I was raised among the Baptists and it was commonplace to hear people shout, “Praise the Lord” in our worship services. When the pastor hit the right note in the sermon, folks would exclaim “Amen” or when the choir sang an especially lively anthem, the response would be “Hallelujah.” When people gave witness to answers to prayer, the community would respond with “praise God” or “God is good.”
Here at South Congregational Church we practice New England reserve. Only on occasion do we dance in the aisles or shout out an “amen,” though we often clap after the choir hits a high spiritual note. We are people of faith, who love God, but our faith is generally of a lower temperature than our Baptist and Pentecostal brothers and sisters.
Today’s scripture describes a world of praise. The whole earth praises God – the birds of the air, the falling snow, the rolling sea, young women and men, and even national leaders. As Psalm 150 encourages, “let everything that breathes, praise God.”
Now there is no right way to praise God. A Quaker, deeply silent at the Sunday morning meeting, may experience a profound sense of gratitude for the beauty of the earth. An intellectual may put down her books and feel her heart strangely warmed as she spies a cardinal sitting on a branch outside her study window. An introverted person may discover his heart is filled with amazement as he gazes at the heavens on a starry, starry night.
The Psalmist invites us to be part of a world of praise. Aristotle asserted that philosophy begins in wonder and Abraham Joshua Heschel believed radical amazement is at heart of religious experience. As Heschel exclaims,
Just to be is a blessing.
Just to live is holy.
I’ve shared before that in many African American churches, prayer time often begins with someone saying, “I thank you God for waking me up in the morning” and we say a similar affirmation when we begin our service with “this is the day that God has made and we will rejoice and be glad in it.!”
The Psalmist proclaims that we are “awesomely and wonderfully made.” We are amazing – just the act of seeing, speaking, hearing, eating, requires millions of processes. Writing a note or saying “thank you” requires creativity, innovation, relationship, and the firing of millions of neurons. Amazement is the only possible response even on the most boring or challenging day. Author of the Color Purple, Alice Walker, notes – “I think it upsets (pisses off) God if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
A world of praise. In her deepest darkest hour, poet, writer, singer, and dancer, Maya Angelou considered suicide. As a single parent, trying to get by, she reached the end of her rope. Grasping for straws, she staggered to her voice teacher’s apartment, remembering that he was a person of deep faith. Mr. Wilkerson heard her out, and then gave her a tough, but life-changing spiritual assignment.
Wilkerson challenged her – “See that yellow tablet?…See the pencil?…Now write down what you have to be thankful for.” At first, she balked, but Wilkerson persisted, reminding her that she had something to live for and that in the midst of her burdens, there was much for which to be thankful. In her own words, Angelou remembers:
I picked up the pencil and began. “I can hear. I can speak. I have a son. I have a mother. I have a brother. I can dance. I can sing. I can cook. I can read. I can write.”
When I reached the end of the page[she continues], I began to feel silly. I was alive and healthy. What on earth did I have to complain about.”
Throughout her life, Angelou has continued to follow the practice she learned from Wilkerson. “The challenging days of my existence may or may not be bright and promising. I maintain an attitude of gratitude. If I insist on being pessimistic, there is always tomorrow. Today, I am blessed.”
You are blessed: despite tragedy, life is amazing. Whether you ran up the stairs or took a lift; whether you heard every word or struggled to catch certain phrases; whether you are on top of the world or anxious today, you are blessed and live in a world of blessings. We can’t deny pain, depression, and failure. We can’t turn back the clock and bound up the stairs as we did as teens, but wherever we are we can say, “thank you” and rejoice in the wonder of breathing and living, and having the opportunity to do something beautiful in this world – to choose love, to welcome a stranger, to say a kind word, or simply breathe in the wonder of life.
Praise God all things! Praise God, children and elders, bees and butterflies, osprey and right whales. Let everything that breathes praise God.