Thursday, December 17, 2015

The problem of praise

I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name for ever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name for ever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
(Psalm 145:1-7, NRSV)

I’ve always had a problem with praise. Passages like the one above take me back to conversations about heaven in the small Southern Baptist church I grew up in, where people talked about an eternity of singing to God like it was something to look forward to. What kind of god, I wondered, would make that the climax of his creation–people shouting and singing about how wonderful he is? It made God sound like some kind of egomaniac, or worse, a being so insecure that he literally requires constant encouragement.

Plus, doesn’t that sound boring? I like singing (almost) as much as the next person, but my voice gets tired after awhile, and songs get old. When we had to sing an extra few verses of a hymn during a particularly popular invitational, all I could think was, “All right, let’s wrap it up.” So an eternity of this activity sounds like my own version of hell rather than heaven.

This is all starting to sound more than a bit heretical, and probably not as pithy as I hoped it would. This sentiment of mine doesn’t sit particularly well with me either, perhaps even less so than it sits with you. There are dozens of psalms of praise in the book of Psalms–if I’m not mistaken, that’s the most popular kind of psalm. Plus there are countless other expressions of praise throughout the Bible. And I do believe God deserves praise–for creating us and the world, for sustaining us when things get hard and then harder, for wanting to be with us and understand us and save us from ourselves so badly that he became one of us and died because we couldn’t take that level of love and solidarity.

So this is why I’m uncomfortable with my discomfort with praise: I get it and I want to practice it…just not so much with eternal hymn singing. Luckily (blessedly?) that’s not how praise has to look, not even how it does look throughout the Bible or in the lives of the most holy people I’ve known. Praise often looks very different and much more creative than the popular image of a bunch of people in white choir robes singing “I’ll Fly Away” in the clouds (although I do like that song). Praise looks like speaking and acting with love towards people you don’t feel particularly loving towards. Praise looks like creating something beautiful and true–a song, a story, a picture, an idea–with the hands God created for you. Praise looks like thanking God for one more day of being alive on this earth, the earth that is moving ever towards the kingdom Jesus told us such strange and wonderful stories about. Praise looks like getting up and trying to create that kingdom every lovely, painful, confusing day.

Singing hymns forever is starting to look a little more appealing.

Here’s the key, I think, that I often miss: we don’t praise God because God demands it. We praise God because God deserves it, and because praise looks a lot like creation and creativity, which we were made through and for. Praise is continuing that creation, living out our God-image.

So, my question about praise changes. It’s not, why must we praise God? Rather, how might we praise God in such a way that honors God and brings to life the fullness of creation? That’s the kind of question we can spend our lives, and eternity, answering. It will never get boring.

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