Numbering the Stars While Caring for Those Who Can’t
1Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
2The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
3He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.
4He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names.
5Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.
6The Lord lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground.
7Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre.
8He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills.
9He gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.
10His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
11but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.
12Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion!
13For he strengthens the bars of your gates; he blesses your children within you.
14He grants peace within your borders; he fills you with the finest of wheat.
15He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly.
16He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes.
17He hurls down hail like crumbs— who can stand before his cold?
18He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow.
19He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel.
20He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his ordinances. Praise the Lord!
I wish that every one of you could come to Two Harbors to see the stars above our home.
We live, essentially, in a small forest.
For acres around us, then, there is no audacious artificial light clamoring for our attention, trying to quell or equal the stars above.
Sometimes, after my son goes to sleep (he nods off earlier than do my daughter and I), Else and I go outside and stand under the stars, even in winter, bundled up with a blanket around the both of us as we shiver and watch those stars shine and shimmer, making the very very dark not so very dark at all.
Three nights ago, the stars were crazy bright.
Else was sleeping downstairs for the night with the puppies.
After I got her tucked in, and crawled into my bed, I looked outside my window, and for all the world, it felt as if the stars were close enough for me to touch.
“Else!” I whispered loudly enough for her to hear, quietly enough so that Karl wouldn’t wake. “Else! Look. At. Those. Stars.”
And all I heard from the room down the hall was, “Oh….Mama!”
Psalm 147 is a favorite of mine. It declares God’s deep gladness and concern for all that God created.
It doesn’t exactly hedge on the expansive.
Creation: the stars, and clouds, and rain, and and grass, and hills, and animals, and ravens, and wheat, and snow, and frost, and hail, and winds, and waters–God intentionally calls them all into being.
Humanity: the outcasts, the broken-hearted, the wounded, the downtrodden, the oppressed (and the wicked), the worshippers, the faithful, the children, the hungry, Israel–God knows each of them, and forgets none of them.
I love this psalm, because of its breadth and depth and purpose in showing that there is nothing about which God does not care.
Turns out, esteemed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann’s God might number the stars, but Dr. Brueggemann doesn’t number this Psalm as one of his faves.
For the record, were there to be a Walter Bruegemann Fan Club, I would hold all the posts.
So it is somewhat crushing to me that I like a psalm that he doesn’t so very much.
Here’s what bugs him about this text.
It is very difficult to engage liturgically in celebrations of God’s extravagance and yet to remember and affirm that in the midst of such extravagance there are hungry people who need food, prisoners who need release, and blind who need sight. I submit that the very accumulation of words about abundance diminishes the likelihood that the social reality of need and scarcity will remain visible to Israel. Such a psalm reflects a singing community which continue to hold on to the old recital of transformation, but which is increasingly preoccupied with the goodness of the present order, a goodness experienced with benign gratitude, without context, without memory, without critical awareness. In the end, the massive rhetoric of present well-being overrides the memory of another needful time. And when one’s own memory of a needful time is nullified, one is not likely to notice a present needfulness that contradicts one’s own present abundance. (Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology, page 102)
Upshot is, when things seem so very good in our own private starry universe, when we focus only on God’s praise, when we lack both a grasp of how we received our gifts and a recognition that others do not have them, we are, as Brueggemann says, “not likely to notice a present needfulness that contradicts one’s own present abundance.”
We forget, outside of a token mention of them in a prayer, all those who suffer.
We bank that God’s got them covered, and that we have our responsibility to them covered when we mention them in praise-filled prayer.
That irks Dr. Brueggemann, and, darn it all, he’s got a point.
He’s got a point, and all the more these days.
In this age of promises from 1600 Pennsylvania of making America great again…by stripping away Meals on Wheels, and lunches for poor children, and funding for the arts, and protections for the environment, and health care for the vulnerable, and educational opportunities for children with special needs, and safety for GLBTQ people, and rights for women, it’s clear that Christians have all the more reason to be watchful not just of the stars, but of praise that forgets that we are praising a God who cares about the whole cosmos, and notices all of it too…including the downtrodden…and those who trod on the down by their silence, their tolerance, and their votes which enable such injustice to become acceptable, viable options, and, God forbid, realities.
In other words, blithe worship translates into blithe praise of blessings for a few, and blithe acceptance of burdens for many.
With all due respect to Dr. Brueggemann, however, I think that also, exactly given these days, this might be exactly the Psalm from which we can find some heartening meaning and purpose as people of faith.
Everything, from the dark soil of the earth to the dark night of the sky, everything is God’s, and is loved by God.
The well-being of all is intended, with especial concern for the Least of These.
For, indeed, can any of us truly be well if all are not well?
Can you, for example, who live under street lights and shop lights and headlights understand what it is to stand under the sky and actually think it might just be possible to not just touch the stars, but number them too, for each star seems to be so clear and glad to be noticed exactly by you?
Until that is possible for all people, Else and I will do our best to touch and number them for you, and to invite you to our space so that you have a shot at standing in awe of the sky and of the God who made it too.
And she and I will, as Brueggemann reminds us, not only recall in prayer “that in the midst of such extravagance there are hungry people who need food, prisoners who need release, and blind who need sight.”
Instead, we will also force ourselves finally to close our eyes to our night sky, and rest up for the new day in which we can praise God, not least of all by serving God by serving those whom God seems to care about the most: the broken-hearted, the wounded, and the downtrodden, for their stars aren’t shining brightly enough.
Brueggemann is spot on when he says, “not likely to notice a present needfulness that contradicts one’s own present abundance.” I have joked about having First World problems with others, and do so in light of knowing how much prosperity I have compared to the needfulness of others about and beyond me. Having such concern is good hearted, but concern is not action and not dramatic action for dramatic situations. The Psalm speaks of what God has done for Israel, and I believe this is stated as a means of empowering people to action. If I remember correct, you explained that Brueggemann grasped that praise for God as not just voicing delight for God, but active doing of God’s call to love as God loves. So, to Praise the Lord, one is thus to be moved to do as God has done: build, bind, and lift up, gather and heal. Again, we are moved to do such because we fear, a.k.a. humbly submit to God, and have hope in God’s steadfast love. This love which via Jesus’ resurrection reveals is not exclusive but inclusive of all. This brings us then to a certain American attitude toward other people’s neediness. Americans are charitable, yet mostly in an individualistic way. A friend of mine said how he would prefer to help a person face to face than via tax money given out to those in need. It is because he wanted to experience the personal satisfaction of helping a person he new was in need. I have often heard other Americans use this same logic about how they want to be charitable. Additionally, Americans are fearful of being forced to be charitable via distribution of taxes. I am left to chalking this up to McCarthy’s Red Scare. That is, Americans have be lead to believe that social efforts by the government are Communistic in nature and thus are evil. Additionally, Americans have been taught by the elite Capitalist that all efforts by the government are inefficient compared to private enterprise . The result is that the U.S. does not offer, because of the above reasons, universal healthcare, nor universal social assistance for people that are unemployed or unable to be employed. The Nordic countries, in which I live in one now, do. Why? Anu Partanen, author of “The Nordic Theory of Everything,” explains that such is provided because the people as a whole live by a theory of love. Hum, sound familiar? Is not our call to praise the Lord, really a call to act out God’s love for this whole world? Additionally, as much as people want to praise God for blessing America, I see God as having “torn the curtain” of being America’s God and ventured elsewhere in the world to bless any who will listen to live out God’s calling to love. God prospers not to make one privileged, but to make one empowered to do God’s will. For me, Psalm 147 addresses this God given prosperity.