Last weekend I traveled with my daughter, Eleanor, to Cathedral of the Pines in Lutsen, MN. For those of you who haven’t been there, COP (for short) is adjacent to Lake Caribou. Surrounded by Superior National Forest, COP is approximately four miles inland from the north shore of Lake Superior and two hours south of the Boundary Waters. It is exquisitely beautiful.
While there, we participated in Mount Olivet’s Family Camp with approximately twenty other families with kids between the ages of three and twelve. So much of the weekend elicited joy: two nature hikes; morning kickball and afternoon swimming; and, a kids’ talent-show featuring eye-rolling riddles and proud feats of double-jointedness. Morning and evening chapel services framed each day, centering us in God’s love. The closing song, “I will not be afraid,” became Eleanor’s favorite. She sang it on our hikes, and in the bathroom, and on the way to bed after evening canteen. Often her three-year-old cousin joined in and added some twirling, witnessing to the face that praise on our lips (and in our hearts) is contagious.
This summer we have journeyed together, in these posts and in our radio program, Faith Alive, through “poems and prayers of the Bible.” We began with Psalm 1, a wisdom psalm, and we finish today with Psalm 150, a psalm of praise. Old Testament scholar Kathryn Schiffedecker calls this psalm a “doxology of doxologies.” She notes that the Hebrew word, hallel meaning “to praise” occurs thirteen times in six short verses:
1 Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
2 Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
3 Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
5 Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
What is praise?
Taken together, the psalms convey the full range of human emotion: fury, grief, bewilderment, dismay, gratitude, hope, patience, tranquility, curiosity, celebration and joy. While the psalms meander through these feelings, praise is the clear ending note, the crescendo of the Psalter.
A friend and colleague of mine, Reverend Lisa Larges, recently preached on Psalm 148, another psalm of praise. She asked this question: “What if this world is based on praise? What if praise is what makes it go?” She defined praise poetically in ways that resonate deeply with my own understanding and experience. She said, “Praise is nothing more, and nothing less than saying yes to what is right in front of us and all around us.” It is a “deep yes” to life.
All creation shouts “YES” to God and “YES” to the gift of life. The trees, hills, meadows, and valleys, the sun, moon, and stars, and a host of animals sing YES. Simply by being who and what they have been created to be.
Where does praise occur?
Praise happens, according to Psalm 150, in houses of worship, whether they be synagogues or churches or other informal gathering spaces. Praise also happens in the firmament, that is, in the heavens, in the sky, in the vast expanse of creation. Praise cannot be contained or restricted to particular times or places, and certainly not to buildings adorned with steeples. Though praise happens there, too. Put another way, praise happens in the sacred and the mundane, in places set apart as holy and in ordinary places—on the patio at the retreat center, in the shower stalls at Cathedral of the Pines, and in our own backyards.
Who is praised?
It goes without saying that God is the one who is praised. Psalm 150 celebrates God’s “mighty deeds” and “surpassing greatness.” Psalms of praise take two basic forms. The first form focuses on specific actions, God’s deliverance, healing, and restoration in particular times and places. The second form, like Psalm 150, focuses more on the character of God, or the being of God. Of course, God’s being and God’s action are fundamentally congruent, in contrast to us mortals. God’s is faithful and long-suffering, and God acts with lovingkindness toward all.
How does praise occur?
Psalm 150 emphasizes the “how” of praise. How are we invited to praise God? With musical instruments of all sorts: trumpet, lute, harp, tambourine, stringed instruments, hornpipes, clanging and clashing cymbals. This reminds me of KinderMusic, where adults and small children sit in a circle (and sometimes run around a room) playing an array of instruments with wild abandon. Kids exemplify praise as celebration and participation in the flow of life. Losing oneself (and thereby finding oneself) while making music is quintessentially praise.
Praise happens both musically and kinesthetically, that is, by moving our bodies. Worship services are filled with movement: processing, sitting, standing, and kneeling; raising hands and bowing heads; tapping feet and maybe some outright jumping in the aisles.
And finally, we praise God by breathing in and out—sometimes intentionally, mostly automatically. God breathes life into creation, and the Spirit is the Breath of life, so it is no surprise that everything that has breath “praises the Lord.”
The Promise of Praise
Praise flows from a wellspring of trust in God’s promises; it frequently grows hidden in the dark soil of pain and perplexity; and, it emerges when we least expect it. While commenting on Psalm 150, Schifferdecker quotes Eugene Peterson:
This is not a ‘word of praise’ slapped onto whatever mess we are in at the moment. This crafted conclusion of the Psalms tells us that our prayers are going to end in praise, but that it is also going to take awhile. Don’t rush it. It may take years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive at the hallelujahs….Not every prayer is capped off with praise. In fact most prayers, if the Psalter is a true guide, are not. But prayer, a praying life, finally becomes praise. Prayer is always reaching towards praise and will finally arrive there. If we persist in prayer, laugh and cry, doubt and believe, struggle and dance and then struggle again, we will surely end up at Psalm 150, on our feet, applauding, “Encore! Encore!”
Of all the genres of psalms, praise psalms appeal to me least. Largely because I grew up in a Christian tradition that framed “praise” as a “divine demand” (as law instead of Gospel): “You must praise the Lord! The Sovereign and Almighty God demands your praise. It is your duty to adore God. Praise God, or else!”
This is a theological error: a depiction of God as a narcissistic tyrant needing our obsequious adoration. This is far from the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, as the One who willingly empties himself of power and takes on the form of a vulnerable, poor Jewish baby.
God does not need our praise; but we need to praise God. When praise doesn’t bubble up naturally within us or when lament seems unrelenting, we still can choose to praise. We can place our attention on beauty in nature and praise God for the trees, birds, grass, and long-awaited rain showers; for new life, fresh water, healthy food, and deep breathing; and for friends and family, near and fear.
We also can place our attention on history and praise God for the faithfulness and lovingkindness evident in our personal stories and in the larger narrative of God’s care for all. We can sing praises, such as a favorite hymn, a Taize song, or one of the psalms. New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, said, “Sing these songs, and they will renew you from head to toe, from heart to mind. Pray these poems, and they will sustain you on the long, hard but exhilarating road of Christian discipleship. . . . God gives us these poems, as a gift, in order that through our praying and singing of them he may give us as a gift to his world. We are called to be living, breathing, praying, singing poems” (The Case for the Psalms, 35).
This blog is a shortened version of the Sunday radio program, Faith Alive, posted on Aug 29. To listen to the full program, visit Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church.
Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).