Native Americans of the Cherokee Nation tell a story called “The Wolves Within.”
In it, a grandfather tells his grandson, “A fight is going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.
“The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson considers the story for a minute then asks his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
The wise old man simply replies, “The one you feed.”
The moral of the fable points to the capacities for good and evil that lie within each of us. Those things in ourselves and in our world on which we choose to focus give shape to the kind of persons we are and will become.
But suppose your evil wolf is winning the fight, and you find yourself stuck in a rut of sadness and negativity, feeling low and struck down by unfortunate events or ill-made decisions, caught up in nasty circumstances of your own or someone else’s doing. How does your good wolf manage to muster up the strength and courage to gain the upper hand?
How exactly do you lift yourself out of the pit into which you’ve fallen and where you seem to have been forced into permanent residence?
How do you stave off being overwhelmed by all the evil you see and brokenness you experience out in the world and within your own body, mind and soul?
That’s where this morning’s Scripture lesson enters the fray. Psalm 100 is a potent weapon that allows the good wolf to turn the tide.
Psalm 100 is a gracious invitation to praise God and give thanks for God’s abundant goodness – even if and especially when it feels like God is distant and disinterested and the Dumpster fires are raging out of control.
The circumstances that gave rise to this psalm are unknown. Perhaps the news of the day was little more than an endless, soul-crushing string of one depressing headline after another. Perhaps its author felt overwhelmed by sin or complicit in making bad situations even worse. Perhaps the psalmist felt defeated by life, wondering if he or she would ever catch a break, if anything good was ever going to happen, if fate intended life to remain stuck in neutral forever and a day.
Those are but a few of the agonizing what-ifs that plague and haunt many of us. Which makes Psalm 100 a sermon unto itself that tells us to start focusing more on God and everything that God has done, is doing, and promises to do. Psalm 100 is a call to bless God by trusting in and relying on the Lord.
Rely on the Spirit to let these ancient words resound with the gracious love that abides in God’s own heart for you.
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100:1-5)
On one hand, you have to love Psalm 100.
It’s short, sweet, and to the point – a downright perky little psalm that calls for all of Creation to sing together in perfect harmony, one big, happy choir entering God’s gates with thanksgiving on the hearts of its singers.
On the other hand – and maybe it’s just me, but singing in perky, perfect harmony doesn’t seem to fit the mood one finds in most corners of the world these days.
A disgusting litany of sin and brokenness understandably has curdled moods and soured outlooks for many. As if you need reminders, that list includes but is not limited to the resurgence of COVID-19, a climate changing not for the better, ongoing political and social tensions and divisions, crime and corruption infecting not just homes and streets but also the very halls of power, and personal heartbreak and tragedy of every stripe – not the least of which is the sorry state of our individual and collective mental health.
Shout to the Lord? It surely feels like we’d rather shout at each other!
Come before the Lord with joyful songs? We can’t even agree on a common hymnal much less get ourselves singing on the same page!
Enter his gates? Pretty hard when the doors of hearts and minds are locked in anger and ignorance and when walls around and against communities and peoples – built on fear and distrust, both real and imagined – are popping up here, there and everywhere!
So, in some ways, Psalm 100 feels like yet another example of incredibly great theology mixed with really bad timing. Psalm 100 just doesn’t quite seem to cut the mustard for our anxious days, which are not ordinary in any sense of the word, and no one is completely sure when – or if – some semblance of decency and orderliness will return.
Ours is one of those moments in history – surely not the first and probably not the last – when full-throated songs of praise stick in your throat at least a bit and maybe a lot. You surely are sitting within arm’s reach of people who, for any number of reasons, are experiencing the worst of times, and the prospects for better days ahead look mighty dim.
Is now the time to call for global praise? Is now a moment to ask God’s people to shout to the Lord, because we are the sheep of his pasture? Can we praise God during a season that otherwise seems far more prone to lament? Should we, like we’ve done over the last couple Sundays, flip open the Bible to one of those psalms of anguish and weeping instead of the lively and bouncy Psalm 100?
Maybe. And maybe it’s more than OK to admit that even the most faithful and hope-filled among us are singing praises these days with slightly less enthusiasm than might otherwise be the case during better times when there isn’t so much suffering cascading around us at every turn.
Still, as believers, we are called to acknowledge God as our Sovereign – the One who’s in charge and abounding in steadfast love and goodness.
