The following is a guest post from our friend and transplant to Australia, Laura Cerbus. Laura is originally from the Pittsburgh area and now lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she and her husband serve in the McKinnon RP church. Her days are full of homeschooling, teaching English to immigrants, and learning to see and love her new home as Jesus does. She writes at From Underneath the Eucalyptus Tree.
This year for science, my son is studying birds. Part of that study has been keeping a bird watching book, in which he writes down the features of the birds he sees, and then identifies them. It started off well enough, but quickly we hit an issue: rather than sitting and watching the birds, he wanted to take a photo with my phone, and then use the photo to record the birds’ features. Part of that desire came from the number of times he started to write only to have the bird fly away, and I sympathized. And yet, I can’t help feeling that something valuable is lost by the mediation of the phone, and by the failure to practice attention to the living creature in front of him.
My son isn’t the only one too absorbed in technology to pay attention to creation. All of us, warns English professor Alan Noble live in a distracted age that inhibits us from paying attention to the testimony of creation. While secondary to the testimony of Scripture, creation is nevertheless a crucial way that God reveals himself to us. Attention to creation can create moments of epiphany, when we realize our own contingency and insufficiency, and God’s power and beauty.
We need to encourage habits of contemplation and awe in order to affirm transcendence — what Noble calls a disruption to our distractions (Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age). In our lives and even in our churches, we need practices that break through the assumptions of secularism to draw our hearts and minds away from our selves and self-discovery, towards the God who created us and sustains us. Noble suggests that the psalms perform this function.
If we bring these together — the need for church practices that disrupt the secular framework, and the disruptive ability of the psalms — we may find that the practice of singing the psalms acts, in God’s providence, as a disruptive witness in our secular, distracted world. Each week when we fill our mouths and our ears with the words of the psalms, we strip back the facade of self-sufficiency and immanence. We are creatures, and we live in a world made and sustained by our creator God.
The psalms disrupt the view that we are autonomous beings, responsible for defining ourselves and discovering our own identity. The psalms proclaim that we are creatures made by God, and as such, subject to him. Listen to the words of Psalm 100:3: “Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” And again, in Psalm 119:73: “Your hands have made and fashioned me”. This understanding of ourselves as creatures and God as creator fills the world of the psalms. It is the background of all of the psalmists’ words. When we enter the world of the psalms by singing them together, we remind each other that first and foremost our identity is our creatureliness.
To people saturated in the online and visual world of identity-creation and management, the truth that we are creatures takes us to our knees. We do not define ourselves. We do not create our own identities. We may attempt, however skillfully, to craft and manage our public and online personas, but ultimately our God is the one who has the authority to tell us who and why we are.
For some of us, the reality that we are not autonomous painfully humbles us. We are good at using media and technology to present our desired image. We depend on it for our success, our income, our popularity. In contrast, to sing the words of David, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them,” (Ps. 139:16) means to let go of our pretension that we are in control of ourselves. We are twice God’s: first in creation, second in redemption, and both require us to look to him for our identity.
For others, knowing that we are not our own liberates. Some of us have been burned in the identity-game. Perhaps we aren’t very good at curating photos of our lives or presenting the best part of ourselves. Perhaps our sins have become too destructive for us to hide, and our public images are tarnished and ruined. With this weight on our hearts, we sing the psalms to receive hope: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Ps. 130:3-4). The psalms remind us that our failures and sin do not have the last word: every part of our lives is covered over by the blood of Jesus.
But for all of us saturated in a culture that insists in the strongest possible terms that “I am my own,” the psalms provide a necessary disruption. We need to be reminded that we are, in fact, not our own, but bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:19-20), and singing the psalms each week gets this reminder into our heads and (perhaps more importantly) our hearts. The psalms give us songs of disruption and resistance to a world obsessed with self-definition and identity-creation.
