Learning Praise

The Sunday after my brother died I went to church. Maybe that doesn’t seem strange, but to me, it was a great act of courage. I remember standing there in the pew on the left hand side listening to everyone sing praise choruses.

And I couldn’t understand.

How could they praise God when my brother was dead? 

I built a life around praising God, I built my faith on it. In high school I carried Bible verses on index cards in my backpack and snuck them out in the bathroom stall between classes, so I could make sure God’s name was ever on my lips. At church I closed my eyes and lifted my hands and belted out songs to him until I was hoarse. I knelt against an altar and cried, my love for him was so heavy. And I meant all of it – don’t think I didn’t.

But I wonder if we got praise all wrong.

Because at some point, praise started to be something else. It was related to luck and prosperity and wealth. It was for when pieces fit together and emotions were pleasant and we got what we wanted. I once heard a woman praise God because her daughter, who lived in New York and worked in one of the twin towers, didn’t go in to work on 9/11. I wanted to ask, “Why would God protect your daughter but let all those other people die? How is that fair? What do I do with that?” Don’t get me wrong, I’d praise God for my kid’s spared life, too. But it gets complicated. I watched praise become a list of fortunate moments instead of a sense of wonder at the universe. It became a way to put God in a box instead of simply thanking him for the gift of life.

Maybe the trees can teach us to praise. As of late they’ve been drenched, overcome with storm after storm. I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night to lightning and thunder. In the mornings, the skies are still gray, but the trees look the same. There they stand, another year older, engaging in the cycle that repeats every year: right now, their leaves begin to yellow. In a month, their branches will be a bit barer and the ground will be more colorful.

These old trees, they whisper secrets that I might hang on to. They tell stories of suffering and cold, of shelter and shade, of presence and absence. They talk of metamorphosis, being made new every season, every year. They weather it all, and they give thanks with their gifts to the world: beauty, oxygen, fruit, a home.

What if standing in one place is praise? What if offering ourselves to the world is praise? What if living our days, as repetitive as they might be, is praise? What if opening ourselves to the elements is praise? What if the rain itself, its gift for the soil and the plants, is praise?

There are days that all I can do is hang on to my leaves and let them drip with rain. And that is my praise. And that is enough.



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