World Day of Prayer Reflection

The theme of this World Day of Prayer is “Let everything that has breath praise God”, and it was reflected in the Scripture readings which we heard and the hymns which we sang this evening. We started with a paraphrase of Psalm 150, which I will now read in its entirety. Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre; praise him with tambourine and dancing; praise him with the strings and flute; praise him with the clash of cymbals; praise him with resounding cymbals; let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. Well, that’s pretty clear. The psalmist is telling us to praise God in as many ways as we possibly can.
In the Presbyterian Church, we believe that Scripture is our primary standard, and that everything we do should be Scripture based. Throughout Scripture, we are exhorted to praise God, and so that is what we do. However, in addition to Scripture, we also have what we refer to as secondary standards, and in Canada, one of these is a booklet entitled “Living Faith”. Section 7.3.1 of Living Faith states: The church lives to praise God. We have no higher calling than to offer the worship that belongs to God day by day, Sunday by Sunday. That also is pretty clear. And, in doing research for this reflection, I found that every denomination insists on this praise, insists on this worship. All reformed denominations believe that man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
A few years ago, the 98th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada appointed a committee to produce a songbook aimed specifically at making songs of praise available to congregations. Wilfred Moncrieff, who was my father’s minister when I was growing up, was the convener of this committee, and they named the final result Praise Ways. In this little book you will find traditional tunes like Amazing Grace, which has been a part of the Christian tradition since before the Civil War in the United States. You will find songs which are used in Sunday School – songs like Give Me Oil In My Lamp. These are songs of praise which resound through the ages, and which lead to the development of the whole praise song tradition, popular in many churches now.
So we know that we are to praise God, we are to glorify God, with every breath we take.
But, according to our theme, and according to the Psalmist, it is not only people who are to praise God. Just listen to these words from Psalm 148: Praise him, all his angels. Praise the Lord, great sea creatures, wild animals and cattle, small creatures and flying birds.
But why are we to praise God? In our human way of looking at things, there are two types of people who require great amounts of praise. We must praise those who are insecure, so that they may gain confidence. And we must praise those who are arrogant, because, if we don’t, they can turn on us. But somehow, neither of these types can even come close to describing God. And yet, “Praise the Lord” is the most frequently repeated command in all of Scripture, even more than the commandment to love one another. I don’t know how many of you have been to a Pentecostal service, but preaching there is frequently interrupted by some member of the congregation crying out, “Praise the Lord”, or “Praise Jesus”, or something similar. Somehow, I can’t picture this happening in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Québec City. I think that most of us would be rather taken aback if it did happen. When I read from Psalm 148, I wonder how many of you questioned the psalmist’s sanity when he urged the sea creatures and other animals to praise the Lord? Well, it gets even stranger when he tells the sun, moon, and stars, and even lightning and hail, snow and winds to praise the Lord.
So let’s try to figure this out. We will start with us. What do we praise? Well, think about things you enjoy. Let’s say that you move to a new city, as I recently did. People are constantly asking me what I think about Québec, and I tell them that I love it. I have no trouble saying that, and will say it over and over. Recently, I started reading Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes, and if you asked me about it, I would have no problem telling you how much I am enjoying it. Think about being a new parent, or visiting someone with a new baby. The joy of this new life overflows, just as the cup in Psalm 23 overflows. So we praise, first of all, what we enjoy, what gives us pleasure.
There are other things we praise, because we respect them, because we believe that it is appropriate to praise them. We will praise Shakespeare’s plays and Tchaikovsky’s music because they have withstood the test of time, and because other people praise them.
And that is another way to look at praise. We praise what other people praise, and this also works in reverse. If we like something, if we think that it is worthy of praise, then we expect others to react in the same way. For instance, after I saw the newest Star Trek movie, I urged friends who are also fans to see it. I would not say to them, “I just saw the greatest movie, but I think that you will hate it.” And this is what the psalmist does. He finds God to be praiseworthy, and then urges us to do the same thing. In Psalm 34, we can read, “Taste and see that the Lord is good”. Here, the psalmist is telling us that he has already done this, and that he expects us to do it, too. He is so filled with the joy of God that he must share it with others, and that is what our praise of God will do. By praising God, we are sharing him with others, especially when we do it in community with those who share this earth with us, as we are doing on this World Day of Prayer.
