Pastoral Series

Worship Matters: While I Have Breath

   After a teenaged Isaac Watts complained to his father about lackluster music in church, his dad said “Well then, young man, why don’t you give us something better to sing?” One of his better-to-sing is “I’ll Praise My Maker While I Have Breath.” He had read and contemplated Psalm 146, and penned this hymn as a result.

The Psalm is itself a wonder. The Psalmist urges his own soul to praise the Lord “as long as I live.” And why? Only God is trustworthy, not princes or other powers. Watts picks up on various themes in the Psalm, with lyrics like “Happy are those whose hopes rely on Israel’s God who made the sky, earth and seas, whose truth forever stands secure.” There is a social agenda to the Psalm, and the hymn: this God “saves the oppressed and feeds the poor, supports the fainting mind and helps the stranger in distress.”

So all this answers the question, What is breath for? You have breathed at least a dozen times, quite involuntarily, since you started reading this email. Breath is God’s great gift of life. The moving air, the ruach (in Hebrew), the wind, the Spirit of God, is God giving you and others and all creation life. If the breath you just took is a gift of God, then does it make sense to do whatever you wish? Isn’t your life entirely owed to God?

I love this: John Wesley, founder of Methodism and great reformer of the church, was lying on his deathbed in 1791, 87 years old, having labored incessantly for God over a lifetime. Those who hovered nearby were stunned when, after many hours of silence, Wesley spoke – or rather, sang! His song was this hymn by Isaac Watts, which he adored: “I’ll praise my Maker while I have breath, and when my soul is lost in death, praise shall employ my nobler powers. My days of praise shall never be past, while life, and thought, and being last, or immortality endures.”

Perfect. While we have breath, we praise the Lord – in our minds, hearts and lives. What will we do in heaven? Play golf? Eat delicious food? Fine – but we will be in God’s presence, which will elicit in us a stammering awe, and forever. We will do what we’ve not done nearly enough of here. We’ll praise. We’ll be amazed. We’ll glorify. We’ll love.

In the meantime we’ll engage in a life of praise. What does that look like? Father Gregory Boyle spoke with us a few weeks ago. His best story (I thought) was his response to someone who asked, In your work with previous gang members, when do you praise God? He told the story of Mario, a much-tattooed gang guy who become the tenderest, most merciful and compassionate of all Boyle’s converts. He joined Boyle and spoke to a group of social workers – one of whom asked him “What advice would you give to your children?” He responded, “I hope my children don’t turn out like me.” The questioner said “You should hope they are like you. You are compassionate, good and wise.” The whole crowd stood and applauded – and Fr. Boyle suggested that this is the kind of praise God enjoys.

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