Prophetic Praise? When You're So Good it's Embarrassing ~ BitterSweetLife

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Prophetic Praise? When You're So Good it's Embarrassing

My family has a birthday custom where we all sit around my parents' massive dining room table and share complimentary character references about the person in question, kind of helping them get up steam for the coming year. It's atmospheric and memorable and slightly eccentric, the kind of thing that could easily appear in a Dickens novel, and I love it.

With two parents, eight of us kids, two spouses and two very attractive grandchildren contributing, and most everyone in their comfort zone except the birthday honoree, the verbiage just starts flowing--an all-encompassing stream that absorbs all manner of distractions, put-downs and weirdness--and just keeps rolling. This is a tradition, after all. We rise to the occasion.

The table is a familiar stage, and each member of the family has their little shtick, combining sincerity and bluster. Johnny can never share just one thing--he always begins by saying, "Well, two things came to mind..." Or sometimes three, four, five; always a multiplicity. Paul always plays with silverware, candles, salt and pepper shakers, whatever is close to hand, as he desperately casts around for something to say, avoiding a mental aneurysm by mere moments every time. Peter is typically loud and blunt; he uses self-deprecation as a smokescreen, then throws in an outrageous one-liner. Aidan jumps up on the table and punctuates what he says by stomping his foot and doing some ridiculous dance he learned from his aunts. Sarah is charmingly candid, weaving in sly qualifications so smoothly you have to listen closely to catch them all, then blushing at her achievements... Etc. My whole family can pull off these impromptu performances with a minute's notice.

The order is roughly chronological, so my dad always gets the last word and says something heartfelt and thoughtful, as if to restore some sense of decorum to whatever has gone before--and his concluding remarks are always received with loud applause and cheers.

My birthday dinner was Sunday, and as I endured the usual warm insinuations and provisos from my younger siblings--"is very funny, occasionally," "is generous and happy to see me, sometimes," "is artistic, except when he's childish and silly"--I felt the yearly frisson** of delight and embarrassment. And it's not as if I don't see this coming every year. No one is caught of guard on these occasions, except unsuspecting guests. Still, the birthday king feels a happy awkwardness.

Being complimented by people you love and trust is like a powerful vaccine for discouragement, a cocktail for the soul. You feel better and you turn slightly red. I'm just relieved that the praise is diluted by brief digressions and put-downs, otherwise it would be unbearable. Am I making sense?

What I'm wondering is this: Why is praise, sincerely given, uplifting and humbling at the same time?--a shot of adrenalin and a shot of reality. I guess the obvious answer is that we know it's not true, at least not completely true, because praise inevitably gives us the benefit of many doubts, acts as if the good and beautiful is something we have captured and distilled, welded to ourselves so that it will never fall off. We listen and think, "I want that to be true, I want to be that way..."

It strikes me that only people who know Jesus can have any basis for complimenting each other with this kind of bravado. To say, "You're a brave person," or, "You are encouraging," and really mean it? It's nonsense unless you bank on sanctification. Because no one is really brave or happy apart from the guarantee that Christ is making them that way, and will not allow anyone or anything to stop him. Without Jesus in the equation, generous compliments are just wishful thinking.

Maybe that's where the joy and "embarrassment" come in, because we catch glimpses of the people we want to be and are becoming, and the soul is a tender subject, especially when it's just half-grown. We wonder if the others can see further than we can, if they are really right, if we are actually like that, will eventually be that way. Do they understand more than we do? What will Jesus do in our lives? What is he doing now, that we are unaware of?

Ultimately, the best praise will always be prophetic.

** The appearance of this word is made possible in part by a generous grant from the Vocabulary Reclamation Project.

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Lauren said...

What an excellent tradition. It is wonderful that you have family who will speak life and blessings over you.

Here's my question : Can you really praise someone outside of knowing Jesus? Does true praise require the prophetic?

If true righteousness, holiness and peace are not your foundation for looking at a person works and life, praise will always be based on a lesser (false) ideal.

John said...

Let me start off by saying Happy belated birthday AJ.

