Good evening. Welcome to the CPC Lenten series on the Hallel Psalms. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Stephen W. Hiemstra. Since graduating from seminary in 2013, I have been a Christian author and volunteer in Hispanic ministry.
This evening we focus on Psalm 116, a thanksgiving psalm that celebrates our personal salvation in the midst of a dangerous world.
Let’s begin with prayer.
All praise and honor are yours, because you hear our prayers, comfort us in our afflictions, and rescue us from death itself.
We confess that we are unworthy of your affections and we thank you for teaching us to love.
Draw us now to yourself. In the power of your Holy Spirit, open our hearts, illumine our minds, and strengthen our hands in your service. In Jesus precious name, Amen.
What brings you joy? (2X)
In 2012 I worked at Providence Hospital as a chaplain intern and requested assignment to the Alzheimer’s unit in Carroll Manor. There I met a man who I will call Albert.
Albert spent his days wandering up and down the halls in the lock-down unit. Albert would come up to you and attempt to talk, but could only blather incoherently, which disturbed him greatly. Other patients could talk; Albert could only blather.
One Friday afternoon, I recruited some patients to attend Happy Hour. Happy Hour was mostly a punch and cookie affair, but they often invited musicians to entertain the guests.
So being the trouble-maker that I am, I recruited about a dozen patients, including Albert, and headed for the door. As I punched us out, a nurse ran up to me.
Steve, Steve. Where are you going?
We’re going to Happy Hour.
But you can only take three patients.
So, I recruited several reluctant nurses and headed again towards the door.
Again, the nurse approached me. Wait a minute—you can’t take Albert. He will wander off.
I will keep a special eye on Albert!
So finally, with my dozen patients and the reluctant nurses I took the elevator up to Happy Hour.
Well, we had a blast. The jazz saxophonist playing that afternoon was just wonderful. My patients all got up and started dancing to the music, including Albert. Alzheimer’s patients, unlike other seniors, always have fun because they have forgotten what it means to be shy and embarrassed.
Before we were done, Albert had danced with at least three different women and he came back to the unit speaking in complete sentences. (2X) His awakening lasted another six weeks that I know about. His joy at hearing Jazz music again healed him of his former blathering, which I took as a bonified miracle. IT REALLY WAS A MIRACLE.
Well, if a little joy can bring the absent-minded Alzheimer’s patient back to earth, how much more can the joy of salvation in Jesus Christ change human lives, our lives?
What brings joy to our psalmist this evening?
The first four verses of Psalm 116 tell his story—
I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. 2Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. 3The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. 4Then I called on the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!” (Slide 1)
Verse one here explains his joy—“I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.” Actually, English translations insert the word, LORD, which does not appear in the original Hebrew or in the Septuagint Greek. The Hebrew simply reads: I have loved because he has heard my voice…We hear an echo of the original Hebrew in John’s first letter: “We love because he first loved us.”(1 John 4:19)
Moving on to verse two, the psalmist reiterates the importance of being heard and takes a vow: “Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.” This vow is interesting because if you pray or sing this psalm, as is the custom, you also repeat this vow.
How many of us haven’t repeated this vow? I certainly have. My call story began back in 1992 when I cried out to the Lord in Georgetown University hospital over my ten-week-old son, Reza, as he waited for risky emergency surgery for a blocked kidney. God heard my prayer. The surgery succeeded; today my son works as an engineer in Phoenix and here I am as a testimony to answered prayer.
Why is listening so important to the psalmist? Verse three reiterates the answer three times: “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” In other words,death had surrounded me; hell had opened its doors to pull me in; and I was terrified. The repetition assures us that the psalmist’s vow in verse two is not to be taken lightly.
Verse four then closes the loop by returning to the second half of verse one. Verse one talks of “pleas for mercy, while verse four cites the psalmist’s actual prayer: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!”
So what brings joy to the psalmist? The Lord rescued him from death. Commentators believe Psalm 116 is a crib notes version of Psalm 18 where King David recounts his own brush with death. Even more bone-crushing details can be found in 2 Samuel 22.
Let me pivot at this point to reflect on the backstory to Psalm 116. In this respect, let me draw your attention to the pattern in Psalm 116 that relates to the promise of Moses in Deuteronomy 30.
Hear the word of the Lord:
“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.”(Deut. 30:1-3) (Slide 2)
This passage in Deuteronomy is known as the Deuteronomic cycle. The cycle can be summarized as committing sin, earning the curse, crying out to the Lord, and, then, being redeemed. This cycle appears repeatedly in the Book of Judges.
