January 23, 2011

“Psalms of Thanksgiving: Living Praise”

1 Chronicles 13:1-8
Psalm 147
Matthew 19:13-15

Praise ye the Lord, hallelujah! Everybody praise the Lord! (sung, with congregation joining in)

Psalms of praise and thanksgiving are often the most popular, familiar, and well-loved of all the psalms. They are the prayers that appear most often in the lectionary and in the Christian church’s great festival Sundays. And if you flip through the book of Psalms, you’ll find a praise psalm within seconds. There are lots of them! And many of them have been set to music, so you can find lots of them in our hymn books as well.

In some ways, psalms of praise and thanksgiving are simple. They express the kind of thoughts and feelings that seem appropriate for church. They tell of God’s goodness and power and love. They say thank you to God for all the good things God has done.

Psalms of praise fit right in with our expectations of what worship should include, and they seem appropriate for all of our celebrations. We stand, we sing, we read, we sit. Praise done orderly and respectfully, just like the way we pray.

Praise ye the Lord, hallelujah! Everybody praise the Lord!

Our ancient ancestors had a different way of praying, and they also had a different way of singing God’s praises. From the book of Chronicles, we heard a short description of what their praise was like: David and all Israel were dancing before God with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets.

Imagine… if when the organ or the piano began to play for a hymn in church… imagine the whole congregation leaping to your feet… throwing your arms in the air… and dancing and singing and praising God with all your might. Imagine praising God with so much energy and enthusiasm that when you’re finished, you’re ready to lie down for a nap!

As a minister, I can’t just suggest that we all try praising God like that… with all our might. It’s something that you’ve got to feel like doing. And perhaps as Presbyterians, we don’t focus very much on feeling in church. We usually get stuck doing a lot of good thinking instead, and forget to let ourselves feel very much.

One of the most valuable things about the Book of Psalms is that they invite us to feel. We read the words of our ancestors in faith as they poured out their hearts to God with every emotion known to humanity. Next week we will talk about the psalms of lament… the prayers of pain and anguish and complaint addressed to God. The psalms of lament can give us an outlet to unleash our pain and hurt before God’s throne, and to know that God will accept us no matter what we are feeling.

Likewise, the psalms of praise invite us to unleash all our joy and thanksgiving before God as well.

Praise ye the Lord, hallelujah! Everybody praise the Lord!

I wonder if this ability to praise with abandon is part of why Jesus told his disciples that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the little children. Have you ever watched a child when she or he is ecstatically happy? I remember watching a video of one of the young members of our congregation when she found out that she was going to be a big sister. It was amazing!

As soon as she understood that there was a baby growing inside her mother, as soon as she knew that she was going to be a big sister, she let out a shriek of joy. And that wasn’t it. She laughed, and jumped up and down, and stood on her head, and enjoyed the moment. I can’t remember the last time I had a reaction quite like that to even the most wonderful news!

Yet it is exactly that type of emotional unleashing that is embedded in praise.

Praise ye the Lord, hallelujah! Everybody praise the Lord!

One author suggests praise is the speech of the Kingdom of God. In Jesus Christ, we have seen that we live in the kingdom of God, but that the full kingdom is still to be realized. Praise belongs in both places, but it will reach its full-throated celebration only at the great banquet of God, where all find a place at the table of grace and the cries of sorrow are no more.

Praise will ultimately replace all the other forms of speech in the psalms, for praise is the language of God’s kingdom. We can whirl and dance and sing and praise like children when all the burdens of life are lifted. Until then, we can praise God with all our might, even if our joy is fettered by our life lived in this world.

Sometimes praise doesn’t come easily for us. Sometimes the challenges and trials of life seem ready to overwhelm us… and even if we come to church in those times, we may find it hard to praise.

But I’m reminded of a story that I heard on the news recently. CBC was doing a story about Haiti one year later, one year after the devastating earthquake. The reporter interviewed a doctor who had been working there in the midst of the crisis, and the doctor shared about two women who had been treated in the clinic… women who each needed to have a limb amputated because of severe injuries.

And as the amputations were taking place… right next to each other, these two women sang. They sang songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. They sang with all their might until they were through the crisis.