We can still sing “This Is My Father’s World” and know that the earth and everything in it belong to God, even though it is, for now, such a fractured and wounded planet. The cure for what ails is a Psalm 100-like preview of the fact that, at the end of the cosmic day, it will be praise, not lament, that will have the last word.
Actor John Krasinski, who played Jim Halpert on TV’s “The Office,” hit on a spirit-lifting idea just as the pandemic hit early last year. He began producing a little weekly online program called “Some Good News.” It became something of a sensation as Krasinski and his staff scoured and culled the internet for videos of ordinary folks sharing how they were getting by in quarantine, how they were reaching out to people despite all the obstacles, how encouragement, good humor and poetic acts of kindness were not going to be derailed by COVID-19.
Soon after, people worldwide were producing knock-off versions of the Krasinski’s show for friends and neighbors, even as others posted pics, videos and stories to the “Some Good News” pages that were popping up on social media. The tagline that umbrellaed it all was simple and basic: Even when times are tough, there’s always some good news to report.
Our local radio station broadcasts a similar feature called “Upbeats.” The name of our church newsletter, PresbyUpbeats, borrows the name and the intent.
Such heartwarming stories don’t vanish all the shadows and banish all the fear, but they do keep us all going with an elixir of things we all need: Hope. Inspiration. Assurance. A reason to get teary-eyed now and again over stories of good rather than word of sorrow.
If John Krasinski and company can do it, you and I surely can, too. We hold not just everyday good news, but we are the custodians of the Good News that is none other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And his Gospel assures that, although the Son of God had to get dragged through the mud and the muck of this ugly world to do it – indeed, the Son of God had to go clear to hell and back to do it, Jesus Christ did, in fact, win the victory!
Singing songs of thanksgiving and entering God’s courts with praise are both still possible and quite viable, simply because the Lord Jesus died and rose from the dead.
As the apostle John experienced in a grim time of exile in his own life, God can and does pull back the curtain of history to reveal the heavenly choruses of praise that are going on right now and that are, in fact, never-ceasing.
That’s what John saw on an otherwise desolate island: Not visions of what will be, but a glimpse of what is right now! Choirs of angels and saints singing “Worthy is the Lamb!” Right now. And the songs go on: “He Has Made Me Glad,” “Let All Things Now Living,” “Now Thank We All Our God.” Their lyrics are precisely what Jesus himself proclaimed during his time on earth: “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” And that kingdom is not future’s maybe but rather today’s reality.
Equally real is our singing of Psalm 100 with all the gusto that we can muster from the many places of gut-wrenching emotion in which we find ourselves these days, even as we go out and about into our fragmented, grasping and hurting world.
So yes, at first glance right about now, given the downer moods that many of us are in, Psalm 100 sounds like an ear-splitting mix of all the wrong notes. Or, maybe it’s the other way around: Given the forlorn moods we’re all in, Psalm 100 plays all the right notes in perfect harmony!
Those of us over a certain age remember a Coca-Cola commercial that ran virtually nonstop in the early 1970s. A similar, updated version hit the airwaves in 2015. In the ad, a choir of people from all the world sing a song about global unity, about teaching the world to sing “in perfect harmony,” about apple trees, and honey bees, and snow-white turtledoves. And somehow, buying everyone in the world a Coke was going to be the right ticket to make it all happen.
Obviously, however much the marketing and advertising folks at Coca-Cola might have believed it so, Coke is not “the real thing” that’ll unite the world and help us sing in perfect global harmony.
But Psalm 100 does connect us to the real thing, to the real deal, to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who can and will, in the end, help us all shout to the Lord in perfect harmony as we enter his gates with thanksgiving.
And who knows? Maybe there will be Coca-Cola in our next life – regular, diet and Coke Zero to boot! But thanks be to God, a wide array of soft drinks won’t be the main event.
The spectacle that’ll capture our rapt attention and quench our generations-long thirst is watching the bad wolf – anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego – get knocked to its knees and put down for the count by the good wolf and its more-muscular gifts of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.
That, indeed, will be something worth shouting and singing about! Until that great day, let Psalm 100 feed your good wolf in a fight that’s well under way.
Ancient words, ever true.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, July 25, 2021. It is the sixth in his series “Summer in the Psalms.” Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Scott Hoezee and J. Clinton McCann Jr. inform the message.