Fill My Mouth with Your Praise

“Fill my Mouth with Your Praise” 1.

The utterance of praise is an essential quality of being human. Yet the energy of praise cannot be limited to or contained within our human condition.  Jeremiah describes this energy as “a burning fire shut up in my bones;  I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20: 9).  As we will see, praise “deconstructs” which is why the prophet bitterly complains about derision by others in the chapter.  St. Ephrem uses the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana as an image for praise.  Jesus’ mother informs her son: “They have no wine.”   They need to be filled with the transcendent joy of Jesus’ presence so that their own joy may be complete (John 15: 11).  Ephrem prays, “fill my mouth with (the wine of) your praise.”  Nowhere is the fire or new wine of praise more evident than in Mark’s resurrection narrative.  Further, I will suggest that praise is universal by surveying traditions of praise poetry in Celtic Wales and Africa, Jewish praise psalms, Arabic praise poetry and the ancient hymning of Saint Ephrem the Syrian.  Indeed, it seems that humankind is hardwired to praise.  Saint Augustine begins his Confessions by asserting that all people have a need or even an instinct to praise God.  “You (God) stir (each one) to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” 2.

The attempt to cope with the overflow or superabundance of God’s love is what Christians mean by praise.3.  Naturally, then, the resurrection sparks and energizes praise.  Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh describes resurrection as “… a laugh freed/ for ever and ever.” 4.  Alan Jones tells of the end of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur.  “Sir Lancelot and his companions have all retired from the world in order to live as hermits.  Among their company is a retired Archbishop of Canterbury.  One night every one in the little monastic community is disturbed by the sound of the archbishop’s loud laughter.  The companions gather round his bed and wake him up, and the archbishop cries, ‘Ah, Jesu mercy, why did you wake me?  I was never so merry, and so well at ease in my life.’  They asked him why.  He had seen Sir Lancelot’s soul being received into heaven by myriads of angels, and he laughed and laughed and laughed.” 5. 

Praise and the Resurrection Narrative of the Gospel of Mark


If the superabundance of divine love is what gives rise to resurrection in Mark’s narrative, and laughter and praise are what accompany being brought into God’s presence, then why in the gospel narrative is the dominant note one of fear?  And I don’t mean reverence or awe but flat-out, unsettling fear.  Is it possible that fear is the emotion that accompanies the beginning of praise?


At sunrise the women went to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid.  They are in for a huge disruption in how they make sense of things.  From a human perspective death brings everything to a full stop.  Now all of a sudden this worldview is cracked open, disrupted.  Deconstructed we would say today.  The women are afraid.  It is how we feel when our expectations are turned on their head.  What is it that cracks open the way of things?  The message of the early church was one of “preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all” (Acts 10: 36).  Praise creates a worldview that places the overflow of compassion, incarnate in Jesus Christ (and not ourselves), in the center.  


The “not ourselves” is the deconstruction of all other worldviews where the superabundant God is not central.  Theologian John Franke following the thought of William Stacy Johnson writes: “It is an infinity that claims us and will not let go in its call to move us beyond the constraints of our selfhood, beyond the limitations of our versions of reality and truth and toward the Other, the God in whom we live and move and have our being.” 6.  Praise places us in the presence of this God and continually deconstructs whatever encrusts this dynamic, divine overflow of love.  It is this deconstruction that yanks us out of the center of how we look at things and pulls the rug out from under imperial control that is so unsettling, particularly dangerous to those on the margins of worldly power.  It is the marginalized that are most prone to praise and also are most vulnerable when the powers fall under praise’s deconstruction.  Mark describes this in his little apocalypse: “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days!” (Mark 13:17).  In the same way the women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them;  and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Praise not only deconstructs but it redirects and reorients.  The heavenly messenger at the empty tomb redirects the women and disciples to Galilee where, they are told, they will encounter the risen Christ.  Praise redirects all people and things to their new life in God. In Galilee Jesus undertook his healing ministry that gave an intimation of what resurrection would look like.  The women and disciples are redirected to this place of healing.  The Quaker and Welsh Poet Waldo Williams remarked that the purpose of praise is “to recreate an unblemished world,” 7. a mended creation where the broken are healed.  The phrases “lifted up” and “arise” are used deliberately in the gospel prefiguring the resurrection.  In the first chapter of Mark Jesus takes Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifts her up (1:31).  Later, to a girl nearly dead Jesus takes her by the hand again and says “Little girl, I say to you, arise” 8. (RSV, 5:41).  A boy with convulsions and unable to speak is brought to Jesus.  As by now is his custom he takes the boy by the hand and lifted him up (9: 27).  Praise redirects us to where the feverish find freedom, those as good as dead are given life, the voiceless find their voice, and those convulsed with oppression are enabled to stand.  Praise redirects the women and disciples to where they learn again the meaning of healing and re-creation as though for the first time when they meet the risen Christ in Galilee.