Probably the most familiar example in Judges is the story of Gideon. The cycle starts with sin and the resulting curse. In Judges 6:1 we read:
“The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.”(Jdg 6:1) (Slide 3)
After being persecuted by the Midianites, the people cry out to the Lord in verse 6 and the Lord sends an angel to call on Gideon, who is busy hiding wheat from the Midianites in a winepress (verse 11).
Gideon then assembles an elite team of three hundred men to fight against the army of the Midianites described as too numerous to number, like locusts ravaging the land. Responding to a vision in a dream, this team woke the Midianites in the middle of the night with trumpets and torches (2X). Frightened in the night, the Midianites began slaughtering each other in the dark (Jdg 7:22).
In this manner, the Lord freed the Israelite people from the oppression of the Midianites and brought them the joy of salvation.
Interestingly, the Deuteronomic cycle usually applies to the Nation of Israel as a whole and brought salvation from oppression. Following the pattern established in Psalm 18, however, Psalm 116 applies salvation to the individual rather than to the nation (2X).
Note that the Deuteronomic cycle starts with the commission of sin—the curses of Deuteronomy are a consequence of disobeying the Mosaic covenant.Thus, the cycle can once again be summarized as committing sin, earning the curse, crying out to the Lord, and, then, being redeemed.
Our redemption in Christ follows this same pattern. We sin; we get into trouble; we ask for forgiveness; Christ offers us redemption.
The key to understanding this parallel is to see sin as a form of oppression (2X). We all experience besetting sins—addictions small and great–that we cannot shake on our own. If gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, it is also a besetting sin that can destroy our self-esteem, ruin our health, and undermine our relationships. Just like the Midianites oppressed Israel, we can be oppressed by besetting sins and we need to cry out to the Lord for our forgiveness and salvation.
Thus, Psalm 116’s personalized the Deuteronomic cycle and directly anticipated the New Testament and our salvation in Christ. In fact, if Jesus and the disciples sang Psalm 116 after the Last Supper, they took this very same vow and, in the resurrection, Jesus experienced God’s deliverance, as the Apostle Paul described in his letter to the Colossians:
“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”(Col. 1:18-19)
What brings you joy?
Thank you for listening to us, forgiving our sin, rescuing us in perilous times, and bringing joy to our lives. Be with us now as we return to our homes and daily work. In Jesus’ precious name. Amen.
Brueggemann, Walter. 2016. Money and Possessions. Interpretation series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. (Review)
Groseclose, Win. 2015. The Egyptian Hallel Psalms: An Exposition of Psalms 113-118—Observations: Practical, Exegetical, and Theological. New Sewickley Township, PA (Review)
Tucker, W. Dennis Jr. and Jamie A. Grant. 2018. The NIV Application Commentary: Psalms, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Wenham, Gordon J. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. (Review Part 1, Part 2)
While in the Old Testament salvation focused on the Exodus from Egypt, in the Testament salvation focused on the return of the exiles from Babylon. Judea was a Babylonian vassal nation that had rebelled so the New Testament focus on salvation from the sin of rebellion, which was an analogy to the original sin in Genesis where Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s rule by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
In the New Testament, the only citation of Psalm 116 appears in a context of persecution in 2 Corinthians 4:13.
Jolene Brackey. 2007. Creating Moments of Joy for the Person with Alzheimer’s or Dementia: A Journal for Caregivers. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
What brings you joy?
One morning I met a woman who had been in a horrible car accident. The accident broke pretty much every bone in her body and the trauma triggered a psychiatric disorder. She approached me in the ward rapping a song featuring me—what she knew of me personally—in real time. As we talked, the stories told were exceedingly dark with tales of abuse, neglect, and sorrow—none of which intersected much with reality. After about 30 minutes of dark tales, I asked her a question—what brings you joy? She brightened up and became sugar and spice and everything nice. It was as if she needed permission to enter that room in her mind.
In her book, Creating Moments of Joy, Jolene Brackey writes:
I have a vision…that we will soon look beyond the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease and focus more of our energy on creating moments of joy. When a person has short-term memory loss, his life is made up of moments. We are not able to create a perfectly wonderful day with those who have dementia, but it is absolutely attainable to create perfectly wonderful moments (13).
