Post 8/2021 Friday 26 February . . . From weeks of bitter cold we now latch onto signs of a soon-to-arrive spring. Only yesterday, it seems, we entered the daunting winter sojourn of February. Now, here we are, the shortest month about to end. I’m glad for the now; add a “s” and I’m still glad. Snow has been a fact of life for me for all my years. Even so, I think of those who have lost their lives or have had to endure extreme hardships during the polar vortex that engulfed a large swath of the country.
I grieve, too, for the loss of life of more than half a million people in the US, as for those experiencing and treating Covid-19, over the last 12 months. Families, friends and communities are devastated by these losses, even as we hold out high hope for advances in the wide availability and use of the vaccines against the virus and it’s mutations. Lord, have mercy.
South Haven, Michigan bid us welcome
We spent a few days in South Haven, Michigan, a prime place to visit any time of year. It’s a community that takes Covid-19 precautions seriously and in good stride. Restaurants are open for business at 25 percent capacity and are taking the required customer information related to contact and tracing. Face coverings are evident everywhere, at least everywhere we went, which was not too far afield beyond the open air.
In the Depths of Winter: Praise the Lord!
Sunday, February 21 represented a first for me. I was asked to give the message for a worship service on our retirement community’s television channel. I titled it, In the Depths of Winter: Praise the Lord! The text was Psalm 147:1, 12-18, 20.
What follows is a slight abbreviation of the message. Still, it is three times longer than the 500 words or so a blog should be. I hope the inclusion of winter photos will help in celebrating the theme. The message last Sunday served as a sermon. Now, as a printed text, it can be read and interpreted as the reader may wish. I’ve no problem if the reader simply scrolls through the photos. Winter holds broad sway in our imaginations, pleasures, and anticipations.
Psalm 147 opens with these words, “Praise the Lord. How good it is to sing praises to our God; for God is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.” I trust our theme, “In the Depths of Winter, Praise the Lord!” can bring God’s word to bear on the here and now where we find ourselves.
Three times in Psalm 147 the worshiping community is summoned with the imperative to sing praises to God. In verses 16-17, the Lord “gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down hail like crumbs—who can stand before his cold?”
How often in the past months have I looked at snow, frost, hail and cold as an imperative to “Praise the Lord!”? Fewer, rather than more.
Springtime and harvest are hymns that come to mind deserving our full-hearted exaltation. But to raise up songs of praise in the throes of winter? We are more likely to sing winter blues. Someone has said the unofficial arrival of winter comes when we long for Spring. An Associated Press news headline read, “In an anxious winter the garden still offers consolation.” Lord, help us, today, as tomorrow.
So, what are we to make of God, with a word, commanding the earth to produce snow, frost and hail?
The word “snow” appears 23 times in the Bible. One commentator points out that nowhere does the word “snow” refer to anything negative. It is used with either a neutral or positive meaning.
Psalm 74:17 tells us, “You fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.”
Job 37:6a, “For to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth’”; . . . and verse 10, “By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast.”
Winter leaves us no time or reason to mute our praising God.
In a commentary on Psalms, written by the late James H. Waltner, the chapter covering Psalm 147 is titled, “How Good It Is to Sing Praises to Our God.” Waltner wrote that in the third part of Psalm 147, the worshiping community is given three imperatives to sing praises to the Lord.
The community is to sing praises to God:
–for providing security and well-being for God’s people,
–for the coming and passing of winter,
–and for the revelation of God’s word to Israel.
The God of creation, the God of all seasons, the God who commands the universe, in the vivid imagery of these verses from Psalms 147, calls us to recognize God’s sovereignty as creator and Lord, the God who protects, sustains, makes peace, and provides for our well-being and mission in this world.
I want to narrow our meditation to the middle imperative the Psalmist gives to sing praises to God, that is the coming and passing of winter, verses 15-18.
In these verses we glimpse the power of God. We are shown God’s command of the seasons. God “sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly.” God has a place for winter!
As in the first creation of things, told in Genesis 1, so here. God speaks and it is so. Genesis 1 resounds with: God said, God said, God said; and, “God saw and it was good.”
Genesis 8:22, reassures us: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
Hymn writer Frances Whitmarsh Wile captured God’s all-encompassing gift of the seasons in the hymn, All beautiful the march of days, written about 1907.
The first stanza reads, “All beautiful the march of days as seasons come and go. The hand that shaped the rose hath wrought the crystal of the snow, hath sent the hoary frost of heav’n, the flowing waters sealed, and laid a silent loveliness on hill and wood and field.”
