“Pearl Benisch, a young Jewish woman, was a prisoner in Bergen-Belsen, one of the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps. Prisoners who were healthy and strong enough were put to work in factories as slave laborers. Pearl Benisch was assigned to a large sewing factory responsible for producing army uniforms. Every day at dawn, seven days a week, she and other prisoners were marched from the camp to the factory; a stack of material was placed on her sewing machine: the quota was five uniforms a day. Failure to meet the quota or producing flawed work could result in punishment. Pearl became proficient. Prisoners were promised a half loaf of bread at the end of the week if they produced six uniforms a day.
She began to produce six uniforms. But she was an observant Jew and the relentless seven days a week work schedule did not include a Sabbath, the day observant Jews do no work; keeping Sabbath was one of her deepest and most precious commitments. In fact, prisoners caught doing anything remotely related to Judaism were punished severely, sometimes sent to the gas chamber. If you were going to practice your religion, you relationship with God, if had to be very carefully.
So Pearl began to produce seven uniforms a day, hid the extra ones in a pile of material. On the Sabbath, she threaded the needle on her machine, went through the motions of sewing, without actually sewing, folded and arranged and refolded the five extra uniforms, and at the end of the day turned them in to the guard. But then she was caught by her supervisor, himself a Jew forced to oversee and manage the production room. His life depended on meeting quotas and keeping order and discipline on the factory floor. He knew exactly what she was doing. He became enraged and forced her to sit back down at the sewing machine: “Now work,” he commanded. “I will sit down as you wish,” she said, handing him the five jackets, “but I will not work.”
“Stubborn Jew,” he screamed, angrier than ever. “Get up.” Now standing face to face, he raised his arm as if to strike her. Pearl Benisch remembers:
“I stared straight into his eyes, which met mine. They expressed a certain acknowledgement, a weak, fleeting Jewish spark. Had he recalled something from his parents’ home? Or had a vestige of Jewish faith, cherished by generations of ancestors, survived? One way or another, the spark was there: he could not extinguish it. At the last moment he restrained himself, and his hand descended slowly (From Pearl Benisch’s war diary, To Vanquish the Dragon, torah.org, as told by John Buchanan).”
As one colleague observed, “Sometimes you have to use a little creative subterfuge in order to abide by Psalm 146’s injunction to praise the Lord as long as you live.”[i]
Generations of the Jewish people have learned to do so throughout the long millennial of their captivity. Despite eons of oppression and persecution, the courageous witness of their faith – and their sacred teachings in the Bible – yet makes the fascinating claim that the most important thing about you is your relationship to God.
Nothing else about you is more important than that: not your college degree; not your paycheck, not your profession; it’s more important that your race, or your nationality, or your gender or sexual orientation; more important that your social connections, the people you know. Your relationship with your Creator, says the Bible, is the very essence of your humanity. And if you lose that core essence of your being, then nothing else really matters much.
“I will sing praises unto my God while I have my being,” is NKJV’s translation of Ps. 146:2.
But, as we all know, life circumstances are not always conducive to the practice of one’s faith. There will be times in your life when those around you may not condone the way your practice your faith; the way you offer praises to your God. And so the faith-practitioner must, at times, find creative ways to let their light shine through the cracks of those oppressive walls.
Psalm 146 goes on to warn the faithful not to put our hope in the prince; the prince, after all, could turn out to be Hitler (or some modern day equivalent). Nor should you put you hope for salvation in any political ideology; that’s exactly what Fascism and Communism tried to do and be; an all-encompassing system of government to recreate the world; remake human beings, a thousand year Reich, a master race, Hitler promised; a new world Marx, Lenin, and Stalin promised, even if it meant the elimination of millions of their own citizens.[ii]
Today it’s ISIS and their ambitions for a worldwide caliphate; ethnic cleansing in northwestern Myanmar, South Sudan, Iraq, Syria and Central Africa; mass oppression in Venezuela, Turkey and China. And, while we think those places represent problems in distant lands, we are not immune to their consequences.
Last month Huston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted a simple image that read: “Fight for Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.”
Now that might seem a fairly innocuous sentiment to most of us here in the United States, but it drew immediate, unremitting backlash from both Chinese officials and businesses because of the complicated, contentious relationship between China and Hong Kong, a semiautonomous territory that, unlike mainline China, operates as a limited democracy with a capitalist economy.
According to the Associated Press, the Chinese consulate in Huston expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with the team following Morey’s tweet; and both Chinese state television and Tencent – a live-streaming media company with whom the NBA recently signed a $1.5 billion deal – announced they would no longer show Rockets games. Ever since then Daryl Morey has qualifying the tweet, back-peddling, and apologizing.[iii]
Meanwhile, mass protests in Hong Kong continue over an extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong residents to be sent to mainland China for trial. It is one of the largest pro-democracy public protests Hong Kong has ever seen. Police have used tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and batons in increasingly violent confrontations.
U. S. policy makers are producing rather mixed messages, supporting Hong Kong’s bid for autonomous democracy in principle, but being very careful not to antagonize the Chinese government.
All in all, not the kind of situation one wants to be caught in the middle of.
And yet, since the protests began in June, Hong Kong’s Christian community has taken an active role. Groups of Christians continue to regularly participate in the marches; appealing to both the police and the protestors for peaceful proceedings; their hymns and prayers often heard rising along the protest chants. One favorite hymn in particular gets repeated, “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” written in 1974, has caught on as an anthem of the protests, sung by believers and non-believers alike. This Christian hymn not only mediates emotion and inspires the marchers, it also grants them some protection under a technicality in Hong Kong law of public assembly that exempts religious gatherings.[iv]
Subsequently, the bill that brought the protestors out into the streets has since been suspended, but the demonstrations are continuing, and have turned into a larger campaign for democracy.
