Locked Pianos

Sunday 30th July 2017
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Psalm 103

In the realms of pure philosophy and theology we are supposed to pay due accord to the almighty simply because of its being, without any hint of a transaction, without any sense of "well you have done this for me so I will thank you properly" but, as we know, human nature is not like that, so we tend towards the transactional, thanking God for whatever gifts and mercies we perceive to have been given which isn't quite so bad as as the purely contractual, saying "We will only praise you if you do this or that."

When we look at the Psalms, or any portion of the Old Testament for that matter, we need to be careful to understand the writer's frame of reference. God's chosen people assigned all their good fortune to God and even, when they saw themselves as unfaithful, assigned their bad fortune to 'Him' as well. God was even more important to the Chosen People, more of an explanation of how things are, than even science is to us. So to a semi nomadic people surrounded and even inter perphorated by hostile people, whatever blessings, physical or spiritual, that they enjoyed, whatever crises were averted, their Lord was absolutely central from the cradle to the grave, in good times and even in bad, the Lord was ubiquitous to such a degree that they felt, much more I think than we do, that God is everywhere.

The Psalmist is clear enough, the praise is grounded in perceived benefits but it never tips over into contract beccause,  and this has significance for us as Christians, the Chosen People never thought they had anything equivalent to offer to God in return for 'his' goodness to them. Here, we have to note from the context that God was being praised for his earthly manifestations and gifts. Although it may be tempting to assign retrospective significance to the words, to read the fulfillment of God's promise to us back into them, there is nothing here about the after-life.

Looked at from that perspective, considering our own situation, we have incalculable cause for praise. For a start, we have never been more prosperous nor lived longer; we have never known so much about how we are what we are; we have never been so well educated and well informed. And at an infinitely higher level, since the triple almighty impact on human history in the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of Jesus, we have known for a certainty that we shall see God face to face as 'He' really is.

And so although it is right and proper to praise God for the earth we have been given, of which we are but poor stewards, the over-riding reason for our praise is not whatever earthly benefits God endows but the all encompassing benefit of 'His' promise that we will be with him.

In spite, then, of all the wonders of earth and heaven, why do we spend most of our prayer space in intercession? I think there is a simple explanation and a more complex one. The simple explanation is that the way we are constituted, the way our DNA works, produces our best and our worst: it produces ambition, aspiration and striving but it also, conversely, produces competition, envy and conquest and so, too often, when we pray in an intercessory way, we are too often asking God to intervene on our behalf to support our aspirations. This may not be a zero sum game where God acting on our behalf causes somebody else to lose out, but it is all too easy to make calculations of the extent to which God is on our side. No doubt all the Christian armies of the First World War prayed to God for support and thought 'He' was on their side but that is precisely the wrong kind of prayer.

The more complex reason has to do with our self understanding. The reason that praise is difficult for us is that it feels like giving something away. Related to the first idea about how we see ourselves, too often people think that praise detracts from themselves, giving credit to the other. Much worse, however, this is a sure symptom of the pride which assigns credit to us and not to God for what is good or goes well. Our problem with praise is that too many of us think that whatever we do it is of our own making; Christianity has never been very far from Pelagianism, the heresy that we can earn our way into heaven by our own merit; a nice, pragmatic approach to God developed by the first ever named Christian from Britain. We are all made of good, pragmatic stuff; we certainly don't want to get too airy fairy and spiritual about religion; we can leave that to foreigners, particularly Catholics. We are a down-to-earth people and won't let ourselves be carried away.

But that is precisely our problem: our God is the God of stability, the establishment, middle class respectability, a God very much like us, what the Edwardians would have called a "clubable" God, ignoring, of course, the fact that he was an itinerant teacher of working class stock.

Such self satisfaction with a God we have tamed requires radical measures and so I think that to do just a little bit better, to be slightly more humble, to assign more of what is good to God and what is bad to ourselves simply will not do. We have to start from scratch, to understand that perfect love is non contractual, that God is to be praised simply for being God; that God must be praised in good times and bad, simply because that is the fundamental requirement of the created by the Creator. We were made to praise, that is the nature of our being; without praising we are not who we are; when we cease to praise we are like buds that will not burst, caterpillars that will not lose their skins, pianos with lids locked down. If we do not praise, we are as good as dead.

This is, of course, too much to ask but it is the necessary starting point. At the very least, however, we should put as much energy into praise as we do into intercession. We ought to be grateful that God is God and does not behave like us; if we were forever receiving requests but were never praised for our benevolence and mercy, we would soon get tired of it.