On Pride and Death

Sunday 30th July 2017
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Psalm 103

Do you remember what it was like when you came home from school after quite obviously being involved in some sort of scrape, physical or verbal? When you would have been wiser to say nothing, knowing what you should have known all along, that when you told your parents about it the automatic response would be to blame you for it? It would be no consolation to reflect that at almost the same moment the person with whom you were in dispute was receiving precisely the same treatment from his or her parents. If you lived in a household where this did not happen, you were  lucky; but I was brought up in a culture of blame. everything was always somebody's fault and the nearer you were, the more likely you would get the blame; nothing was accidental, nothing just happened; and, conversely, praise was frowned upon because it made people big-headed.

Then there was a blessed interlude, beginning in the 1960s, when wooly liberals and all kinds of do-gooders and free thinkers with flowrs in their hair, and softies said that praising people was good for them; it provided encouragement, it reinforced self esteem, it actually brought out the best in people. What a golden age that was for people like me, associated in some way with the "Summer of love" and the idea that human potential was all but unlimited.

We soon learned our mistake. It was not long before this liberal world of affirmation was corroded by the rise of what we now call "banter", the tendency to belittle achievement in the name of cutting people, even your own children, down to size for their own good, "banter" being just another private school word for nastiness.

We are, then, not a society oriented towards praise, except for nurses, policemen and firemen we won't pay properly and soldiers we won't equip properly; our praise of these people simply illustrates that talk is cheap. We don't actually praise them after all, we just go through the motions.

Considering the place and time in which we live, this lack of gratitude to those around us who make our lives viable is truly scandalous. While a well functioning society is based on judicious praise, the best way to degrade society is through injudicious grumbling. We are so well off, so well fed, so well informed that we are beyond contentment.

So where does that leave us with God? In much the same place, I think. Whenever I lead a  discussion on prayer almost everybody associates it automatically with intercession. When I ask people how we should pray, I get a sick list.

This is a long, but I think necessary introcution to today's Psalm of Praise. Here is this semi nomadic people, surrounded by and inter perphorated by, hostile people, with precarous livelihoods, no reserves, no belief in after life, all praising God; and what do we have by comparison? We are relatively secure, we live longer than at any other time in history, our supermarkets are catalogues of world food, and yet our default position with God is intercession because, I think, we want our ultimate problem solved. There is something deeply grotesque in praying to God to keep us alive forever so that we never see 'Him' face to face as 'He' really is; it's even worse than those opera plots where the beloved carries a message from her lover to a rival. We are far too secure in ourselves except in this final area; the only thing that  checks our pride is the inevitability of death.

To give us our due, we have our moments: we look in wonder upon new babies, we admire a sunset, we feel unutterable relief when a crisis passes and we know in all such instances that the wonder is not of our doing but is of God's doing and we, quite properly, make a little prayer of thanks. The problem is that we don't hang onto this behaviour and cultivate it through regular praise but soon fall back into taking credit for what is good, blaming others for what is bad and falling back on intercessory prayer when what is required is our own action. Apart from the eruption of a volcano there is hardly any human tragedy which we have not brought about.

God made our wonderful world for which 'He' must be praised because as creatures it is our creatred purpose to praise god; and part of that is taking blame for what goes wrong, not blaming it on somebody else. Next, the only way we will understand God's goodness to us is to recognise that our goodness is the product of God's grace not our own goodness; and, finally, and most important, we need to understand that the only way we will fully understand the necessity, not the option but the necessity, of praise is to cultivate it within us through the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

Th Psalmist who Praised God simply for 'His' goodness should be an example to us of unconditionality. We, on the other hand, have been promsed that we will see God as 'He' truly is, face to face; and still we can't get the praise cranked up. We really should be ashamed of ourselves.

Finally, then, why don't we try an experiment. Next time we want to ask God for something, why don't we praise 'Him' first, make our request, and then praise again. I promise, the amount of praise won't change God's 'mind' so it won't improve our prospects of success; but it might make us just a little better!