Wednesday, January 10, 2007

In praise of... praise

A new series

O Lord, open my lips,
      and my mouth will declare your praise.
      - Psalm 51.15
I used to think that praise, like love, was a zero sum game. I thought that in order to make sure God got the highest praise, I had to refrain from speaking too highly of anything else. Superlatives were therefore reserved for divine things. Saying too much about what was good was a threat to what was best.

But this needn't be the case. Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4.4). Whatever brings joy and life, whatever multiples love and fosters hope, whatever truly exists, is a gift from God for us. Gifts that were intended to evoke our thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4.3). When we praise a good thing, this needn't threaten God's glory, because if we are acknowledging a gift, then praise reflects positively on the giver. By praising the goodness of the gift, we praise the generosity of the giver.

Of course, since our first parents arrogantly asserted their independence from God, the world is now also cracked and good things that usurp their specific place and function become a threat to one another, like a cancerous growth in the body of the world. Nonetheless, the fundamental affirming of "good, very good" still applies, even when more must also be said.

I come from a Christian culture that can be very highly critical, and where initial appreciation of some limited goodness can all-too-often be merely a prelude to tearing something apart. We love to critique, to feel good about ourselves by pointing at flaws in others. I don't like this culture, nor the fact that I enjoy complaining as much as the next person. But perhaps even this negative reaction is itself an example of the culture. Instead, I want to learn to be a praiser - to see and love the good. To hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good (Romans 12.9).

So let us praise what is good.
Ten points for guessing why I selected this picture. There may be multiple reasons.
Series so far: I; II; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X. Full series links can be found here.

11 comments:

Rev Sam said...

Looks like the end of King's College Chapel; a place built for praising.

Agree with the post. One of the most liberating things for me from studying mysticism was understanding the apophatic/cataphatic cycle, ie that you can only get to an authentically praising silence (apophatic) after you have exhausted all the possible words of praise (cataphatic) you have in your soul. We should praise in the same way, and for the same reason, that birds sing.

michael jensen said...

Well, that's what we got given voices fer...
Praise is like the commentary on creation isn't it? We are all Richie Benaud's: what would the cricket be without his 'Marvellous'? (I hope this crass but apt analogy doesn't lower the tone too much)

charlescameron said...

This follows on from your reference to 1 Timothy 4:4.
Preaching on Sunday evening, I was referring to 'New Year Resolutions', contrasting them with the 'New Life Revolution'.
I referred to 1 Timothy 4:8, pointing out that physical training - often the theme of New Year Resolutions (better diet & more exercise) - is not to be dismissed. It isn't everything, but it is of 'some value'.

byron said...

Rev Sam - five bonus points for correct location, and another ten for one reason for its selection. There are more (and I'm sure there's more than I've thought of - you don't just have to guess what's in my head).

byron said...

Rev Sam - I often find praise works the other way round as well: that after the silence of wonder come words of praise again, and a knowledge of being sent out to praise in the presence of the congregation and the world.

Michael - that's why we've been given voices? yep. As for Richie Benaud, not sure our US friends will get that reference, but I like the idea of praise as commentary, though it is a kind of commentary that is very much part of the 'game' itself, rather than merely one step removed.

charlescameron - welcome to my blog and thanks for that verse, I've been thinking about it myself recently. Health is a good thing, but has to stay secondary, lest it self-destruct.

byron said...

Although "praise" and "worship" are not directly interchangeable, here and here are two stimulating posts on worship worth a look.

Christian A said...

I grew up in Cambridge...and didn't really appreciate how beautiful it was until I left.

Every year at Christmas, the BBC broadcasts "Songs of Praise" from the Chapel, and one year my whole primary school packed in there to make up numbers...I think the back of my head made it onto tv!

The photo and the post are provocative, because last time I was there I was showing an Australian friend round the town at dusk and we were discussing whether the beauty of the college chapels were themselves an instrument of praise to God or a distraction from a more down-to-earth, humble practice of daily worship.

Jonathan said...

Christian vaguely refers to a point that I had thought Byron might be making with the picture: that the beauty of the chapel is an example of something that could praised in a way that reflects positively on God.

Having said that, it doesn't really set the chapel or the picture apart from many other possibilities. I'd guess it's something to do with the sunset. It could be seen as representative of the transcience of the buildings in the foreground, but perhaps more relevant is the way it makes the buildings grow dim in contrast.

byron said...

Why not praise both building and sunset? Both are beautiful. Either can be a distraction or focus of praise. It all depends whether you stop with them or understand them as gifts and thank the giver. The "practical" question of whether beautiful (and expensive!) buildings are a blessing or liability to ministry must be secondary to praise.

Jonathan said...

You say either can be a distraction or focus of praise. To me, that is so to the extent that while I can see either of them in the photo, I have trouble seeing both at once. I thought that might have been somethig to do with why you chose the picture, but apparently not.

duncan a said...

Thanks for this post, Byron. A couple of years ago I did a very un-Duncanish thing - I threw a birthday party for myself. A couple of years prior to that and I would have thought that a really weird, mildly arrogant and 'not focussed on the gospel' kind of thing to do. But then I began to see that life was a gift itself, that gifts say more about the giver than the receiver, and that having a gang over for a barbie to celebrate it and praise God for it was a really good thing to do. And not just praise God for 'life' in the abstract, but for my life, for the many wonderful, concrete gifts God has blessed me with.