Saturday, April 4, 2020

Devotional for Palm Sunday

Hymning and Breathing

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in princes,
    in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
    on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
   who executes justice for the oppressed;
    who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
   the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
    he upholds the orphan and the widow,
    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!
Psalm 146

Robert Alter often catches me up short in his translations of the Hebrew. He renders the second verse of Psalm 146 as: “Let me praise the LORD while I live, let me hymn to my God while I breathe.”

I think of this line when I am out at the Farminary, Princeton Seminary’s 21-acre farm. While there I contemplate the land and all the living creatures (human and non-human) that call it home, as well as all the plants that grow (or sometimes fail to grow) there. 

Photo courtesy of Princeton Seminary
In the midst of contemplation and work and sweat and joy and sometimes grief (for the farm also entails predation, loss, death), I find myself “hymning to my God while I breathe”—“hymn” as a verb, something done while breathing which, like breathing, can become an almost unconscious part of what it means to be alive. Hymning to God as a basic brain stem function: in the midst of beauty, work, sorrow, and joy, hymning is as life-giving as breathing. 

Yet the wicked are always with us, as the psalmist knows too well. “The way of the wicked God contorts.” Some readers are squeamish over the psalmists’ prayers about the wicked. I am not. I pray that God makes good on this promise—not to destroy the wicked but to “contort” their plans and actions so they do not unleash their harm on the world. And that would have to include my own part in wickedness. Palm Sunday, when Jesus was about to face down the way of the wicked, reminds us of both our own complicity and our hosannas. As I breathe, I hymn all this, and it is enough. 

God of life, help us to hymn to you as we breathe. Contort the way of the wicked, so that all may flourish and thrive in the exquisitely beautiful world you have made. 

Dr. Jacqueline Lapsley is Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs and Professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. She has written or co-edited several books, including Whispering the Word: Hearing Women’s Stories in the Old Testament. An ordained Presbyterian elder married to an Episcopal priest, “empty-nesting” for the first time, she is trying to make hymning to God as easy as breathing.  

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