Thursday, July 23, 2009

One Way or the Other

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord (Psalm 150:6).

Something odd happened in one of our church services this past Sunday. Nothing weird or offensive, just odd: as in peculiar and unfamiliar, slightly out of place but by no means inappropriate.

We had sung three verses of the opening hymn, a glorious text that extols God as “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” This hymn text, composed in 1876, is based on 1 Timothy 1:17. “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

I love this hymn. It’s a standard piece of our worship repertoire. The tune is familiar. The words are familiar. What was less familiar this past Sunday is what happened on the front pew as we started singing that last verse.

Someone raised their hand.

That’s right. They lifted their hand straight up in the air like they had a question. They extended the arm heavenward as if reaching for a jar on a high shelf, as if beaming their words to the Almighty with what some have referred to as the “Holy Spirit antennae.”

There are many churches where this kind of thing is as common as passing the offering plate. Ours is not one of them. Presbyterians in general are not given to bodily expressions of praise. We stand and sit, and occasionally push the envelope with measured applause, but hands being raised to organ music? As I said, that’s a little odd.

When that hand went up in the air, a couple of thoughts went through my mind.

The first was simply “Yes . . . that’s right . . . that’s fitting for what we are doing in this moment. It is so right for what we are saying with our mouths: ‘Great Father of glory, pure Father of light, thine angels adore thee all veiling their sight.’ Mere singing hardly seems to do this justice. Our hearts will not be lifted by singing only. Raise the hand with the voice. It is right.”

And then came the questions: “If it seems right, why do I not do that myself? Is it fear? Is it my upbringing? How is God to be praised?”

When Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, exuberant disciples greeted him with words of praise. Apparently the celebration bordered on raucous. Some of the more dignified religious leaders tried to maintain order. They urged Jesus, “Teacher rebuke your disciples.” Jesus basically told them that containment of praise was a waste of time and effort. “If they keep quiet the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:39-40).

I have long resisted the notion that those who truly know how to praise God in fullness and freedom will do so with physical acts of worship. God is certainly praised in that way – but that’s not the only way. Episcopalians are just as capable of praise as the “holy rollers.” The restrained are to praise God as well as the expressive.

But whether restrained or expressive, what we all need to know is that God will be praised one way or the other. Praise isn’t optional. Jesus had it right. Either we’ll do it, or the rocks will take up the song. But God will be praised. Presbyterians are not exempt from praise. And the Pentecostals are not the only ones who know how it’s done. God will be praised and that praise is to come from everything that has breath. That includes you.

How do you praise God?

“Praise Ye the Lord! O let all that is in me adore Him! All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him! Let the Amen sound from His people again: Gladly for aye we adore him” (Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty, The Hymnbook, 1).

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