A Vermont farmer was sitting on the porch with his wife. As he sat there, he started realizing just how much she meant to him. And it was about time—they had been married for forty-two years; and she had been such a huge help to him, a tireless worker, and a devoted, loving mate. But this farmer was a man of few words and fewer compliments. As they sat there together, on the porch swing, finally he said to her, “Wife, you’ve been such a wonderful woman that there are times, I swear, I can hardly keep from telling you!”
Is that the way we are so often with our praise? We sit on our hands, when they feel like clapping. Suppress our emotions when we feel them rising. Stifle our voices when we think we might cry out in joy.
But praise is a natural and necessary human response to fully enjoy the object that is praised. When you’re watching the Yankees play and Miguel Andujar hits his first career grand slam—you can’t help yourself but to cry out in jubilation (unless you’re a Blue Jays fan).
When your child plays a wonderful piano recital that he’s been practicing on for months; or your daughters’ team wins the national lacrosse championship; or that beautiful new baby is born into your lives, you’ve got to express the joy you feel—out loud!
“If there is something laudable, make sure that it’s audible!” as one said.
If you have any doubts about that, just try to not express yourself the next time the Big Orange wins a close game. You quickly find out that in order to truly enjoy the moment or the event or the victory you have to exercise the freedom to express yourself with enthusiastic praise.
In fact, when I read that passage in Ephesians [4:30] which cautions, “…and don’t grieve the Holy Spirit, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption…” I equate that with repressing the joy of our salvation. Preventing ourselves from lifting up heart, spirit and voice in unfettered praise.
In Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis wrote, “It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley or unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with.”[i]
One Sunday morning after the worship service, a woman was greeting the pastor and thanked him for the encouraging sermon he had just preached.
The pastor replied, “Why, you don’t have to thank me; just praise the Lord.” “Well, I thought about that,” said the woman, “but it wasn’t quite that good.”
Praise is the natural, spontaneous benediction to that which is glorious.
St. Augustine said, “The Christian should be an `Alleluia’ from head to foot.”
First of all, because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. But also because we are creatures created in the divine image of a Creator whose Spirit of Exuberant Joy simply could not be contained; but rather spontaneously exploded (ala the Big Bang) into the glorious manifestation of all that is.
We were created to praise!
Richard Netra, who designed Robert Schuller’s famous Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, adhered to an architectural philosophy called “Bio-Realism.” And he saw similarities, in that philosophy, with the way human beings were designed. Netra observed, “The human was designed and engineered to be a `spiritual creature’; to receive and send spiritual signals, and messages to the Creator Himself. So our eyes and ears and nose and skin were intended to be sources to pick up sensations that would bring about processes whereby we could think, feel, hear, and . . . CREATE!”
And, when you think about it, the ability to create something of beauty – whether we’re talking about a church, or a song, or a poem, or a painting, or a flower garden, or a fresh loaf of newly baked bread, or a precious new life – is the purest form of praise. Because it is that very creative form of praise which most profoundly connects us with both our Creator and creation. We are, in essence, joining with our Creator in that joyful creative process.
God created us with the inherent capacity to be awed by creation, and a spiritual instinct to respond with creative praise. And isn’t it true that such joyful creative work is never quite complete until we are able to share it with others—to received, perhaps, the benediction of their praise?
In last week’s sermon, we reminded ourselves that – after six days of creating – God took a break from that divine work, to survey all that he had done and declare: “This is good!” God created human beings in his own image so he could have someone to share the joy with.
Jesus, in his farewell address, told his disciples, “I’ve share these all things with you that my joy may be your joy also—so that your joy might be complete.” [John 15:11 paraphrased] `That all may glorify God together.’
And so the sacred cycle of praise goes on.
The Franciscan philosopher Bonaventure spoke of God as the One “whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
He said, “The magnitude of things . . . clearly manifests . . . the wisdom and goodness of the triune God, who by power, presence and essence exists uncircumscribed in all things.” Thus, concluded Bonaventure, “Whoever, therefore, is not enlightened by such splendor of created things is blind; whoever is not awakened by such outcries is deaf; whoever does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb . . .”
