No Matter How Awful It Is, We Ought to Praise

Text reading "No Matter How Awful It Is, We Ought to Give Praise" against a rainy sky background

“Undeserved praise causes more pangs of conscience later than undeserved blame, but probably only for the reason that our powers of judgment are more completely exposed by overpraise than by unjust underestimation.”                          

Frederich Nietzsche

Do you have anyone in your life who praises you a lot? I mean someone who says thank you, or tells you that they really appreciate something you did, or the way you are… all the time, or if not all the time, at least a lot?

I have someone in my life like that. It mostly feels good. But sometimes the praise makes me feel uneasy. It doesn’t bother me at all when I think it is deserved and it feels accurate, or reflective of what I would say of myself! But it makes me wonder what is going on when the praise feels overboard, or not at all in line with how I am seeing myself.

The kind of praise that is too much or too out of sync with how I feel about myself makes me feel uncomfortable, makes me suspicious of the other person’s motivations.

Do you sometimes wonder if praise is meant to be a kind of reverse psychology thing? I am certainly aware that praise works far better than criticism to get children and maybe teens to do what you would like them to do. Maybe that is also true for adults?

Yes, I admit it. Sometimes when I don’t measure up to the praise I am receiving, I am motivated to do better.

So, let me be upfront. I don’t want to encourage manipulation. I don’t plan to practice it. Nor is it my wish to discourage honesty. I don’t wish for you to falsely praise me or anyone else. There are a lot of awful truths we are dealing with and I don’t think it serves us to discount those in any way.

Yet, I do want us to engage in an experiment here at church, here witin congregational life.  Let’s try saying thank you, more often.  Some of you do practice expressing gratitude. Let’s all do it more. Let’s try even being excessive, going overboard in praising each other and not just in saying thank you, but in praising, in expressing our thankfulness for each other’s existence.

Let’s increase the collective appreciation for what is, and for what is good. Let’s identify our blessings, our gifts, our good deeds. Let’s sing our own and each other’s praises.

Let’s be a laboratory for expressing gratitude, for being a gracious and grateful people.

There is way too much energy directed towards what is going wrong in the world. Let’s turn that upside down here, directing our energy to what is good and can even better.

There was a popular technique for doing just this in congregational life a few years ago. Called “appreciative inquiry,” it was method that asked congregational leaders to focus on what was going well. It was a way to lift the positive, and lessen the power of the negative. The thinking was, if we don’t feed the criticism, don’t invite the cynic to the table, we will be left with a banquet of good feelings.

So, the appreciative inquiry method said: when you ask questions, conduct a survey, invite comments… do those things in such a way to welcome the positive. What went well? What felt good? It was a common leading question of those practicing appreciative inquiry to ask Describe the best thing that has ever happened to you within this congregation? which would lead to a discussion of how to do more of that (and not less of another not-so-positive experience, but more of the good ones).

This appreciative practice provided a welcome breath of fresh air at a time when cynicism and a reliance on an entitled consumerist approach threatened to overwhelm us. The negative Nelly approach caused us to forget what we were here for.

And why are we here?

There are, of course, a lot of ways to answer that question. I always prefer to return to how I define worship. We exist to lift up that which is worthy.  And, again and again, we decide together what that is, we decide together what is worthy of our time and attention. What is worthy of our loyalty, our devotion, our praise?

Sometimes we say we are here to follow the path of love, or to discern the movement of the spirit among us… the spirit of life. Perhaps, we could also say we are here to help each other be our best selves, and part of doing that is to step outside these doors to allow, encourage, promote the results of everyone being their best selves together, taking whatever risks we must for the world to take that shape.

But praise is a funny thing.

When I am praised for something I am not sure I deserve praise for, it can make me want to do better, so that I deserve that praise. But sometimes it makes me feel ashamed that I have fooled someone, and I wonder how long I can keep on fooling them with who I am not yet and may never be.

Then I remember that all of us are in that state of “yet” but “not yet.” I know what it is like to deserve praise, to have earned it and to be worthy of it. 

And I know what is like to not be worthy of another’s praise, or to find out what I did was not good enough, didn’t last, didn’t make a difference.

No matter how awful we can sometimes feel on the inside, or how awful the outside world seems to be sometimes (maybe a lot of the time), it is—and I think most of us might agree—a glorious time to be alive, and at the very same time, it is an awfully frightening time. And yet, no matter what, we ought to praise this life. 

We ought to do as best we can, leaning towards love and hope and practicing an ongoing discernment of where the spirit is leading, as we continue to live between the yet and the not yet…. And we ought to praise.

This story is called “Know Yourself.”

Once upon a time there was and there was not a woman known far and wide for her generosity. One day, sitting with her friends, sipping tea in the village square, a poor man approached her with a small request for money to feed his child.

“Of course!” she replied, and without hesitation plucked coin after coin out of her pocket, piling them into the man’s hand until they spilled on the ground.

Overwhelmed with this show of kindness, the man began to weep. He bowed his head in gratitude. “May Allah bless you. You have saved my child’s life.” He carefully placed the coins in a small cloth sack. Glancing up a last time, he thanked her with a frail half-smile.

When he was out of earshot, the woman’s friends probed her with questions:

“Why did you give him so much money?” asked one.

“That was foolish. Don’t you think he will tell all his friends?” asked another.

“A line of beggars will be at your door tomorrow morning!” warned a third.

“Just yesterday, you gave your yearly donation to charity,” said a fourth. “You weren’t obligated to give him any. Why did you do it?”

The generous woman kept silent until their indignation ran its course. At last they quieted down.

“While such a poor man may be pleased with just a little money from me,” said the generous woman, “I could not be.” She looked from friend to friend. “Unless I give him what I am able to, I won’t be happy. He may not know me, but I know myself.”

And the group of women, thoughtful and contrite, said no more about it, yet they knew that the generous woman had spoken truth.

What is your truth about praise? Can you, will you renew your vows to be gracious and generous, to praise one another, to praise beauty, to praise what blessings we enjoy, to risk all you have, to make this world one that is ruled by grace and generosity?