The Church has its own secret language. Walter Brueggeman calls it “odd.” We use words that only make sense here–sacrament, salvation, atonement, confession, doxology, benediction, and my personal favorite – “hermeneutic” (which means, how we interpret the Bible). These words may sneak into outside useage occasionally, but they are at their most authentic in the context of the Church’s life and worship, which means they are increasingly becoming extinct, no longer many people’s native tongue.
One of the words that permeates the Bible and our worship is “praise”–”praise the Lord!” Our first hymn is almost always a “hymn of praise”–”Praise, My Soul, the God of Heaven.” There are some psalms that use “PRAISE” in every line, like Psalm 150–”Praise the Lord! Praise God in the sanctuary; praise God in the mighty firmament! Praise God for his mighty deeds; praise God according to his surpassing greatness! Praise God with trumpet sound… with lute and harp! …with tamborine and dance…with strings and pipe! …with clanging cymbals; …with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” “We just wanna praise you, Lord!” sing the evangelicals in Praise choruses. “I will extol you [there’s one of those “odd” words], my God and King,” begins Psalm 145 which David read for us this morning, “and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever.”
Yikes! That’s a whole lotta praising going on!
But does God “need” our praise? Is God so insecure that the Holy One just needs perpetual praise and reinforcement? What does it mean, really, to “praise God” night and day, and whatever can it mean to have rocks and hills “praise God”?
“Do we know what it means to praise? To adore? To give glory?” the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton asked in his book Praying the Psalms.
Praise is cheap today,
[Merton wrote in 1956]. Everything is praised. Soap, beer, toothpaste, clothing, mouthwash, movie stars, all the latest gadgets that are supposed to make life more comfortable–everything is constantly being ‘praised.’ Praise is now so overdone that everybody is sick of it, and since everything is ‘praised’ with the official hollow enthusiasm of the radio announcer, it turns out in the end that nothing is praised. Praise has become empty. No one really wants to use it…
[Merton says] [because we don’t want to “praise God,”] we go to [God] to ask help and to get out of being punished, and to mumble that we need a better job, more money, more of the things that are praised by advertisements. And we wonder why our prayer is so often dead.
Merton wrote that the psalms–these ancients songs of Israel’s worship– lead naturally to contemplation. He recommended choosing one at a time and making it the heart of one’s morning and evening meditation or prayer. (If you do that sort of thing). Spend time with it. “Praise the Lord, O my soul…and all that is within me, praise God’s holy name.” Morning and evening…maybe at noon. See what it does to you. Let it do its work on you.
When my father died, I decided to take on the Jewish practice of saying the Mourners’ Kaddish every day for one year after he died. It’s a prayer that never mentions the loved one’s name or anything really about death; it simply praises God, who made the universe and life as it is.
Let God’s name be made great and holy in the world that was created as God willed. May God complete the holy realm in your own lifetime, in your days, and in the days of all the house of Israel, quickly and soon. And say: Amen. May God’s great name be blessed, forever and as long as worlds endure. May it be blessed, and praised, and glorified, and held in honor, viewed with awe, embellished, and revered; and may the blessed name of holiness be hailed, though it be higher than all the blessings, songs, praises, and consolations that we utter in this world. And say: Amen. May Heaven grant a universal peace, and life for us, and for all Israel. And say: Amen. May the one who creates harmony above, make peace for us and for all Israel, and for all who dwell on earth. And say: Amen. [Prayers for a House of Mourning]
Over and over. Night after night. Some nights it was all I could to keep my eyes open. Some nights the words were meaningless. But it became part of me. It reminded me that life is as it is, that there is a deeper wisdom and blessing in life than always appears, that I and my father were part of something much greater than both of us, that deeper than my meager imagination was a harmony and radiance and love which permeates the universe. Praise God. Bless God’s holy name.
I’ve spoken before about thanksgiving–that if the only prayer you offer is “thank you,” that’s enough. It still is. But my friend and colleague, Marshall Hudson-Knapp–a former member of this congregation and pastor of the Fair Haven Congregational Church for the last 35 years or so–and I have had an ongoing conversation about the difference between thanksgiving and praise. Praise is slightly different from thanksgiving, Marsh maintains. Thanksgiving has a subtle thread that refers back to us. “Thank you, God, for this thing that somehow makes or has made my life fuller, more beautiful, more peaceful”–whether it’s God’s presence with me or the one whose well-being is on my heart, whether it’s for the food or the view or the company which nourishes me… Thanksgiving is always somehow self-referential.
But praise– as I’ve come to learn from Marsh–praise seems one-directional–it just goes out there. It’s just about God, not about me. “So does that mean God is ultimately transcendent,” I asked Marsh, “ultimately other?” “And inescapably imminent,” Marsh nodded. “Inescapably inside of us.” [This is the kind of conversation clergy have when they get together!] Praise, at the very least, gets us out of ourselves. It affirms that we are part of something much greater than ourselves. It’s not all about us. That’s why music is often a much more effective form of praise than words, not for God’s sake, [although maybe God prefers music] but for ours–it’s too easy for us to get caught up on the words, whereas music–if it’s truly great music– has the power to transport us beyond ourselves. And, some would argue, music speaks more truly the language of the soul.