Concluded Bonaventure, “Therefore, open your eyes, alert the ears of your spirit, open you lips and apply your heart so that all creatures may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honor your God.”
Reflecting on Psalm 148, the great Old Testament scholar Claus Westermann said: “It is praise which binds humans with all other creatures.” We are most inextricably bound with other creatures, and all of creation, through our praise of the Creator.
St. Isaac of Syria contemplated, “What is a compassionate heart?”
“It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation. On fire for all of humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for all that exists.”
“Praise is the duty and delight, the ultimate vocation of the human community; indeed, of all creation . . . ” wrote Walter Brueggemann. “We have a resilient hunger to move beyond self, to return our energy and worth to the One from whom it has been granted. In return to that One, we find our deepest joy.”[ii]
Praise, however, does not necessarily have to be boisterous. Praise is as varied as the multiplicity of creation.
While attending an Environmental Justice conference at Ghost Ranch in the high desert of northern New Mexico, Diane and I took a day trip to The Monastery of Christ in the Desert. We had to drive several miles along a very rustic dirt road along the Rio Chama through the Chavez Canyon before we came upon this beautiful Benedictine Abbey—set in midst the wilderness, nestled by canyon walls; a truly beautiful constellation of structures designed by the famed architect and furniture maker George Nakashima and created out of the same materials of the desert which surrounded it. There this monastic community strives to be in harmony with God and nature through hard work, prayer, the Eucharist, and a daily discipline of Gregorian chants. Diane and I were allowed to walk about the monastery fairly freely, as long as we didn’t disturb the monks at prayer (by trying to take their picture or something); and ended up, of course, in the gift shop where we listened to CDs and tried on handmade sandals.
That evening, as the sun set on the canyon rim of the Ghost Ranch campground, I plugged in my new Gregorian Vespers Chants CD; and along with the cicadas and the coyotes and the emerging stars, I discovered the haunting praise by which the monks communed with God, one another, and all of creation. And I shared their joy.
Jesuit priest and great Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins understood the beautiful harmony between humanity and creation. Even though he lived and worked in the worst slums of Britain – in Liverpool and Glasgow – he wrote this beautiful nature poetry, giving thanks and praise to God for creation. He spoke about – what he called the – “this-ness” of each created thing; what he described as its “inscape.” In one of his greatest poems he writes:
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God . . .
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
That capacity to open our eyes to see the wonder of creation is paralleled in the words of the modern poet Richard Wilbur; in a poem he wrote while sitting and watching a hatch of mayflies as they come up and rise and then float down in lines. He described it as if they were dancing to the caller of the dance. His last stanza is most astonishing:
“Watching those lifelong dancers of a day
As night closed in, I felt myself alone
In a life too much my own.
More mortal in my separateness than they—
Unless, I thought, I had been called to be
Not fly or star
But one whose task is joyfully to see
How fair the fiats of the caller are.”
The poet moves from being a mere watcher – or even a steward who is separate from creation – to one who is in profound harmony with God within God’s creation, through the encounter with these simple creatures – insignificant though they might seem and yet – glorious in their intricate createdness.[iii]
Let us also open our eyes to see that—we are not separate from—but rather intricately woven into God’s awesome creation; that we might care for all of creation even as we care for ourselves. Let us alert the ears of our spirit that we might hear the chorus of all created things praising God; each in their own unique and glorious way. And let us open our lips to join in that chorus with our own unique and glorious heartfelt praise.
“That all may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honor our God.”
[i] Lewis, C. S., Reflections on the Psalms, New York: Walker & Co., 1985, p. 95.
[ii] Brueggemann, Walter, Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology, Augsburg Fortress, 1988.
[iii] MacLeod, Calum I., “Praise and Creation,” May 6, 2007.