“I will praise the Lord my whole life long,” pledges Psalm 146. “I will praise God with all that I am . . . with my whole being.”
That means praising God with everything we are.
We are called to praise God with our lives—with our voices, our minds, our bodies, our energies, our work, our relationships, our talents, our play, our pocketbook—with our very lives shall we praise our God!
Praising God with our whole being means we are `all in’ in praising the God who requires of us – not thousands of burnt offerings or ten thousand rivers of oil – but rather `to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. [Micah 6:6ff]
True worship, according to Micah, means aligning ourselves with God by aligning ourselves with those whom God cares about. It means walking through life with the God “Who executes justice for the oppressed, Who gives food to the hungry; the God who opens the eyes of the blind, raises up those who are bowed down; the God who loves the righteous, watches over the strangers, relieves the orphan and widow. [Ps. 1467ff]
Now that may not necessarily mean that you become Christian leaven in the midst of a violent protest march in Hong Kong. But it does mean walking with God where you—becoming the leaven of God’s peace, hope, and love wherever God happens to lead you in life.
Sunday morning is perhaps the pivot point for our praise of God—that time of the week when we reorient ourselves to the practice and the priority of praise. But that’s only where such praise begins. It should then continue throughout our days and in all our ways.
We are called to take our living praise `to the streets,’ as it were.
In his book Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry & Ideology, Walter Brueggemann reminds us, “Praise is delightful. Praise is the duty and delight, the ultimate vocation of the human community; indeed of all creation . . . We have a resilient hunger,” says Bruggemann, “to return our energy and worth to the One from whom it has been granted. In our return to the One is our deepest joy.”[v]
The ultimate purpose of worship and liturgy, says Brueggemann, is meant to remake the world. For when you are always thanking and praising God, when your heart is open to God’s presence and grace, it changes everything else in life.
Worship and praise can transform the world. Or not.
During my seminary days, we enjoyed going to Chapel every Wednesday morning. The whole student body and faculty would gather to worship together as a community of faith. The second year, however, we had – what came to be called – The Chapel Wars; between budding feminist theologians and our resident conservatives.
It all began during Chapel one Wednesday when the feminists were leading the worship service. To make the liturgy more gender inclusive, and perhaps to expand our thinking a bit, they used feminine pronouns for God: She, Her, etc. Well, some of the conservative student constituency was outraged. And so, at one point in the middle of the worship service, a small group of them (many of them guys I happened to routinely play golf with), go up and very loudly walked out of the service. One of them looked over at me on the way out, as if to say, “C’mon Tom . . . Let’s go!”
I stayed firmly in my pew and saluted goodbye.
The next week, when those fellows had the privilege of designing the worship service, don’t you know, they used extremely patriarchal language: making it a point to use masculine pronouns, repeatedly, exclusively calling God `Father God.’ Lo and behold, during that service, a group of the feminists rose up and marched out of the chapel. And my feminist friends glance over my way on her way out. Again, I stayed put.
But I must say, unfortunately, I rather lost my zeal for attending those chapel services; and ultimately stopped going all together.
There are two kinds of people, says Walter Bruggemann: There are the “whiners” and there are the “praisers.” The first are people who cannot let go of, or stop whining, talking about what’s lacking, what’s gone wrong or is sure to go wrong tomorrow. And there are other people who are so grateful for what is and hopeful about what might yet be, that they live in a different world, a new and better world.
The word wor-ship literally means to express honor, reverence, worthiness—essentially to `give praise’ to God. And if that purpose is not forefront in our hearts and minds when we come into this place, then it is highly unlikely that we will do it very well anywhere else in our lives.
But when we do come to this place with that intention firmly set in heart and mind, then – if we are to believe the Psalmist – our most essential need will indeed be met. And, in turn, it will have a transformative effect on our relationships, our self-esteem, and every other aspect of our lives. So, consider this morning sort of a dress rehearsal for the rest of your week.
And for the rest of your life.
When I look back at that seminary experience, I wish to God I’d just kept going to Chapel. Because what I’ve learned, over the years since, is that there will always be those who would obstruct the free expression of worship, who would oppress the worship of others because it doesn’t fit within their own narrow ideological walls, who would, essentially, grieve the Holy Spirit.
And, I’ve discovered that, most often – at least in this country – the greatest adversary to joyful worship is us; ourselves. I suppose that could be called self-oppression. When the `tyrant’ becomes our own attitude—and our own ingratitude.
“Happy are those whose help is in the God of Jacob,” says the Psalmist, “whose hope in the Lord their God.” [Ps. 146:5] Although the English translation of `happy’ for the Hebrew word used here – `ashre – does not adequately convey its full meaning. Taken from the verbal root meaning `to go straight, to advance, to follow the path;’ a more accurate translation of `ashre would connote the kind of contentment which stems from deep-seated peace and feelings of settledness in one’s relationship with a God who is continually on the move.[vi]
Whining or praising. I suppose the choice is each of ours to make. Simply know that whichever choice you make will have profound impact and implications for your entire life.
As for me: `I will sing praises to
my God with my whole being.’
[i] Buchanan, John, “All My Life Long” June 6, 2010.
[v] Bruggemann, Walter, Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology, Fortress Press, 1988.
[vi] Declaisse-Walford, Nancy L., Exegetical Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3.