Friday, December 01, 2006

Praise God

I confess, I have a bit of a problem with praising God in prayer. Not that I don't think it's right, for it is indeed right and salutary that we should at all times and in all places offer thanksgiving and praise. But what I mean can be seen by my use of a traditional quotation in the previous sentence. Namely, it just doesn't come naturally to me to speak this way.

When I try to say a prayer of praise, it comes out sounding like the prayer from Monty Python's Meaning of Life:
O Lord, you are so absolutely huge. We're all really impressed down here I can tell you. Forgive us, O Lord, for this, our dreadful toadying and barefaced flattery.
And, while I'm at it, contemporary praise songs like "Our God is an Awesome God" sound like that to me too. I'm forced to rule it out, based on prayer advice I've heard attributed to Martin Luther: "Don't lie when you pray."

That is, I'm not going to pray "O Lord, you are so big..." if that's not what's on my heart.

But something occurred to me recently that put me at ease about this, which I'd like to share with you. Some time ago, I was exposed to a sermon series on Gary Chapman's book, The Five Love Languages. At the time, I was appalled to be attending a church that would do such a heinous thing, but now, unexpectedly, a seed from that time has come to bloom. Chapman's idea is that different people express love in different ways, and if we want good relationships we need to learn to recognize each other's love languages. Some people show love verbally, others physically, others by service, and so on.

The thing that occurred to me this week is that if people can learn to recognize and respect each other's love languages, surely God will do at least that. Words of praise just aren't my love language, and they aren't likely to become so. But God knows not just what's in my heart but what my various actions mean.

I once heard an interview with the arch-heretic John Domminic Crossan. Asked if he prays, Crossan said that he doesn't understand the difference between prayer and study. For him, when he studies that is prayer. I was shocked to realize that I knew exactly what he meant. While I'm not so bold as Crossan to give up traditional forms of prayer, I think I could say, and this may scandalize both prayer-oriented spiritualists and service-oriented spiritualists, that study is the primary medium by which I experience God's presence.

Lawrence Kushner, in his book God Was In This Place and I, i Did Not Know tells of a revered Rabbi who taught that there are three ways to union with God: prayer, service and intellect. This maps directly, I think, to the three Hindu margas of bhakti (devotion), karma (service) and jnana (intellect). I think it's a fine example of something Christians can learn from people of other faiths. And it came together for me this week as I reflected on how I love God.

Afterthought: To what extent do the theological virtues of faith, hope and love correspond to these three paths of intellect, prayer and service? Is the correspondance more than superficial?


David said...

Thanks for the great post. I have been struggling in some sense with trying to see why I am so often on the opposite side of teaching moments and studies in my church right now. I am serving in a church where they express their love for God in a much different way than I.

Praise songs not withstanding, I have a different outlook on several aspects of "Christian" expression than some whom I work with. For instance, I value piety to a degree while others see it as a stumbling block.

Perhaps we just don't speak the same love for God languages, I don't know. But I'm sure there is room for more understanding on my part at least.

Chris Sagsveen said...

"The thing that occurred to me this week is that if people can learn to recognize and respect each other's love languages, surely God will do at least that. Words of praise just aren't my love language, and they aren't likely to become so. But God knows not just what's in my heart but what my various actions mean.

I think you state this perfectly. View our relationship with God as a love relationship, and our communication with him as a love language. And you're right - He just wants us to connect with Him. Study is a great communication (i.e., prayer) with God.

Good post.

Thomas Adams said...

Andy -- Great post. I’ve often struggled with how to pray, for many of the same reasons you describe (after all, what is there to say to the omniscient and omnipotent One?). Like you, my principal form of prayer over the years has been study, although I’ve often felt somewhat guilty about this. I used to think that I was condemned to an arid, intellectual faith, the product of my decidedly uncharismatic Lutheran upbringing. But I’ve also come to your “love languages” realization – God understands that my love of study is really another way of praising of Him. Indeed, I often find myself praying while reading a theological text, saying “Amen” or “Thank you, God” when I come across a satisfying or beautiful idea. I agree that this is another way to experience His presence.

harleen said...

God has taken me to a new church and I feel like I'm in such bondage, because they are not at all like that. That is not their love language..and if I where to just be myself..I know I would be able to feel their eyes burning into me. Plus, I would be the only one praising God in this way..I don't know why God has me there but I know this is a place that he has me passing through. I just feel like I'm in bondage sometimes because I can't praise him honestly, the way I honestly want to. But i do understand the concept of praying through study, I've experienced him like that before. I believe when God uses someone in that way, there is a reason from divine for it. Maybe you'll be a breakthrough messenger? Maybe he'll give you a word in your study time that is going to change nations? I have experienced him through study, and through conversation, sometimes I just talk, almost like when your young and you talk to your invisible friend..I still do that, accept sometimes my invisible friend does fill my mind with answers or responses to what i'm saying. sometimes I pray him like they do in monty python..i've experienced God in those different ways and I think the most important thing for all of us is to just work out our own soul's salvation through Christ Jesus and to keep a close relationship with him, however it is we do it.