Twelve Hymns Project: Praise God from whom
Text: Psalm 148
Psalm 148 is like one of those emails you get where the sender entered all the recipients in the To: box rather than Blind Carbon Copy. This Psalm is the text we used for our Call to Worship this morning. It’s an invitation to what theologian Douglas Ottati refers to as “the party of existence.” And we are invited. Only rather than simply getting our own invite, with all the other recipients hidden, like that lovely Blind Carbon Copy feature allows, we get the full catalogue of invites, which we scan through first before getting to our part.
The sender must have had two lists going, and begins with the first: those in “the heavens” or “the heights.” It includes things unseen and seen: angels, hosts; sun, moon, and stars; the waters above. The second list is “you who are on earth.” It ranges from sea monsters to winged birds, wild beasts to domesticated animals to creeping things to fruit trees and cedars. To make sure we get the message that we’re all invited, it names kings and peoples of the earth, young men and women, old and young. And the invitation is not limited to carbon-based life forms. Even the mountains and hills, fire, various forms of precipitation, even the wind gets an invite.
It’s like when the person who’s working the booth at the skating rink gets on the loud speaker and announces: “the next skate will be an all skate, and all skate.” The lights go down, everyone gets up from their seats, the disco ball kicks into gear, and before you know it everyone and everything is on the floor, swirling around the same center of gravity, gliding to the same beat.
The party of existence is an all skate, and we are invited.
The operative word, woven throughout Psalm 148 is “praise.” At least how we translate it. In the Hebrew poetry, it’s that familiar word that almost needs no translation. “Hallelu.” Every appearance of “praise” in our text is originally a Hallelu. God has spoken creation into being, and now creation returns the favor by speaking the language that translates across species and continents: Hallelujah.
If we would translate not just the language, but also the cosmology from that of the ancient world to our own, we might see this Psalm as a call to the entire universe to remember that it originates from a singular point of burning possibility; that the cosmos has been ignited into being, vast and still expanding. That energy has cooled into matter, that atoms have gathered and fused new elements in the cores of stars which have seeded the universe with new possibilities, that our home planet has become a place of hospitality for novelty, that we are the latest in a long line of the star’s descendants, that the universe has now become conscious of itself through us, or, in the words of Brian Swimme, “The human provides the space in which the universe feels its stupendous beauty.” (The Universe is a Green Dragon, p. 32).
It’s significant that Jesus’ favorite title for himself was ‘The Human One,’ Son of Man. He embodied in a new way the Source with a capital S from which all this comes. We, his spiritual descendants, have the privilege of orienting ourselves toward the awe and wonder that leads to life and more life. We have the awesome gift and responsibility of being the DJs for the party of existence, the choir directors for the cosmic hallelujah. Even when it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah, thank you Leonard Cohen.
This is the final week of our Twelve hymns series and what better way to end it than with “Praise God from whom.” Both because it is a lovely benediction, and because it has become the de factor Mennonite anthem.
Its words are simple – a cliff notes version of Psalm 148, with a barely noticeable reversal of the order of below and above. “Praise God from who all blessings flow, praise God all creatures here below.” “Praise God above, ye heavenly host.”
If you’re new-ish to CMC and haven’t spent much time in Mennonite fellowships, you might be thinking, “Oh yeah, I know that song.” Unfortunately, this is most likely not the case. This is not the version of the song you sing around the Thanksgiving table, commonly known as the Doxology. This is the Doxology on Mennonite four part steroids… which is actually much prettier than it sounds. It’s one of the lovely quirks of this tradition. Although for a 500 year old tradition, it’s still relatively new.
Last year The Mennonite magazine carried an article in which Mary Oyer names her top ten hymns. Mary Oyer was a long time professor of music, served as executive secretary on the 1969 hymnal committee, had widespread influence in teaching church music for decades, and, on the side, studied African musical traditions in 22 countries through a series of Fulbright grants. She’s a Mennonite rock star, still going strong in her 90’s. Within the article she tells the story of how “Praise God from whom” came to take its place in Mennonite hymnology.
These are her words: “The 1969 committee labeled this a “Choral Hymn,” placing it in that section because we thought at the time that it was too difficult for a congregation and that it belonged with choir numbers. It was only when the new hymnal was introduced in July 1969 [at the Mennonite Church assembly] in Oregon that I heard a large congregation try it. I was leading the hymn sing with fear that we would not get through the hymn’s three pages, but it was an immediate success. And it certainly was a favorite of mine for many years as I saw how it enlivened people as we sang. It brought us joy.”
She points back to Joseph Funk who first included the hymn in an 1876 edition of a song collection known as Harmonia Sacra. That collection was responsible for popularizing singing in four parts among Mennonites in the US. In looking back at this, Mary Oyer says, “I am grateful for the generations of song leaders who went out to Mennonite homes, farming during the day and teaching music with Harmonia Sacra in the evening. It made possible our singing 606 (Praise God from whom) with energy and pleasure for many years.”
But here’s something else from the Mary Oyer article: She tells all this after listing her top ten hymns, in which “Praise God from Whom” does not appear. The woman largely responsible for bringing this song into anthem status, doesn’t list it in her top ten hymns.
And here’s the reason she gives: While participating in Mennonite World Conference in India and Zimbabwe, it was evident that this could not work as a congregational song in most settings. She ends the article by saying, “I am increasingly aware that as we become a more global church I want to be able to learn the hymns that our members around the world find valuable.”
Praise God from whom is a beautiful, even breath taking hymn of praise, but it has a catch: This song that calls upon all creatures here below and the heavenly host to join in cosmic praise, is… really hard to join. It’s a very culturally particular expression of the universal hallelujah. Austin will have more to say about this in his reflection.
I want to end my words for the series on a personal note, hopefully a note that harmonizes. Since my growing up years in church didn’t involve four part singing, seminary felt like a now-or-never time to get started. I quickly discovered an informal way of learning. The seminary chapel is relatively small, with brick walls and hard floors. The sound is live and the acoustics are pretty spectacular. I found that if I stood close to someone singing bass and listened for it, I could actually feel the notes in body. My body, and specifically my voicebox, would vibrate with the same wavelength as my neighbor – his voice bouncing off those hard surfaces and coming right back at me. I could catch the note in my throat, amplify it, and be just a millisecond behind that person throughout the entire song. But I had to be close to them…without being annoyingly close.
It’s an experience I had many times during those years, and since.
It’s a feeling of being dependent. Dependent on the community in order to find my own voice. Of not being able to take a first step until that step is made for me. It’s a bodily experience of being moved, perhaps even on a cellular level.
It’s an experience that also has something to do more broadly with the party of existence. I like to think that walking among trees, studying about stars, playing with children, and paying attention to rivers has a similar effect. That in doing so I and we are joining something, something very beautiful, that animates our bodies but extends far beyond them, very far beyond them. Something that points beyond our lives to the Source of life and existence itself. Something that engages us in what we call Praise, amplifying our part in the cosmic hallelujah.
So we’ll end today’s service with Praise God from whom. If you know it, sing with gusto. If you’re learning it, listen for your part and see if the acoustics are good enough in here to feel it in your body. And if your act of praise is simply to listen, then so be it.
And if you like second chances, a heads up that we’ll also be singing this at the end of next week’s worship service in which we celebrate 55 years as a congregation.
Thanks be to God for all this.