Psalm 105:1-5, from The Message
The poet Rilke promoted praise as the proper response to all manner of things: the antidote to life’s pain and suffering, the recipe for both endurance and triumph. A psalmist’s rendering of Rilke might sound something like our call to worship this morning:
Oh, tell us, people of God, what do you do? We praise. But the cruel, deadly ways of the world—how do you bear them? We praise. But the evils, suffering and injustice—how do you confront them? We praise. Your struggles and doubts, anger and loss—how do you handle them? We praise.
Now, I want to be clear here:
I don’t believe Rilke was prescribing denial as a way of getting through life. I don’t think he would have us pretend that evil doesn’t exist, that life doesn’t hurt sometimes, that illness, death, aging, and other forms of loss are all too real.
Rilke knew better than that. Jesus knew better than that. The psalmists knew better than that. All the great prophets and all the unknown martyrs and saints have known all manner of injustice, suffering, and loss.
And still they praised. And still they glorified God—not as a way of discounting or minimizing life’s trials or their own suffering, but as a way of staying grounded in and through it all. As a way of putting things in perspective. Because they could not keep from singing. Because they knew if they did not keep their eyes on the prize, if they did not continue to seek out and give thanks for whatever glimmer of light they could see in the darkness and whatever hope they could salvage from their weary, beaten-up hearts, then the evil, the death, the injustice, the suffering would win.
Sometimes this life-saving praise is the most simple thank you for the most basic blessing.
I think of Lucio Perez when he was in sanctuary with us, waking up every morning still separated from his wife and children, still confined to a small room in a church basement with no shower, his life still limited by nothing less than the power of the United States government. And yet every morning he would praise God for the gift of another day, the blessing of still being alive, the hope that had not yet been extinguished.
At other times praise is the much-needed balm in Gilead.
I think of one of the most powerful experiences in my life, a moment forever memorialized in a photograph that happens to be the featured image for the month of June in this year’s calendar from the Equal Justice Initiative and that, thanks to the generosity of Melanie Blood, hangs in my office.
The date was June 19, 2015—two days after nine Black people were gunned down by a white supremacist during Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Because I was in DC to offer Blessings to Go during my sabbatical, I was able to attend a memorial vigil for the nine killed at Metropolitan AME, the so-called “mother church” of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.
In the wake of unspeakable violence and loss, the service at Metropolitan AME began with at least 10 minutes of non-stop praise music. When poster-size photographs of the nine martyrs were brought to the front of the sanctuary, I and many others began weeping loudly—but the praise continued. And then, after numerous speeches and prayers, when it came time for the service to end, I watched the church’s pastor, a close friend of the murdered Mother Emanuel pastor, whisper in the ear of the music director. The pastor then announced that we would not sing the closing hymn printed in the bulletin. Instead, we would sing “It Is Well With My Soul.”
The brokenhearted pastor and his brokenhearted people knew something about the healing power of praise.
Even now, many of us here this morning are carrying our own griefs, wounds, fears, anger, and heartbreak. We worry about our children and grandchildren; we struggle to support partners and friends as they age and get sick; we grieve our own losses of health, hearing, and clarity; we agonize over climate change, racism, action against transgender folks, and the deep divisions that threaten our democracy and our communities. We struggle to get comfortable with discomfort, to get certain about uncertainty, to accept and welcome change, and to make peace with all that we cannot know or control.
I want to suggest this morning that praise—or, if you prefer, enjoyment, delight, or giving glory and thanks—is the first great spiritual practice. First in terms of the oldest, first in terms of the most natural, and first in terms of the most important.
Praise is important not because it changes our situation but because it has the potential to transform us, to shift our focus from our own losses and limitations to the unfailing love and tender mercy of the God who is good all the time, the God who loves us beyond our imagining, the God who walks with us and longs for our wholeness.
O, tell us, people of God, what do you do? We praise.
To the first great spiritual practice of praise, the psalmists and prophets add a corollary: remembrance. Our praise is informed and inspired by the memory of the great things God has done for us. Many of our psalms and other scriptures are, in essence, long and still incomplete lists of God’s mighty works, starting with creation, continuing on with deliverances both personal and communal, and often including great celebrations and sacred rituals.
Which brings me to The List. A partial accounting of just some of the amazing trials God’s grace has brought you through, the blessings you never could have imagined, the outcomes you could have neither planned nor predicted, the ways made out of no way.
You do have such a list, don’t you?
If not, may I suggest that you begin creating one as soon as possible. It’s easy to confuse this list with counting our blessings or keeping a gratitude journal and, while the list I’m speaking of is different than those more common practices, there’s really no way to go wrong here. The list I’m speaking of is simply grander in scope and more focused on God and grace. It’s less about the things we have than what God has brought us through, how God has rescued us from some seemingly bottomless pit, how grace has healed our wounds and brought us to a new place.
However long it takes you to put your list together—and it may well take quite a while—I can guarantee it will not be time wasted. Don’t feel that you have to make your list all at once, but I’m guessing that once you get started remembering God’s goodness, once you begin keeping a record of God’s graces and mercies in your life, the memories will start flowing. Keep a pen or pencil handy so that you’re able to jot down the precious memory that surfaces as you’re brushing your teeth.
Then, when times are hard, turn to your list. When God seems absent, consult your list. When life feels overwhelming and the future foreboding, dig out your list. When prayer feels impossible, recite your list.
And then wait and watch as the praise bubbles up. Taste and see that God is good. Know that whatever hard thing is happening in your life, grace will—once again—bring you through.