Praise: A Modern Possibility?
by William R. Matthews (May / June 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 3)
Why we have a hard time praising, why we should praise, and what praise consists of
Colored by the morning sun streaming through the stained glass windows, I sit in church moved by the harmony of organ and choir and congregation singing:
Praise, my soul, the King of heaven;
To his feet your tribute bring.1
In the Paradise section of his Divine Comedy, Dante describes heaven as a place of pure love, poured out from God to human souls then back in praise and gratitude from human souls to God.2
But before that experience, the poet has journeyed through hell and purgatory: doubt, sin, repentance, and forgiveness. How am I, a living human creature, supposed to praise my creator in church or as now in a doctor's waiting room?
Praise wells up from thankfulness for the way others have enriched our lives. It completes the transaction between giver and receiver. Praise is empty if it does not acknowledge this personal impact. As a parent, I sense when a teacher praises my child without meaning it. It's like the muttered "enjoyed it" to the pastor about his sermon. The words mean little if they do not express how deeply I have been touched. Otherwise, better to remain still.
Daniel W. Hardy and David F. Ford in their book Praising and Knowing God write: "Praise takes one out of oneself into enjoyment of God, and into appreciating and sharing his desires for the world. The focus is on God, his will, and other people, and there is a liberation from concern for self."3
I turn to worldly experience to learn to praise. I praise my wife simply for being the human being she is and out of wonder that she loves me. I praise my sons, their wives, and my grandchildren for the fine works of art they are creating of their lives. I praise my pastor, my doctor, my friends. I praise the young man who remodeled our bathroom with skill and grace.
Perhaps God is saying, these praises are enough. Your job as a human being is to perceive and rejoice over snow on the trees, the cool breeze in the summer evening, love's warm glow, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the day lily in the grassso many sparks of Me in the universe, if you could only see!
Why We Don't Praise
C.S. Lewis suggests that three things keep us from adoration and praise: inattention; "How easy to be caught up into the whirl of life and miss the overtures of Divine Love...We cannot adore when we do not see"; the kind of attention "We see a sunset and are drawn into analysis rather than doxology"; and greed "we are asking for more than God is pleased to give."4
Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek says, "When we practice gratitude, a time will come when we find ourselves saying, not 'please,' but 'thank you."5
Sometimes we fail to praise out of suspicion that the other hasn't done enough for us to deserve it. A wife or husband is never loving enough, a child never obedient enough, or a boss never accepting of our work enough.
|Theophanies are rare. The challenge is to praise in spite of rarity. How often, wrapped in the thick winter scarf of ego, am I blind to what the world wants to show me about God? I am to praise God because God created me and the universe into which I was born. But how often in pride I think I am responsible for my own fate.|
At other times, we don't recognize God's bounty, and deep love and concern for our lives. Over the years I have asked people, "Have you ever had a direct experience of God?" How few "know" God as an important element of their days. I pray perfunctorily, do devotions and good works, attend church and serve therebut seldom feel the presence.
This reality may be particularly true of Lutheranismwhich has absorbed the coldness of Northern Europe from which it sprung. How much gayer are the faiths of the South, how much more festival and song, processions and dancing before the Lord.
But in either place, theophanies are rare. The challenge is to praise in spite of rarity. How often, wrapped in the thick winter scarf of ego, am I blind to what the world wants to show me about God? I cannot praise what I refuse to see.
Because God Creates
In spite of these difficulties, I am to praise God because God created me and the universe into which I was born. But how often in pride I think I am responsible for my own fate. My editor publishes my essay, a student praises my teaching, and an elderly friend is thankful for my help: all these I have earned.
Seldom do I refer them back to the great God through which all things are possible. God has given me more than 80 years of vibrant life: a life which, I am still to learn, is not minebut for which I am free to decide it, is God's own.
