Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder , Senior Minister




“Psalm 150”

Sunday, May 30, 2010




Rev. Dean Snyder

Earlier this year I read an article reprinted from the National Geographic in The Best American Science and Nature Writing of 2009 anthology. It has intrigued me ever since. The article written by Virginia Morel is entitled “Minds of their Own,” and it is about animal intelligence.

It focuses on the work of Irene Pepperberg of Brandeis University who studied an African gray parrot named Alex for 30 years. Dr. Pepperberg became convinced that Alex was much more intelligent than humans generally believe animals can be.

The article says; “Certain skills are considered key signs of higher mental abilities: good memory, a grasp of grammar and symbols, self-awareness, understanding others' motives, imitating others, and being creative.” Alex had these capacities, including what seemed to be a sense of humor and the capacity for sarcasm.

The article talks about other animals who exhibit a level of intelligence that we usually attribute only to ourselves as human beings – A border collie named Betsey who had a vocabulary of more than 300 words. (You could show Betsey a photo of a toy and she would go into the next room and pick that toy out of a group of toys and bring it to you, including toys she had never seen before except in the picture.). A bottlenose dolphin named Akeakamai who could figure out complex instructions the first time. New Caledonian crows who can figure out how to make tools – hooks out of wires or strips of aluminum – to get at food.

Scientists have studied scrub jays. Scrub jays are thieves. They will steal other scrub jay’s nuts. Scientists have observed that scrub jays will hide their nuts but if another scrub jay sees them doing it, they will come back later and move their nuts to a new place. One scientist says the way scrub jays reason is this; “I know you know where I have hidden my stash of food, and if I were in your shoes I’d steal it, so I’m going to move my stash to a place you don’t know about.” Scrub jays apparently have the ability to reason with the same level of sophistication as some former hedge fund bankers. 

The point of the National Geographic article, and a whole series of articles like it, is that animal research is showing that the gap between human intelligence and animal intelligence is not as wide as we have supposed.

The difference between animals and humans is apparently not a difference of kind, but of degree. Animals’ and humans’ thinking is not qualitatively different but only different quantitatively. The difference is not any specific intellectual capacity but the degree of complexity of thought that we can manage.

Animals are more intelligent than we thought. I think it is also true that we human beings are more animalistic than we sometimes like to admit.

When we became human we did not stop being animals.

And what brings me to this odd discussion for a sermon is Psalm 150, the last psalm in the book of Psalms. The book of Psalms was Israel’s hymnal. It is the text of the songs Israel sang in worship. It includes hymns of hope, hymns of despair, hymns of anger, militaristic hymns, and as many different kinds of hymns as you will find in any hymnal written since. The final section of hymns in the book of Psalms, are hymns of praise. Psalm 146 begins “Praise the Lord.” Psalm 147 begins “Praise the Lord.” Psalm 148, “Praise the Lord.” Psalm 149, “Praise the Lord.” Psalm 150, “Praise the Lord.”

The Hebrew was actually Hallelujah. Hallele Yeh. Praise the Yeh, short for Yehweh, the name of God.

And the very last line of the very last hymn of praise Psalm 150, the psalm that culminates all the psalms, says “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.”

Another way of translating it is “Let everything that has flesh praise the Lord.”

Let the whole realm of life praise the Lord.

Praising the Lord in Psalm 150, and in other places in the Bible, is not merely a human activity. It belongs to all life. It belongs to all creation. And it is surely something we share with the rest of the animal kingdom.

The Sabbath, a day of rest and worship, remember, was not only for human beings. The commandment said it was also for your ox and your ass and your cattle and your livestock.

The reason I focus on this, this morning is because I think many of us here are not very good at praise because our human brains are too engaged. We don’t praise well because our minds are too domineering and don’t give us permission to feel the animalistic joy of being alive that is praise.

At least, this is part of my problem.

As a young person I was not a very good athlete, and part of the problem was that I over thought everything. The only thing I was much good at was hitting a baseball, and I could hit a baseball because somehow I could do it without having to think about it. I’d think about it in school all day, but when I stepped up to the plate, something else would take over, and I could swing a bat without having to think about it.

I couldn’t field because I would stand in the field worrying about what I would do if a ball came at me. I thought and thought about what I was supposed to do…the right way to do it. I over thought fielding. Sometimes I’d forget myself and I’d discover that I had caught a ball without even thinking about it and I’d made a nice catch, but it was rare. I worried about it too much to be a decent fielder.   

I think praise comes from the same part of ourselves that swinging a baseball bat comes from. I think it is a part of ourselves that we share with everything that breathes and that we miss the joys of praise, many of us, because we tend to over think it.  

I googled this question this week – “Why do birds sing?”. “Why do birds sing?” I discovered is the album title of a Violent Femmes album.