Can we really say that the prise if for or toward us? I would venture to say that we need to be sober minded and realize that it is really praise toward God for His working in and through us.
Being praised and not having the right attitude, ie. getting puffed up, leads to cause for concern. Remember it is not we who live, but Christ, so you have to think, who are they really praising, us or Christ?

Ariel said...

Can you really praise someone outside of knowing Jesus? Does true praise require the prophetic?

There are two answers, aren't there. Obviously we can praise people who don't know Jesus--and hopefully we often do. But apart from Christ and the work of sanctification he's doing, we're essentially praising impersonations of excellence, right?

And these impersonations ARE, in fact, praiseworthy...but have no staying power. And let's be honest: the only thing that makes praise feasible in the case of Christians is the expectation of Christ making it finally true.

I'm talking in an "ultimate" sense here, so don't think I'm saying that we should stop saying nice things about people because none of it's actually true! I just wanted to point out that heartfelt praise depends upon faith--faith that Jesus will create (in a final, lasting sense) those beautiful and good qualities that we're praising.

I hope that makes sense.

@John: I'm not sure I'm tracking with you completely... true, praise has the potential to give us big heads. But most of life seems to have that same potential, and some people pride themselves on all the flack they take.

Biblically, God says that his people are worthy of praise, and that He, himself, will rejoice in them. This is pure grace, but God makes a distinction between himself, the Creator, and us, the created--and he says the creation is worth saying good things about.

Throughout the Bible, God has plenty of bad AND GOOD things to say about his people. Inexplicable, maybe, but there it is.

I think it points back to God's grace and the way he glorifies himself by making broken things beautiful--and then somehow praising us for being part of his salvage operation. Wow, thank you Jesus.

Rob said...

To rip off (and potentially mutilate the meaning of) C.S. Lewis, love and adoration is incomplete until it culminates in praise. This can be of a lover, a beaitiful view, or a piece of pie, but until we speak of it in terms of its own beauty or meaning or goodness, we have, if I'm reading Lewis correctly, not fully enjoyed or experienced the sense of it.

While praise of anything (and I think I mean "anything") is ultimately praise of God's grace and goodness, it manifests itself in our praise of the ordinary. I find it to be a rich thing your family does, and it inspires me to establish such traditions in my own know...for the glory of God.

Thanks for the post, bro.

Platypus King said...

Thank you for such a touching, thoughtful post. I would imagine with such a large family, it may be awkward to have the spotlight shone on you for a time, but it reinforces how valued you are.

Your comments about the awkward wonderment of praise set me off on my own little bunny-trail of thought- namely, about the difference between praising others and praising God. And, some of the similarities as well.

I always welcome these catalysts for thought, and your writing always provides ample opportunity. I hope you don't mind, but I referenced this blog in my own: I'd like all 3 of my readers to have a chance to explore this particular spring.

littlepeace said...

Never have I heard frission used in that sense before. Good to know it has its positive uses, too.
I once went through the same birthday ordeal (although it was at midnight in the woods with ten or more girls), and you're right. It is both uplifting and humbling. Especially humbling (made me wonder "wow, are they actually talking about me when they mention positive things?").

Ariel said...

Rob, thanks for the comment, bro--not to mention the C.S. Lewis quote for extra points. You're welcome.

Your comments about the awkward wonderment of praise set me off on my own little bunny-trail of thought

Great, it's always good to hear that something I said inspires more, and possibly deeper, thinking.

once went through the same birthday ordeal (although it was at midnight in the woods with ten or more girls)

Wow, now THAT sounds potentially horrifying. You're sure your not confusing this with a scene from Blair Witch? Heh heh. Actually, take away the "midnight in the woods" and the "ten girls" part, and we're definitely on the same wavelength.

John said...


I think that this is a great tradition that you family has.
I guess the point that I was trying to make is that the only reason we as Christians would receive praise and have it mean anything is due to the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and that once we receive the praise we need to recognize it for what it is, Glory to God. I also agree with you that receiving encouragement from others is a sure fire way to put the self-discouragement behind you, I also think that the praise that you are receiving is because the person ultimately sees God working in you, and as such we are able to Glorify God through this.
I hope this makes sense....



Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife