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Easter 2: Praising God

15 April 2007
O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. Psalm 34:3

God doesn't need our praise. As C S Lewis said in 'The Problem of Pain':

A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, 'darkness' on the walls of his cell.

So why are we told throughout the Bible that we must praise Him?:

There are two kinds of people who have to be told endlessly how wonderful they are: the pathetically insecure, and the insufferably arrogant. The insecure must be told how great they are lest they collapse. The arrogant must be told lest they turn nasty. But is God like either of these - is He insecure or arrogant? Today's psalm was one of many devoted to praising God again and again. Indeed, the author of the 'Benedicite' is so keen on the idea that he urges whales and cattle to praise God. How can a cow praise God, when a cow doesn't even know she's a cow? If this weren't enough, he appears to approach the ridiculous when he urges 'showers and and heat' to praise God.
Professor Victor Shepherd

If we are to make any sense of this, we have to begin with the whole idea of enjoyment or delight. Let us think for a moment about our attitude to anything we enjoy, anything at all. What we enjoy, we praise. Our delight in anyone or anything overflows naturally into praise.

And we rarely praise something simply because we happen to like it ourselves; we praise believing that praise is fitting. We praise the work of Shakespeare or Mozart just because we know that our praise is not misplaced: we feel that what we admire deserves our praise.

What we praise ourselves we implicitly recommend. When I tell you enthusiastically how much I enjoyed the latest novel by Ian McEwan, I am urging you to read it and discover his literary genius yourself. No one ever says:
I read the most marvellous book last night and I know you will hate it.

But, to revert to the psalmist who has found his life so enlarged by God that his mouth overflows with praise. He invites us: 0 taste and see that the Lord is good. You can't imagine him saying I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, but you're bound to find him as vile as hydrochloric acid. Whatever we praise we commend to others. Someone else's praise of what we have come to enjoy magnifies our own enjoyment.

Another aspect of praise - you must have noticed that people who are grumbling, miserable spoilsports have no word of praise for anything or anybody. They find so little enjoyment in life, so little that delights them, that they have lost the capacity of praise, since praise flows naturally from enjoyment and admiration. On the other hand, those who readily find the good in anything or anyone are invariably the most delighted and delightful of people.

So, no, God is neither insecure nor arrogant. The reason He wants us to praise Him is not for His sake, but for ours. W H Auden knew how important it was for each of us to learn how to praise:

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
'In memory of W.B. Yeats'

Real praise finds it hard to breathe today. We are in a culture of increasing distrust and cynicism. There is much to distrust, it's true, but this atmosphere is extremely corrosive. Imagine sitting down to a meal with a group of friends, and then being joined by a cynical person who loves no person, place or thing. What power such a person has! Praise, like everything that comes from an innocent heart, withers and shrivels up in an atmosphere of cynicism. When cynicism is spread very thinly on a decent person its name is irony. There are very many writers and commentators today who would be ashamed to praise anything in a straightforward way; instead they come sideways at it, with a mortal dread of appearing naïve. To praise is to go out of the ego. It is to go beyond the tight package of the self.
Donagh O'Shea

One of the problems is our culture. Hindus readily say Hare Ram or Hare Krishna, Muslims say Allahu Akbar at the drop of a hat and even in Austria, when total strangers pass each other in the street, they say Grüsse Gott, or God is Great. But it is hard to imagine Anglo-Saxon Protestants doing this.

It is easiest and most natural to praise God in moments of exhilaration, perhaps at the beauties of the physical world, perhaps on hearing good news:

Something of God...flows into us from the blue of the sky, the taste of honey, the delicious embrace of water whether cold or hot, and even from sleep itself. The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.

C S Lewis 'Reflections on the Psalms'

But praising God even in our darkest hours can also be a reassurance and a source of comfort:

I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall make her boast in the Lord: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad. Psalm 34:1-3

It is St John, living in unspeakable hardship in exile on the island of Patmos, who cries:

And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein saying, 'To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever'.

So many of our hymns have praise as their theme, often beginning at the first line:

Praise, my soul, the King of heaven!...Praise with us the God of grace!

Praise the Lord, ye heav'ns, adore him! Praise him, angels in the height!

Praise to the Holiest in the height, and in the depth be praise!

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!

But I am falling into the trap, like the psalmist, of making lists. Let us end by saying together:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise him, all creatures here below.
Praise him above, ye heavenly host,
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Thomas Ken

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