When Dave [Somerville, today’s pianist] and I were meeting to determine the music for today’s outdoor service, we searched for a theme that would fit the occasion. Before long, one word emerged and the word is PRAISE.
NOTE: to underline this theme, the following Psalms of Praise were used throughout the service: 34: 1-9; 89: 5-6, 14-18; 95:1-7; 100; 103: 1-6; 111: 1-5.
For us humans, praise is a complicated thing. A child who grows up without praise has a pretty good chance of a troubled adulthood, especially if the praise is replaced by persistent nagging, criticism or “not good enough” messaging. Alongside this, anyone who is never affirmed for being a beloved child of God just as they are, only getting positives when they do something exemplary, may become an unhealthy praise-seeker, striving to get any kind of validation they can find through over-functioning or perfectionism or never truly speaking their truth. And yet surrounding a child or adult with false praise doesn’t seem to have much value, either, at least in the estimation of a myriad of educational and business websites that have something to say about praise. A commonly-made point on these sites is that a school or workplace can offer both offer both praise and constructive criticism and still have a healthy culture, IF it clearly supports people in their journey to keep growing, leaning new skills and trying them out and, most likely, having some spectacular failures along the way. My experiences working in a school office with five different Principals underline the truth of this: a beloved Principal who was quick to offer praise, had also established an environment where it was safe for teachers, staff and students to take risks and learn and grow. Her praise sat well with those receiving it.
It is good to be aware of the complexity of giving and receiving praise, especially with the realization that some will inevitably use praise as a tool to get something. And yet on this day, here, outdoors, I want to speak in the most positive terms about praise, most especially, this opportunity to lift our unrestrained, unedited praises to God, the Divine source of love and life and existence itself. Last Sunday we heard about the God who defines self with the name, I AM, connecting the reality of God to all the reality that is within me and around me, all of creation. As I give thanks for my own existence and the blessings of this day I want, I need, to extend that praise in a Godward direction.
We humans are urged to engage in such praise, to the point that it may seem as though God is in some way needy, By definition, though, the great I AM whose existence is the ground of all existence does not need things, much less needing us humans to lavish our praise… but why in the world would we not want to?? If we are moved by the glories of nature – these immense mountains and the most delicate wildflowers and the industriousness of ants and other tiny creatures – why would we not burst forth in praise? If we are thankful for the supportive, uplifting power of loving relationships, why would we keep that to ourselves? If we are moved by the transformative power of Christ’s total commitment to peace, justice, and equitable sharing for all, how could that not move us to follow that example AND to praise? Whether we view God in highly personified terms or as the originator of love or as the spirit of creativity and beauty, to praise is to make a theological statement of gratitude: while it is not required, but as a natural extension of the gratefulness we have for the meaning and beauty of life.
And today, my friends, we have a particular type of gratefulness. We get to sing again, together, in one place, something we have not been able to do for seventeen months. Even if singing is not really “your thing” I hope you feel free to really let it loose today!! Throughout the pandemic, singing was flagged as a particularly risky activity (and we are still requiring masks when singing indoors because of that), so last September and October when we worshipped right here in this space, we had a duet singing but the congregation could only sing or clap or move along to the music. But today, in the great outdoors, we lift our voices in praise to the God, physically expressing our gratitude to God.
Over the years we have worked together, Tanya [Sullivan, our Music Director] and I have often had this conversation about the physical benefits of singing. A recent article by Sarah Keating in BBC News states some of what we know about singing: “’When we sing, large parts of our brain “light up” with activity’, says Sarah Wilson, a clinical neuropsychologist and head of the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. She led a study which looked at how the brain reacts when we sing by giving volunteers of varying vocal ability MRI scans as they warbled. ‘There is a singing network in the brain [which is] quite broadly distributed,’ Wilson says. When we speak, the hemisphere of the brain dealing with language lights up, as we might expect. When we sing, however, both sides of the brain spark into life.’”
