October 2019

Selah: Stop, Pause for Reflection and Praise

Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2019
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, John 8:31-36
– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas


“Selah.” We’re not quite sure what it means, but it appears most often in the Psalms, and three times in the Book of Habakkuk. Our best guess is that the word Selah is a musical notation instructing the singer of the psalms to stop, be still, and pause for a moment of reflection and praise to God. This is also a needed notation for Sabbath rest.

Many of you know that, whenever time allows, I love to harmonize with others through acapella singing simply because such efforts provide the simplest and most ancient attempts of individuals to blend with others in ways that comfort and calm the soul. Such music for me is therapeutic. And the most lingering harmonies are those that speak to the tender and cautious realm of the heart.

The greatest commandment among both Christians and Jews is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Love for God, in other words, begins in the heart or the spiritual center of our being. And from that center flows the motive that feeds, informs, and influences every dimension of our soul.

But how sensible and realistic is it to place God above those we love, or above passionate professional pursuits? Could it be that by loving God with all that we are, we have made the first important and most fundamental step of sacred intimacy – the acknowledgment that all we are and ever shall be is because of all that God is? In our ability to love others with a devotion that places their lives above ours, we have touched the fringes of oneness with God. In our discovery and pursuit of professions that affirm us personally and aid the meaningful progress of humanity, we may have heard for ourselves the divine calling that commissions angels; for if our professions fail to profess the heart-felt yearnings of our soul, we are, in the words of the Apostle Paul, a “noisy gong and clashing cymbal.” (1st Corinthians 13:1)

Selah! Stop, be still, and pause for a moment of reflection and praise. If this is a musical notation, it might help in making our lives more harmonious with God and each other.

Today’s Hebrew Scripture lesson from the Prophet Jeremiah tells of God’s desire to correct the discord between God and humanity. God feels like a jilted lover betrayed by an unfaithful spouse, yet who nonetheless seeks reunion with a new marital covenant, not a covenant by which one feels bound or obligated, but one that reflects the heart-felt desire of each individual.

Now the thought of a better covenant implies that the previous one was flawed. On this Reformation Sunday we remember that Martin Luther, along with many Christians of his day, believed that Judaism was a flawed faith bound by religious laws that failed to reflect the heart-felt motives of its members; and that followers of Christ, because they were inspired by faith over fear and obligation, represented a higher calling.

One might even say that Luther’s understanding of justification by faith and not by works constituted a higher covenant of belief over that of the Catholic Church at the time. But the inability of spiritually-minded individuals to peacefully reconcile their theological differences and resort, instead, to religious bigotry, violence and war against one another even to this day provides a painful reminder that we, the offspring of Abraham and Sarah, are still caught up in petty divisions that have nothing to do with the way of God.

“We are descendants of Abraham, and we have never been slaves to anyone,” said the Jewish followers of Jesus when he said, “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32-33).

On this Reformation Sunday, we are reminded that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the printing of the Pentagon Papers revealing the lies our nation’s presidents and high-ranking officials told congress and the American people to further our involvement in the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower, who made these papers known, quoted this very saying of Jesus from John’s Gospel: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

Ultimately the way of God is a lesson in humility opening our eyes and hearts and minds to the realization that no matter how great we think we are in our religious, political or genealogical pedigree, we are most essentially children of God, whose greatest desire is that the covenant of love for God and one another be inscribed upon our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33), so that we study war and hatred no more.

Selah! Stop, be still, and pause for a moment of reflection and praise. Pause for a moment of Sabbath rest in the calming and soulful embrace of God. Amen.