Another way to get beyond ourselves is service, of course. Tending to another’s need instead of ruminating on our own is a time-honored way of healing mild depression or of just being in a “funk.” To praise God by serving another is a deeply wise practice, and sometimes may have more integrity than going through the motions of ritual or “worship”–
I hate, I despise your festivals,
[God says through the prophet Amos] and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (5:21-24)
“Every day I will bless you, [God], and praise your name forever and ever.” While praise takes us out of ourselves, it also connects us to our true Selves. In the act of praising, we enter into ongoing creative activity of God, we align ourselves with God’s being and with the ultimate truth of our lives. What we focus on is what we give our attention to; we might even say that we become what we focus on. God’s presence becomes larger in our awareness. We become more generous when we focus on God’s generosity; we become more compassionate when we meditate on God’s compassion. Rather than focusing on our faults, our blemishes, like the minister with the radiated facial deformity that Maria Sirois told us about, we can focus on what is beautiful and good and true within us. That doesn’t mean ignoring our faults and blemishes, it simply enfolds them into a larger picture.
In the praise psalms, praising the God of creation, the source of all abundance, Walter Brueggemann says that “Israel’s song of ‘exuberant trust’ praises the way God set things up, the way God established ‘a coherent, viable, life-giving, life-permitted order–a place for life.” (Cited by Kate Huey in Sermon Seeds, 11/10/13) “Exuberant trust”–I like that. “The Lord watches over all who love God,” the psalmist says in v.20, but then we read that jarring statement, “but all the wicked God will destroy.” Is this the God we trust in, exuberantly or otherwise?
“The happiness or prosperity of the righteous, “writes Clinton McCann, “is not so much a reward as it is their experience of being connected to the true source of life–God.” [That’s what praise does–it connects us to God.] Similarly [he says] the destruction of the wicked is not so much a punishment as it is the result of their own choice to cut themselves off from the source of life. The compassionate God does not will to destroy the wicked, but their own autonomy gives God no choice.” (Cited by Huey, op cit.) Or, I would say, “their own autonomy chooses for them their own result, which is disconnection to God, which is ultimately destruction.”
So we praise God….which connects us to God…which puts our lives in such a vast, mysterious, wondrous context that, in the midst of– and at the end of– such a life of praise, we can let go, knowing that we are connected by so many threads to God that nothing can separate us from the love of God, which we know in Christ Jesus. To praise God is to align ourselves with the Truth of the universe, including ourselves–which rocks and hills and trees automatically do, so they “praise God.” To praise God is to notice, be aware of, the wonder and beauty and mystery all around us, not so hard in this season now passing, but possible in every season. To praise God is to notice, be aware of, the wonder and beauty and mystery within–”I praise you, God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made”–how amazing that our bodies work the way they do! That they heal and re-route pathways, that they are built for pleasure and given pain to notify us that something’s wrong, that they are able to express love and caring and solidarity.
And even in the midst of times when praise seems the farthest thing from our minds– when we are confronted with injustice or cruelty or pain or illness or even death–the psalms provide models for us as well. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” one psalm well-known to Jesus begins. We can express any and all emotions in God’s presence–anger, despair, vengeance, grief– as many of the psalms do–but there’s always an “And yet,” or “still…I will praise you…my ancestors trusted in you…You are my God.” The threads of praise still connecting us.
Finally, Walter Brueggemann offers this guide to prayer–
…these words that tell our truth bind us to you, and to your passionate truthfulness. While the words linger sweetly on our lips, we are summoned beyond ourselves–as we always are–summoned to you, in awe and doxology, and exuberance. Summoned past ourselves to you…only to say…
Alleluia…God of heaven;
alleluia….still the same forever;
alleluia…slow to chide,
swift to bless;
alleluia…gladly all our burdens bearing.
When we sound these ancient cadences, we know ourselves to be at the threshold with all your creatures in heaven and on earth, everyone from rabbits and parrots to angels and seraphim…alleluia…angels teaching us how to adore you.
And then in the middle of our praise which causes us to float very light, we are jarred and sobered:
Dwellers [as we are] in time and space
In time–the beginning of winter, as so many will not have enough to heat their homes…alleluia;
In time– as flu season begins, and we cannot figure out a way to provide healthcare for all…alleluia;
In place–in the Philippines, where thousands are lost to wind and waves; in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, where cars explode and children are gassed…alleluia;
In place–in Washington, where the rich are given seats and the poor are forgotten; here, where escape and pleasure are sought through drugs, where lines form at the Kitchen Cupboard…alleluia;
That is how it is when we praise you. We join the angels in praise, and we keep our feet in time and place…awed to heaven, rooted in earth. We are daily stretched between communion with you and our bodied lives, spent but alive, summoned and cherished but stretched between. And we are reminded that before us there has been this One truly divine (at ease with the angels) truly human…dwellers in time and space. We are thankful for him, and glad to be in his missional company. Alleluia. Amen. (Brueggemann, Awed to heaven, Rooted in Earth, pp. 85-6)
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark