Scripture: Psalm 147
It was early on Thursday morning when I checked my email on my phone and yelped out loud “Oh my God!” and jumped in excitement. My mom who lives with Parkinson’s and lives with my family, on whose behalf I feel like I have felt like I’ve been playing tag with death for almost a year since COVID became a reality, had won the vaccine lottery. (We could talk about vaccine distribution by lottery, but that’s another sermon). I scheduled her time slot and called my wife and cried with relief. And then I told her I had to start working on my sermon on praise so I had to go. My wife didn’t grow up in church, but she just finished a contract editing online worship recordings for another UCC church and she promptly began to sing the Doxology – the song many churches sing as a prayer of thanksgiving. We sang together in joy, badly and without remembering all the words:
Praise God from whom all blessings flow! Praise God all creatures here below. Praise God for all that love has done. Creator, Christ and Spirit One. Amen.
It’s not a natural instinct for me to sing in praise these days – because it’s hard to find things to praise so far into a pandemic, so fresh off a tyrant leaving the proverbial throne, so deep into winter’s reign. And also because praise is not my go-to prayer language. This praise psalm generally leaves me with a case of Holy Envy. Have you heard that term? Christian writer Barbara Brown Taylor popularized it with her book by the name, but it comes from a Lutheran bishop in Sweden. When engaging in interfaith conversation, he said to always “make room for holy envy.”
I have a case of Holy Envy about the praise psalms like this one. One day I was having coffee with a friend of mine from my first pastoral internship. I had done the program through the Jewish Theological Seminary, a school across the street from Union Theological Seminary where I was studying in New York City at the time. I was the only Christian in my particular cohort. It was such a relief. I didn’t have to deal with all the Christian baggage that comes up for me engaging in cross-denominational Christian settings. Nobody was going to hint that I wasn’t Christian enough in my relationship to Jesus or spew homophobia dressed up in the drag of Christian theology. But what I didn’t expect was how much holy envy I would have of my Jewish colleagues. Which brings me back to my coffee date with my friend who grew up in an orthodox home and was then studying at a Reconstructionist school. This is the Jewish equivalent of growing up in a conservative Christian home and going to Unitarian Universalist seminary. Anyway, just as we sat down with fancy coffees in hand, my friend put her head down and mumbled something. I thought she was talking to me at first and then I realized she was praying. It was so brief I could have missed it. I asked her what she was praying and she told me about the prayer for food and drink.
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam shehakol niyah bidvaro.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, at whose word all came to be.
To have a prayer of praise for such a simple, small act, to acknowledge the source of everything? To have a ritual for such an every day moment as eating or drinking? I had and have holy envy. I also have none of her baggage of being MADE to pray all the time or her story of having to reclaim ritual for her own.
Then there is the praise tradition of the Black church. Oh my goodness. My friends, we got a taste of this tradition together at Lyndale in December of 2019 when Claire brought us the choir she toured with in South Africa. Do you remember that? There was not a body in the sanctuary that wasn’t clapping or tapping or outright dancing by the end of their singing. The Spirit was alive and alight in all of us. Their praise, their love of God, and the singing tradition so powerful. Oh to be carried away by the spirit each week, to be lifted from the confines of institutionally white Christianity’s hymns and welcomed into another realm of realness where the whole body is a vessel of praise. It felt so good. I had so much holy envy.
And then there is the passage we read for our call to confession/word of assurance from Zen Master Thich Naht Hanh: “A person who looks at the table and can see the universe is a person who can see the Way.” A person who can look at the table and see all the people and all the tools and all the elements of creation that were needed to make that table is seeing the web of interdependence in which we are all spun. And this too is a form of praise, to recognize our interconnection and belonging and right size among it all is to have humility and appreciation.
But what is OUR tradition of praise? What is mine? What is yours? Holy envy is not permission to appropriate. It’s permission to honor another’s tradition of holiness. And in doing so, enter more deeply into our own.
For those of us who come from institutionally white progressive church tradition, praise is generally not something which we with have fluency so it is no wonder we envy other traditions. We do gratitude, yes. Intellectual appreciation, absolutely. But praise? The Hebrew word used here in our psalm is one that can be translated also as “celebrate” or “shine a light” or make “foolish glory.” I think that last one is my favorite – make foolish glory. We’re not so good, culturally, at celebrating the Divine with foolish glory. We’re not so good at celebrating, period. We get so hung up on doing things right, on deconstructing ourselves, on our serious lineages of critique and theory. We forget the command to foolishly glorify God, to imperfectly celebrate, to humble ourselves by shining a light on the Divine.
Her delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor her pleasure in the speed of a runner;[a]
11 but the Holy One takes pleasure in those who fear them,
in those who hope in their steadfast love.
In other words, God is not asking us to be good at praise. God takes pleasure in our every gesture, song, poem and prayer of reverence, our every foolish leap of faith into her Love. It is in the risk of love, in the strengthening of the habit of attention – to the way the Divine is present in our healing, naming and claiming each and every particle of creation from the dust in our window sills to the dust of the stars, luring the grass from their cozy and buried seeds into the sunshine, feeding us all – it is in this noticing that we find our way to praise.
After all, as the modern psalmist Mary Oliver says, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
May we pause now to pay attention. Use the doorway of another tradition if it helps you come back to your own. Give thanks for the miracle of your coffee. Get curious about all the lives and resources that created the table in front of you. Listen to the soul pour out of another in song as we are about to do as we listen to one of my favorite Black church praise anthems based on another praise psalm. And then let yourself foolishly glorify God in whatever language your heart sings.