The notes of praise continue in stanza 2: “O’er white expanses sparkling pure the ra-diant morns unfold. The solemn splendors of the night burn brighter through the cold. Life mounts in ev-‘ry throb-bing vein, love deep-ens ‘round the hearth, and clearer sounds the angel hymn, ‘Good will and peace on earth.’”
Don’t those words just send a delicious shiver of gladness down your spine? Praise the Lord!
After snow, frost, and hail, God makes a turn in regulating temperature and season.
Psalm 147, verse 18: “He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow.”
How delightful is the Psalmist’s assertion that the Lord commands the winter weather to release its grip, to melt what is frozen, to let the waters flow! The earth stirs and moves. Let all the people who tap maple trees raise a song of praise, as well as those who have been pouring over seed catalogs.
In part 1 of Psalm 147, (v1-6), an area we have not explored, the Psalmist directs praise to God as Lord of the universe and helper of the downtrodden.
Part 2, (v7-11), again not explored, the Psalmist directs the people to praise as a thank you to God for sustaining the world.
Part 3, (v12-20), the verses we have examined, calls the people to praise God for the gift of shalom, v.14 “He grants peace within your borders,” and for God’s life-giving word, v.15, “He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly.” God’s power and command of creation shown in calling forth snow, frost, hail, and cold, then the warming wind.
We’ve hardly thawed every nook and cranny of why and how to praise the Lord, yet I trust we may shiver and shake with higher notes of praise for God with us in the depths of winter and the promise of spring. Let us look, finally, at another way to praise the king of all the earth!
While through the last year we have been unable to praise God in singing together, I suggest that in prayer, we, too, are able to praise God, as well as to confess, petition, and express gratitude.
The late Alan Kreider brings home the power of prayer in his book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. Alan wrote that prayer in the early church, “was the church’s heartbeat.” Some of the early Christian writers, Alan wrote, “claimed that some outsiders wanted to be admitted into the church specifically so they could pray with the believers, conscious of the special power that was palpable there.”
I’ve selected several prayers, hopefully with echoes to Psalm 147, to help us tune our heartbeat in praise to God.
- Praise for security and well-being
Columba, was a Celtic monk, who lived 521-97. He prayed this prayer as a heartbeat pilgrimage of his life: “Alone with none but thee, my God, / I journey on my way. / What need I fear, when thou art near / O king of night and day? / More safe am I within thy hand / Than if a host did round me stand.” (The Complete Book of Christian Prayer)
With Columba, we praise the Lord, who is near, night and day, for protection, provision, blessing, even in this doubly most isolating winter.
- Praise for all life forms
Albert Schweitzer, who lived 1875-1965, worked sacrificially for a better world for all living things. He lived by a “Reverence for Life.” Here is his prayer for animals:
“Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends the animals, especially for animals who are suffering; for any that are hunted or lost or deserted or frightened or hungry; for all that must be put to death. We entreat for them all thy mercy and pity and for those who deal with them we ask a heart of compassion, gentle hands, and kindly words. Make us ourselves to be true friends to animals and so to share the blessing of the merciful.”
I love Schweitzer’s heartwarming phrase, “Make us ourselves to be true friends to animals and so to share the blessing of the merciful.”
- Praise for God’s filling at mealtime
These three prayers appear in Blessed Be Our Table, complied by Neil Paynter.
A prayer by George MacLeod:
“Christ our Host,
Christ our Guest. Amen.”
Eating alone is something many single people customarily do; along with meals shared with extended family and friends—the latter sadly mostly on hold during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hear this table grace by Ruth Burgess, I eat alone:
“I eat alone, God. / So please join me / at my table / and be my guest.”
A table grace by Nicola Slee, A grace for eating alone
“Blessed be the silence of this meal / Blessed be the solitude of this eating / Blessed be the company of unseen presences / Blessed be my single table.”
- Praise for God’s comfort and love
A prayer for all those affected by coronavirus, the Church of England:
Keep us, good Lord, under the shadow of your mercy. Sustain and support the anxious, be with those who care for the sick, and lift up all who are brought low, that we may find comfort knowing that nothing can separate us from your love. In Christ our Lord. Amen.
- Praise for the creator of all
The final prayer by Joyce Clouston, Closing prayer
Our great Creator, / you have created all / in beauty and truth — / the blue skies of summer / the green grass of spring, / the colours of autumn, / the soft snows of winter. / You created all in goodness. / Help us to live in kindness and gentleness. / Help us to share your peace / with each other and with / all the world. Amen.
May the God of all creation, in the gigantic sweep of time, tune our hearts to the power and compassion of the Almighty, to each other, and to our life now and for eternity, for God is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. Praise the Lord! Amen.
May March find you healthy, a little more carefree, a spring in your step, and a song in your heart.