So praise is the way one copes with the overflow of God’s love.  Praise is an orientation whereby at the heart of how one looks at the world there is God.  What can one do but laugh with joy. There are worldviews that are convulsive and oppressive where God, the infinity that claims us, is not at the center.  Praise deconstructs these orientations.  Fear is the feeling that accompanies this deconstruction.  Finally praise redirects one to where healing and new life are found and God who is uncontainable is again at the center of how one understands life unblemished by violence, coercion and the power of death.

There is a cross-cultural quality of praise.  This says to me that we have a human need or propensity for praise.  Praise is deeply part of who we are as human beings.  We see it expressed across cultures in what is known as praise poetry.  I hope the following brief survey will demonstrate this human need to praise and draw us more deeply into its meaning for our own Christian tradition.

Welsh Praise Poetry

In Wales during a sabbatical in 1997 I learned of the ancient tradition of praise poetry.  Esther de Waal who lives in the Marches or border area between Wales and England, acknowledges the origin of the praise poem in “the cultic celebration of the pagan king by professional poets.” 9.  In the following 13th century poem the author, most likely a cleric, wrote a praise poem to Christ the first five lines of which would have served well in a poem of praise to a king.

In the name of the Lord, mine to praise, of great praise,
I shall praise God, great the triumph of his love,
God who defended us, God who made us, God who saved us,
God our hope, perfect and honorable, beautiful his blessing.
We are in God’s power, God above, Trinity’s king.

Like a king whose triumph is great, the poet praises God.  We find in praise an asymmetry between the king and bard, or in this case, God and the poet.  The human person is in God’s power. The poet participates in God’s beautiful blessing bringing salvation and joy.  God is the defender of the poet, as once the king protected the bard.  There is an overflow of largesse in the perfect and honorable stature of the king/God warranting the trinity of praise in the first two lines.

The poem then goes on to pick up themes from the resurrection narrative of fear (terrible grief), deconstruction, redirection and reorientation.

God proved himself our liberation by his suffering,
God came to be imprisoned in humility.
Wise Lord, who will free us by Judgment Day,
Who will lead us to the feast through his mercy and sanctity
In paradise, in pure release from the burden of sin,
Who will bring us salvation through penance and the five wounds.
Terrible grief, God defended us when he took on flesh.
Man would be lost if the perfect rite had not redeemed him.
Through the cross, blood-stained, came salvation to the world.
Christ, strong shepherd, his honor shall not fail.10.

There is a deconstruction of triumph and power.  It is not by domination that the victory is won but by suffering and love.  An all-powerful, distant God is deconstructed to an event of love imprisoned in humility, waiting to be cracked open, just as the cross and resurrection tore in two the curtain of the temple.  Does the terrible grief refer to the cross or to the marginalized in their oppression, or perhaps to the lost condition of all apart from Christ.  This is an incarnational story.  God is present in having taken on flesh, and in the real presence of communion.  The “perfect rite” of the Eucharist redirects Jesus’ followers and the poet.  The poem begins: “In the name of the Lord” that would have for the poet Eucharistic connotations.  The Eucharist reorients its participants to a worldview of cosmic mending with Christ at the center.  This is an orientation that gives meaning to all else which is what we will see next in African praise poetry.

