“Praise the LORD.
How good it is to sing praises to our God,
how pleasant and fitting to praise him!” Psalm 149:1
I remember a certain species of goosebumps, my first. I was twelve maybe, part of a choir festival a half century ago in a small town in Wisconsin, hundreds of kids drawn from a dozen Christian schools. The music was Bach—“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” For almost fifty years I’ve not been able to hear that piece without remembering that day. My entire self—heart, soul, mind, and strength—reacted to the beauty of the moment.
They arrived in an afternoon rehearsal before the big concert at night—I remember that. I remember what that gymnasium looked like, which step I occupied on the bleachers, and some of the kids around me; and I remember being embarrassed because this unmanly tearful impulse—which I loved anyway—was still a threat that required testosterone to obstruct.
The music was gorgeous. But my girlfriend was there, and I haven’t forgotten that either. She stood a row or two beneath me in the choir, and her being there was part of this odd emotional seizure, an almost synesthesia-like moment. I don’t know that the music alone would have raised so much viscerally. My seeing her, a row or two beneath me was part of the moment too.
And faith was part of it—we were singing about Jesus, and we were all kids from Christian schools. Add that to the beautiful music—we couldn’t do much better than J. S. Bach and my girlfriend—most of us experience love long before we can define it, don’t you think? I was feeling myself a part of something so much bigger than myself; that had to play a role as well—all these kids were making a beautiful, joyful noise.
First thing out of the box, Psalm 147 says how pleasant it is praise him, how pleasant. It’s an almost shockingly human assertion: “praising God feels good.” The first declaration of this psalm has nothing to do with our duty (“we should praise him”) or his wanting our praise. Instead, the psalm starts with the me: O, Lord, it feels so good. And it’s fitting too.
I wonder whether my skin turned inside out and tears threatened because, maybe for the first time, my “self” almost disappeared. I felt lost in the beauty of the music, lost in affection, lost in the joyful affirmation of group love that is choral music, lost in all those things, just lost.
Selflessness is a good thing. Love is selfless. Heroism is selfless. Vivid spiritual experience is selfless. When Mariane Pearl heard of her husband Danny’s brutal death at the hands of terrorists, you may remember, she said she was able to handle it because she’d been chanting. She’s Hindu. “The real benefit of having practiced and chanted was that at that moment was that I was so clear on what was going on. This is a time when I didn’t think about myself at all,” she told reporters.
Sometimes it’s just good to lose yourself. It’s good to praise, to give yourself to God. It’s good to love, to give yourself away. Praise—whether it’s evoked by a Bach chorale or bright new dawn—gives us a chance to empty ourselves. Faith does that. It can.
And that’s good, I think, and it’s pleasant, I know, and it’s fitting before the King, our King, who is, after all, “the joy of man’s desiring.”