This seems like a good query for the start of 2023: How often do you really praise God? Like, I mean really. With your whole heart full of gratitude, just spilling out in thanks.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. This week I was waiting a bit anxiously to see whether I would have to serve for jury duty. I’d gotten the big yellow card in the mail just before Christmas, and although I wasn’t happy to receive it—I’m not sure there’s anyone who really celebrates being called for jury duty—I did what they asked me to do: I logged in, entered my information, and agreed to appear if I was needed. I live in Marion County, which means that serving on a jury would take me all the way to downtown Indianapolis, and that would require quite an effort and an investment of time I don’t feel like I have right now. So the possibility was stressing me out.
The date of service was Wednesday, January 4, and the card told me to call after 5:30 on the evening of the 3rd to find out whether I’d be needed or not. So on the way home from work that day, a little after 4pm, I prayed about it. I said to God, “You know, Lord, first and foremost I want what you want for me. If you want me to be on that jury, I will go and do my best. But if it doesn’t particularly matter to you, I hope I don’t have to go. It’s just too busy at work right now. But still, truly, if you have a purpose in it for me and want me to go, I will. Most of all, I really do want to want what you want for me.”
I’m not sure that’s the best prayer I could have offered in that moment—and it makes me laugh now because there’s obviously so much self-interest in it—but I really did mean it. If God wanted me to do it, I would. But this “me”—the personal me, the limited, self-concerned, and sometimes anxious me—really hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.
So right before I called the number a little after 5:30pm, I said another prayer along the lines of “Your will be done.” And after I entered my juror number and the recording said, “You have been excused,” my response was something like “Hallalujah!” and I have to admit I jumped around my kitchen for about a minute afterwards, saying “Thank you God!” over and over again.
And that’s what I mean by praise. Not the words, not the reason, but the feeling. The feeling of “Thank you God!” just spilling over.
I was relieved and happy and grateful in that moment. It was a purely joyful feeling. And to me the whole situation wasn’t just happenstance. God was helping me see something. And I should say here that I do think that doing our civic duty and serving as we are called is an important thing for us to do and a vital part of our democracy. So I’m not knocking jury service. I was just relieved that it wasn’t something I had to do now, in the middle of a crazy busy time, right at the start of the year.
And my example is a little one-sided because obviously I was happy and relieved because God’s plan seemed to coincide with my own—I was going to be able to do what I wanted to do, or, more accurately, not be made to do what I didn’t want to do just then. But the idea of praise—the feeling of praise—is what’s important here. I wondered when the last time was that I felt so happy and thankful to God that I literally jumped around my kitchen saying so. And wouldn’t it be appropriate for us to feel that kind of joy, that kind of thanks, not only on the days when things go right but every morning we wake up, every time we see a sunrise or sunset, with each smile on a grandchild’s face or with every refrain of a favorite hymn? How are we not just overflowing with thanks to God for all that we have every single day? When wouldn’t that level of gratitude be appropriate for all God gives us, all the ways God guides us, all the goodness and love and help that God constantly pours our way?
Our Old Testament reading today is just that sort of praise written by King David, offered from an overflowing heart just in awe of the goodness and graciousness and generosity of God:
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Often I think our deepest feelings about God get sidelined in much of our normal experience of life because we simply aren’t fully convinced that our prayers are truly heard or that God’s presence is really with us. I remember when I was 12 doing what I called “science experiments” about that: they were really a kind of thought exercise designed to help me find out whether God was acting in my life or not. When something happened—usually a good something, like the day I came home from school to find a new piano in the living room—I would first ask myself whether I thought it could be coincidence. I’d think about how things might have unfolded and how I felt about that. And then I’d go back and ask myself whether God might be behind the event, whatever it was. And I’d weigh out how that worked and how I felt about that. Over time, I began to see what I felt was a pattern of intentional love and care—and even humor—all around me in my life. I became convinced that there was a kind and helpful Presence who cared about the nature of my days, and my learning and growing. How could I ever not be thankful for that?
In our New Testament reading today, Jesus is teaching the disciples and those listening what I think is one of the most basic—and most important—lessons in all of scripture. He is showing us how to relate to God. He teaches us to pray in a way that lifts our hearts “to the front lawn of heaven” and re-establishes connection to the primary and most sacred of all our relationships in this life. Jesus begins by saying, “When you pray, say ‘Father, hallowed be your name.”
Here Jesus begins—and shows us how to begin—prayer with praise. Hallowed means “holy” or “revered” and “honored.” He is recognizing God as the source of our lives, the lover of our souls, the giver of all that is.
Next he prays, “Your kingdom come.” This is where Jesus is saying—much more purely and beautifully than I did—“We want what you want. Your Knowledge is perfect and true. Your will be done.” So this pattern of prayer he is giving us begins by praising who God is—that’s Bless the Lord, O My Soul—and continues by acknowledging that God’s plan for us is the absolute best plan, no matter what our personal preferences may be. There is respect and honor and humility in that statement—we know we see through a mirror darkly but God’s vision, God’s wisdom, is whole and complete, full of mercy and grace.
