Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving and Fatboy Slim

The Psalms are an interesting assortment of extreme sentiments. On the one hand, you have Psalm 45 which describes a great wedding feast in which the bride is bedecked with jewels, and then you have psalm 88, which concludes on a Simon and Garfunkelian note, "darkness is my lone companion". You have Psalm 23, in which the Lord is described as a loving Shepherd, while the central figure of Psalm 22 declares that he is forsaken of God. If Seinfeld was a show about "nothing," then the Psalms are songs about everything. What is most startling about them is that they are words of men written to God, which nevertheless are said to be God's words. This mystery becomes even more powerful when we find Christ, at various stages in his ministry, uttering those same words to His own Father. In a very real sense, Christ is elevating the very sentiments of mankind to a divine status. He condescends to speak our words and in so doing truly sanctifies them. Christ is the true missionary, bringing not only slavation, but a remarkable appetite for learning our ways and our customs.

But perhaps an even more mysterious tradition typical of the Psalms is their inclination to praise. For many, the habit of praising God is truly a sacrifice that challenges us at our very core. David rejoiced when he heard the people say "let us go to the house of the Lord" and then later, "the throngs were wild with joy". How many of us are wild with joy when we are told we are going to God's house. Growing up, I was usually "wild", and by wild I mean like a feral animal resisting this injunction with every fiber of my being.

We just finished reading The Confessions in one of the classes that I teach. At one point, Augustine points out that man was made to praise God. Understandably, one of my students complained; "... if this is the case isn't that type of praise reducing humanity to a puppet-like status." If by praise you simply mean that we are compelled to say nice things about God without meaning it, then yes, we are puppets. But the praise of God has a more profound significance than that. First of all, what we mean when we say that we are made for praise is not so much a command as a fact. Gratitude and Thanksgiving make us better, Cynicism makes us worse. Those that are the most happy in this life are those that are most grateful. That is not only a metaphysical truth, but a psychological fact.

More than a sentiment, praise is an act of the will. If practiced it may even become a reflex, but it ultimately has its roots in a decision. Much like prayer itself, we may even find  ourselves at odds with the very praises that we sing. Not only is this not a problem, it is the very point of prayer and praise. The words of the Our Father do not generally match our sentiments, but they do match our ideal, and until that ideal is reached we should continue to pray it (which means for the rest of our lives).

Fatboy Slim once sang "We've come a long long way baby, through the bad times and the good, I have to celebrate you baby, I have to praise you like I should". Obviously, Fatboy (or whoever is singing) is not singing this ode to God... but he may as well be, for even he recognizes that in this particular instance, praise is not only a luxury, but it is in fact "right and just". A man is compelled to praise his lady because to do otherwise is stifling to his very core. The lover feels that he "should" praise her, not because she has commanded it, but because she is worthy of it. Indeed, the one who is in love hardly needs anyone to tell him to say gracious things about his beloved; it is as natural as breathing.

This explains the overwhelming gratitude that the Psalmist expresses in many of the Psalms. He praises because he is in love, he rejoices because he feels like he has won the lottery; he dances before the Ark, because he has found some secret treasure and now his mouth is filled with laughter. When you talk to people who have had a conversion, it is a lot like talking to someone about how they fell in love. Quite often the story involves some harrowing details about how the bride and the groom almost didn't make it to the altar at all. In either case, one's arrival at the altar is undoubtedly a harrowing experience; and it is harrowing precisely because it might have been otherwise. We were made to praise God, but even when we lack the desire or sentiment to do it, we can at least take comfort in the fact that it is not for a slave driver that we do it, but for a Bridegroom. 

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