African Praise Poetry

          In 2002 I attended a workshop on Creativity Through Writing and Storytelling with storyteller Jay O’Callahan who tells his tales all over the world.  He first came on the idea of praise poems when he was telling stories in Africa.  Jay says that “if you give people a gift of praising themselves, it is a sacred act.”  In Lesotho boys were expected to compose their own lithoko (the word for praise poem that comes from the verb ho roka -  “to praise”).  “At one time almost every adult male Sotho was able to compose and chant his own lithoko…” 11.    The poem is not self-congratulatory as though the poem was oriented about one’s self.  Instead, the orientation in which the poem was composed would be one of proud traditional values, a love of the land, and an historically continuous community.  Here is part of an initiate’s lithoko.  Each initiate is given a new name that begins with the letter “L.”  In this case the boy’s new name was Lefata.  He makes me smile.  I can just imagine a thirteen-year-old coming up with something like this!


                   Lefata, wander on and go down
                   To go and see how huts stand
                   To go and see dark-complexioned girls.
                   A dark-complexioned young man, I, Lefata
                   A young man with a beautiful voice
                   A young man to be called a chief
                   A young man to be given a shield.
                   Girls love him without knowing him
                   They go about breaking themselves into small pieces.12.


In the Creativity workshop, Jay O’Callahan asked each of us to write our own praise poem. The language of praise is very different from the language of congratulations.  In congratulations the autonomous self replaces God or community at the center of the world.  Psychiatrist Robert Coles in a book entitled The Secular Mind, writes: “With God gone for so many intellectual pioneers of the last two centuries, the rest of us, as students and readers… have only ourselves left as ‘objects’ of attention.” 13.  A different world (than an unblemished one) is evoked when we are the object of attention than when we praise God.  Then we “understand each human being as his or her own lord.” 14.  The self is sovereign.  When we praise a person or ourselves in the context of the divine, each one is part of God’s good creation.  The boy Lafata rises on the tide of his community and tradition none of which is removed from the divine.  We praise the activity that leads to fulfillment of each person in all that they were created to be.  We praise the co-creative actions that serve the eschatological goal of an unblemished world.  In the Episcopal Church at confirmation instead of composing a lithoko, the bishop prays that each confirmand may continue God’s forever, and daily increase in Holy Spirit until arrival in that everlasting kingdom.15.  That prayer is very much in the tradition of praise.  There is orientation (God’s forever), an implied deconstruction (otherwise why would daily increase be necessary), redirection and fulfillment (everlasting kingdom).  In O’Callahan’s words, at confirmation, we are beginning to teach another the meaning of praise for themselves and that is a sacred act. 

So we are sitting in a cottage on Humarock Beach on the South Shore of Massachusetts.  It is a sunny day and Minot’s Light is off in the distance.  Jay introduces the exercise with some words from Walt Whitman: “I too am not a bit tamed, I am untranslatable,/ I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world…16.  Then he adds some verses from Psalm 139, “Lord… I will thank you because I am marvelously made;  your works are wonderful, and I know it well.”  He reads his own praise poem and invites us to write ours.  With apologies to any true poet this is my own lithoko:


          Praise is my aspiration,
          A high tide unebbing,
          A salt sea lapping.
          I laugh at my openness
          Born of an openness
          That has no shore –
          Being –
          Stable, steady, oceanic.

          A hopeful wind stirs the whitecaps
          Of my moments
          That turn sunlight to joyful flashes like some lighthouse
          That saves a vessel passing by –
          A morning’s ocean view.


Africa is a big continent, and there are many other aspects to praise poetry there.  The experience on Humarock Beach put me in mind of psalms of praise.  The psalm that Jay quoted is actually an individual lament or perhaps a wisdom psalm.  But there is a genre of praise psalms.


Israel’s Praise Psalms

          Israel’s praises arise out of an orientation of God’s saving purpose at the heart of a people’s life.  This is God who in the African-American tradition can make a way out of no way.  Or as Paul said to the Romans God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:: 17).  Praise is a faith orientation.  Psalm 136 is a storytelling psalm of hymnic praise.  It begins with an invocation that calls upon the community to praise.  The divine Name is spoken.  The God of Israel has an identity and may be addressed personally even though God is beyond our grasp and control.  Walter Brueggemann reflects that: “Praise articulates and embodies our capacity to yield, submit, and abandon ourselves in trust and gratitude to the One whose we are.” 17.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
                             for his mercy endures forever.
                   Give thanks to the God of gods,
                             for his mercy endures forever.
                   Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
                             for his mercy endures forever.

This invocation includes the imperative to praise and the reason for it.  Praise evokes a world in which God is active.  So in historic situations where there was distress and God’s help was needed, God acted mercifully.  This is the main portion of the psalm.  It is the motive for the people’s praise.  God’s sovereignty and majesty are seen in the story of God’s people. 

God the Creator:

                   Who spread out the earth upon the waters,
                             for his mercy endures forever.

God the Deliverer:

                   Who struck down the first-born of Egypt,
                             for his mercy endures forever.

God the Homemaker:

                   And gave away their lands for an inheritance,
                             for his mercy endures forever.

The psalm concludes with a refrain in which the people are not self-congratulatory but remember their low estate, and God’s deliverance.  God is to be praised for the sustenance given to all creatures: human and animal, plant and mineral.  Creation is a continuing activity of sustaining God’s creatures.  The  psalm’s refrain seems to strike a universal note at the end.

                   Give thanks to the God of heaven,
                             for his mercy endures forever.


It would seem there is an openness to God that embraces the whole cosmos and what can one do but praise. 

Esther de Waal quotes Thomas Merton who observed that, “In the Psalms we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection.  We return to the youthful strength and directness with which the ancient psalmists voiced their adoration of the God of Israel.” 18.  One reason to refer to the primitive sincerity of the psalm’s praise is an aggression and occupation of another’s land that would be deemed unjust by today’s standards.19.  Primitive sincerity also however brings us close in time to a people who saw God active and at the center of their understanding of life.  That is a sincerity and directness that is deeply needed today.  Unlike the Celts whom Esther de Waal writes about, God in the modern, secular world has come to be seen as distant from daily life.  Where once the simplest and most ordinary tasks were imbued with the divine presence, today even many church members might be hard pressed to identify God’s presence or action in their daily lives.  We need the praise of the psalms.  We have lost and need to recover our “religious imagination” for God’s presence in the little things of daily life, natural beauty and ordinary relationships. 20.  We need to recover the meaning of praise and find fulfillment for ourselves and our world as a result.


Arabic Praise Poetry

          Given the conflict in the Middle East I could not help but wonder if Israel has psalms of praise how about the Arabs?  And after some searching sure enough there is also Arab praise poetry.  Pre-Islamic praise poetry like that of ancient Wales was offered to kings and tribal lords.  The poem that I will look at is “Ka’b ibn Zuhayr and the Mantle of the Prophet.”  It is based on the pre-Islamic praise tradition and tells of Ka’b’s conversion to Islam in he 7th century.  Praise in the Arab tradition is a process.  There is a prelude that describes some loss or separation.  It seems to me rather like a deconstruction of what was.  Then there is the journey that is dangerous and ambiguous.  It is a kind of in-between state, perhaps the crossing of some threshold.  Finally, there is the praise of having arrived, a state of fulfillment.

          Ka’b’s poem begins with a traditional motif of a departed, lost lover.

                   Su’ad has departed and today
                             my heart is sick,…
                   Alas! What a mistress, had she been true
                             to what she promised…
                   But she is a mistress
                             in whose blood are mixed
                   Calamity, mendacity,
                             inconstancy, and perfidy. 21.

The name Su’ad is related to the word for prosperity, good fortune and happiness.  Allegorically, this is the loss of a tribal society that had stability though was false and unreliable.

Next comes the journey.  The poet describes his camel, “the best of she-camels of noble breed and easy pace.”  The poet is traveling to a land “Never to be reached but by a she-camel/ huge and robust/That despite fatigue sustains/ her amble and her trot.”  The camel is understood allegorically to be the poet’s own resolve in the face of almost unbearable loss.  The final verse of this section reads: “Tearing her clothes from her breast/ with her bare hands,/ Her woolen shift ripped from her collarbone/ in shreds.”  The relentless motion of the she-camel on this perilous journey is like a grieving mother fiercely tearing at her clothing over the loss of her first born.

