Resurrected Living
"What are you going to do with your new resurrected life? This is the heroic question." Richard Rohr

Putting Praise in Its Proper Context


Walter Brueggeman, on whom I will lean heavily to make my subsequent argument (see Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology), described Israel’s praise as their duty and their delight.  To praise God was Israel’s duty as the children of promise. They owed their existence and significance to God and God alone. But it was also Israel’s delight, for Israel’s praise of God’s sovereignty, justice, and steadfast love reinforced and re-articulated their identity as God’s chosen people.

As such, Israel’s praise was more than just an offering from Israel to God. It also helped to form Israel’s imagination. And though we usually only talk about the value of imagination when we are discussing the health and maturation of children, the truth is that we all rely on imagination to help us make sense of the world around us.

Of course, most of the ways we exercise our imaginations are ways that don’t feel like imagination at all. For instance, we don’t think of the role of our imagination in orienting us to our place within the universe. We believe that we are on a spherical planet that is orbiting the sun which itself is merely the center of a small solar system that is part of a larger galaxy which itself is only one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the vastness that is the universe. We don’t question this. And while we manage to avoid thinking about how small we are in comparison to the universe (most of the time), very few of us question whether it is true. Yet, most of us are unable to explain how those who taught us this came to these conclusions. Still, we would regard someone as crazy if they insisted that the earth was flat and that it was the center of the universe. But that is exactly what was believed when every book of the Bible was written.

The difference may seem like it is one of science, and science certainly plays a role. But the key difference, insomuch as it impacts our day-to-day lives, is one of imagination. Though many of the impacts of this shift are subtle, it is safe to say that this shift of imagination has done more than simply make us correct now where we were once in error. It has altered our self-understanding as a species and our place within the universe. We imagine ourselves in a universe in which we are smaller and less significant (at least by scale) than our ancestors did. Shifts in imagination can be huge.

These two competing imaginations pit the present against the past, but there are competing imaginations in the present as well.

To use one we are all readily familiar with: the difference of imagination between the dominant political ideologies of the left and the right. One of the reasons that our political debates fail to move us forward is that both sides talk past each other. The right debunks the left according to its own worldview, but since the left rejects the way that the right imagines the world, the critique that seems so poignant to those who share the imagination of the right fails to persuade those who imagine the world differently. And vice versa, but we don’t have to use such emotion-packed examples as politics to make this point. It’s true whether we’re talking Mac versus PC, Star Trek versus Star Wars, or whether you pronounce the word schedule as “sked-ule” (the American pronunciation) or “shed-ule” (the British pronunciation).

We make our way through the world fully aware that there are people we have to work with, share society with, and likely even live with who look at the world in fundamentally different ways than we do.

But who is right? Our default is to believe that we are. If, after all, we decided we were wrong, we would change our minds and then we’d think we were right again (a favorite point of my systematic theology professor at ACU). Everyone thinks they are right even if the only thing they think they are right about is that we can’t know for certain if we are right.

So we assume that our politics are right. We assume that our way of understanding the universe is right. And by rule, if we are right, then they are wrong. And once we have decided that everyone who disagrees with us is wrong, we do something that seems innocent. We stop paying attention to what anyone else is saying. It seems innocent, but it is a dangerous thing to do.

And while close-mindedness is a danger that we want to avoid, we don’t want to be, as G. K. Chesterton put it, so open-minded that our brains fall out. It matters what we are being open-minded to! First and foremost, we must be open-minded to God and one of the principle ways we remain open to God is by paying attention to Scripture and by paying homage to God. Take Israel for example:

When we look at Israel, we see a people who viewed the world—in most ways—similarly to the nations around them. They imagined their place in the universe the same as their contemporaries. Most Israelites seemed to assume that their God was the sovereign God above all other gods, but that there were other gods. They believed that the primary ways God blessed his people was by providing them with victory in war, prosperity in peace, and fertility on the farm and in the secret place. On the surface, their collective imagination was very similar to the imagination of the nations around them.

Two things made Israel’s imagination different: their story and their praise.

Their story helped to orient them in history. It helped define what their relationship was to the God who created the world and later called their ancestors as his people. Their story gave them reasons to rejoice and to praise God even when present circumstances were less than ideal.

Their praise worked in a slightly different way. Their praise stoked their collective imagination. It challenged them to see the work and presence and blessings of God in all circumstances. They praised God in good times and in bad. Their praise insured that God would not be left out of the world as they imagined it. Are you in trouble? Call on God for help and praise. God is the one who comes to save. Have you been blessed? Then thank God for the blessings he has bestowed upon you. Are you in turmoil? Then share your anguish with God and praise him as the God who does not forget or neglect the hurting?

