From Exile to Hope - Skillful strings and loud shouts

From Exile to Hope - Skillful strings and loud shouts

February 01, 2023

Skillful strings and loud shouts

By: Rev. Lee Roorda Schott

For many years my personal e-mail address has included a “333,” and not a single soul has ever asked me why. To the extent anyone would puzzle over this, I’ve guessed they’d think it’s connected to 666, the number of the beast, or the Antichrist, according to Revelation 13:8. Our collective knowledge of this reference probably comes more from the 1976 movie The Omen than from our careful reading and memory of the Bible. Who can forget that chilling moment when “666” is found inscribed on the young Damien’s head?
But that isn’t at all the source of my 333. It’s not some half-of-the-beast reference! It comes instead from a rather happy source, which is Psalm 33:
2Praise the Lord with the lyre;
            make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.
3Sing to him a new song;
            play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

Those words—and particularly verse 3 (hence 333)—say something I love about our life of faith, and the spirit with which we return praise to God. There’s skill and learning there, yes—"play skillfully.” But we take that part of our work so seriously—signing up to learn yet more, practicing to the point of exhaustion, perfecting and honing to a fault. Someone watching us should justly wonder, what about the shouting?
I want more shouting. Not yelling, but shouts of joy, bursts of energy. Those words, “loud shouts,” remind us to bring our emotions, our delight (!), to what we have worked so hard to master.  I’ve told my choir, more than once, if we have to choose between perfect notes and faces that glow with the glory of the words we’re singing, I’ll take the joyous faces every time. Wouldn’t you?
I remember a stormy Sunday morning, decades ago, when my husband and I wrestled our little boys into worship through a thunderous downpour. Early in the service, the bell choir stood to offer the piece they had prepared, a resonant, rhythmic, booming piece that bounced off the walls and practically raised the ceiling. As those notes died away, my oldest said, his face soft with wonder, “I guess that storm doesn’t matter so much after all!” Loud shouts indeed.
Speaking of storms: Years later, after my husband and I became pastors, we officiated the funeral of a 19-year-old who was a daughter of our church and a college student, who had died in a car crash that took the life of another 19-year-old young woman. We brought our best to that moment; we drew on skillful preparation and the experience of walking with families through loss. But nothing prepared us for the tumultuous grief that met us as the sanctuary filled that day. Tears, and sniffs, and sobs ebbed and flowed across and among the rows of people, even after the familiar words of resurrection and victory began.
Here's where the “loud shouts” came in. My husband stood to read the scripture, which I had chosen from Mark 4—the calming of the storm—and a change came over the room.
35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
As he read, it was as if Jesus had spoken those words, “Peace, be still,” not just to the wind and to the sea of Galilee but to the roiling grief in our midst. The room changed. The peace that settled upon us felt like something of the “loud shouts” the Psalmist (33.3) wanted to be real in our praise of God, in the new songs we would sing to God. Our best efforts couldn’t have brought that about; God did. Just like on that boat, back then. “Who then is this?!” I hope the praise we offer brings us to know that wonder, that truth.
We don’t always notice the loud shouts that would burst out of us if we let them. Maybe we were encouraged to bring our most docile, silent selves to worship. Someone corrected us if we laughed or if we talked out loud in the sanctuary, or (heaven forbid) dared to run there(!), so we learned not to do those things. Plus we got complimented when we stood at the lectern and said all the words exactly right, or if we recited well the words we had memorized for that pageant. Our grandparents and church friends didn’t always expect nor have words to encourage us to express in our faces, and with our energy, the truth—the wonder!—of what we had been asked to share. So our own attention was understandably drawn more toward the “skillful strings” than to the “loud shouts” that are to be part of our praise.
We’re missing something, though, if we lean so hard into the skill that we miss the shouts. The world surely wonders whether we mean it, and why it matters, really, when we sing “Holy, holy, holy” or “melt me, mold me” or when we turn to one another and say, “The peace of Christ is with you.” Do you feel the loud shouts that want to spill out of you when your lips form those words? Go ahead; our spirits are meant to be stirred when we come that close to God’s gifts to us.
I could say more but my dog, a six-year-old English springer spaniel, just interrupted my entire train of thought by climbing up onto my lap on the couch where I’m writing. He’s usually content to lie down on or next to me. But sometimes, like just now, he pushes his nose up into my face, with his paws along my shoulders, as if to say, “It’s my time now.” He sniffs and nuzzles and lingers until I give in and bury my nose in his neck. His intrusion into my reverie about 33.3 seems to me like Francis’ “loud shout,” as if he is saying enough information is enough, I’ve given you plenty to think about, and maybe it’s time for you to stop reading and notice the “loud shouts” happening right around you, if you have eyes to see. 
This Franciscan invitation seems wise to me. Skill linked with shouts. Let’s strengthen the heartfelt part of our praise.

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