The final and third section of the poem is the arrival/conversion of the poet in a praise of rebirth.  To his former associates who were of no help, the poet cries: “Out of my way,/ you bastards!…”  Tribal bonds are emphatically cut off. Then comes the possibility of a new, salvific relationship.

But from God’s Messenger
pardon is hoped.
                   Go easy, and let Him be your guide
                             who gave to you
                   The gift of the Qur’an in which
                             are warnings and discernment!

In this praise poem we have the movement from false hope to hope fulfilled, from misguidance to true discernment.  Suzanne Stetkevych writes that here we have “the Islamic message of right guidance and divine might.” 22.  Praise is a process of getting on the right path.  The poem is an affirmation of Islamic faith and the fulfillment of one’s self in Allah/God through praise.

Hymnic Praise of St. Ephrem the Syrian

          Sufism in Islam may have been influenced in some part by east Syriac mystics. 23.  I mentioned to Esther de Waal that I was reading about Arab praise poetry and interested in praise generally and in its cross cultural expression.  She pointed me in the direction of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, the finest poet of the patristic age not just in Syriac but in any language.  Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke.  Ephrem who lived in the fourth century wrote many of hymns for women’s choirs and had an appreciation for the equality of the sexes.  He wrote:

                 The object of your teaching is the wholly new world, where,
                    in the kingdom, men and women are equal.
            Your work put the two sexes together as two lyres,
                    And you made men and women at once equal to
                              sing (God’s) praises.

Ephrem has been called a second Moses for women. 24.

          For Ephrem praise is the nourishment required for faith to grow.  In a hymn on faith he wrote:

                   The seed, swollen with moisture,
                   bursts asunder its covering of soil
                   and out peers the blade of wheat, full of symbols.
                   So faith, whose bosom is filled with goodly fruits,
                   is a blade bearing praise.

Praise is like the sap coursing through the blade of wheat. It energizes faith.  It also displays “goodly fruits.”  One has only to think of a favorite parable of Ephrem, that of the sower, and the seed that brought forth grain a hundredfold (Matt. 13).  Again there is this sense of profusion and abundance that with respect to praise continually grows larger.  Ephrem declares that the more we praise, the wider our inner or spiritual vision.  We see greater and greater evidence of God’s compassion and praise all the more.

          I also believe there is a relation between rootedness and praise.  I once asked the Benedictine Fr. Laurence Freeman about the relation between praise and stability.  This question would have been anachronistic to Ephrem as monasticism had not yet arrived in Syria.  But Freeman’s answer reminds me of a verse from Ephrem.  He replied you only have to look in the cemetery.  I gave a quizzical look, to which he added.  There is a cherry tree there in full blossom.  Without its roots and their stability we would not have such a riot of color.  St. Ephrem writes in Faith 80:

Scripture decrees that by his faith
the righteous man shall find his life;
for truth itself is root and stem –  
a noble tree – and on its branch,   
our righteous works God took, like fruits,   
and placed, where now, by faith, they hang. 25.

Praise needs to root itself in truth, not deception or ingratitude, greed or arrogance.  When stabilized by the truth, the tree is noble and the fruits hang in a profusion of praise.

One can go deeper than the spiritual perception that speaks with mouths filled with praise.  Ephrem suggests that the most profound praise is silent.

         Fish are both conceived and born in the sea
         if they dive deep, they escape those who would catch them.
         In luminous silence within the mind let prayer recollect itself,
         so as not to stray. 26.

Sebastian Brock notes that the “movement of praise from sound to silence is seen by Ephrem as a counterpart to the movement of God from the silence of His ineffable Being to the divine Utterance, the Word.” 27

Like the Welsh poem’s “perfect rite,” Ephrem’s poem, “The Eucharistic Marriage Feast,” situates praise as an integral part of Christian life.  Praise places Christ at the center around which everything else is oriented.  Ephrem begins his poem with reference to the wedding feast at Cana:

    I have invited You, Lord, to a wedding feast of songs,
   but the wine – the utterance of praise – at our feast has run out.
   (You are) the guest who filled with good wine the jars;
   fill my mouth with Your praise.

