This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.
Psalm 146 puts a question to us with poetry: Who do you trust?
After a brief introduction, promising praise to God always, the Psalmist sets up the stakes. Do we trust the powerful humans who surround us—princes, popes, pop stars, politicians? All of these people have grand plans, but those very plans fade into nothing just as the breath in their lungs leaves their bodies.
If we’re only calling people into relationship with us, we’re only calling them to death… But God has more in mind. God has abundant life, even life everlasting in mind. Do we trust in ourselves and our efforts? Or do we trust in God working in and through us—working behind, before, and beyond us?
The psalmist contrasts these limited potentates with God, who “will reign forever…for all generations.” Mortal powers return to the dust; God made that very dust, and the heavens, and the sea. Human rulers ultimately offer little help; God gives justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, freedom to prisoners, sight to the blind, support to the stranger, and strength to the orphan and widow. The long list of God’s loving faithfulness makes the brief description of the princes “in whom there is no help,” almost laughable.
Of course, this leaves us poor mortal ministers in a tight spot. Whether we like to admit it or not, those of us who take up leadership roles in ministry wield power. We are those princes, whose schemes come to naught. We desperately want our young people and their families to trust us. Maybe we even want them to like us.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that, ultimately, our plans for ministry will come to nothing. Will anyone remember that message we worked sixteen hours on? How many people will be deeply impacted by that craft project or that clever game? Even our deep ministry of caring and sharing in life and in death will eventually come to an end. No minister lasts forever. No ministry lasts forever.
I’ve become acutely aware of how often ministries are based in the charismatic person instead of in the charisms of the Holy Spirit. A gifted, powerful person steps in and people are attracted like moths to the flame. But the flame burns out quickly, and, just as quickly, the moths find the next light.
Articles have been written and will continue to be written about the death of the church. They often paint in broad apocalyptic brushstrokes. It’s the end of the world as we know it; very few of us feel fine. But the truth is, the church has been dying ever since it began. Our ministries have been failing from the word “go.” It’s the natural pace of our human life.
This doesn’t mean that our efforts are fruitless. After all, we worship a God who brings life out of death, springs out of deserts, and hope from despair. And God does and will continue to bless the work of our hands. God, in fact, invites us to participate in ministry with each other. God invites us into relationship with each other.
The best we can do in ministry is to try to live into the faithfulness of God—to be faithful to the people with whom we do ministry. To be consistent, week in and week out, in good times and bad. To find the places where God is setting the captives free, bringing justice, offering healing, and making a new family.
But hopefully we will never forget that we aren’t only in relationship with each other. We are in relationship with the God who made the heavens and the earth and the seas, and all who live in them. That God sustains our ministries. That God heals us. That God is coming to make all things new and all things right.
If we’re only calling people into relationship with us, we’re only calling them to death. Death is a part of life, sure. But God has more in mind. God has abundant life, even life everlasting in mind. Do we trust in ourselves and our efforts? Or do we trust in God working in and through us—working behind, before, and beyond us?
Gungor, Cannot Keep You – This isn’t explicitly a version of Psalm 146, but it’s pretty dang close. I love the turn in the lyrics from the first verse to the second. The first reminds us of all the ways that we try to box God into our human plans and powers. The chorus reminds us that God is the powerful one—but a powerful one who is ultimately for the powerless. And so, in the end, we do find God in our human doings, but only as we acknowledge that God cannot be contained in them.
Marcus Hong, Psalm 146 – Sometimes I just have to try my hand at writing music for the psalms. It happened again here. I couldn’t find songs that I thought brought together all the dynamics of this beautiful poem. So, forgive my froggy voice, my time signature problems, and the poor recording. Enjoy! And here’s a chord sheet, if you want to sing the song for yourself.
Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, the Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.