While it’s not part of the BBC article, I am reminded of the saying that “when we sing, we pray twice” – one with the words and once with the lifting of voice in song – and that may be more true than we had imagined.
Sarah Keating goes on to say that “The physical exertion involved in singing – filling of our lungs, the firm control of our vocal cords, the movements of our mouth and body – is among the reasons why it can boost our mood.
“Singing is an aerobic exercise which sees the release of endorphins, the brain’s ‘feel-good’ chemicals, says Baishali Mukherjee, the Southeast Asia regional liaison for the World Federation of Music Therapy. “Endorphins [are] related to an overall lifted feeling of happiness, it gives a feeling of euphoria so it’s all associated with a reduction in stress,” she says. “In any situation whether it is under stress or [with] any physical ailments, illness, psychological deprivation, music has the potential to affect our body and mind.”
There’s much more in this article – for example, the physical and emotional value of deep breathing – but suffice it to say, the physicality of singing is a great way to give thanks for the gift of these bodies we live in.
I have known for nine years now, that when this Ralph Connor congregation gets together for Worship, your joy of singing together is one of the big positives that keeps you coming back every 7 days. In our online YouTube services, I am so thankful to Tanya and everyone who has contributed to a format of music that people can sing along to in their homes – but I know it’s not the same as singing with others. When we sing together we sing out loud, we hear the intermingling of voices, we offer God our worship and praise in joined harmony. Whether you love the sound of your singing voice or not, I hope you feel the freedom to share that voice today in our hymns and prayers, to the very glory of God.
Process Theologian Bruce Epperly, a progressive Christian author in the USA, writes this about the role of praise in worship: “The heartbeat of progressive faith is a sense of God’s diverse embodiment in the world. God is known in many ways and through all the senses, and God’s praise is sung by many voices, both human and non-human. On Cape Cod, where I live and pastor, I remind our congregation that God’s wisdom is reflected in the flying osprey, the shimmering waves of Nantucket Sound, the sporting of whales, the hymns of coyotes, the laughter of children, and the compassionate sighs of older adults. The varieties of religious experience call forth hymns and songs, emerging from the varieties of cultures, personality types, and religious expressions. Our worship and song reflects this diversity.” This broad view of how praise rings through all the natural world reminds us that today, as we raise our voices, the “chorus of all creation” as hymn writer Ruth Duck would put it, joins with us: the grass and the trees and the birds and the bugs and yes, even the Elk whose evidence is everywhere – are part of the chorus of Praise.
To Praise God is not to cover our eyes and ears to the plight of the world, or to imagine that if only we praised or prayed a bit harder, all of this world’s challenges would just disappear. No, Praise is not an escape or a diversion; it is a reorientation toward being thankful for the Divine presence in the world – a presence which we experience in beauty, in the warmth of supportive relationships, in the fullness of purposeful actions toward justice, even in the bittersweet remembrances of grief or loss. When I praise, whether in prayer or song or by realizing the presence of these extraordinary mountains, my thankfulness claims a connection to all that God is and all that God is doing, the God who was and is and evermore shall be.
And so we praise and we praise and we praise. Thanks be to God!
Duck, Ruth. “It’s a song of Praise to the Maker” (More Voices #30). © 1992 by GIA Publications.
Epperly, Bruce. “Progressive Praise.” https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/progressive-praise/
Keating, Sarah. “The World’s Most Accessible Stress Reliever.” https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200518-why-singing-can-make-you-feel-better-in-lockdown
American Federation of Teachers: see https://www.aft.org/ae/winter2005-2006/willingham
Bailey, Richard. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/smart-moves/201411/the-problem-praise
Catholic Christian Outreach. https://cco.ca/2018/11/maximize-your-prayer-with-praise/
Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. “Praise” 3: 856-857. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962.
Mourtada. Rasha. Globe and Mail. Beware of too much praise from the boss. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/talent/beware-of-too-much-praise-from-the-boss/article4260674/
Valencia Botto, Sara. “Are you ready to release your addiction to approval?” https://healthysenseofself.com/release-approval-addiction/
© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church