But I also discovered that naturalists believe that birds sing for three reasons. First, birds sing as part of mating rituals. Second, birds sing in order to warn other birds that they are there. Third, birds sing because they enjoy singing. They just find joy in it. They are created to sing.    

Have you come across Dog Dairy versus Cat Dairy? It’s all over the internet now.

Here’s an example of a day in a dog’s dairy:

  8:00 am - Dog food! My favorite thing!
9:30 am - A car ride! My favorite thing!
9:40 am - A walk in the park! My favorite thing!
10:30 am - Got rubbed and petted! My favorite thing!
12:00 pm - Milk bones! My favorite thing!
1:00 pm - Played in the yard! My favorite thing!
3:00 pm - Wagged my tail! My favorite thing!
5:00 pm - Dinner! My favorite thing!
7:00 pm - Got to play ball! My favorite thing!
8:00 pm - Wow! Watched TV with the people! My favorite thing!
11:00 pm - Sleeping on the bed! My favorite thing!

 Here’s the cat dairy:

Day 983 of My Captivity: My captors continue to taunt me….The only thing that keeps me going is my dream of escape.

That’s really not fair to cats. Cats know how to enjoy life too.

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord. Animals have the capacity to praise the Lord. Perhaps we can even learn from them how to praise the Lord.

A lot of it, I think, has to do with turning off our criticism meter…the part of ourselves that is always judging our own behavior and thoughts and feelings and the behavior, thoughts and feelings of others.

Not that self-criticism and evaluation isn’t good and important. The Christian year devotes two seasons of the year to self-evaluation and self-criticism; Advent and Lent. They are, however, the two shortest seasons of the Christian year. 10 weeks of the Christian year are devoted to self-critique and repentance, 42 are devoted to celebration and praise.  

10 weeks are devoted to thinking about the ways you’ve been a bad dog, 42 are devoted to rolling in the grass and getting petted.

How do we manage to turn off our criticism meters and enjoy being alive? How do we learn to praise?

I was the pastor once of a church that had a Wednesday night fellowship meeting. People got together on Wednesday nights, had a meal at the church and someone led a discussion. There had once been 90 or 100 people who had participated in Wednesday night fellowship, but by the time I got to the church, attendance had dwindled to a dozen or less. I myself hated to attend. Every Wednesday afternoon I’d pray that somebody in the congregation would have a pastoral emergence so I wouldn’t have to go to Wednesday night fellowship. I couldn’t understand my own feelings. I liked the people individually but I hated Wednesday nights.

One Wednesday night during a discussion, Rhoda turned to Olga and said, “Olga I love you but…”

Olga interrupted her and said, “Stop. Don’t say another word.”

Rhoda was stunned.

Olga said, “Rhoda, every time you begin a sentence with the words ‘I love you but…’ the next thing that comes out of your mouth is something awful and hurtful. So from now on, every time you start a sentence that way I am going to stop you.”

And I think suddenly we realized why the joy had gone out of Wednesday nights. Because no Wednesday night went by without someone being told “I love you but….”

The church year has 10 weeks of self-critique and repentance and 42 weeks of celebration.

Let everything that breathes roll in the grass and play Frisbee.

It is appropriate on Memorial Day weekend to pause to remember what a good gift life is. What an awful thing it is when we worry more than God does; when we work harder than God does; when we are more critical of ourselves than God is.

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.

I had a parishioner years ago who was a lawyer. He owned a building where his offices were located and he rented out the rest of the building to other tenants. He had a cleaning woman who worked for him for many years and they became friends.

Her church was having a revival and she invited my parishioner to attend a service with her. He agreed. When they got to the service the music was upbeat and the congregation was singing and clapping. He sort of stood there awkwardly feeling a bit out of place and uncomfortable. She encouraged him to join in and sing and clap his hands but he didn’t.

Finally, he told me, she sat down next to him and said, “Why aren’t you singing and clapping?”

He said to her, “I just don’t feel it.”

She said to him, “Do you think I feel it? I’ve just spent all day cleaning your toilets. You don’t sing and clap because you feel it; you sing and clap until you feel it.”

Let everything that has breathe praise the Lord. Let everything that is fortunate enough to have flesh praise the Lord. Turn down your criticism meter, wag your tail, sing like a bird, even if it is a crow, roll in the grass, breath easy.

Virginia Morel, “Minds of Their Own,” The Best American Science and Nature Writing of 2009, edited by Elizabeth Kolbert (Houghton Mifflin Harcoiurt, 2009), 156-7. see also Margaret Tal;bot, “Birdbrain,” Best American Science Writing 2009, edited by Natalie Angier (Harper Perennial, 2009), 213-236.