Next Jesus acknowledges the power and promise of our loving connection with God. God provides our daily bread, he says—physical bread, spiritual bread, the meaning and sustenance of our lives. God lifts us from guilt and regret and makes us new again, as God’s beloved children, and free from sin and free to share the light of God’s love in our world wherever we go, whatever we do. God also teaches us to set others free of our past judgments about them—that’s what God wants us to do–letting others be made new in our hearts and minds, and in our experience, through the miracle of forgiveness that God provides.
Jesus says, “And lead us not into temptation,” reminding us that God guides our steps and opens the way as we travel through this world. This encourages us to stay close to God so we won’t take a detour into things that distract or discourage us away from our awareness of God’s goodness and love. “Lead us not into temptation” is a good reminder for us that the temptation to see something other than God’s goodness is great—and constant—all around us. Through countless circumstances in our world, we are continually invited to feel discouraged and doubtful and to believe more strongly in the upsetting things we see than in God’s power to correct them. When we don’t take the bait, when we refuse to be discouraged by keeping our eyes on God, we are praying as God wants us to pray, Jesus says here.
And finally, in this passage, Jesus tells us to keep trying. With his example of the friend who goes to borrow loaves of bread and finds his neighbor sleepy and not so interested in helping, he is telling us to be persistent in prayer. Keep knocking. Keep trying. Keep praying. Keep listening. “…I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”
This brings us to an aspect of praise that is often overlooked, and that is that praise is not simply something we offer after everything turns out the way we hoped. Praise, thanks, gratitude is a creative force of its own, helping to reconnect us in real-time, in a real way, with God as the source of our being. All other good in our lives—improvements in relationships, better health, the resolution of problems, answers we’ve been seeking—all the rest of the good comes as a natural result of our closeness to God. I have had times in my life when I was feeling sick or discouraged or overwhelmed and I began to pray with the idea, “I’m not really feeling it right now, God, but I thank you that You are with me. Even though I’m struggling, Your truth is here. Even though I’m grumpy and out of sorts, I know your goodness and care is with me right now, and I claim it and thank you for it.” And sometimes I add, “And I’m so grateful for your patience with me.”
I think that kind of prayer—praying beyond what we see or feel at the moment—reaches a hand up beyond the blinding circumstances of this world and says to God, “I know you see and Know what I don’t, and I trust you and thank you for that.” That’s a statement about who God is—hallowed be thy name—and establishes a right relationship between divine parent and prodigal child.
As Jesus pointed out, earthly fathers give to their children, but how much more—more lovingly, more purposefully—does our heavenly Father give to us? This is the capstone of the approach to prayer Jesus is teaching us. He shows us a transcendent trust, a deep abiding sense that we are each indescribably precious to the Creator of the Universe. And that that loving Presence is with us, loving us, guiding us in all the moments, trials, and celebrations of our lives.
Does that not make you want to jump around in your kitchen and say, “Thank you, God!”?
I’d like to close with a passage from a little book called, The Song of Prayer. I like the way the writer explains prayer’s reconnecting power:
“Prayer is a ladder reaching up to Heaven. At the top there is transformation … for prayer is part of you. The things of earth are left behind, all unremembered. There is no asking, for there is no lack. Identity in Christ is fully recognized as set forever, beyond all change and incorruptible. The light no longer flickers and will never go out. Now…prayer can again become what it was meant to be. For now it rises as a song of thanks to your Creator, sung without words, or thoughts, or vain desires, unneedful now of anything at all. So it extends, as it was meant to do. And for this giving, God Himself gives thanks.”
I love that idea that God, too, is grateful when we pray aright. When we start with blessing the Lord and feel a sense of trust and safety in our relationship, taking God all our thoughts and needs but mostly just offering God ourselves as we are—our hearts and minds, imperfections and intentions—when we do that, God smiles. Our separation is undone. Peace and harmony—life as it can be—are right there for us, within our reach, right there in the lap of God.
Perhaps that can be one of our goals this year, to bless the Lord with our whole souls. And if we find it hard to do, let’s keep knocking. Let all that is within me bless His holy name. Can you imagine what it would feel like to bless God with all that is within us? That every cell of our bodies would smile with thanks to God. Every idea of our minds could carry forward God’s qualities of love and light for our world. Every breath we take can remind us of the gift of life we’re given—how precious it is, how beautiful it is, how rich it is, even when it feels less than perfect.
It may sound like a lot of work, but it’s not. It’s joy. It’s a song. It’s prayer.
Bless the Lord, O My Soul. Let all that is within me, bless his holy name!
- OT Psalm 103: 1-5
- NT Luke 11: 1-13