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The difficulty of praise

A Sermon preached by Canon Anna Macham, Precentor on Sunday 4 August 2019, 16:30

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The difficulty of praise

Posted By : Anna Macham Monday 5th August 2019

A Sermon preached by Canon Anna Macham, Precentor on Sunday 4 August 2019, 16:30

1 Corinthians 14: 1-19


While I was vicar of my last parish, an old lady I used to meet out and about around the estate where the church was located was getting rid of some old books one day and she gave me a short volume of Reflections on the Psalms, written by the famous Christian academic and author of the Narnia books, C S Lewis. The book was written in 1958 and in one of the Reflections Lewis describes how, as a newcomer to Christianity, he’d hated the idea of praise.


“When I first began to draw near to belief in God and even for some time after it had been given to me,” he writes, “I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should “praise” God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it.  We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand. Thus a picture, at once ludicrous and horrible, both of God and of His worshippers, threatened to appear in my mind.” 


The psalms, he adds, were particularly troubling in this regard- not just actually praising God themselves but constantly exhorting others to do so. Someone who wants to be worshipped all the time and by everyone must be an ego-maniac, or at least have such a terrible inferiority complex that they need total praise to compensate.  Worship, the activity we’re engaged in right now- with the daily singing of psalms and offering of praise- on this crude understanding becomes very far from a pleasurable or enjoyable activity, the very best of our offering to a God of love, but at best a thing performed out of duty that quickly starts to bore us, or at worst something frightening and enslaving, that, as mere mortals prone to lapses in concentration and making mistakes, makes great demands of us as we struggle to meet God’s exacting and vain requirements.


Presumably Lewis was a young man when he had these worries, and the image of an arrogant, despotic God he paints from the psalms here- as he goes on to suggest- is a caricature. But anyone reading our second lesson from 1 Corinthians for the first time might be forgiven for thinking that worship is a demanding- and rather strange- activity. Paul is worried about the ordering of public worship, and expends much time and energy giving precise descriptions of “tongues” and “prophecy” and the differences between them.  


This was a time when church communities were moving away from the Temple or synagogue and setting up in people’s homes- and people were developing all sorts of spiritual gifts in worship, like “tongues”- a type of ecstatic utterance a bit like a mantra or repeated phrase in contemplative prayer, which, though making sounds, and using apparent or even actual languages, somehow bypasses the speaker’s conscious mind, a stream of praise in which, though the speaker may not be able to articulate precisely what is being said, a sense of love for God, of adoration and gratitude, wells up and overflows. Paul’s problem here wasn’t with God being overly in need of adulation but with the vanity of the worshippers themselves- because some of these trance-like spiritual experiences, while good in themselves, were leading their exponents to show off, displaying their experiences but not sharing them, flaunting their giftedness instead of interpreting it and using it to build up the whole body of Christ and thus draw more people into the ecstasy and love of God they had found. 


So instead of “tongues,” Paul now recommends “prophecy”- not so much “telling the future” as applying to their worship the God-given wisdom, understanding and insight that will bind the people together and genuinely and deeply connect them to God. Musical instruments, he says, like the flute or harp, produce sounds, but if the person playing them doesn’t make a clear noise, they will communicate nothing; no one else will know what tune is being played.  Paul uses music- closely and intimately related to worship- to make the same point here as he did in chapter 13, the chapter before: however many tongues I speak in, if I don’t have love- here, if I don’t try to benefit others- I am like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Worship that is self-centred can never be a genuine or beautiful expression of love. 


As Lewis later observes, praise only makes sense as a response to love. “The world rings with praise,” says Lewis, “lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game”. Before, he writes, “I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least…The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about.”  To know and experience God’s love makes worship an enjoyable activity, far from a duty, or a “look at me” exercise, either on God’s part or on ours.  May we always have the delight and the humility that make us care about our worship, our expression of praise. And may we, together with Lewis, with Paul, and each other, delight to praise and glorify the God whom we love.