One of my favorite movies growing up, was the 1940’s Disney classic, Fantasia. The movie, paired classical works of music played by the Philadelphia Orchestra, including selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, set to vivid scenes; whether it be the evolution of the seasons of creation, or vivid abstract colors and shapes in tune with the music. It was a fascinating and unique movie compared to traditional movies with storylines and a progression, Fantasia, took the music and animated a picture of the story the music was singing.
This is what I think about as I listen to our psalm for the day, As I hear the words of the psalmist, I almost can hear the lyre and the trumpets singing tunes, and I can visualize the seas roaring and the hills alive with their sounds of music in praise to God. I see bright colors twirling and swirling in harmony, flowers and trees dancing in the wind, I hear birds chirping and lions roaring, I imagine children giggling and dancing together, churches singing with their loudest praises and old friends laughing and listening to one another. This is a psalm that tells a story of all of creation giving of themselves in honor to God. It is a psalm that tells the story of the cosmic jubilation, all the world, eager to point to the presence of God, celebrating what God has already done, is doing and will do for them.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, a confession drawn up in the 1600s. It is the quintessential document describing reformed theology and thinking. The Confession is in question and answer form. And the very first question of it is: What is the chief end of humankind? Answer: the chief end of humankind is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever. Which is exactly what Psalm 98 highlights how we are to live into that praise, to get lost in adoration of the beloved, and to be awestruck by beauty. As Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann says “All of life is aimed towards God and finally exists for the sake of God. Praise articulates and embodies our capacity to yield, submit, and abandon ourselves in trust and gratitude to the one whose we are…God is addressed not because we have need, but simply because God is God.”[i]
Sing to the Lord, sing praises to the Lord, shout for joy! The sea applauds, the rivers clap, the mountains shout, encore! Praise the Lord for he has done marvelous things! The psalm calls us to Glorify God, to stand in awe and to create space so that we can take in the wonder of God, so that we might hear and know God with our entire being. A state of wonder and gratitude of awe is how we are meant to exist in this life we live. Waking each day still unable to believe we are alive, to see God’s glory in the sunrise, in a rock formation, the dandelion sporting its golden flower, the smile of a loved one. Creating space for God so that we might Glorify God. That is the chief end of humankind.
That’s the feeling we often receive in seeing the beauty of nature, gazing at art, watching children at play, or singing a moving hymn. I suppose that is why the opening hymn we sang remains one of the most favored. How Great Thou Art—we sing and praise God—oh Lord my God—when I in awesome wonder consider--The text of this hymn is by Carl Gustave Boberg who put down these stirring words in 1885. They were a result of his experience in a midday thunderstorm where moments of flashing violence were followed by a clear brilliant sun. It was reported that Rev. Boberg fell on his knees in “humble adoration to God” and shortly after, wrote the poem. Several years later he discovered that folks in Sweden had set the poem to music with an old Swedish folk melody. In 1951 it was introduced in the US and quickly became the most popular in the US. Even today it remains a powerful and favorite hymn due to the wonder, awe, and gratitude it powerfully evokes.
But that sense of awe is hard to sustain. It’s hard to continuously create that special space for God. Life being what it is, we are continuously bombarded with challenges that turn our focus inward. And yet, God’s grace reaches out to make Godself known. And we are to continually yield and submit ourselves in trust and gratitude to God. God speaks to us always, through people around us, through music, art, books. God’s grace reaches out and finds us in all ways.
The creations story is a work of art—it is the first expression of creativity and God’s grace. The scriptures tell us God—Out of nothing—out of nothing, God created and then God paused to reflect on his handiwork. God saw creation taking shape and God gazes on it as an artist—with keenness, perceptivity, and patience. God called forth beautiful things that didn’t exist until he called them. He observes, he attends, he notices and he calls his creation—Good!
Frederick Buechner tells us that this artistic creativity is an ongoing event, “using the same old materials of earth, air, fire, and water every 24 hrs God creates something new out of them. If you think you are seeing the same show all over again 7 times a week—Think again! Every morning you wake up to something that in all eternity never was before and never will be again. And “the you” that wakes up was never the same before and will never be the same again either.” God is the ultimate creator and craftsman.
And it is that desire and that captivation by the hidden power of sounds, words, colors, shapes that God has put before us in creation that inspires humanity to repeat, as we reach out not only in praise and gratefulness, but which we try to explain and enter into the mystery of God through the creative arts. God is a mystery, a challenge to Christians at all levels. So humans continually seek to interpret, explain and understand God, to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.
The creative arts seek to unwrap the mystery of God and our relationship to God by exploring those existential questions: From where do we come, where does this road take us, what is the object of our toil and sorrow, how do we understand cruelty and evil in our understanding of a kind and merciful God, will the meaning of life be revealed in death?
The creative arts touch us, wound us, open our eyes and help us discover/rediscover the joy of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the mystery of which we are a part and then firmly engage with it every day. The arts shock us out of ourselves, keep us from being content with the status quo and becoming complacent. They provide a means to opening our hearts and minds, creating space for God who alone satisfies our deep longings. The revelations of the splendor and wonder of God is never ambiguous. It changes hearts and minds.
The creative arts lead us to contemplate the mysteries of faith, and point us to Christ Jesus, the One who emptied himself for our salvation. It has been said that in this era of post-Christianity, the creative arts may be the most compelling path to faith. In one of his books, Philip Yancey wrote about the time Yo-Yo-Ma visited the ailing Steve Jobs and played Bach on his cello, Jobs teared up and said, “Your playing is the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human alone can do this.” The creative arts communicate at a more subtle level, they cut through defenses and awaken our thirst for something meaningful.
We are not all called or gifted to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet as we learn from the book of Genesis, we are all given the task of crafting our own lives. In a way, we are entrusted with the responsibility to make our own lives a work of art, a masterpiece that glorifies God. Each day presents us with multiple opportunities for personal encounters with God, for moments of awe, for creating space for God—never the same as we were before and never to be the same again. God speaks to us always—through people around us, through music, art, books, through nature. God’s grace reaches out and finds us in all ways. And then as our act of response, like the seas and hills, we are to with our own lives make a new song to the Lord; praising God with our own creative selves.
By creating space for God, we clear out all the distractions. Then and only then, can we experience the call that God has placed on our lives and only then, can all things be properly ordered that we might create the masterpiece that is our lives. The good news is, praise and joy to God is a communal experience, whether is it music shared together, art enjoyed, gardens and nature viewed, worship given collectively. In our human experience, joy and inspiration is a response that ultimately does not stay contained. It is an emotion to be shared, that ultimately leads to the whole universe praising God and celebrating the human impossibilities that become God’s possibilities.
In a world that assumes the status is quo, the praises of God’s people, through whatever creative means, are fundamental indicators that wonders have not ceased, that possibilities not yet dreamt of will happen and hope is an authentic stance. And this happens because of, the truth of God’s grace: that there is nothing that we have to do but live in the joy of the Lord.[ii] What is the chief end of humankind? To glorify God and enjoy God forever. So may we, with our songs, our dances, our brushstrokes, our poetry, our gardens, our lives be a creative and living praise glorifying God and enjoying God forever. And may it be so. Amen.
[i] Walter Bruggemann, Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology, 1.
[ii] Patrick Miller, In Praise and Thanksgiving, 186.