The poem ends with paradox.  Greek philosophy with its reliance on static definition had not yet arrived in Syria.  This happenstance freed Ephrem to use paradox as a more dynamic and fluid way of doing theology.
It is right that humanity should acknowledge Your divinity,                  it is right for the supernal beings to worship Your humanity;            the supernal beings were amazed to see how small You become,      and those below to see how exalted!

The refrain again finds praise grounded in truth:

Praise to You from everyone
                   who has perceived Your truth. 28.



          Everywhere one looks with what Ephrem calls the luminous eye, praise is the human response to the truth of God’s overwhelming compassion.  There is laughter at being received into God’s presence, but fear at the deconstruction or loss that is praise’s beginning.  This may be the loss of a worldview that has been turned on its head, or the loss of a way of life that had seemed so dependable and was found to be false.  From loss praise redirects the faithful to those Galilees where the dynamic prospect of healing and wholeness may find fulfillment.  Praise expects God’s merciful activity in the world.  Each person finds their worth through praise by virtue of their asymmetric relationship with God and their interdependence with God’s creation.  Everything else is congratulations where self is at the center.  This may be good as far as it goes but congratulations is a “one-off” declaration of success.  Praise is a process that leads to continual conversion and growth.  It may be that praise at its deepest is expressed in silence.  When one encounters praise in different cultures one finds a breadth of meaning.  Praise seems so central that without it one could scarcely be called human.  Let Ephrem have the last word:

While I live I will give praise, and not be as if I had no existence;
 I will give praise during my lifetime, and will not be as someone dead
among the living. 29



1.  Brock, Sebastian P., and Kiraz, George A., translators and editors; Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems; Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2009; p. 217.  This paper was first presented at the Philadelphia Clericus on April 23, 2012.

2.  Chadwick, Henry, translator; Saint Augustine Confessions; New York, Oxford University Press, Oxford World’s Classics, 1998; p. 3.                        

3. Ford, David F. and Hardy, Daniel W.;  Living in Praise: Worshipping and Knowing God; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic. 2005; p. 2.  Ford and Hardy use the term abundance.  I think of God’s compassion as inexhaustible and overwhelming and so use the word superabundant.  We see this in Mark’s story of the feeding of the 4000.  Jesus has compassion, and not only are the 4000 fed with seven loaves of bread (That is abundance.) but afterwards there were seven full baskets left over (Mark 8: 1-10).  In a later book, David Ford meditates on how being overwhelmed shapes our lives.  He concludes that “God is a self-distributing God continually overflowing in love through the Holy Spirit,” (Ford, David F.; The Shape of Living: Spiritual Directions for Everyday Life; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999; p. 194).

4.  Ford and Hardy, Opus cited, page, 92; and Ford, The Shape of Living, p. 185.

5.  Jones, Alan; Journey into Christ; Minneapolis: The Seabury Press, 1977; p. 139.

6.  Franke, John R.; Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009;p. 112.

7.  Allchin, A. M.; Praise Above All: Discovering the Welsh Tradition; Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991; p. 3.

8. Scripture citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version unless indicated otherwise.  Here the translation from the Revised Standard Version is clearer with respect to the point I am trying to make.

9.  de Waal, Esther; The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996; p. 168.

10. Davies, Oliver; Celtic Christianity in Early Medieval Wales; Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1996; pp. 52-3.  I follow Davies in his interpretation of this poem.

11. Damane, M. and Sanders, P. B., editors and translators; Lithoko: Sotho Praise-Poems; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974; p. 22.

12. Gleason, Judith; Leaf and Bone: African Praise-Poems; New York: Penguin Books, 1994; p. 19.

13. Coles, Robert; The Secular Mind; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999; p. 123;  quoted in: Cutler, E. Clifford; By Night: Sermons & Meditations in a Third Millennium; Thorofare, New Jersey: Edward Brothers, Inc., 2010; p. 5.

14. Jacobson, Rolf; “The Costly Loss of Praise,” Theology Today; 57, no. 3 O 2000, p. 381.

15. The Book of Common Prayer; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

16. Whitman, Walt; Song of Myself; East Aurora, New York: Roycrofters, 1904; accessed by the Internet Archive.

17. Brueggemann, Walter; Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988; p. 1.

18. de Waal, Esther; Opus Cited; p. 182.

