessing, that life does not always flow in ways that are comfortable and joyful. There are psalms that speak to times of well-being, times of joy, times when “life is good.” And there are psalms that speak to the times when everything goes wrong, when the wheels fall off, when life takes an unexpected, unhappy turn. And there are other psalms that speak to days when a new light shines, when hope is restored, when life is once again possible.
The Psalms are poems and songs for raising our voices in prayer to God, and the Psalms recognize that there is no prayer we cannot pray to God. God can handle whatever it is we’ve got to give, no matter how hard. The Psalms give voice to our inmost thoughts. The Psalms give space for honesty.
Today’s Psalm is a psalm of praise. It is one of the last psalms in the collection, and it is as if the collector of poems saved the biggest and loudest praise for last.
All shall be well, and all shall be well, is essentially what it’s saying. God is the God of all creation, and God’s praise shall be sung from one generation to another.
The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and God’s compassion is over all that God has made.
This God who made us, and is in all, and above all, has compassion on us. God’s love is dependent not on us, but on God being who God is — gracious and merciful. It’s the Gospel in a nutshell that’s found in the Old Testament.
God has compassion on all that God has made. God has no partiality for one ethnicity over another, for one pedigree over another. God is good to all, the psalmist says.
And then come the words that are comforting to our ears:
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them food in due season.
You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.
These are wonderful words expressing that life is good. Everything is as it should be. And for some of us, that is how life usually goes. But are these words true?
Not long ago, someone said, “We used to say these words as a prayer before mealtime, but we don’t anymore. How can this be our prayer when it’s not really true?” Indeed, some 40 million people live below the poverty line in the United States. Nearly half the world’s population struggles to make ends meet.
When we’re doing ok, it’s easy to generalize and assume things are good for everyone who puts forth an effort. When we’re doing ok, it’s easy to look past those whose lives are at risk. Maybe you’re like me, and your commute sometimes takes you by a freeway entrance where people are looking for assistance. There’s an awkward exchange — or non-exchange. We don’t know how to engage in a meaningful way. It’s easier to look past than to look at the poor. The ones on the side of the road are the ones we see, but there are many others who are going to work and doing the best job they can. People who are funny, intelligent, and talented. They happen to be poor.
Part of the problem, according to Rick Taylor, is that “cultural lenses of prejudice” often make it difficult for us to recognize the image of God in the poor. Rick is the executive director of Operation Nightwatch, a faith-based ministry in Seattle that seeks to reduce the impact of poverty and homelessness. He describes the divide between the city’s homeless and mainstream people as sadly ironic, and he tells a story to illustrate that the people with homes are not so different from the ones who are homeless:
The newspaper reported on how an area of town was being cleared out by the authorities and the mayor proudly showed off a mess that had been left by “FILTHY HOMELESS PEOPLE.” Buried deeper in the paper was a story about how a 10 million gallon sewer overflow into Lake Washington from people living in houses, and that story hadn’t really ruffled anybody’s feathers. “We don’t think of ourselves as being garbage generators,” Rick said, but this story shows that we’re all human. We’re all the same in God’s eyes.
“Filthy homeless people” is what the mayor said. The language that we use matters. The language that our leaders use matters. We know all too well that words can divide us, and words can unite us. But we’re in this together. We are all made in God’s image, and God provided enough for the needs of all to be met.
Jesus’ disciples once asked him, Lord, teach us to pray, and he said, “pray like this: ‘…Your kingdom, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven….'”
When we say, “The eyes of all wait upon you and you give them their food in due season; you open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing,” it’s like praying, “Your kingdom come.”
Like the song by U2, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” there’s a longing for the coming of God’s kingdom here on earth.
Today’s psalm is a psalm of praise. We sing songs of praise and pray psalms of praise, not so much for God’s sake as for our own. We don’t praise God because God needs to hear it. God’s ego doesn’t somehow need to be stroked.
We praise God so others can hear that God is good, and the next generation will know that God is near to all who call on him. We praise God so we can be reminded to God is good, and lifts us up when we’re bowed down. We praise God to remind ourselves to live in God’s goodness, to make of this world what God intends it to be.
So we pray: Open our eyes to your generous bounty, O God, and shape us to be vessels of your gracious love. Amen.
“American Anthem: Music that Challenges, Unites and Celebrates,” npr.org, accessed 7/27/19
“Bono and Eugene Peterson on the Psalms,” “Bono on Brutally Honest Faith,” and “Ain’t I Beautiful,” fullerstudio.fuller.edu, accessed 7/27/19