Praise and Thanksgiving

There is a morning devotional that begins, “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise” (Psalm 51: 15), to which the response comes, “Thank you, God.”  The practice made me think about the difference between praise and thanksgiving.

When I asked a friend about the difference, her immediate reply was a felt sense or body awareness:  “With praise, my hands are raised, my head is up, and my mouth is open.  With thanksgiving, my head is bowed and my hands are in a prayer position at my heart.”

Thanksgiving is a wonderful practice.  A woman I know begins the day with her partner—sipping a cup of coffee, eating a bowl of oatmeal, and naming things for which they are grateful.  I have benefited from ending my day looking back over it to see the things for which I am thankful.  Often they are things that I would have forgotten about without that reflection time.  And I’m convinced that reflecting like that before I go to sleep makes me more likely to wake up cheerful the next day.

Giving thanks makes us aware that all that comes our way is not of our own making.  There is someone or something bigger.  Praise lets us focus on that source of goodness and grace.  Praise involves acknowledging and rejoicing in what underlies all things.  It arises out of faith and trust, not comprehension.  Praise takes us out of ourselves and into oneness.  For me, praise can be helpful even when I am doubting or discouraged, because it takes me into something beyond myself.  When we praise God, we find our true proportion.

Queries:

How do you understand thanksgiving and praise?  If one is harder or less comfortable than the other, what is the difference for you?

How do you want to express thankfulness or praise at this time?

Prayer:

“Praise and thanksgiving let everyone sing.  To our Creator for every good thing.  Alleluia, joyfully sing.”

For further reflection:

“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. . . . For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.”  (See Psalm 96.)

“I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.” (See Psalm 146.)

Chimney Swifts

At a retreat center at dusk on a September evening I saw chimney swifts flying in a circle the shape of an elongated doughnut, maybe the size of the stands surrounding half of a basketball court.  Their wings flapped very rapidly and they made lots of chippering noise, kind of squeaky.  Round and round they went above the center’s bell tower.  And then as they circled, the birds began to drop into the tower, one at a time.  It was a magical sight.

Long ago Chimney Swifts used to settle in hollow trees, holding onto the inside of the tree trunk because they are not able to perch like songbirds.  When the land was cleared and chimneys appeared, the Swifts adapted.  As I watched the birds, I couldn’t tell how they knew whose turn it was nor how their flapping flight stopped as they turned straight down to drop into the tower—one after another.  All I could conclude was that they are fearfully and wonderfully made.  Our creator is an awesome God.

It appeared that they depend on being in community.  The circling together seemed to create the conditions for them to be able to enter the bell tower opening one at a time.  They never pushed or shoved or rejected anyone.  There was room for all.  I think we humans also are created to be in community, in relationship.  Some Christians see the Trinity as demonstrating that point.  We are not independent, self-sufficient individuals.  We succeed best when we care for and cooperate with each other, when there is a place for all.  The individual survives best when the whole group thrives.

When the birds had all entered the tower and night had fallen, the loud chippering sounds we had heard became deep quiet.  I suppose they were resting or asleep.  Their behavior brought to mind the experience of entering into contemplative silence or into unprogrammed Quaker worship.  At the beginning our minds can be loud and chatty.  Gradually we center down.  And eventually we rest in the quiet, abiding in a God who loves all.

Queries:

What has led you to sing a song of praise of our Creator?

A time of busyness and activity and a time of quiet and rest are both important in our lives and faith.  How are those times balanced in your life?

Prayer:

“O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!” (Psalm 95: 1).  Spend time in nature, or in whatever lets you see God’s wonder and calls forth your praise.

For further reflection:

“ ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ‘tis the gift to come down where you want to be, . . .  [Simple Gifts]

“Drop thy still dews of quietness, till all our strivings cease; take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.”  [Dear Lord and Father of Mankind]

Time

With the recent return of Daylight Savings Time, my body is all confused about what time it is and what needs to be done, which makes me think about time. My life often seems driven by the clock and the calendar. I think I am somebody if my days are busy and my calendar is full. But the same conditions just as easily can make me feel anxious and overwhelmed.

While I worked a regular job I used to wish for balance in my life, but I never found a way to have that. My time was full of things I was doing, and there wasn’t time to add what I thought would create balance.

I wonder now how it would have been if I had focused on simply receiving the day, and how it would be if I did that now. Our attitude about the day and how we can live in it changes if we realize and remember that each day is a gift from God, even that having both dark and light in a day is God’s creative gift.

Particular spiritual practices can reinforce one’s awareness and gratitude for God’s presence in the day. A traditional morning prayer is, “O Lord, open my lips. And my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Another possibility is the psalmist’s words, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” What would happen if we began the day with a prayer of praise, maybe even shared that experience with someone else? And during the day, before going on to the next thing, we could simply stop and breathe, until we have returned to calm or remembering.

New Testament Greek has different words for time–chronos, which is governed by clocks and calendars, and Kairos, which is set, arranged, ordered by God. Any time of our chronos day may be a Kairos time. At the close of the day, before falling asleep, we can remember and receive the gifts of the day.

Queries:

How would you talk about time as it is experienced in your life? What does being busy mean to you?

How can you be open to receiving the Kairos times in your life?

Prayer:

To start your day, use either of the prayers mentioned above (or your own words) and then name the ordinary, everyday things for which you are grateful.

For further reflection:

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

“I keep the Lord always before me; because God is at my right hand, I shall not be moved” (Psalm 16:8).

Praise

It had been raining day after day. Still early, we had already had one downpour and lots of showers. When I noticed a slight lightening up of the clouds, I headed out for a walk on the nearby greenway. Immediately my eye was caught by the autumn leaf colors. The yellow, orange, red, and mahogany of sweet gum leaves. The green maple leaves with paint blotches of red. Even the leaves on the ground—yellow, glistening as if sunlight, in comparison with the gold and brown leaves around them. My heart responded—oh my God!

There were birds everywhere. I imagined that they were as happy to be out stretching their wings as I was. They were flying from one branch to another, flitting or hopping among low-lying bushes, twitting and chirping and squeaking. Oh my God! I had to stop and take it in, simply be in the presence.

The night before, we had gone to a potluck at our Quaker meeting. A friend had brought a freshly baked whipped cream pound cake, and blueberry compote to go on top of each slice. Of course I had a piece. The first bite—oh my God!

There are many kinds of experiences that call us to praise our Creator and Sustainer. Maybe it is waking up to the new morning with the one you have loved for a long time. Maybe it is music exquisitely played. Maybe it is being with a group of friends, feeling at one with one another, caring and sharing. Maybe it is that a loved one recovered from a serious illness.

The Psalms express well that praise that arises from the depths of our souls: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless God’s holy name (Psalm 103).” To praise God is not for God’s benefit. It is for us. To praise reminds us of where we fit in things, lifts up humility with no sense of humiliation, and reminds us who we are and Whose we are.

Queries:

Does praise of God come easily to your heart and lips, or are there questions and qualms that block the praise?

Is there value in praising God regularly even if the external circumstances that most likely call it forth are not there?

Prayer:

“Wow!” “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

For further reflection:

“I will hold you above everything that exists—my God, my Holy Protector, awed by your name always, in gladness as well as sorrow” (See Psalm 145 as translated by Hebrew scholar and poet Pamela Greenberg).

“Praise the Creator from the sky, praise the Eternal from the heights, let all the angels sing out in praise!” (See Psalm 148).

For the ultimate in praise, see Psalm 150. For this psalm I prefer the New Revised Standard Version.