Tag Archives: praise

A Lament

One of the students at our college recently suffered a truly heart-breaking loss, and I’ve been thinking about her all week, grieving with her as I grade papers and prepare lectures.  My life goes on; hers will never be the same.  I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to receive horrible news on a Saturday night, and go to some upbeat, seeker-sensitive attractional church Sunday morning.  I started to write an essay, but that wasn’t quite right, so I tried again as a homily, which was closer, but still not there.  It eventually wound up as a poem.  I don’t write poetry–not for years now, anyway–and I have a deep conviction that almost all amateur poets are awful.  This is probably awful, too.  But it’s the closest I can come right now to painting the picture I see in my mind.

A Lament

I shouldn’t be here.  There is no place for me here.

The polished plaque is crisp brass,
with letters tall and even:
Sanctuary This Way
Around these words I see my reflected face:
unshaven, dark
I scrape down the hall, clad in
yesterday’s shirt, Friday’s pants.

Sunbeams stretch through stained glass,
making bold the jigsaw shapes of
wine and bread, sheep and shepherd
casting kaleidoscopes on a cool teal carpet.
I sit in the shadows, among the shades.

The drummer keeps a steady rhythm
Guitarists smile and strum.
And Jim, who I once knew in school,
Nearly laughs as he lifts his hands
“Let’s give the Lord a praise offering!”

I am stone.

Around me are the winners of the world,
The beautiful, the well-dressed
And they sing

God is so good
God is so good
God is so good
He’s so good to me.

They sing

You’re altogether worthy
Altogether lovely
Altogether wonderful to me

They clap and shout.
I clench my teeth.

The pastor is telling a football story.
A marriage story.
An old, old joke.
He recounts a scene from a sitcom,
The one about the pretty girl
“But not as pretty as my wife!”
And the lucky guys
“But not as lucky as we are!”

Laughter spills down the aisles.

I shut my eyes.

I wander inside myself
Meditating on horrible, hallowed images.
Twisted metal
Jagged wounds
The ventilator keeps a steady rhythm.

Amen, someone says.

The lucky ones clasp hands, slap backs.
In the lobby, there are coffee and donuts

I shouldn’t be here.  There is no place for me here.
Not today.

I don’t have a praise offering.
I don’t have a testimony.

What I have is mismatched socks
A little whiskey on my breath
And a broken son on a hospital bed
A headstrong, rebel boy who vexes me
And who is more dear to me than my soul
A bruised and battered boy

A boy who can not wake.

But where can I go where someone else knows
What it is like to lose a son?


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On Conscientiously Refusing to Praise Humans

It’s been a busy, busy month–thus, the lack of blogging.  My wife and I are still in our contest to see who can get a job first, with no winner yet.  She’s had a few interviews, the most recent of which may still result in an offer.  I have an interview next week for a community college adjunct faculty position, which wouldn’t pay much–but it doesn’t take much money to improve on zero.  I am so looking forward to telling my grandkids stories from the great recession.

Our daughter turns four today.  Due to our moves and transitions, she is currently without friends, so when we noticed that one of the Methodist churches in town was about to start a VBS, we signed her up, and then worshiped there the Sunday before VBS began to get a feel for the congregation.

I’m inclined to have warm thoughts toward Methodism in general, because of my affection for the work of Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon and Richard Hays, who have significantly impacted my own thinking.  (I understand that Hauerwas is attending an Episcopal Church now, but his roots are Methodist.)  I explored the idea of becoming a Methodist pastor once, but I can’t get enthusiastic about infant baptism, although I see the argument for it.  I wouldn’t say that I’m against it, or that I think it’s invalid, but I was raised in a tradition that immersed professing believers, and that symbolic act still resonates powerfully with me in a way that pedobaptism just can’t match.  I suppose if I had been raised Methodist, my feelings would be just the opposite, but I wasn’t, and you have to go to war with the memories you have, not the ones you wish you had.   I’m also not keen on being told which church to go to and when–although I haven’t always done a dandy job of sussing out by myself which congregations would be a good match, so I might be able to get over that one.

At any rate, we attended this Methodist church and found it, overall, delightful.  Very welcoming, very enthusiastic.  It was an unusual Sunday for them, because they were wrapping up a mission trip (to the heathens of neighboring Oklahoma) and kicking off their VBS, so the whole service was given over to testimonies, appreciations and explanations.  As a visitor, I rather appreciated the chance to get some insights into the life of the congregation that I wouldn’t get on most Sundays.

One thing that stood out to me was the two or three times that a specific instance of laudable work was mentioned, and the speaker would always offer the caveat that, “Of course, I’m not saying this to give glory to Jim (or Carol, or Brandon)–we’re giving all the glory to God.”

I’ve heard that sort of thing in churches of various stripes.  I’m sure it’s not limited to Methodism–although it was so pronounced that I wondered if the refusal to honor humans is particularly strong in Methodist culture.  I admit  that always strikes me the wrong way.  I get it that we’re shunning pridefulness and encouraging thanking God in all things, but surely there is some room to acknowledge Jim, Carol and Brandon made some exemplary choices through their own free will that can be praised and emulated.  Scripture doesn’t seem to shy away from doing that.  Just look through Romans 16, for example, and watch Paul praise one person after another, without ever stopping to snatch the plaudits away from them and redirect them toward God alone.

Humans need exemplars, and we need to be told when we’ve done something well.  Unabashed praise of outstanding work is a blessing both to the worker and to the witnesses.  It gives us something to aim for.  A friend of mine says “You get what you praise.”  As church leaders recognize and honor certain kinds of activity, the congregation moves further in that direction.  I’m a little concerned that perpetually saying, “Of course, it’s not Jim that we’re honoring, it’s God” will leave Jim feeling a bit deflated, wishing that his community could at least notice that he did some really hard work that he didn’t have to do, and that he chose it.  Others are concerned not to diminish the agency of God, but Jim is also a moral agent, and I don’t see the value in pretending otherwise.  If Jim gets no credit for his work, and it was God alone that made him work hard, then it was God alone that made Skyler lazy, and God alone that decided that Suzy would feign an illness and run off to the liquor store during the Thursday evening devotional.  If there’s really only one moral agent in the universe, then human awards and punishments are an exercise in futility–unless the only point is to try to discern the mind of God by noticing which particular meat puppet he used for good deeds this week and which he used for criminal ones.  That doesn’t seem like a fun game to me.

Yeah, the person who stood and praised God for the things that Jim did probably didn’t mean it that way.  But words are powerful, and words of praise especially so.  Let’s go ahead and clap for Jim.  If he becomes prideful, then let’s pull him aside and rebuke him.  Either way, at least we are appreciating that he, too, makes choices.

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