praise

Our text for last Sunday was Psalm 19:1-6. The psalm is too good to miss, so here it is:

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.
 

Thoughts after the jump.

I love this psalm. Love it. The second half is good too. It focuses on God’s law but since this is the season of creation, we’re looking at just the first six verses.

As we jump in, let’s make sure we understand what we read. There are two basic images the poet is working with.

First, there’s a description of the sky praising God. The sky’s praise pours forth, like speech, except of course, it’s the sky: it can’t talk. Even so, the sky’s praise is heard to the end of the world.

Then there’s the description of how the sun praises God. It’s like the sun rises each day with the joy of someone about to get married, or as if the sun runs its course each day like an athlete running his morning miles. It’s this joy that lights up the whole world.

This is how the sky and the sun praise God. Ceaselessly, effortlessly, joyfully.

The question behind all this, I think, is: could we praise God like that, too? Ceaselessly, effortlessly, joyfully?

The poet behind this psalm is not the only one to wonder about that. Dozens of spiritual guides in our tradition have come to the conclusion that we can praise God like this and, not only can, but are made for that.

The Westminster Catechism asks: What is the chief end of man? and answers: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

The claim is that we, like the sky, like the sun, were made to give praise. God created us with a purpose. That purpose is to give praise to God.

Now, if you’re a thinking sort of person, you may have at least two objections to this bit of orthodoxy.

First, if God made all of creation to glorify God that seems awfully self-serving.

And second, even if this praise stuff is great, what does it have to do with real, daily life?

Let’s take the first objection first.

If our God-given purpose in life is to praise God, what does that say about God? Does it mean that God is an ego-maniacal, narcissistic being? Maybe. I don’t really think so, but like all questions about the ultimate nature of God, we won’t get a complete answer this side of the grave.

When it comes to this objection, I wonder if there’s more to be gained by asking the opposite question. Instead of asking: what does it say about God that we’re created to praise God, what if we ask: what does it say about us that we’re created to praise God?

I wonder if that’s what folks from the psalmist to the writers of the Westminster Catechism and all sorts of other spiritual teachers were trying to get at. What if this is not a statement about God’s wants/needs/desires, but about us.

Could it be that the underlying truth here is that we are more alive, more fully human, just plain more when our hearts and our heads and our spirits are turned upward and outward in praise?

In her book Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor talks some about the spiritual practice of reverence. Reverence is a big part of praise. She suggests that reverence is about knowing our place in the world. It’s the attitude of looking out at the ocean or up at a mighty mountain and gasping at the grandeur and knowing, deep down in our bones, how big it all is, and how not so big we are.

Praise, or reverence, the spiritual practice of being amazed, helps us know our place in the world and value both all that is bigger and older and more than we are, as well as all those things we might think are less than. Praise helps put things in perspective, allows gratitude to rise to the top, and lets anxiety fall away. I think that’s one way it helps us be more awake.

The practice of giving praise is not just for the spiritually advanced among us. It’s good practice during times of doubt or for those of us who have trouble believing in God. The practice can be very simple. Something catches your eye—maybe the mountain at sunset, or a hummingbird at a neighbor’s window, and that feeling of awe rises up. When you feel that praise well up inside, you can simply say to yourself, or even out-loud if you’d like, Wow, God made that. Or, if the G-word gives you fits, tying you up in theological knots, you could just say, Wow, Love made that, or even simply, Wow, that was created.

This may not feel very spiritual. It may just seem silly, but with time, say a few months, our eyes begin to change, and we will begin to see the fingerprints of our Creator all over. It won’t untie whatever philosophical knots you’re in, and it won’t solve all your rational problems about God, but it changes our hearts and the quality of attention that we give the world. But this kind of gut-level devotion is at least as good, maybe even better, than any sort of logical faith we might reason our way into.

So when we think about praise not in terms of why God wants it, but in terms of what it does to us, we find that it helps us know our place in the world, and can even help us know God.

But there’s still the question of real life. We can’t just go mooning around looking at flowers all day. There’s work to do. Gutters have to be cleaned. Email has to be answered. Who has time or energy for this kind of thing? How does this work in real life?

The psalm gives us good advice here. Look at the sun. It dawns like a groom ready to meet his bride. It runs its course with joy each day.

Now notice this: the sun is doing nothing new as it praises God. There’s not a new action item on the sun’s to do list. The sun just rises and sets day after day after day. It is not what the sun does, but how, that gives praise to God.

In running its race with joy, the sun lives a life of praise. And, even more—warms the whole world.

Let’s bring this down to earth, into our lives.

At the risk of stressing everyone out who has to work a Monday-Friday job, imagine for a moment what tomorrow is likely to hold for you. Waking up to an alarm. Rushing through breakfast. Dealing with the and frustrations and annoyances and drudgery of school or work or chores. The mid-afternoon exhaustion. The final sprint of getting home, getting dinner, getting ready for bed so you can do it again the next day. Even you aren’t in a time in your life where you work for pay on Mondays, think about whatever it is tomorrow will hold—not enough to do, long hours of care-taking, household chores, reading and walking, whatever it is—call it to mind.

And imagine doing it simply, plainly as praise. Could there be an inclination of the heart, a tilt of the attitude that turns even drudgery into thanksgiving and praise? God, I hate unloading the dishwasher, but thank you for giving us enough to eat, and plates on which to eat it, and a machine to clean it for us. God, I hate traffic, but wow, look at all the different people you made; it’s kind of amazing. Whatever work we’re called to, if done well, with integrity and kindness can be a form of praise for the wonder and incredible complexity of our God-given lives.

Doing this all day long is probably more than we can hope for right away. But from time to time, as we start a task, we can ask how could I praise God with this. Doing so will change our relationship to our tasks, and to the people around us.

It might even be, that, if we practice these habits of praise, we will find one day we are shining like the sun.

The desert fathers and mothers were hermits and spiritual guides in the very early days of Christianity. The story is told of one hermit going to see another, older father. He said to him, Father, as far as I can, I say my daily daily prayers, I fast a little, I meditate a little, I live in peace, and as far as I can I purify my thoughts. What else can I do? Then, the story goes, the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven; his fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

If our lives are centered in praise, they can catch fire. Like the sky, like the sun, they can burn with joy, with praise, with ceaseless love. This, friends, is what we were made for—to catch fire and shine with love and praise.

Contemporary poet Kathy Galloway put it well. Will you join me in reading her prayer that springs from Psalm 19? It’s printed in your bulletin.

The sky does it simply, naturally
day by day by day.
The sun does it joyfully.
like someone in love,
like a runner on the starting line.
The sky, the sun,
they just can’t help themselves.
No loud voices, no grand speeches,
but everyone sees, and is happy with them.
Make us like that, Lord,
so that our faith is not in our words but in our lives, not in what we say but in who we are,
passing on your love like an infectious laugh:
not worried, not threatening, just shining
like the sun, like a starry night, like a lamp on a stand,
light for life–
your light for our lives.

(from The Pattern of our Days, edited by Kathy Galloway)

by Sarah W. Wiles
September 23, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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