I received a letter last week asking why we (Christians) praise God. I replied like this:
Well, for a starter it’s a useless thing to do. That is, praising God has no use.
Of course, some picture God as lapping it up, like a benign autocrat listening to his adoring chorus, then dishing out favours based on how sycophantic they are. In this thinking it’s useful to appease the deity to gain reward, or avoid punishment.
One variation of this, courtesy of Second Isaiah, is that the ‘praise’ God wants is actions of freeing the oppressed and feeding the hungry.[i] Frankly, I think Second Isaiah was just using ‘God’ as a literary device to criticize those prominent in worship and piety but absent in deeds of mercy and justice.
Most theologians and church people I read and know however don’t have the benign autocrat sort of God. Rather, the type of God they have doesn’t need praise, and doesn’t dish out favours to those doing the praising. God is mystery, infinite space, unconditional giver, known in Jesus, etcetera.
So, why do it? Why sing praise?
Well, two reasons. Firstly, because it’s use-less. It is something that flies in the face of the rational, goal-orientated, market-driven disease called ‘achieving’ that so afflicts our Western institutions and thinking.
I remember a piece written by Kurt Vonnegut (our first reading today) where he advises a classroom of children to go away and write a poem, and then tear the poem up.
After the tearing there is no ‘product’ that the students can then submit to earn credit. The poem is use-less. Tearing it up is an act of cultural resistance. It is saying ‘No’ to the disease.
And, Kurt adds, this exercise will ‘make your soul grow’.
That’s the second reason. Being “lost in wonder, love, and praise” – as the great Charles Wesley hymn puts it – does something for our soul. Note the word ‘lost’, as in loss, not gain.
If I was advising Charles, I would have told him to substitute ‘gratitude’ for ‘love’ (although it has too many syllables for the hymn line), simply because ‘loving God’ is another phrase that needs significant explaining and qualifying. And gratitude, like wonder and praise (and love), is not just a mind or thinking activity. It involves our bodies, actions, song, and heart.
So, to conclude, we praise firstly because it is contrary to the achieve disease of our time that so infects nearly all we do. And secondly, because it expands our soul. With that expansion comes an increase in our ability to think and act creatively, courageously, and most of all lovingly.
And so ended my response.
For the last three Sundays I’ve been talking about building flourishing communities – places/spaces/groupings that are hospitable, energizing, caring, and inclusive. What could be called ‘mission’. Such communities are premised on ‘unconditional gift’. In other words, we don’t have to earn our way in, believe our way in, or prove ourselves once we are in. Each of us is a gift – conceived, born, and shaped by others – and we both give and receive in flourishing communities, often without thinking too much about it. It’s an economy of grace, the turangawaewae[ii] of G/god.
This morning I would like to suggest in the building of flourishing communities we need to be care-full for the soul. That’s not just the soul of individuals or the soul of our communal life at St Luke’s but the souls of all whose lives intersect with ours. For what we build is a shelter – a space apart – a 3rd space – a shelter from the storm of having to strive for gain, and failing, or winning yet still feeling lost. What we build is a nest (he whakaruruahu), of hospitality (awhinatanga[iii] and manaakitanga) where the soul can be freed to stop striving, to rest, to breath, and then begin to grow.
I listed two weeks ago 13 groups and activities St Luke’s are engaged in to build flourishing communities, here, locally, and wider afield. Many of the 13 have a focus on helping/empowering those who are socially, medically, and/or economically vulnerable. Much practical good is done. And, I would suggest, though we don’t often name it, that the soul is cared for – sheltered, tended, and watered – in such doing. I am using spiritual language to describe such helping/empowerment, of both giver and receiver, because it is in the best sense spiritual work: caring for and expanding the soul.
I mentioned earlier the ‘achieve disease’. What I’m talking about is the language of management and commerce – goals, objectives, KPIs, profit and loss – which has crept into all facets of our public and private life, into hospitals, schools, social/leisure activities, and churches, and often dominates. I’m not criticising the usefulness of this management/commercial frame of thinking, particularly in the business world. I’m criticising its pervasiveness. And, if our ‘business’ is to shelter, tend, and water the soul, then the dominance of that frame of thinking can be destructive.
There is a strong religious tradition of doing no-thing. Which, after you’ve run out of words, is essentially what prayer is. Prayer is a counter-cultural activity of no practical use. (If you believe in Supreme Being Omniscient God do you really think you are going to change her or his mind by petitioning?). Prayer, particularly when it doesn’t use words, is the language of cultural resistance. And it is precisely because prayer is of no use that it nurtures our soul.
