Monday, April 29, 2019

In Praise of Praise

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. (Psalm 150:6)

The glorious Book of Psalms ends on the highest of notes.  If you had to boil down all of the 2,598 verses in the Psalms to one, this is exactly what you would come up with.  Praising the Lord should be as easy and as natural as breathing, but it is not.  Praising is not our default mode.

Don’t believe me?  Well, I have never had a parishioner walk in our red doors and say, “As I was driving to church this morning 58 cars passed me going the other direction and not a single one swerved into my lane!  Praise the Lord.  And of the 19 cars going my way, none cut me off or forced me to take evasive action.  Praise the Lord.  Oh sure, there was that one car in front of me driving really slow, but what is such a mild inconvenience compared to so many blessings?  All in all, I just have to praise the Lord because God is good… all the time!”  No, even in this sanctuary of praise we are more likely to hear, “Some idiot was driving so slow in front of me I never thought I would get here on time.  There ought to be a law against…”

If you find yourself drawn more toward the negative and critical than the positive and affirming, you are not alone.  And there is good reason for it.  From a cognitive perspective, our brains process good and bad experiences in different hemispheres.   We are hard-wired to invest more time and deeper thought in what has gone wrong than what has gone right.  Rather than praise, human brain functioning is actually set up to focus on the negative.  From an anthropological perspective this can be advantageous because survival often involves urgent attention to what can go wrong.  Our ability to do detailed processing of bad things gives us an evolutionary advantage.  And from a theological perspective we might attribute this aspect of our being to the Fall.  Because our human nature is marred by sin we are unable to dwell (either physically or psychologically) in the blessings God has created for us.

Even the most positive among us tends to remember negative things more strongly and in greater detail.  No matter how many A’s are on your report card it is the C that stands out.  A single rotten childhood experience has the power to eclipse fifty wonderful memories.  One hundred compliments cannot outweigh one criticism.   The friend who let you down festers even though there are ten who stand by your side.  All the drivers in Suffolk can operate a motor vehicle proficiently, but that one little old lady who doesn’t realize her blinker is on has the ability to get your boxers in a bunch.

This is who we are, whether we want to admit it or not.  And while it may be an adaptive way to look at reality, it is by no means an accurate one.  We are like wealthy misers; rich beyond measure, but living like paupers.  Our lives teem with an abundance of grace and blessing.  There is an old adage holding it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, and while this is true, I submit we might just be desensitized to all the light that is always around us. 

If the part of our brain in charge of processing challenges and negative experiences is far more muscular than the part responsible for identifying and enjoying all that is going well, perhaps we need to train ourselves to think differently.  If only there was a spiritual gym where we could go to strengthen that part of us designed to wallow in what is going well! – something like, oh I don’t know, perhaps a church. 

If you want to develop the equivalent of a six-pack of praise, let me offer a three work-out tips. 

First, pick a manageable number – say 5.  Identify five people you relate to on a regular basis (daily, if possible).  Every day be intentional about offering each person some word of praise.  Pick a second number – say 10.  Offer to ten different people a word of praise over the course of the week.  This one may require some intentional record keeping, but (as they say at the other kind of gym) “no pain, no gain.”  If you do the math, this little exercise will require to make 45 statements of praise over the course of each single week, but just imagine how quickly you will develop your six-pack of praise!  It occurs to me I am asking you to begin jogging for the first time by running a marathon.  If it feels like this, take the challenge to do this every day for the next week.  It will be kind of like how Public Television does their fundraisers.  Commit yourself to a week-long Praise-a-Thon!

And think what you will do to enhance the self-esteem of people you love and care about.  Self-esteem is on of the most necessary and elusive aspirations we seek.  One survey determined 80% of all 3rd grade students feel good about themselves.  This number drops to 20% by 5th grade and 5% by the time a person is a senior in high school.  Many never recover.  Studies indicate 2/3rds of us suffer from low self-esteem.  When you offer praise, not only do you begin to change the way you see the world, you change how others experience it as well.

Here is the second thing you can do.  Freely and graciously receive praise from others.  Most of us, reared in the dictates of modesty, are dismissive of even the most innocent compliment.  Why is it when a person says, “This dinner is delicious” the typical response is something like, “Oh, it was nothing” or “The potatoes could have been better.”  Why not respond, “You mean a great deal to me so I am glad you enjoyed it.”  Now the praise is flowing in both directions!

Years ago, after serving several months at a new parish, I commented to a church leader that people did not engage me in conversation about what I said in my sermons.  That had not been my experience in previous churches and I wondered what was going on.  The church leader told me if you mentioned to the previous rector you enjoyed the day’s sermon his typical reaction was, “What was wrong with last week’s sermon?”  Can you see how praise muscles tend to atrophy in that kind of environment?

So, be intentional about offering praise and be welcoming of any praise coming your way… here is a third thing to do.  Make a list each day of the grace you experience.  It may be a just mental exercise, or perhaps you will find it helpful to sit down and put it to paper.  Make sure your list of graces contains everything that is extraordinary, but do not neglect the ordinary.  While you may not want to delve into the minutia of every single automobile that did not hit you head on, you will want to grow your awareness of the blessing of safety and care surrounding you on every side. 

And this is just one facet of life’s blessings.  Relationships, health, food, shelter, a sense of meaning and purpose, the intricate way each person contributes to the common good, beauty and art and entertainment… I could go on and on.  As I said, our lives teem with grace and blessing.  Begin to use your list as a resource for praising God.  From what I read in the bible, God likes to hear it and, from what I know of human nature, it will begin to influence how you experience life.

2,598 verses all pointing to one profound truth ought to get our attention:

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.