Praise and Gratitude
by Meg Riley, senior minister, Church of the Larger Fellowship
Alice Walker has been in the media in pretty awful ways lately, but I still think her book, The Color Purple, is one of the most extraordinary theological texts I’ve ever read. Her description of God wanting praise the same way that people do has echoed in me ever since I read it more than 30 years ago:
[Shug says:] “Listen, God love everything you love, and a mess of stuff you don't. But more than anything else, God love admiration.”
“You saying God vain?” I [Celie] ast.
“Naw,” she say. “Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.”
“What it do when it pissed off?” I ast.
“Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
I love that. And the reciprocity described is what I feel when I am gardening, that the earth is offering to me as I offer to the earth, and together we co-create beauty and nourishment. Praise be!
For me, gratitude and praise go hand in hand. When I am grateful for something, I praise it. When I praise something, I am grateful for it. And when I am grateful and praising, my generosity follows naturally. Whether it’s the generosity of admiration or the generosity of attention or the generosity of support, I cannot be stingy when I am genuinely praising something or someone.
I think about when I am in a restaurant with someone and order something delicious. “Oh my! You have to try this!” is the first thing out of my mouth. If the deliciousness caused me to say Mine, all mine, it would mean I was not in gratitude or praise, but rather clinging to ideas of scarcity. Generosity comes from a place of abundance. Sharing creates more joy!
Praise generates gratitude generates abundance. Ideally. But those threads can break when the currency of generosity is taken instead of reciprocated. Increasingly, with pesticides and genetic tinkering and huge equipment, agribusiness does not praise the gifts of the earth, but seeks domination, a whole different form of currency.
I see it in a smaller scale when I offer a gift to someone—say, hospitality in my home—and rather than receiving appreciation or generosity back, I experience the guest taking from me without appreciation, ignoring my requests or needs, concerned only with their own. My generosity, gratitude and praise can fizzle into resentment over time.
Which makes me think about Job. The guy who was living a good, faithful life, praising God and being ethical and kind, until Satan dared God to curse Job and see if Job remained faithful. So God killed Job’s family, destroyed his livelihood, and otherwise “tested” his faith. When Job finally cries out in anguish God says, basically, What do you know? I created the whole world and can do anything and you can’t do much at all can you? And we’re told Job then praises God.
When you look online for interpretations of this text you find all kinds of folks telling you what a great story it is, and how it shows that we need to praise God no matter what if we are faithful. I hate the story, myself. I loathe it. Years ago, in a religious education class, the curriculum was to share that story with fifth graders and then give them shaving cream on tables with which to finger paint what they thought about God. I needed to step out for a minute during the finger painting, and when I came back into the room they had thrown it everywhere in a giant finger paint fight.
They told me the story made them mad, and that was part of what started the foam-throwing. We talked as we cleaned the room and they were indignant that God would make a bet with Satan and be so mean to Job because of it. And I had to agree with them. The story does nothing whatsoever to strengthen my faith in an omnipotent God!
But maybe there’s another path besides faith in an omnipotent God to find a way to praise and gratitude when suffering profoundly. I note the people who have much, much less material comfort and wealth, societal privilege, and freedom to move about seem to manage better than I do to stay in a place of generosity and gratitude. I also realize that my own ability to remain in the currency of generosity and praise is in part the result of too much privilege. I have been awed, in my life, by the kindness and generosity of people who have reason to be much more resentful about their lives than I do. Praise and gratitude can become a spiritual path, a way out of no way, the only means towards affirmation of what is praise-worthy when none-other is evident. Spiritual practice can be born of suffering like Job’s, which is ultimately not about how great some omnipotent God is, but rather about how the holy can be discovered through blessing what is still possible.