When I was young and just getting my feet under me as a pastor, in the second church I ever served, I met a remarkable six-year-old boy named Jamie. Jamie loved God with abandon: embodied, whole, and full of joy. This young boy’s love of God oozed out of his pores. It filled his heart. It occupied his brain. I think Jamie even knew God in his liver and in his spleen. And he simply could not keep his exuberance to himself.
One Sunday he seemed particularly on fire. I looked up at the balcony, and there he stood; right at the rail; a body in constant motion. As we sang the opening hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” with creator-like intimacy, Jamie shaped the sun in the air, patted the creatures, set the birds free to fly. His alleluias sailed above the heads of the congregation on the main level like sweet angel song.
When I lifted the Bible to proclaim the Gospel, Jamie lifted his pew Bible in all solemnity; lowered and closed it with great tenderness.
And yet most powerful of all was the way this small boy wholeheartedly embraced the Eucharistic Prayer.
“The Lord be with you,” I said.
“And also with you,” Jamie gestured.
“Lift up your hearts,” I said.
“We lift them up to the Lord,” Jamie answered.
“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” I said.
“It is right to give God thanks and (ASL sign for praise God) praise,” he gestured, using sign language he had learned in Sunday school.
After church, Jamie came out with his parents to shake my hand. “Jamie,” I said, “you certainly seemed to enjoy worship this morning.”
“O, Reverend Gina,” Jamie replied, “I am just so…so…so glad about God. And this (ASL sign for praise God) is the very best.”
The Psalm this morning—Psalm 19—pulsates with praise. Consider the expanse of this glorious hymn: as it moves from the revealing of God across the breadth of creation to the revealing of God in Torah—the law, stories, and history of God with God’s people, to the mysterious depths where God and the believer meet heart to heart.
The psalmist begins as one caught up in awe and wonder by the very voice of creation. The voice speaks without words; yet communicating marvelously, eloquently: All creation witnesses to a living God; active and at work in the cosmos.
God’s energies burst forth; revealing God in the natural world: declaring, telling, imparting, going out, coming forth, rejoicing; the sun running about, missing nothing. Creation itself cries out with Jamie, “I’m just so…so…so glad about God. And this (ASL sign for praise God) is the very best.” (Craddock)
So, what happens to us? To our exuberant, exultant, ecstatic hearts? What happens to our praise? For praise has largely disappeared from our daily lives. Occasionally we hear someone praise God for a parking place, or for an unexpected sale in the checkout line at the grocery store.
And yet praise embarrasses us, somehow. We substitute congratulations. When two people find someone to love for a lifetime, when a baby is born, when after a long and arduous search, a job is found. The card we send probably says, “Congratulations!” Only a few will say, “Praise God!”
It is not a neutral substitution. Praise posits God as present and active; the beating heart of God at the center of all creation. Congratulations places us at the center. We make ourselves a little higher than God. (Jacobson)
So often the praise we do offer strikes a hollow tone. We shower our children with praise; praise for everything they do, for everything they don’t do, and for everything in between; most of which falls far short of remarkable.
Children need encouragement. They recognize the shallowness of constant praise. And yet they will bend their lives toward it; toward us; in the absence of something more substantial; an invitation to live life in responsiveness to God.
And sometimes, we simply find ourselves more carried away by the problems of the world than by the power of God, who is worthy of praise. (Sweet)
Just this week, in the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza offered a reflection on why the stories of security breaches at the White House have so captured our attention. He reeled off a whole list of problems that make us so anxious, so vulnerable, so exposed we cannot think praise: Ukraine, Syria, Gaza, Israel, Iraq, Ferguson, and now the White House itself. Cillizza’s point? We recognize the old world order is not holding; and we have yet to create the world order that will keep us safe. (Washington Post)
Deep, deep down inside, we have grown so secular we believe that everything, everything, everything depends on us. The harsh realities of living overwhelm us, confound us, exhaust us, depress us.
We have forgotten the generativity of praise. To praise God means to call forth a world made different by the very act of praise itself. Acknowledging that we do not create ourselves, the impossible possibilities (Bruggemann phrase) of God make themselves known. God: causing the blind to see and the lame to walk. God: raising up the humble and meek; casting down the mighty from their thrones. God; leveling and refining; transforming and blessing.
To praise means to practice politics; the politics of God; to evoke the world of God’s reign and every false thing falls away, is cast down, vanishes. (Jacobson)
Perhaps the god we find too boring to praise bores us because it is a god of our making; bearing little resemblance to the God of history. A god designed to enhance our self-esteem and self image, to advance our agendas, to serve our purposes. (Keck)
So, what are we to do when the great expanse of nature leaves us wanting? When the discipline of praise no longer shapes our days? When we find ourselves struggling with questions that we and the god of our creating cannot answer to our satisfaction? What are we doing here? What are we looking for? Where do we come from? Where do we go? Who will deliver us from this body of death?
The psalmist suggests turning from the god of our own making toward the God of history; the God Scripture reveals. Again the Psalm pulses with energy. Listen. Like the rays of the sun, the revealing word of God gives life: revives, makes wise, rejoices, enlightens, endures.
Guidance in Scripture takes many forms: law, decrees, precepts, commandments, ordinances. Scripture reveals God as clear, pure, sure, true, and righteous. The God we meet calls forth reverence. “More to be desired than gold,” the Psalm says, “and sweeter for life than honey.” (Craddock)
Like Jamie, the psalmist lifts Scripture in all solemnity, with great tenderness, with gratitude and joy. For Scripture reveals the God who covenants and delivers; chastens and absolves; nourishes and redeems. And with Jamie, those who love this God who was and is and ever shall be proclaim, “I’m just so…so…so very glad about God. And this (ASL sign for praise God) is the very best.”
Authentic praise begins with a long and loving look. Here the psalmist prays: “Keep us from arrogance, pride and presumption, O God; from thinking we can take your place or do your work. Meditating on your goodness day by day; Let acceptable praise spring from our lips; awe and wonder for a world we did not make; for a love we did not earn; for a joy born of your grace. (Earle and Peterson)
I have often wondered whatever happened to Jamie. I do not know. What I do know is this: all life is prayer, and prayer pursued long enough and far enough becomes praise. Praise shapes the heart’s journey toward God. It woos us to the end.
And whenever I find myself losing heart, or feeling petulant with God, or being just plain lazy about my life and my prayer; I remember this shining, shining boy. His little life so completely devoted to God. And I remember his witness to me. “Rev. Gina, I’m just so…so…so glad about God. And this (ASL sing for praise God) is the very best.”
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Eugene Peterson, The Message, NavPress, 2002.
Fred Craddock, “Life Giving Law,” Christian Century, 3-8-2003.
Rolf Jacobson, “The Costly Loss of Praise,” Theology Today, 10-2000.
Mary C. Earle, “Praise,” Alive Now.
Chris Cillizza, “The Secret Service Story Isn’t Just About President Obama,” Washington Post, 10-2-2014.
Leonard Sweet, “Lessons from Arabella,” Homiletics, Vol 11 #5, 1994.
Leander Keck, The Church Confident, Abingdon Press, 1993.