December 04, 2011
Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city! It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God. The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law. The Lord within it is righteous; he does no wrong. Every morning he renders his judgment, each dawn without fail; but the unjust knows no shame.
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord. (Zephaniah 3:1-5, 14-20)
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2: 8-20)
As I look over the church calendar for December and January, it occurs to me that we will commemorate a number of birthdays. We will certainly honor the birthdays of those in our church community, but I’m thinking more of the birthdays of historical figures. In January, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday on the 18th, and the week after, we celebrate Emanuel Swedenborg’s birthday—not to mention, of course, the birthday that we celebrate on the 25th of December.
We celebrate a birthday today as well, and one that is very much in keeping with today’s Advent theme of joy. On December 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany, Ludwig von Beethoven was born. The reason why it is appropriate for us to remember this man today is connected to one of the few things that most of us know about him. During the time that he wrote most of his most memorable compositions, including his Eroica Symphony and his famous Fifth Symphony, Beethoven was almost completely deaf.
He began to go deaf when he was about thirty, which troubled him greatly, for obvious reasons. In addition to this unhappy turn of events, Beethoven did not have the happiest of childhoods. His father was an alcoholic and abusive, driving his children mercilessly to excel. Beethoven had to become the sole support for his family when he was only eighteen, which he accomplished by serving as a court musician. He was a bachelor his entire life only because he was attracted to women who were unattainable—either too aristocratic or already married or both. He ran away from the one woman who returned his affections because, as it turns out, he was terrified of marriage, never having witnessed a healthy one. Yet in spite of all of this, he produced some of the most emotionally charged and joyful music in the Western tradition. Modern psychologists would undoubtedly see that Beethoven created his music to compensate for the woundedness in his life. It was therapeutic for him to compose.
It calls to mind a strange thing that once happened to me. I was in, of all places, a Laundromat. As I was doing the washing, a song kept running through my head. You know how sometimes you get a tune stuck in your brain and you can’t get rid of it? It was an old Roger Whittaker tune, and I was whistling it as I folded clothes from the dryer. A lady across from me said, “Boy, I don’t know how you can be in such a good mood. I think a Laundromat is one of the dreariest places there is.”
As I stood there talking to her, I remember thinking that, you know, she had a point. I remember the Laundromats that my mother dragged me to as a child were probably the most boring places I had ever seen, exacerbated by the fact that with a large family it took us hours to finish the laundry. It was agony. The place where I was talking to the lady was nice enough, but it was still a Laundromat. People rarely become giddy at the thought of having to do the laundry. To top it all off, my car was at the mechanic’s at the time, getting about a thousand dollars of transmission work done, and the rest of my schedule that day was looking pretty crowded. In the midst of all that, there I was in a Laundromat whistling a happy little tune. Could it be, as the lady suggested, that I was actually in a good mood?
Without realizing it, I think I, like Beethoven and countless other happy people with dirty laundry, was on to something that really works. I’m going to call it “therapeutic praise.”
We hear in the Word many encouragements to praise God and to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” But the reality is that sometimes we just don’t feel like it. Sometimes there is so much stress and hardship and anxiety that we lose sight of the beauty and purpose in our lives. I don’t believe that all those prophets and psalms were saying, “Praise God, but only if you’re having a really good day.” I think they understood that praising God reestablishes and strengthens our awareness of the divine presence. It has been said that the night before Jesus was born was the darkest night in history, spiritually speaking, and yet in the Christmas story an entire heaven’s worth of angels are singing praises at the top of their celestial lungs. What a remarkable response! To put it simply, singing praises helps us to feel better. It reinvigorates our sense of hope.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s had a really bad day, full of unwelcome surprises and unappreciated challenges, and who turns on the car radio on the way home and hears a really good song. Involuntarily, we start to sing along. Lo and behold, the next song is pretty good too, and so we sing that one. A few songs later, we notice that we are feeling better—the music has, on some level, helped us to reestablish our priorities in life. You don’t have to be Pavarotti or Beverly Sills. How well you sing isn’t the important thing. It’s the singing—the act of letting go—that does the trick.
I think Swedenborg understood therapeutic praise. He wrote that in any person’s spiritual development a stage occurs at which we do certain things because we understand that they are good, with the hope that soon we will be able to feel the good in them. This is the stage in our process he called “reformation.” Some more contemporary theorists call it “fake it ‘til you make it.” If we persist in doing good, exercising charity and living love even when we don’t feel like it, God can demonstrate to us on a deeper level why it’s so wonderful to do these things, and pretty soon we do them because we feel them.
So it is with praise. When we express our acknowledgement of God in the form of praise, especially during the times when we don’t perceive God all that clearly, then we can open ourselves up to the divine presence, and God can be made known within us. In other words, sing as if you were happy and it may very well lead you actually to feel happy. And, you know, happy isn’t a bad thing to be: not only is life more enjoyable, but we actually get more done when we’re happy.
We can apply the concept of therapeutic praise right here and now, especially if we’re getting just a little tired of all the Christmas confusion and chaos going on out there. I know Christmas is a joyful time for most of us, but for some Christmas can be depressing, especially if everyone around you has family to share Christmas with and you don’t. Many people in this world have “blue Christmases,” and it’s important for all of us to be sensitive to that. I confess that there are times when Christmas gets me down. But I would offer that one possible answer to the Christmas blues is to sing praises anyway. Go out and intentionally find Christmas and enjoy the season for all it has to offer, as if you’ve always known it. Sing those carols with life in your voice, no matter how old and familiar they seem to you. Instead of pretending you’re not home, open the door when you hear carolers outside and have fun with them. Wrap those presents with joy, knowing that someone will receive that gift and love it and be grateful for it. Most of us, when wrapping gifts, tend to focus on it as a chore, one more something that has to get done. Try visualizing someone unwrapping it as you wrap it and see if that changes anything for you. And for those of us who share Christmas with children, don’t be afraid to show a little excitement on Christmas morning. Santa Claus visits grown-ups too, you know.
Let’s all endeavor this year to let go of whatever cynicism we may feel and open ourselves up to Christmas so that God can show us just how wonderful it can be.
Rev. Eric Hoffman