“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart…”
I had not seen this place for 55 years, but last week, coming home from a district preachers’ meeting in Metairie, trying to avoid the interstate, taking a neighborhood route, I drove right by it: the Bridge Dale Elementary School. This was where I was a first grade student, Mrs. Morgan my teacher, was the place where I learned to read. For me it happened all at once, almost like an Epiphany, sitting in a circle with my classmates, looking a flannel board with a jumble of letters that up made absolutely no sense to me. I knew my ABC’s, and I knew the sound that each letter made, but up until that moment words were just a jumble, a babble, of confused letters that were totally out of order. Until suddenly, like a light in the attic, it clicked. Out of disorder sprang this wonderful order. It fell into place. Words. Sentences. Yes. It got it! I could read! Everything! Alice and Jerry and Jip! No longer a pile of jumbled vowels and consonants, but an organizing principle, message, a meaning, it made sense, a story! After that, nothing could stop me. I have been reading fool ever since. I cannot imagine life without books, words, sentences, the endless combination of letters. And to think, there are just 26 of them, our basic building blocks of language. Anyone who wants to communicate better get pretty intimate with them: “now I know my ABC’s.”
Or my Aleph Beth Gimel’s. That is, if you are Hebrew, for these are the first 3 letters of 22 in the Hebrew alphabet. You wouldn’t know this reading in English, but this is the way Psalm 111 begins. It is an acrostic. That is, when the first letter of each sentence is taken together, they spell a word. It’s a great way to remember something for a test. Like the planets, for instance. Just remember this acrostic: My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nachos=Mercury Venus Earth Mars Saturn Uranus Neptune.
Psalm 111 is one of several acrostic Psalms, each verse beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, its purpose being to remind a person, maybe even a person being tested, of all the things for which he or she could be thankful to God. Scholars believe it was used in worship like “a Primer for Praise,” with everything from A to Z, Aleph to Taw, Alpha to Omega, all the reasons we can trust God from beginning to end, from the day we are born to the day we die, from A to Z, our lives held in God’s eternal safekeeping. We need not fear, for underneath the confusing jumble that life so often seems to be, there is an organizing principle, an order we can trust: Aleph, Beth, Gimel….
Call it an Alphabet of Grace, says Frederick Buechner. He says that “Life itself can be thought of as an alphabet by which God graciously makes known his presence and purpose and power among us.” Life is God’s alphabet! God speaks to us through life! “There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak—even the walk from the house to the garage than you have walked 10,000 times before,” God speaks. “Listen,” he says. “Listen to life, to your life…Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your past and present for the sound of him.” “All moments are key moments,” he says, “and life itself is grace.”
Think about that! I know there must be for you as there are for me times when you look at life and see nothing but a jumble, a babble of disorder and chaos, and nothing makes sense. What if there really is underneath the jumble an Organizing Principle at work? Someone trying to get through to us, speak to us, guide us, encourage us, love us? This is how God comes to us, says Richard Rohr—“disguised as life.” Life is God’s sign language. God’s alphabet! Listen to it!
Try to imagine what it was like for the first people who first learned this psalm and sang it by heart. Scholars tell us that it was written after the Hebrew people, following decades of exile in Babylon, had returned at last come home to Jerusalem. And what did they find there?–only the wreckage of their homes, the ruins of the temple, the once great city a pile of rubble. How do you make sense of that kind of chaos? Where is God in all that mess? Where do you even begin?
The Psalmist is saying, “let’s start at the very beginning. Do Re Mi, ABC.” Back to basics, to the building blocks of what matters most: the gift of life held eternally in God’s hands: Aleph: All my life. Beth: blessings abound. Gimel: Great is the Lord! Imagine the ancient Hebrews, picking up the pieces of their broken lives and trying to begin again, remembering the basic blessings of life: it gave them hope.
Remember how when we came back after the storm to the ruins of this great city, how very precious all things New Orleans became to us, never again to be taken for granted? “I see trees of green, red roses too, I see them bloom for me and you/And I think to myself what a wonderful world.” Louis Armstrong’s song was like our national anthem, reminding us of what mattered most: “I see skies of blue and clouds of white, The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night/And I think to myself what a wonderful world.”
I think of that scene in The Sound of Music when there is huge storm raging outside and the children are scared to death, and Maria helps them overcome their fears by reminding them of “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, these are a few of my favorite things”–simple things, basic things, they remind us to give thanks for the goodness and grace of a wondrous life that is held from eternally, from A to Z, from start to finish, in God’s mighty hands.
There is a Hebrew word in Psalm 111 which appears 5 times in the psalm, most often translated in English to works—the power of his works, great are his works, the works of his hands, his wonderful deeds: niphla’oth. There is no adequate English translation for this word. It means literally “something that I simply cannot understand,” “too wonderful for words.” Maybe “miracle” is a better English translation. Can we trust that when life is a jumbled mystery to us, something we simply cannot understand, that just beneath the surface a miracle is unfolding that one day an epiphany will help us see?
And while we are on the subject, there is another Hebrew word for which there is no adequate English: yireh—translated as fear, the fear of the Lord, unfortunately so, for what the word means really means is awe, wonder. “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom,” says the Psalmist. Beware of the person who never wonders, who already knows everything, who has nothing left to learn. Psalm 111 reminds us of a wonderful world, too wonderful for words, we can only fall on our knees, and give thanks.
It is good medicine. Giving thanks. May be the best medicine I know. Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you ever prayed was ‘thank you,’ it would be enough.” Or, as Howard Hanger says, “Gratitude is the link you click to get online with God.” Or as the Apostle Paul said, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” This is what we human beings are made for–a steady diet of it too! When we do not give thanks it is almost as unhealthy as not eating or exercising. We have all known people who have tried to build a life on the building blocks of anger, resentment, revenge, criticism, and what a sad and miserable existence it is! No, we were born to wonder, made for praise, created for thanksgiving. As Augustine once said, we are created to be “An Alleluia from Head to Toe.”
I did it once, an acrostic of my own, my Alleluia from head to toe, from A to Z. This is how it goes: A is for all—all the blessings of life, from A to Z, an alphabet of grace; B is for beach, bicycles, berries, babies, baptisms, believers, God’s beautiful people; C is for children, chocolate, coffee, but most especially for my Covenant Group; D is for dog, my dog, Dave, the gentlest creature on earth, E is for Earth, our Mother, to be handled with care; F is for friends, family, flowers, fun, French fries; G is for gratitude to God, the original Giver, for the Gift of life itself; H is for home, hot baths, The Hallelujah Chorus; I is for infinity, intimacy, Italy, and IPhones; J is for Jesus–there is no other; K is for kittens (I just wish they would stay little); L is for little things, love, laughter, light, life; M is for music, movies, miracles, mustard seeds, the Milky Way; N is for nachos, for New Orleans, especially the new New Orleans; O for ocean, oysters, open hearts, open minds, open doors; P is for Paris, Phat Thai, popcorn, pizza, prayer, possibilities; Q is for Quarter as in French; R is for Rayne as in church, resurrection, relationships, running, red, red steps; S is for the steeple, the Saints, stars, sunshine, a good night’s sleep; T is for trees; U is for unconditional love; V is for violas and veterinarians–never met one I didn’t like; W is for the Word, Wesley, wonder, water–without which we cannot live; X is for X-ray vision which makes it possible for us to see–to really see; Y is for Yes and for You; and Z is for Zaccheus, Zehner, Zorro, Zoo, Zideo, Zaps, Zest, Zing, Zeal!
What about you? Your Alphabet of Grace? What might your life be like if you were to be an Alleluia from head to toe?