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Rocky Balboa and the Psalms

I’ve toyed with running the last few years, but the last several months I’ve gotten serious about it. I’ve started running with my 17 year old son on facing treadmills. We worked out a shared play list to listen to while we run- some old school Petra for me and some Lecrae for him. Of course there is a shared part of the canon as well, and in that shared part are songs from the Rocky movies.

It is interesting how my middle-aged body, when feeling like there is no steam left, can automatically find new energy when the Rocky theme song or “Eye of the Tiger” comes on. In fact I hope for those songs to come on as I hit that first “wall” early in the run or as we enter the final stretch and I’m not sure I can make it.

I have reflected on why these songs affect me the way they do. Is it because I just like trumpets? No. Is it simply that this is great music, or upbeat music? Not really. I do like the sound, but there is, of course, better music and there are other sounds which appeal to me or are upbeat which do not affect me this way.

The words are a part of it. But even that does not account for the impact. I think the main reason the songs have such an effect on me is the story of which they are a part. The sounds and words take on special meaning because of the story of the movies and the role of that story in my story.  For any kid who grew up watching these films those sounds evoke images of an underdog working particularly hard and achieving great things. Those sounds today connect with the way it made me feel then and how it motivated me as I began working out as a kid. “Eye of the Tiger” not only makes me think of Rocky and Clubber Lang, but also of the time my Jr. High football coach played that scene for us before we went out on the field, using it to motivate us (successfully!). All of this personal connection is no doubt why, while the songs are appreciated by my son and me, they have more impact on me. They are more intertwined in my own experience.

So, some songs, not exactly in the realm of masterworks, have the power to help me persevere because they tell a certain motivating story and I have deep personal experience with them. Throughout the history of the church the Psalms have played a similar role in the lives of the saints. The Psalms tell the story of the people of God, recounting in some detail the history of Israel, their failure, suffering, deliverance and hope. They face squarely the depth of pain which life in a fallen world is bound to encounter and point us to hope in the living God whose steadfast love and faithfulness is our anchor. But, my reflections on Rocky reminded me- the degree to which these songs inspire and motivate us, the degree to which they empower us to persevere (as they have our forebears), depends in some measure on how much these songs enter our own experience, how enmeshed they become in our lives. Someone from another culture who knew nothing of the Rocky movies might wonder why some old songs whose trumpets seem unusual in comparison with popular music today or some song that seems to be about the vision of a large cat was meaningful to me. Sadly, it seems the contemporary church often looks that way at the Psalms. Why do these old songs matter so much when they talk about ancient places I don’t even know? Why would I want to sing songs that don’t mention Jesus? To such questions our forebears just shake their heads, saying, “You’ve never seen the story have you?” Because when you enter into these songs it becomes clear (and Jesus is there so clearly).

I want- for myself and my children- to immerse ourselves in these songs so that they resonate deeply with us because the story they tell has impacted our story at so many different places. Then, the singing of these songs will motivate us, drawing back to mind all these connections, connecting us to God, empowering us to persevere.

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