Psalm 66 invites us to joy in life. This suggests to me the challenging message that joy does not just happen. Often we see happiness and contentment as the result of simple luck. “It’s just one of those days” we say about our good days. “It’s a bad hair day”, we say about others.
There is some truth to this, as we cannot always control the events of the day or even always how we physically feel. I am constantly amazed however in my work as a chaplain and a pastor at encountering people in horrible physical shape or facing trying emotional situations would push the limits of anyone yet who keep a positive outlook, a strength of character, a gratitude at the gifts in life. In my work as a minister, one of the things I’ve learned to do is to ask “where does this come from?” and to simply listen. I’ve found most to be able to point toward practices and choices made each day that help them cultivate a resiliency in the face of trials and an embracing of the good that comes in every day.
We see the Psalmist engage in some specific practices in this reading.
First, the psalmist participates in creative expression, particularly singing music. I heard someone call music “the universal language”. There is something to music, art, working with our hands which can express aspects of our soul which often we don’t get in touch with. For me, when I listen to music after a stressful day at work, I find myself turning to the world with new eyes and renewed vision. No longer is the darkness of the day as heavy upon me. For me, my creative expression is writing, both writing poetry and in my spiritual journal. Many of these devotionals posted on my blog begin as writing in a spiritual journal. Journaling too is an act of creativity which enables parts of myself neglected during the hum-drum or hecticness of the day to be expressed, and also for me to face into the pain, frustration, and joys of the day. I find such creative expressions key toward healing my soul and renewing my vision of life. For others such creative expression may be different – working with their hands in carpentry, painting, gardening, even sitting and coloring with their kids.
This creative expression of singing focuses on expressing gratitude for who God has been to the Psalmist in their relationship (praise) and the blessings God has given them (thanksgiving). We live in a “gimmee” world, that teaches us to look out for ourselves and drive ahead to achieve and earn. It is easy to forget taking time to value our relationships and the blessings before us.
Yet taking time to reflect as the psalmist does on who another has been in their life enriches their view of the world. Taking time to reflect on, and express to them, the ways others including both God and the flesh and blood people in our lives have enriched us through their relationships with us truly makes you aware of the many sources of joy around me. I know when working as a chaplain and a pastor often the ones with the most peace and serenity in their passing are those who take time for the relationships that matter, deeply aware of who matters to them in their own lives.
Yet also the psalmist takes time to list off the blessings she or he already has in life. During my chaplain training, I did a study on findings of positive psychology – a branch of psychology aimed at finding what brings the most resiliency and lasting contentment instead of simply how to treat mental illness. Across the board researchers have found that taking time to recognize what you have to be grateful for boosts one’s sense of happiness, even if you do not see any divine source to these blessings. A common technique suggested is to daily create gratitude lists of at least 5 items that day which you have experienced that you are grateful for.
For Christians and other believers in God I think we have an opportunity to deepening our awareness of blessings, as well as our joy from them. We see the gifts of each day not just as serendipitous moments but ultimately as coming somehow from the hand of God, flowing out of God’s love for each and every one of us. One of the things in my own life I’ve begun to do since studying this topic is to begin to regularly think of five things when I pray to thank God for as a part of my prayer. At meals when we pray as a couple, Kat and I have begun to before the prayer each list several items for which we are thankful. Also I’ve tried to become better at taking time to individually thank those in my life who do things which bless me, whether through individually thanking them or sending them thank you notes.
In a way the talk the Psalmist has of offering sacrifice at the temple is her or his way of talking about saying “thanks” to God for these many blessings.
I think that another aspect of this gratitude practice is that in a way the psalmist engages in a form of mindful practice as well, for the gratitude comes out of meditation on their life and paying attention to it in a concentrated focused way. When we pause from the hustle and bustle of life to really pay attention to our own lives we exercise something very like mindfulness. In my own life I’ve found the practice of various forms of mindfulness and Christian meditation helpful in really seeing the gifts of life and remembering how blessed I am in the face of trials.
I’d challenge you to look into practices of mindfulness and of the meditation that connects with your own religious tradition, be that Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist. Every faith has some forms of meditation or mindfulness practices, as well as the many such practices embraced across religious traditions. There is a long history of even the psalms like this psalm in our Christian and Jewish Scriptures being used as forms of chants and mantras to help with Christian and Jewish meditation.
The call of the psalm reminds me of the words of this country song, inviting us to keep an openness to the gifts life gives us —
May we keep that focus together.
And I ain’t whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,