19. The group Christian–Jewish Allies for Justice in the Middle East was formed in 2009 at Saint Paul’s Church, Philadelphia for the purpose of teaching the facts on the ground, many of which are unjust, in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.  When one understands praise as the human person’s response to the overflow of God’s compassion, it tempers the human proclivity toward violence.

20. Zscheile, Dwight J.; People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity; New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2012.  See especially pages 36, 68, 76 and 91.

21. Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney; The Mantle Odes: Arabic Praise Poems to the Prophet Muhammad; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010; p. 27-49.

22. ibid., p. 57.

23. Brock, Sebastian; The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life; Cistercian Publications, Inc., 1987; n. 56, p. xli.

24. Griffith, Sidney H.; “A Spiritual Father for the Whole Church: St Ephaem the Syrian,” Sobornost, Volume 20: 2, 1998, p. 27.  Also, Brock (The Luminous Eye) p. 168.

25. Palmer, Andrew; “St Ephrem of Syria’s Hymn on Faith 7: an ode on his own name;”  Sobornost, Volume 17:1, 1995; p. 29

26. Brock, Sebastian, (The Syriac Fathers); p. 34.

27. Brock, Sebastian; The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem; Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1992; p. 79.

28. Brock & Kiraz, opus cited; p. 217.

29. Brock, The Luminous Eye; p. 45.



Allchin, A.M.; Praise Above All: Discovering the Welsh Tradition; Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991.

Anderson, Bernhard W.; Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983.

Brock, Sebastian, Translator; The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life; Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications Inc., 1987.

Brock, Sebastian, Translator; Hymns of Paradise: St Ephrem; Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990.

Brock, Sebastian; The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem; Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1992.

Brock Sebastian P. & Kiraz, George A., Translators and Editors; Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems; Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2009.

Brueggemann, Walter; Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology;
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Chadwick, Henry, Translator; Saint Augustine Confessions; New York: Oxford University Press, Oxford World’s Classics, 1998.

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Looking Out from a Shrinking Church

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost/July 29, 2012

The Very Reverend E. Clifford Cutler

 "I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power..."

          The scriptures today remind us of our human weakness and God’s strength, our human ailing and God’s holiness, our hunger and God’s provision, our fear and God’s comfort.  This is important to have in mind as we examine our shrinking church whose decline many have laid at the feet of liberalism. 

          Let’s begin with the numbers.  There is no disputing them.  When I graduated from high school in 1967 there were about 3 ½ million members in the Episcopal Church.  Now 45 years later there are less than 2 million, the fewest members since 1935. 1.  Saint Paul’s had an average attendance of over 450 in 1967 which today is a bit over 200.  In 1971 when I graduated from college and chose to respond to God’s call to ordination, 40% of the clergy under age 40 had seriously considered leaving the ministry.  Nothing changed more dramatically during the 60s than American religion.2.  This was the church that I was sent to serve.

It has come in for some harsh criticism, much of which was cynical but there were some critiques that deserve our serious consideration; hence this sermon.  The Wall Street Journal in an article entitled, “What Ails the Episcopalians, “referred to the legal wrangling over property, and criticized what it saw as a focus on secular politics.  Two days later, The New York Times ran an op-ed piece that wondered “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?”  Here the critique was of a church that changed and changed some more.  Again there was the reference to a downplay of theology in favor of secular politics.  Finally, last week in our local paper a Mt. Airy poet prayed, “Protect me from all religion,” by which she means absolutism in all its forms.  These are honest criticisms about which there is no need to be defensive, but every need for reflection and a considered response.

Liberal Christianity has to do with freedom – the freedom to interpret scripture and to adapt traditions to particular cultural and social settings.  There is much that is helpful in this liberal stance and also there are dangers.  The Times article identified one of these dangers as a church that changes then changes again.  Our modern culture today is equally fluid.  In this situation it is possible for liberal Christianity to become so free in its interpretations and adaptations that it loses it mooring.  When this happens we members feel disoriented and anxious.  A corrective is the Benedictine influence within our Episcopal Church, particularly its insistence on stability.  Our prayer at the end of Lent for instance is that “our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found,” that is in the presence of God.  In addition, our worship includes ancient elements such as the Sanctus that our worship sheet describes as dating back to the 4th century.  This gives a rootedness for a people whose society and whose church seems to change and then change again.