In effect, Israel’s praise inoculated them from experiencing the world as though they did not know God. In their time, to experience the world without knowing God would mean living as the Gentile pagans did. In our time, to experience the world without knowing God usually means living as if there is no God. In either case, the praise of God anchors the imagination in the ongoing story of a mighty God and his people.

One of my favorite roles as a preacher is planning the worship for my congregation. I usually try to theme the service in concert with that week’s sermons. While I am free to play with the order of worship so that, say, the Lord’s Supper fits best before, after, or even during the sermon, there are certain elements of our worship services that are present every week. Of those items, there are two over which I generally have input: the passages of Scripture that we read (in my church, there are usually three: a call to worship text, a reading of the passage on which I am preaching, and a benediction text) and the songs that we sing.

When picking the songs, I try to think of the worship service as a whole as a sandwich (I am sure you were expecting something more exciting, but it is what I got). I look at word (the reading and preaching of the text for the week) and table (the Lord’s Supper) as the meat (or the portabello mushroom for all of you vegetarians out there). I look at the call to worship and the benedictory texts as the bread. Once you have bread and meat, you have the fundamental aspects of the sandwich, but the product remains fairly bland. There are a few aspects over which I have little to no control (the content of what is said as we are called to the table, the announcements, the pastoral prayer for the sick, or the content of the prayers) and that is well and good—there is no reason I should have control over everything that takes place. But it is nice to have some control over which songs we sing because the songs tend to be the dressings that make the sandwich a culinary work of art.

One genre of song that I always want to utilize (though never exclusively) is praise. Some songs that we sing are quite specific about what God is being praised for doing, but most are more general. This can be helpful because we are not always theming our worship services around the same mighty deeds of God. But it can be harmful too.

Sometimes we sing a song of praise just because we like it. It happens to be the flavor of the month and we forget that—devoid of context—the lyrics themselves seem to be praising God just because.

I have no quarrel with spontaneous praise of God simply for being God, but even when we bring our own personal context to the praise of God, we cannot praise God from outside of our own personal story. All praise has context or it ceases to be praise and become nothing more than schmaltzy claptrap.

In corporate worship, it is important that these kinds of songs be set in context. More specifically, it is important that they be set in the context of our story as God’s people. Sometimes that context reaches back to the story of Israel (onto which we have been grafted as followers of Jesus: the promised King of Israel who would usher in an age of unprecedented and universal peace). Sometimes that context points to what God has done within the story of that congregation or in the lives of one or more people in that congregation. But without naming that context, we are hardly engaging in corporate worship. We might as well all be staring at a work of modern art. Some will be moved by what they experience whereas others will think it sophomoric and juvenile.

When we look at Israel’s praise (namely, but not exclusively, the Psalms), we are always told why God is being praised. God has redeemed the psalmist’s life from the pit or rescued him from his enemies. God has healed the sick or forgiven sins. God has carved out an inheritance for his people in fulfillment of his promise to Abraham. God has rescued his people from annihilation before and the psalmist gives praise to the God who can be trusted in their new hour of need. Nowhere is God praised just for the sake of buttering him up; it is always within the context of what God has done for us.

On the surface, that might seem somewhat egocentric of us. But we only know God because God has revealed himself to us. We know nothing about God outside of what he has done for and through his people. Praise that only affirms God’s attributes without naming why we find those attributes praiseworthy is pointless. We may as well be Greek philosophers marveling at the omni-this and omni-that attributes of a god that fits the expectations of our imaginations. It is only within the context of God’s story does any of this praise take on any personal meaning.

And praise should always be personal! Otherwise, it is merely a duty and not our delight.

All of that to say this: the arrangement of texts, songs, and other aspects of worship to establish context for our worship is crucial if we mean to tap into the power of our praise to shape our imaginations as people caught up in the unfolding story of our Creator God.

Only then is our praise in its proper context. Only then will our praise have its proper impact.

Shane Alexander is the preaching minister for the Northcrest Church of Christ in Mexia, TX. He is married to Kara and father to their three children: Elizabeth (7), Peyton (5), and Levi (1). He enjoys writing, reading novels, traveling with his wife, and the idea of cooking, gardening, and exercise. He holds a Bachelor of Arts, Master of Divinity, and Doctor of Ministry—all from Abilene Christian University. You can read more of Shane’s writings at Wilderness Voice


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