Rediscovering the center
by Patrick Lafferty
"Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD!"
Russell Melancon lives in Butte La Rose, La., which happens to sit smack dab in the middle of a flood plain of the Mississippi River. When the Mississippi wells from torrential rains, some of Louisiana's spillways are opened to relieve the pressure on the mighty river. As a result, flood plains like the one Melancon lives on become inundated, swamping everything in the vicinity.
Asked why he chose to live, of all places, in a flood plain knowing it would likely one day suffer this fate, Melancon offered an almost oracular reply: "Why you are here is something you never even think about. You are this place." To him the question was irrelevant, no matter its logic. He'd been so long in those backwater climes—been so shaped by that place—he just didn't muse about his reasons or purposes for living there. He just was there, and he could not think of himself as anything but a resident of Butte La Rose, LA—flood plain or no flood plain. He so identified with the place, he simply was this place.
Russell Melancon is perhaps representative of us all. You could substitute the word "place" with any number of examples of human experience and the sentiment would be equally applicable. If you've been married for long, you could easily say "you are this spouse." Raise a child for years and it wouldn't be odd to say "you are this parent." You are this occupation or office, this neighborhood or precinct, this status, name, or reputation. Melancon's unpremeditated comment resonates with us. Why you are any of those roles—why you are part of the circumstances—is something you may never even think about. They're just part of you, maybe so much so that you can't think of yourself as anything but what they represent.
Those roles, relationships, experiences shape you, define you—help you make sense of yourself and your world. They ground you, stabilize you. In a word, they center you. They're at the center of your existence.
It's inevitable that anything you become accustomed to, anything you invest yourself in, will become important to you. It's impossible not to be shaped, stabilized, and, yes, centered by them.
And there's nothing wrong necessarily with being affected in those ways by such things. They're gifts of God—opportunities to engage life, to find pleasure, even to be matured by them.
But what's true of all of them is that they can be washed away overnight like a clapboard home on a Louisiana flood plain.
That's why Psalm 150 insists that of all the things that might shape and center you, one thing must shape and center you most—your praise of God. Praise must be at the center of your existence, the one thing that remains should all else be washed away.
That this Psalm calls for praise 13 times in six verses means praise is neither optional nor marginal. Nor is it reserved for the clerical class. "Let everything that has breath praise the LORD" (v. 6). Praise is central to our existence in how it figures so prominently here in this Psalm and throughout the scriptures.
But you also see the centrality of praise through the Psalmist's use of three little prepositions: in, for, and with.
"Praise Him in His sanctuary. Praise Him in his mighty heavens." God has called for praise where His people are gathered but also where His heavenly host dwells. There's no place off limits to praise. So the kind of heart in whom the praise of God is central finds reason to praise Him in all places at all times. Sundays and Thursdays. Mornings brimming with opportunity and evenings encumbered with weariness. Praise is fitting in seasons of celebration and in tides of sorrow. Praise is central to our existence in where it's called for.
It's also central in why it's called for. "Praise Him for His mighty deeds. Praise Him according to His excellent greatness." Praise is commanded here, but not for no good reason. We praise God for who He is and for what He has done. We dwell on His nature and meditate on His acts—in the past, in our moment, and in what is yet to come—so that we find reason to give Him praise.
Perhaps you can identify when I lament how many times I find myself in a sullen, petulant, or aggravated frame. Praise of God is furthest from my lips because it couldn't be further from my heart.
But if praise is central to my existence then it behooves me to pause, to remember and reflect upon the goodness of God so that praise might swallow up my pride, or whatever else might be impeding my praise. No matter how aggravating or devastating my circumstances, God is still bigger, grander—still worthy of my praise—that my only logical, natural response is to give Him such. The heart in whom praise is central is the one that finds reasons for praising Him.
Lastly we learn praise is central to our existence in the Psalmist's use of with. He calls for praise with trumpets, harps and lutes—with strings, pipes, and loud clashing cymbals. He's not reserving praise for the musically-inclined, nor exempting those who are tone deaf or rhythmically-challenged. He's saying that anyone might praise God by using whatever they have to give expression to their appreciation of Him. Now all those roles, relationships, circumstances, and experiences we spoke of earlier have an even grander import. They may all be employed in such a way as to give praise to God—whether it's our career or our cancer, our triumphs or our tragedies. All things have a capacity to be used as instruments of praise by those whose hearts have His praise central to their existence.
We may be many things, shaped by several and centered by a few. But we are our praise. That is, the sincerity of our praise is what defines us and stabilizes us and centers us most.
But how often is praise pushed to the margins of our existence? How often do we listen to the words of the Psalmist and find them so foreign to our experience?
That praise rises so infrequently from our hearts bears testimony to our greatest need: a divine Help, One in whom the praise of God never abated. One who showed us why our God is worthy of praise for supplying us Himself in order to reconcile us to Himself. One who revealed that a life of praise is often sacrificing yourself for another's good.
If you find yourself inundated with everything else in this life and you've forgotten you were made and meant to praise Him, you are bidden to hear His word, receive His sacrament, and pray by and with His Spirit.
Our instinct is to let other things—even good things—center us so that we think we become them. The Lord Jesus proclaims with the same intensity of the Psalmist that we are first and foremost His. And for that we shall praise Him all the days of our life.