God never gives up searching for the lost sheep; I, lost, in turn must trust and praise my shepherd. It is a two-way relationship. Because God made me and proclaimed all creation good, God loves me. It's as simple as that. God understands I don't love a lot of my creations, even though they were made through him. Yet how generous of God to love and respect his creations. But God had to. God made me.
Like the book shelf I construct in my shop, it may be a bit askew, a bit rough. But I made it; thus I love it and use it in spite of its imperfections. That God accepts me on terms like these is enough for constant praise. Shame on me if I don't.
Like praying, I need to praise as I can, not as I can't. I need to start praising God's small gifts: a child's laugh, a friend's appreciation, or the psalm I read during devotions this morning. Begin with them, all will be added unto you is the formula. "Glory be to God for dappled things," wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins:
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and piecedfold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.6
Sincere praise for this gloriously warm December day in Virginia is enough. Years ago J.B. Phillips wrote a book entitled Your God Is Too Small. I'm beginning to believe that God is in tinier things than I thought.
Instead of comparing myself to those saints who have long been sure they were inheriting the kingdom, I have to accept where I am now with hope. I will never be another Augustine, or Luther. Indeed, I don't want to be. The mountain is awesome sitting there. Terrified of heights, I have no desire to climb beyond the first or second meadow. Gazing upward in wonder from the foot is enough.
I comfort myself by conceiving that God is to be found more in the valley than on the summit; that is where the bulk of the people of God are. Living things are rare above the tree line.
The Surprising God
"God must be allowed to surprise us," says Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh.7 Hardy and Ford advise: "Coping with God and his generosity is the central task of Christian faith, and what is given stretches all capacities...In a faith which has the 'foolishness of the cross,' a 'lamb on the throne' and the 'justification of the ungodly' there must be an appreciation of upside-downness, and many ways of joining in the laughter of the resurrection."8
That is the heart of Jesus' parables of the kingdom. In this paradoxical spiritual life of ours, the less I strain the more I attain. I am moved to think sufficient a simple "Praise you, Father" repeated as a mantra all the day long to the Lord of understanding love. Emily Dickinson wrote wisely: "So instead of getting to heaven at last,/I'm going all along!"9
Tilden Edwards in Living in the Presence suggests that Jesus' rhythm was "withdrawal and community." "The current moment is not empty and impoverished, something to be skipped over on the way to some idyllic future. God's presence is here now, everywhere." Edwards advises I keep a rhythm of what he calls sabbath and ministry, a life which moves from one room to another recognizing that God is in both places. Edwards means joyful praise for the God who is ever-present followed by the praise through hard work for othersministry, vocation.10
Without mundane moments, we could not savor ecstasy. The vision of heaven as a realm of constant praiseemotion at the peakseems saccharine. Human beings need ups and downs, and life requires much grinding effort at the ordinary. The baby's diapers have to be changed, the garbage taken out. Not much of heaven here. Still, even these tasks need to be done as praise. That is the most important lesson.
All things speak to us about God, and God can be praised through all things. This is a blessing because outside the creation God remains to meas in language itselfan abstraction. One cannot praise an abstraction; no more does the abstraction "love" contain what I feel for my wife, my sons, and their families.
The highest praise for a Christian is for the reality of Jesus who teaches us who God is through God's creation. Jesus it is who gives human breadth and warmth, depth and substance to our praise of the Father.
William R. Matthews is emeritus professor of English, Augustana College, Sioux Falls, South Dakota and a writer.
1. Lutheran Book of Worship, 549.
2. Mark Musa, ed., The Portable Dante (New York: Penguin, 1995).
3. Daniel W. Hardy and David F. Ford, Praising and Knowing God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985), p. 84.
4. Quoted in Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), pp. 85-6.
5. Ibid. p. 89.
6. Poems and Prose (New York: Penguin, 1985), p. 30.
7. Ibid., Hardy and Ford, p. 71.
8. Ibid., pp. 71, 73.
9. Collected Poems (Phiadelphia: Running Press, 1991).
10. Tilden Edwards, Living in the Presence (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 102-3.