Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Dance of Praise

This is my article which was published in the May/June 2006 Issue of “Alive Now” Magazine - Steve West

In recent days, I have made it a practice to pray the psalms regularly during my morning quiet time. The simple discipline of praying through them one by one has helped me to notice a new world of rhythms, contours, and colors in the articulation of the soul’s yearnings. Gently placing my prayer life under the authority of a greater movement of lament, thanksgiving, and praise has led to a refreshing discovery: My soul relates to God in the context of the ongoing prayer of the saints. Praying through the psalms opens my heart to centuries of spiritual flow with companions who would guide me and with the Spirit who would lead me. The content of prayer becomes expression not limited to feelings I’m most comfortable with and things I know how to say.

There are times, of course, when I desperately need to cry out in anguish and pain, bow down in awe of God’s glory, recount the amazing things God has done, or simply visit with God in holy play. Indeed the life of prayer emerges from felt experience, and God meets us where we are. I am finding, however, that regularly singing or saying praise, whether or not I feel like praising God, has brought into my spiritual life new dynamics. Opening the next psalm as if meeting a beloved companion for morning coffee, rather than picking and choosing based on what I want to say, has helped me to put the matter of praise in God’s hands.

One morning not long ago, I found myself moving from Psalm 105 to Psalm 106. I was struck by something I would not notice unless visiting the psalms in order of appearance. Psalm 105 is a psalm of thanksgiving, tracing the history of the Hebrew people and remembering God’s marvelous works which culminate in the Exodus. Psalm 106, however, is a lament that emerges from the same set of experiences, but with deep mourning over the sin and failure of those who had forgotten all that God had done.

Embedded between these two prayers are the opening words of Psalm 106, “Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” Praying these psalms side by side accentuated this centerpiece of praise. The way of prayer is not simply a matter of choosing optimism over pessimism, and praise is not just an anecdote for life’s miseries. To praise is to dance. Honest lament and joyful thanksgiving are natural, flowing movements of the human life oriented toward God. The dance of praise brings these movements, these expressions of all of who we are, before the Holy One. The praise of the psalms, with their beautiful descriptions of God’s wonderful attributes, amazing characteristics, and awesome name, are not given to us because God is lacking in self-confidence and needs to hear our compliments. The gift of praise is that the words dance in the imagination in such a way that praise takes us beyond the words. It brings our entire being, including all of our laments and all of our thanksgivings, to focus upon God’s glory and grace.

As I continue to walk through the psalms in the mornings, praise becomes less about what I am doing and how I am feeling, and more about how I am oriented. At the deepest level, praise is not something I do at all. It is something I join. In praise, I join with all of God’s creation in raising limbs and songs toward heaven. I join with generations of faithful followers who have eyes to see the glory of God. I join with all the saints, as pictured by hymnist Reginald Heber, “casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.” Praise is becoming part of a grand celebration on the dance floor of a much larger rotunda. It is moving with the perpetual music of the saints, and this forms a prayer life based on much more than my own limited experience.

It is highly significant that the most common phrase in the psalms is “His steadfast love endures forever.” I am finding that though good times and bad times don’t last, God’s greatness does. Through all of life’s ups and downs, praise becomes a beacon to guide me back to the shores of what is truly solid and enduring about life. It ushers me into a deeper place of humility as one creature who beholds God’s glory. In short, praise draws me back to God.