The 60s represented a huge shock to religion.  The church feared the loss of confidence in institutions and social and moral upheaval.  The evangelical response was to take a strong stand for faith with a zeal that kept their numbers high.  By 1979 when the Episcopal Church’s new prayer book was published, the Moral Majority formed, linking religion and politics.  Ten years later the group disbanded but conservative political partisanship and high church attendance seemed to go hand in hand.  But by the 1990s the evangelical boom that began in the 70s was over.  The important lesson in this is not which secular politics a church chooses but its passionate intensity 3. (evident in many evangelical churches) for God’s work of mending, unity and reconciliation.  In fact, the politics are a cautionary tale.

Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us documented a second aftershock from the turbulent 60s, following the first reaction of the Religious Right.  By the 1990s increasing numbers of Americans became troubled by the role of religion in politics.  Young Americans saw religion as judgmental, homophobic, too political and turned away. 4.  There was little distinction between highly visible conservative religious leaders and religion in general; notwithstanding the reality that there is very little politicking from American pulpits.  Instead, one finds a transcendent quality to Christianity that goes beyond any party.  “Our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul says to the Philippians (3:20).  Yes, there is a call to do God’s will (the wellbeing of all) on earth, but not to reduce God’s will to what is on earth.  Meanwhile the church has lost a generation of young people.

The Wall Street Journal article referred to the legal wrangling over property in the church and the litigation by parishes that have sought to leave the Episcopal Church.  Setting aside the rights of the institution that the courts have regularly upheld, we need to find a way of disagreeing in the church with grace.  Whether it is in a local congregation or on the national scene we are too quick to go on the offensive and square off.  We think we have God on our side.  The fact is that God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34).  Each person is worth our attention, none our disdain.  It is about grace.

In The Chestnut Hill Local, the author like many identifies religion with absolutism.  In an awkward twist to Edmund Burke’s famous quote she writes: “In order for good people to do hideous things, you need religion.”  In other words if you wrap yourself in God you can do anything – protect abusers of children whether in church or university.  This is a difficult and important criticism to listen to.  Mary’s song that we call the Magnificat is a truer statement of faith.  God has showed “strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.  He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.”  Those who presume to be absolute even in the name of religion are put down.

So what is there to learn that might save liberal Christianity or cure what ails the Episcopal Church?  First there can be no change without stability.  We need to be grounded in our worship where the ancient and the contemporary are brought together.  Then we can reach out to bring transformation and change.  Second, it’s not the politics, it’s the passion that gives growth.  What is there to be passionate about?  I am passionate about the way of Jesus in a world where so much is false and unclear.  I am passionate about experiencing community.  I am passionate about praise whose purpose is to create a world unblemished by violence.  I am passionate about the life satisfaction that comes from religion. 5.  Let’s be full of passionate intensity.  We need to pay attention to our young people.  They are looking for a church that is inclusive, compassionate and not partisan, that honors wonder and mystery.  Our baptisms today remind us that we are to do all in our power to support children in their life in Christ.  We cannot afford to lose another generation.  Fourth, our Episcopal tradition of comprehensiveness means that we are going to be in community with people who think differently than we do.  God’s truth is greater than any one perspective.  We sing, “the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind” (Hymn 470).  When we disagree we do so with grace.  Finally, the Benedictine quality of humility is another gift from our tradition.  We do not impose, we engage.  We do not coerce, we network and learn from one another.  Because we humbly acknowledge our humanness there is no necessity for pretensions and cover-ups.  These lessons are what give me cause for optimism though the way is long and far from certain.  We have reliable gifts that sustain us.  And most of all we have God who day by day strengthens our inner being with power.  So says the Letter to the Ephesians. 

1.     Zscheile, Dwight J.; People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity; New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2012; p. xiv.
2.     Putnam, Robert D. and Campbell, David E.; American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us; New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010; p. 94-95.
3.     Ibid., p. 107
4.     Ibid., p. 121, 130-1.
5.     Ibid., p. 491