Thursday, July 29, 2010

How Pleasant and Fitting

During the summer, I’ve been leading a study of various Psalms in our Wednesday night meeting. Last night we looked at portions of Psalms 147, 148, and 150, and talked about praise. The arrangement of the Psalms (the prayer book of Israel and the church) makes clear that praise is where our prayers are leading all the time. The word psalms means praises, which sounds like false advertising once you dive into the book. For awhile it seems as if darkness is on every page: complaining and griping, moaning and groaning, doubt and despair, anger and vengeance, dark valleys and deep pits, weeping and wailing, and enemies hiding in the bushes ready to pounce like tigers on their prey. Book of Praises, you say? Somebody's got to be kidding!

But nobody's kidding. It is a book of praises. Just look a little closer. With the single exception of Psalm 88, every other psalm of lament and despair prays its way to hope and praise. Psalms begun with a deep awareness of sin, end with an equally deep awareness of the mercy of the Lord. Within the total collection of Psalms are five books of Psalms and each one, without fail and without exception, ends in a resounding chorus of praise. And the entire collection of Psalms concludes with praise and only praise. It begins in Psalm 145 as the psalmist uses the Hebrew alphabet to praise God from A to Z. And the last five psalms end a groundswell of praise to which Psalm 150 forms the exclamation point! "Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!" It's a book of praises all right.

And this arrangement is not some freak accident. The editors of the Psalms didn't gather all of them up, throw them in the air, and arrange them as they happened to fall back to the earth. They arranged them like this on purpose. They wanted all persons who love and follow God to know beyond any shadow of a doubt that ultimately, eventually, all prayer ends in adoration and praise. We may have to go through the darkness to get there; we may take a few shots from an enemy, be sick unto death, or feel like God has abandoned us for a season, but that just makes the light of praise that much brighter when we get there. No wonder the psalmist declares, "How pleasant and fitting to praise Him!"

Frederick Buechner helped me to see some years ago that praise is not so much about paying compliments as it is about paying attention. It’s about turning off the autopilot and taking off the blinders long enough to stop, look, and listen. It’s a simple thing really: just pay attention to what is going on around you.

That's exactly what the psalmists invite us to do in their psalms of praise. Watch, they say, how all nature gives back praise to the glory of God. In the psalms we hear the psalmist call forth sun and moon, fish and flocks, snow and hail, and a multitude of other natural things to praise the Lord. Watch and listen as nature gives forth its praise.

And listen to the language and spirit of God's people as they offer up their praise to Him. And everybody can get into the act, everybody from kings to peasants, from rickety old folks to kids with kool-aid mustaches. Listen to their prayers. Feel the rhythm of their songs. Get a pulse on their spirits. Just stop for a minute and pay attention.

If you do that, if you put a frame around some of the moments of your own life and look at them, you will enjoy God in new ways and find avenues of praise in almost anything. In looking back over the last couple of weeks, I did just that. I purposely put frames around moments. And it was a rewarding experience. It’s always a rewarding, soul-deepening experience. Whenever I make a point to do this, I encounter God and enjoy God and His world much more than usual because I decide to pay attention. And listen to what I learned about the language of praise.

- Praise is standing at the wedding altar with a young couple who got the order of marriage and child reversed, but who repented, stayed in church and with God, made sure marriage was the right thing to do, and found that God can redeem our brokenness and turn it into joy.

- Praise is watching a pool full of two-year-olds splashing around, going down the slide with squeals of joy, dog-paddling like crazy, and watching my wife interact with them, doing what she was born to do: love and lead preschoolers toward Jesus.

- Praise is reading Facebook posts about our summer camps announcing that one of our teenagers came to Christ at Ridgecrest and one of our children came to Christ at Springlake.

- Praise is seeing an old dead tree still lifting up its bare and boney arms to God, praising Him even in its deadness.

- Praise is the gust of the wind and the sound of a much needed July rain thump-thump-thumping on the roof.

- Praise is a mockingbird on a high wire singing its morning hymn to God.

- Praise is hearing new believers in the baptism waters announcing, "Jesus is Lord!"

- Praise is the words of a woman who told me, “I’ve been away from God and out of church for a very long time, and it’s time to come home.”

- Praise is a Bible on a shelf in Books-a-Million, humbly taking its out of the way spot in the marketplace of ideas, and knowing that of the millions of words in the books in that store, only these Bible words will endure forever.

- Praise is getting an email from a Christian friend in Texas who came out of brain surgery, got the bad news that the tumor was a cancer of the worst kind, and yet, because of his faith, he could begin his email with these words: “All is well.”

- Praise is rolling down the highway, seeing people in cars and trucks galore, wondering who they are, where they're heading, what's their story, and marveling that God knows each and every one.

- Praise is pulling out of a cemetery where I’d just buried an old friend and knowing that he has heard on the other side of the grave the restful benediction of Revelation: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord…."

The ingredients needed to mix up a batch of praise are all around us. You don’t have to go to some store to get them; they’re right before your eyes. We just need to pay attention. Praise begins by paying attention, by putting a frame around moments in time, by opening our eyes and ears, taking in the glory of the moment, and turning it to God in prayer.

So praise the Lord, okay? You can do this. No matter what our circumstances, that's the destination to which our prayers are heading all the time. So we might as well learn to do it now. Join creation's choir, won't you? Perhaps you'd like a place in the band. But whatever you do, join in the praising. Don't let your voice be silent. Offer up your sacrifice of praise. Praise Him, young men and maidens. Praise Him, old men and children. Praise Him in His sanctuary. Praise Him in your home. Praise Him on the job. Praise Him with your lips. Praise Him with your life. Praise Him with music and dancing. Praise Him with bended knee and lifted arm. Praise Him with passion and with hope. Praise Him without restraint or reservation. Open your eyes, open your ears, and open your hearts; pay attention to what God is doing all around you; and let your delight in God turn into praise.

"How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise Him! Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!"

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