by Tim Mascara
Depending on the religious tradition you grew up in, you may or may not be familiar with the doxology. I was very familiar with it growing up in my Presbyterian tradition. There are many songs that get rooted in the deep spaces of our hearts and minds, and with just the first few notes I knew we were beginning to sing our weekly anthem.
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow; Praise Him all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
Thomas Ken, in 1642, wrote the doxology. It is actually only a final verse of a much larger hymn. But that is not the reason for my writing. Isn’t it amazing how something so familiar to us can, in an instance, strike a new and different chord in us? Here is what I mean by this. I have sung those lines for years, but it was not until recently that the second line cut into my heart.
Let me give a brief backstory to help explain why my heart was ready to be convicted in this matter. My wife has been a vegetarian for 14 years. Not me on the other hand. I loved meat too much. I could not imagine giving it up. Sad to say, it took having to preach a sermon on stewarding creation that caused me to finally question how my beliefs concerning creation aligned with my actions toward creation. It caused me to ponder how valuing life could even extend to the life of God’s creation. After that Sunday morning, I stopped eating meat. In a way it gave me a whole new framework to see the words I would read, sing, and pray. Within that framework, I happened to sing the doxology again. Only this time the second line had finally found a weak, or better yet soft, spot in my self-made armor.
For years I had fallen prey to the sweetly whispered words of Wormwood, or Screwtape, or some lesser demon. I had remained flippant about my wife’s convictions, flippant about my love of bacon and hot dogs. Although I had read Lewis’ Screwtape Letters multiple times, I had missed Screwtape's very true and yet dangerous words to his nephew Wormwood. “Only a clever human can make a real joke about virtue…every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armor-plating against [God] that I know.” My snide remarks or jokes about possible ethical issues had effectively deflected the potential blows of conviction to keep me safe in the comforts of my personal, gluttonous kingdom.
And now, as I sing the doxology, I stop mid-verse with questions racing through my mind. What does the second line mean? Are we stating that all creatures are currently praising God? Are we calling all creatures to praise God? What does “all creatures” mean? Who are we referring to when we say “all creatures?” What does praise look like for all or each creature? We have a pretty good grasp of what praise looks like for the human creature. It is more than a song. Praise is best understood as a life of worship. In all of life we praise our Creator. In essence it is living into what we were saved to be, what we were re-created to be. However, the second line of the doxology cannot be merely referring to the human creature. And so the question still remains, what does it mean for “all creatures” to praise God? What does praise look like for the dog, the horse, the pig, the cow, or the chicken? It cannot possibly mean the pain and suffering we are inflicting upon the animals in large factory farms. It cannot be crates, feces, disease, broken bones, cut beaks, pulled teeth, and all other manner of atrocities we currently inflict upon God’s creatures for the sake of our preference, our taste, maybe even gluttony. These are not conditions that allow all of God’s creatures to praise.
This led me to even more follow-up questions. Scripture tells us to encourage one another. We are commanded to speak to one another in hymns, psalms, and songs from the Spirit. Do I have a responsibility to foster praise in my brothers and sisters? Am I culpable if I hinder my brother or sister in their praise to the creator? Sure these questions can be applied to the creatures we turn a blind eye to in order to enjoy our bacon-wrapped burgers. But what about the employees that have to perform these atrocities at such a pace that current reports still claim our fellow humans are not given proper bathroom breaks on the processing lines? Are we responsible to lay aside our taste preferences to free them, to help foster in them the second line of the doxology?
I once read of a question posed by Malcolm Muggeridge, a 20th century journalist. He wrote, concerning animal cruelty and slaughterhouses, “How is it possible to look for God and sing his praises while insulting and degrading his creatures?” I would go even further with that question to challenge, how is it possible to call all creatures (the animals and slaughterhouse workers) in the midst of innumerable sufferings to praise their Creator, as we turn a blind eye for the ones we deem so tasty? This question had finally gotten the better of me, and I believe it has made me the better for it.
Tim is an Associate Pastor and the head of the youth department at StoneBridge Church Community in Charlotte, NC, where he lives with his wife and two young boys.