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Exhausting affirmation

30 January 2015

"LET's just praise God," read the slogan on the parish-made altar frontal; and the church had a worship group to match: "Let's just praise the Lord," said the man standing centre-stage at the front, plucking dreamily at his guitar. He is convinced of the validity of all this, and has no doubts at all - but what is God's take?

I remember a story told by the late, great Fr Anthony de Mello. It concerned a beautiful lily on a pond, which would attempt to draw people to it, saying: "Come and look at me; I'm really beautiful. You'll never have seen as beautiful a lily as me."

It didn't work, of course, because there is something repulsive about beauty when it insists on drawing attention to itself, or demands praise. There is something equally flawed in humans who demand it.

Everyone likes to be affirmed occasionally; it can lift a tired spirit. But the demand for constant praise is not seen as healthy in a human. A friend who needs constant affirmation will be an exhausting companion. A boss who demands constant praise will be reckoned insecure - and a poor leader as well, too needy to be able to hold his or her staff. A child who always needs praise probably has some attachment issues, which in time will need attention. So how healthy is a God who demands it?

Praise arises naturally as we make our way through life, whether praise for a child, a dog, a colleague, our self, or God; and it is best and truest as something spontaneous, arising from the moment. A contemplative church is happy with this; it is happy not to organise something that is best not organised.

But a church that is focused on, and built around, praise, organises to the nth degree; we are here to praise because that is what God wants. (I am assuming that this is part of the equation.) God wants to be praised, and it is our duty and our joy at all times to meet this divine desire. But, again: does God want to be praised?

Generally, I do not wish to be praised, and, if I do, I am having a weaker moment, when my ego needs bolstering a little. But I struggle to link this need to God. And, sometimes, when people praise me, I don't celebrate, because it serves only to create unreal distance between us: "You're wonderful, much better than me - I could never be like you. When's the next book coming out?"

Here, praise is an abdication of responsibility, an escape from an unresolved life into some imaginary perfection of another. It is as though they want to be anywhere else but the present, and with anyone else but themselves.

Micah suggested that we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, which appears a better basis for a relationship than some compulsive transaction that may be benefiting neither party.

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