Brackey (9-12) writes her journal in 5 parts:
Understanding the Person with Alzheimer’s, (pages 16-28)
Powerful Tools That Create Positive Outcomes, (36-76)
Let’s Talk Communication, (82-126)
Memory Enhanced Environments, (130-204) and
Enhanced Moments, (212-318).
The book begins with acknowledgments, advice on using the book, and an introduction. It ends with a conclusion, bibliography, and author introduction.
Alzheimer’s disease is distinguished from other forms of dementia by the fact that the patient’s cognitive ability gradually deteriorates. This deterioration occurs in stages. This deterioration can be slowed, but not stopped by medication. This deterioration can be accelerated by trauma, surgery, and mistakes in medication. Other forms of dementia arise from physical damage to the brain through head trauma, cardiovascular problems, and things like prolonged oxygen deprivation.
We all come to Alzheimer’s disease wanting explanations and wanting to find a cure. Part of this quest is ignorance; part is guilt. Alzheimer’s disease is mostly not understood and research dollars are generally allocated to other diseases. Brackey is accordingly short on explanations and long on making the most of the journey.
Brackey notes, for example, that as the disease progresses, the patient’s apparent age regresses (18-19). They do not recognize their grown children, in part, because they remember their kids as young as when they themselves were younger. Alzheimer’s patients are time travelers. They have good and bad days as their cognitive function comes and goes with energy levels. Physical exhaustion generally leads to a bad day. Patients whose energy levels deteriorate late in the day are sometimes referred to as having “sunset dementia.”
Brackey (22) mentions that Alzheimer’s patients lose their inhibitions. In the ward where I worked, on Fridays they had happy hour when musicians were invited to come and play for the group. The Alzheimer’s residents would sing and dance to the music while other elderly residents were too embarrassed to do either. Lost of inhibitions can be a source of embarrassment, but it can also be a source of joy. Alzheimer’s patients are like children masquerading as adults.
Brackey (162-164) has a chapter on music which deserves more attention. Because Alzheimer’s patients are time travelers, familiar songs–particularly religious music–helps them center on the here and now. Religious music is special because, having been repeated over many years, it is buried very deeply in our memories. It is often the music of our youth and a source of joy. Patients, who could not speak in complete sentences, will sing and clap and suddenly be able to engage in conversation after music sessions. If you are skeptical, try singing the doxology to an Alzheimer’s patient or, if they are African American, sing a Gospel song like “Amen” and observe the response.
In a 1993 film called Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a weatherman forced to relive groundhog day over and over. He is in love with a co-worker at the station, played by Andie MacDowell, but has trouble attracting her attention. After a point, he realizes that the groundhog day phenomena allows him to try different ways to woo her heart and he remembers her response from the previous days. After many failed attempts, he finally wins her heart and groundhog day comes to an end.
With Alzheimer’s patients, every day is groundhog day.
Groundhog day is both a curse and a blessing. The curse arises when patients are reminded of past pains and relive them—griefs lived over and over with no resolution. The blessing comes in that as caregivers our mistakes are quickly forgotten and we can try something different.
Brackey reminds us that we can bring sunshine to our patients. We can remember their accomplishments; share in their greatness; and share in their reality (41). We can be the loving family that hopefully they have or maybe they had or maybe never had (36-37). Facility staff must sometimes step in where family members are unable or unwilling to journey.
Brackey’s Creating Moments of Joy is truly best used as a journal. She offers tons of useful advice whose usefulness will not be immediately obvious on reading it the first time. It is best to make a mental note of what was read and come back to it when daily experiences prod your memory. This is a helpful book for anyone caring for an Alzheimer’s patient or trying to relate to one.
Almighty Father, beloved son, ever-present Spirit. We praise you for creating us in your image, for walking with us even as we sin, and for patiently restoring us into your favor. Strengthen our sense of your identity. In the power of your Holy Spirit, unstop our ears; uncover our eyes; soften our hearts; illumine our minds. Shape us more and more in your image that we also might grow. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.
Padre Todopoderoso, amado Hijo, siempre presente Espíritu. Te alabamos por crea nos en tu imagen, por caminar con nosotros incluso cuando nos pecamos, y por restaurar nos patentemente en tu favor. Fortalece nos en tu identidad. En el poder de tu Espíritu Santo, destapa nuestro oídos; descubre nuestros ojos; suaviza nuestras corazones; ilumina nuestros mentes. Forma nos mas y mas en tu imagen que podemos también crecer. En el nombre de Jesús, Amen.