On this day, people in every country are praising God, using the same booklet you are holding. They may have chosen slightly different hymns than we did, but you can be sure that they are all praising God.
Now, let’s look back at some of the things we praise. If we praise a book, some might say that we are attuned to the written word, which is not really important to many people. If we praise a Joannie Rochette or a Sydney Crosby, some might say that we are fans of athletic endeavours, also not really important to many people. But, if we praise God almighty, then we are attuned to the creator of the universe, and what could be more important than that?
A long time ago, in another life, I was a free-lance journalist, and my editor told me that my articles should answer specific questions – who, what, when, where, why, and how. We have dealt with these questions somewhat in our Litany of praise, but I would now like to apply these to our theme, and to the Psalm from which it came.
Who? This is really a two-part question, as it asks, first of all, who should be praised, and secondly, who should do the praising. Well, our theme answers both questions, as it says, “Let everything that has breath praise God.”
What? What are we to do? We are to praise God. That is quite simple. That is what we are commanded to do, and that is what we take delight in doing.
When? How many of us think that the only time we praise God is during community worship? I tell you, every day of your life is a song of praise to the one who made you. When you open your eyes in the morning, and look at the beauty surrounding you, you praise God. When you eat the food that he provided, you praise God. When you go to sleep, thanking God for another day, you praise God.
Where? Let’s go back to Psalm 150, where we can read: Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Well, we are in the sanctuary right now. We have praised God already, and we will praise him again. Here, we are urged to praise God in public, with a community of faith. But more than that, we are urged to praise God in him mighty heaven. To me, this means that we are part of a great community of believers, and not only the ones who sit in the pews beside us each week. We are connected with the Christians who worshipped in the catacombs, during the early days of the church. We are connected with Martin Luther, with John Calvin, with Thomas Aquinas, with Mother Theresa. We are connected with Chinese peasants who are now able to read the Word of God in their own language. You and me, and all believers, present and past, we praise God here, in the sanctuary, and in his mighty heavens. That pretty much covers everywhere, I think.
Why? We worship God because we can. We worship God because we must. We worship God because we are commanded to do so. Our psalm reads: Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. That is why we praise God. We know what he has done; we are familiar with his acts of power – from creation to redemption – God never ceases acting. And because we know his acts, because we know what he has done, because we know that we are included in his acts, we praise him for his greatness.
How? What methods are we to use to praise God? Again, let’s look back at Psalm 150. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre; praise him with tambourine and dancing; praise him with the strings and flute; praise him with the clash of cymbals; praise him with resounding cymbals. Of course, there are other instruments used to praise God. We have heard the organ used today, and we will hear it again. But let’s just take a quick look at some of the instruments that were mentioned specifically in the psalm.
The trumpet is often associated with war. As God’s people, we must be ready for conflict with this secular society in which we live, and we must be ready to follow the trumpet. One of my grandmother’s favourite hymns – which seems to have fallen into disrepute among some people today – was Onward Christian Soldiers. One of these days, I am going to use that hymn, and even preach a sermon on it.
Some translations of Psalm 150 use the word “lute” rather than “lyre”. The lute provided bass notes, as a kind of accompaniment to the music. Compare this to the neat of your heart, which accompanies all of your praises.
The harp is associated with King David, and is known as an instrument which soothes. If you remember the children’s TV show The Friendly Giant, you will remember that Rusty frequently played a kind of lullaby on a small harp.
The tambourine is still used as a rhythm instrument, and was often used to accompany dancing. Think of gypsy dancers, who accompanied themselves with tambourines. Dancing means celebration, and the tambourine is therefore associated with celebratory praise.
The flute was often used at funerals, which are meant to be a celebration of a person’s life. We probably need to praise God even more during times of mourning than in other times. It is easy to praise God when all is going well; it is harder and therefore more meaningful to praise him when we are sorrowing.
Cymbals, in ancient Israel, were used to express ecstasy. And when I think about the great mystics of the church, people like Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, or Thomas Merton, I can see the relevance of this instrument being used to praise God.
And for those who are not musical, well, we can praise God in other ways. We can praise him with our voices – in song and in prayer. We can praise him with our bodies, by caring for them as he would want us to. We can praise him through our concern for other people, and with our concern for the earth. It is so easy to praise God, and he is so deserving of all our praise that it is no wonder that our sisters in Cameroon chose as the theme Let everything that has breath praise God.

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