There is another big religious word too that defies being managed and utilised, and that is love. You can’t make someone love. You can’t measure love, or set goals for it. You can’t make a profit from it. And if you do it isn’t love.
Let me tell you a story:
In 2012 the world’s best beer was from a wee village outside Flanders, Belgium. That’s quite an accolade: ‘World’s Best Beer’. You could imagine it would translate into mass sales and massive profits. Orders would come in from around the world. Tourists would seek it out. Travel brochures would proudly proclaim the local origins of the beverage. Neighbouring businesses would profit too.
The beer’s name was Westvleteren 12.[iv] (You can tell that no one in marketing created that name!) Indeed, few in marketing have probably ever tasted it. It was only sold where it was made. It wasn’t distributed to retail stores in Belgium, let alone exported. It doesn’t have a label on it (the legal stuff is on the bottle cap). Worst of all, local demand has been so great that they’ve run out. You can’t buy it.
Westvleteren 12 is made by a little boutique brewery that doesn’t want to expand. While they are happy to receive nice accolades, they don’t want to grow their business. Even before their beer achieved fame the customer was limited to 24 bottles. The brewers wanted to share their beer around. They didn’t even charge astronomical prices.
Being a small-time consumer of fine beer the news about this superior product caught my eye. Yet it was the brewers who intrigued me. From a commercial perspective they were doing everything wrong. They had a great product but they weren’t branding, charging, and making lots of money. Indeed, and this is the really shocking thing, they didn’t want lots of money. They just wanted enough in order to live. “We don’t live to make beer,” their spokesman said, “We make beer to live.”
You might ask, are these people religious nutters or something? Well, yes, they are. Westvleteren 12 is made at Saint Sixtus monastery. They are Cistercians – a silent order who live a contemplative life. They embody a spirituality of simplicity and balance; their monastery exists for the soul.
The brothers got brewing in 1863 in order to fulfil their obligations to the labourers constructing the monastery. The labourers were entitled to two glasses of beer a day. In time they refined their brewing craft to finance the needs of the monastery. Now they are carefully trying to balance fame and need.
I tell this story because the brothers need money, and the support it can bring. Their buildings, for example, need upkeep. The brothers need too to know the language and mechanisms of money in order to be wise stewards of it. But they also know that money, and the language and desires that go along with it – what I’ve called the ‘achieve disease’ – can begin, if they let, to infect, then pollute/dilute their purpose. Their purpose is to shelter, tend, and water the soul of individuals, their community, and their society. So, they carefully balance their beer, their fame, their needs, and their purpose.
The orthodox wisdom like: ‘more is better’, ‘growth is good’, ‘weak is bad’, ‘if it’s not useful discard it’, has tipped us off balance, causing all manner of harm, to all manner of people, to our planet, and to our soul.
The reading from Matthew’s gospel today – one of the longest pieces that scholars think is authentically from the historical Jesus – is also soul language. Of course, things like income, food, drink, clothing, and time are important. But it is when they become all important, all consuming, when they tip the balance away from those things that nurture the soul, that we are in danger.
We know, almost innately, some things are good for the soul and some aren’t. We know that destructive relationships with nature damage our soul, and appreciative relationships help restore it. We know that destructive relationships with other people wound our soul, and gentle, kind relationships help us flower into our best. We know that too much food, drink, work, technology, and ugly buildings starve the soul of the simplicity, silence, and beauty it needs. And we know that ample helpings of laughter, gentle touch, animals to pat and play with, and music and song, replenish it.
I believe that St Luke’s going forward needs to be a place that puts weight on the other side of the scales to balance out the forces that drive the world of management and commerce, that world in which we all participate, need, and are affected by. I believe St Luke’s needs to a hospitable healing shelter, inclusive of those who do well and those who don’t, of the stranger and the strange, of the gentle and the lost. A place not worried about whether you can pay, achieve, or impress. A place where food and listening are prioritised. A place where you can take time to sit, and eat, and talk about nothing. A place where the therapeutic magic of music happens, and art and beauty are appreciated and created. A shelter for a different set of values. Values that are grounded in the uselessness of love, of unconditional gift, and of the importance of the soul.
[i] Isaiah 58.
[ii] ‘Home base’ or, literally, ‘place to stand’.
[iii] Awhinatanga is interpersonal care/empathy. Manaakitanga is hospitality to strangers.
[iv] If you are a beer nut – here’s a YouTube clip about it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8NRY4jLsJo