The psalms also disrupt the view that the world runs mostly on its own: they presume a world not only created but also sustained each moment by God’s loving care. Again and again, the psalmist proclaims that not only has God made the world, but that each creature depends on him for its life and that the patterns of weather and seasons are governed by him. Psalm 104 declares, “You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills; they give drink to every beast of the field, the wild donkeys quench their thirst...You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate” (Ps. 104:10-11,14). God, as cosmic gardener, provides the water and food that every living thing needs. Unlike man, who often looks to himself for his provision, the psalmist tells us that “The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God” (Ps 104:21). The psalms are full of exultant imagery of the created world, and in all of it, God’s loving hand upholds each part.
To people often numb to awe, the psalms press us to see the world with new eyes. As modern people, we often have enough science education to understand that everything has a natural explanation, but not enough to realize the deep mysteries of the world and the limits of scientific knowledge. When we sing of our God who “covers the heavens with clouds,” “prepares rain for the earth,” “makes grass to grow on the hills,” and who “gives to the beasts their food, and to the young ravens that cry,” (Ps. 147:8-9) and of “fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word” (Ps 148:8), we are given the opportunity to look in fresh ways at the world around us. We are called to see with awe: with eyes of amazement and wonder at the incredible creation God has made. This awe resists the belief that the world runs on its own, interrupted only at times by divine intervention.
To people proud of their technological prowess and ability to leverage the creation for our benefit and comfort, the psalms bring us up short. We may have found ways to use the energy of the wind and the sun and the water to benefit our lives, but we cannot sing, “He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings for the wind from his storehouses” (Ps. 135:7) in arrogance. And Psalm 127 reminds us that all of our labor and effort is in God’s hand: unless God builds, watches, gives us rest, we work and sleep in vain. The God of the psalms is at work in every breath and moment of his creation. When we sing these songs, we train our imaginations to see the world not as a clock or a closed system, but as the beloved place over which God’s Spirit hovers even now.
Yet, lest we pat ourselves on the back, satisfied that we worship in the right way, we must remember that it is easy enough to bifurcate our lives so that what we sing on Sunday has no bearing on how we live our lives Monday through Saturday. One example of this is the Corleones, a crime family, from The Godfather. Philosopher and author James K.A. Smith uses this family to argue that people can spend “their entire lifetimes immersed in the rites of historic Christian worship [and yet] nonetheless emerge from them not only unformed but perhaps even malformed.” (Awaiting the King, 167) Just as the Corleone family is simultaneously immersed in the rituals of the church and the incredible violence of their business, so too can we sing the psalms with our mouths while our hearts remain hardened, saturated in selfishness and pride, unmoved by awe.
Singing a few psalms once a week will not, on its own, be enough to disrupt the noise of distraction our technology creates. Smith argues that even though our worship is formative, a “Sunday only” participation, like that of the Corleones, is never adequate. (Awaiting the King, 204) We ought to be seeking other habits and practices that reinforce the message of the psalms. We need to find ways to disconnect, focus, meditate — simply be quiet — long enough to pay attention to the world around us, a world teeming with life and beauty, a world that declares the glory and presence of God in astonishing and simple ways.
More than this, we must understand the implications of our psalm singing. Smith says that when we don’t understand our worship, “then the repertoire of practices is no longer worship but something else — an ethnic identifier, a superstitious hedge, a way to consolidate social capital, or whatever.” (Awaiting the King, 205) For Reformed Presbyterians, this warning hits close to home. All too easily, singing the psalms can become an identity marker, a way to protect ourselves from false doctrine in our singing. But this posture puts us above the psalms, using them as a tool to prove our own holiness, rather than seating us beneath them, submitting to their way of seeing ourselves, the creation, and God.
While singing the psalms are not enough on their own, that does not diminish their significance. Within the context of the Sabbath, the psalms reorient us, reminding us of our creaturely identity and of our world contingent on God’s upholding hand. They provide a powerful counter-narrative to the secular story and distraction of our culture, a narrative that propels us into the week ahead, ready to live out the truths it proclaims. And so we sing them with gratitude and supplication: rejoicing in the gift that they are to us in this moment, asking God to transform how we see and how we love.