(Note: as I noted late last week, I am celebrating my 20th anniversary this week with a trip with my husband. As you can imagine, a work-at-home mother of 4 trying to pull off an anniversary trip means a LOT of logistical planning, so this week I’m sharing, with minor edits, a post originally published on my personal blog in 2009. To understand it, you need to know that my daughter Julianna has Down syndrome. At the time this was written, she was a toddler. This is one of my all-time favorite spiritual lessons learned from my children.)
It happened for the first time over the Fourth of July weekend. We were staying with my in-laws, and Julianna’s cousins sat on the floor with her and played “Pat-a-Cake.” They showed her the motions and chanted the little ditty in unison, and about the time they reached “put it in the oven for…” Julianna would erupt in a long, loud yell and clap her hands, showing every one of her teeth. The girls did the rhyme over and over, and Julianna never let them down. Every single time, she overlapped the last line with a shout of joy. (I can’t call it a squeal, because that word connotes something much higher-pitched, and Julianna’s is a dusky alto voice.)
In the last six weeks, that fresh, unsophisticated reaction has become one of our favorite things about life with our daughter. It makes us laugh, but not for the reason you think. Yes, it’s funny and cute, but there’s a pure, unadulterated joy in that reaction that never fails to evoke a sympathetic resonance in our own souls. All children find joy in simple things, but it’s more pronounced in Julianna, because of the unevenness of her development. Her body’s skill level is, oh, let’s call it fourteen months; her speech is even farther behind than that—but her emotional level, her understanding, is much closer to her true age of 2 ½. So the things she reacts to are far ahead of her ability to express.
We had pizza one night, and she yelled and clapped to show how excited she was. My husband caught on quickly. He began to encourage her, saying, “Yay for the pizza!” Julianna learned her cue so well that her daddy progressed to “Yay for the ice cream!”
She’s unbearably cute about it. She grins so hard, her eyes squint; she yells, claps her hands, and looks around to make sure everybody is taking as much pleasure in the moment as they ought to be.
One morning last week, as I was out running and soaking in the wonder of a beautiful sunrise, I found myself smiling and saying, “Yay, God!” And it hit me: this is the meaning of praise. The psalms are full of “praise God!” Somewhere along the line I remember learning that prayer should be first praise, then thanks, and only after that petition. I have always been confused by the difference between praise and thanks. Aren’t they one and the same? What words do you use to praise God? Eventually I came to the conclusion that “praise” is one of those “effective” words—a word that has no meaning except its own utterance—a word that accomplishes its meaning simply by the act of being spoken, like “I baptize you” or “I forgive you.”
But Julianna has taught me a deeper truth: that praise is not about words at all. It’s about opening yourself up to the moment, delighting in what you experience, and allowing the knowledge of the One Who made it possible to intensify the joy.