The apostle Paul instructed the Thessalonian Christians to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, [and] give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Praise ye the Lord, hallelujah! Everybody praise the Lord!

Yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to visit some of our church members who are at St. Paul’s Hospital at the moment. Finally, the Norovirus quarantine was lifted for most of the hospital, and PRAISE GOD! visitors were allowed to come into the hospital again.

Sometimes when a minister goes visiting in the hospital, she ends up saying a lot of prayers for healing and strength and peace and hope. But yesterday’s visits were filled with prayers of thanksgiving and praise.

First I went up to the ICU to visit Merv Cole. But when I got there, I discovered that he wasn’t. They had just moved him onto another ward for people who are less critically ill. That was a good sign, and a reason to praise.

Then when I got to his room, I saw how much he had improved since before the quarantine. As soon as I walked into the room, I heard his voice greeting me and I smiled. No, I didn’t shriek with joy or jump up and down, but Merv’s voice alone was reason to give thanks and praise to God.

You see, Merv was struck by a sudden and terrible illness that caused total paralysis in mid-December. He spent weeks not being able to move, with a machine breathing for him. Day by day, there have been small improvements, and Merv is on the long road to recovery. But it was only a few days ago that he had improved enough in his ability to breathe for the tracheotomy to be removed.

Next, I went to see Ann Van Huizen, who greeted me with a smile and a joyful hug. Ann seemed to have improved as well. She seemed more energetic, and we had a good conversation. But what struck me the most was her ability to keep on praising and thanking God in the midst of her situation.

She thanked God for the hospital. She thanked God for caring nurses. She thanked God for the room she was in with a view of the hallway where she could watch all the people coming and going and working nearby. Now, she didn’t thank God for the “mush” that was to be her dinner that evening, but she was thankful for the ice cream, and she smiled.

It’s unusual for me to share about hospital visits like this. But both Merv and Ann indicated that I could share with you about how they are doing. And I hope that their stories today will inspire you to praise and thank God yourself. Give thanks to the God that gave them life and breath. Give thanks to the God who was with them through their struggles. Give thanks to the God who is walking with them on the road to recovery.

Praise ye the Lord, hallelujah! Everybody praise the Lord!

As you know, I love to sing. And joyful songs of praise are some of my favourites. When we start to sing a song of praise, I can easily get lost in the music. I can forget about my worries and the things that are stressing me out. I can use my voice, and my breath, and my energy to make a joyful noise, to make a beautiful sound to praise God.

I’ve heard others say that’s why they love to sing in the church choir… because they get a whole hour and half every week to sing praise to God, and it feels good!

But the hymns and psalms that we sing and say on Sunday mornings are not our only opportunities to enter into that praise. And we don’t have to join the choir in order to praise God throughout the week (though of course, the choir would certainly welcome some new members if you want to give it a try!)

In fact, we are invited to pour out our praise and thanksgiving to God in everything that we do throughout the week. I believe that God desires and deserves our praise… but not only with our words and our songs… God also hopes that our daily lives with reflect our praise and thanksgiving.

We can praise God by caring for God’s creation – by doing our best to reduce, reuse, and recycle, by using less energy, conserving water, and encouraging our governments and industries to care for the environment as well.

We can praise God by considering the poor and the marginalized in our society – by supporting people who are in desperate need, and advocating for those who are suffering from injustice.

We can praise God by treating everyone we meet with respect – by pausing to remember that each one is a child of God, and giving our neighbours the benefit of the doubt.

We can praise God by caring for our family members with diligence and love – by spending time with our children, by visiting our aging relatives, and by valuing the time we have to be with our spouses or our siblings or our cousins.

We can praise God by doing our daily work for the glory of God. Whether we are writers or chemists, bus drivers or doctors, whether we work in retail, in food service, in business, whether we are paid for what we do, or whether we volunteer, we can offer up our work as our praise. We can thank God for the energy and intellect that God has given us to do our work, and we can offer that work back to God.

Praise ye the Lord, hallelujah! Everybody praise the Lord!

As we celebrate the Psalms of Praise and Thanksgiving today, may God give us the courage to unleash our joy and thanksgiving, and to praise God with all our might, both in our worship and throughout our lives. Amen.