A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Gratitude as prayer

As I sat writing this post last Thursday morning, I listened to the kids (out of school for a snow day) playing in the basement, I heard my husband (taking a snow day away from work) fiddling in the entryway, fixing our sliding door and I watched huge snowflakes endlessly fall outside my office window. And I was thankful. Thankful for no squabbles, at least in that fleeting moment of peace. Thankful for unexpected jobs getting done. Thankful for moisture a few feet deep. Not so thankful for all the wet laundry I would need to do later when the kids came in after 15 minutes of play outside. But thankful for the time I hoped would be available to play a family game of monopoly that afternoon. Thankful for a fire burning in our cozy home. Thankful for my family all safe and sound together.

Anne Lamott* writes, “Thanks is the short form of the original prayer I used to say in gratitude for any unexpected grace in my life, ‘Thankyouthankyouthankyou.’ As I grew spiritually, the prayer became the more formal ‘Thank you,’ and now, from the wrinkly peaks of maturity, it is simply ‘Thanks (pg. 43).’”

I guess that makes my grateful prayers fairly immature, because I still stick with “Thankyouthankyouthankyou.” This is always my table grace prayer with friends when we opt for silent prayer before the meal. I bow my head and let gratitude wash over me and repeat over and over to myself, “Thank you.” This is probably one of my most sincere expressions of prayer.

“Thanks” is also a prayer that sneaks up on us without conscious thought. We drive too speedily by a sitting cop car and watch our rear view mirror warily until we’re sure the lights aren’t going to flash in our general direction. Thank you! We suddenly have the uneasy feeling we’ve missed a lunch date. With heart sinking, we make a mad grab for our date book and see, with relief, the date is still a week away. Thank you!

And then there are the more earth shattering expressions of thanks. A child’s fever breaks. A doctor gives us not the expected bad news that had already begun shredding our insides, but the good news that seemed out of reach. We run a stop sign and come inches from fearful impact with a passing truck. Ruinous temptation is denied. A job is spared. Our bodies literally sag with relief. We say thank you through tears. We ponder a new and fresh understanding of grace.

Nor is thanksgiving always easy. There are days when the police car does take note of our excessive speed. Times when we do accidentally forget to meet a friend for lunch. And much, much worse, sick children who don’t get better, diagnoses that do shatter lives, addictions that prove stronger than our ability to fight them. The unthinkable happens and it happens often. How does gratitude fit into this picture?

Lamott writes, “I admit, sometimes this position of gratitude can be a bit of a stretch. So many bad things happen in our lives. Who knew? When my son, Sam, was seven and discovered that he and I would probably not die at exactly the same moment, he began to weep and said, ’If I had known that, I wouldn’t have agreed to be born.’ This one truth, that the few people you adore will die, is plenty difficult to absorb. But on top of it, someone’s brakes fail, or someone pulls the trigger or snatches the kid, or someone deeply trusted succumbs to temptation, and everything falls apart. We are hurt beyond any reasonable chance of healing. We are haunted by our failures and morality. And yet the world keeps on spinning, and in our grief, rage, and fear a few people keep on loving us and showing up. It’s all motion and stasis, change and stagnation. Awful stuff happens and beautiful stuff happens, and it’s all part of the big picture.
“In the face of everything, we slowly come through. We manage to make new constructs and baskets to hold what remains, and what has newly appeared. We come to know--or reconnect with--something rich and okay about ourselves. And at some point, we cast our eyes to the beautiful skies, above all the crap we’re wallowing in, and we whisper, ‘Thank you. (pgs. 50-51)’”

I think this is what the psalmist was getting at in Psalm 107. This psalm describes a whole series of awful things that can happen to people, but it keeps calling us back to gratitude. If you are lost, if you wander through life’s wastes with a hungry and thirsty soul - give thanks when you are found. If you feel helpless, if your heart is bowed down with hard labor, if you despair - give thanks when help and hope come. If you are sick, if you have drawn near the gates of death - give thanks for relief, any relief. If you have been overcome by a power which is beyond your control - give thanks for moments of safety, for experiences of deliverance.

And it is true - rescue, help, hope, relief, safety - none of these may arrive on our doorstep in the package we had ordered. Lamott writes about “making new constructs and baskets to hold what remains.” Later she names this as the gift of revelation. Revelation is often a very difficult gift to receive. But in our agony, our sorrow, our loss, we cast about for meaning, we search for a way to continue on. Revelation shows us how to plant our foot forward one more step. And for each lurching movement forward, we give thanks.

And here’s another key to gratitude. One that kind of made me smile. Again, Lamott writes, “A lot of us religious types go around saying thank you to God when we find a good parking space, or locate the house keys or the wandering phone, or finally get a good night’s sleep. And while that may be annoying to the people around us, it’s important because if we are lucky, gratitude becomes a habit (pgs. 48-49).”

That brings us to a point not yet mentioned - how often we forget to be grateful. It goes without saying, most of us have been blessed beyond measure in this life. In fact, most days yield a multitude of blessings. How tuned are we to this truth? How much do we practice gratitude?

My first paying job was in housekeeping and laundry at our local nursing home. I worked there through most of high school and continued during the summer months my first few years of college. I remember many residents whom the staff all loved. We went out of our way to spend time with them, to do things for them. And then there were rooms you tiptoed in and out of in an effort to avoid all interaction.

As I look back, I see how some people were extraordinarily outwardly focused. They were interested in you and asked you questions. They laughed more and had fun partnering with you in little crimes, like sitting and watching a few minutes of a soap opera when the boss wasn’t looking. One woman sent all the staff birthday cards each year. An old man loved to tell us jokes when we came in to get his trash.

Then there were a handful who were totally inwardly focused. The only topic of any interest in their lives was their latest health ailment. They groaned a lot. They found fault constantly. At times, some of these residents were downright mean, verbally abusive even.

The interesting thing is that there wasn’t an outward condition which explained the difference. Both groups had plenty of physical disabilities and lived with their fair share of pain. People from both groups had experienced life’s inevitable sorrows, losses. But it was how they responded that was so hugely different.

Those with an outward focus were disciplined in gratitude. If they mentioned discomfort it would be followed by the disclaimer that they were fortunate because other’s had it so much worse than they. This kind of attitude doesn’t just happen most of the time. I suppose some of us are born with more of a Pollyanna mentality. But most of us have to be intentional about being grateful. It’s a choice we make, over and over each day. We practice gratitude. And that expression of gratitude, however it comes, is a form of prayer. Again, what I now find so striking about prayer is the way it transforms the pray-er, almost regardless of the results.

Another interesting phenomena. The more grateful we are, the more inclined we are to reach out to others generously. The more likely we are to want to bless others through our actions so that they too might experience gratitude for grace given. This offering of ourselves is another form of the prayer of thanksgiving.

I offer words from Lamott to conclude, “The movement of grace toward gratitude brings us from the package of self-obsessed madness to a spiritual awakening. Gratitude is peace. Maybe you won’t always get from being a brat to noticing that it is an e.e cummings morning out the window. But some days you will. You will go from being Doug or Wendy Whiner, with your psychic diverticulitis, able to eat only macaroni and cheese, to remembering ‘i thank You God for most this amazing / day.’ You splurge on a pint basket of figs, or a pair of great socks. You begin to feel friendship with your flowering pear tree, an interspecies oneness with it, although we usually keep these thoughts to ourselves, lest they be used against us at the commitment hearings. In fact, you are able to use the word “wonder” again, even feel it, without despair…. (pg. 65).”

“Wonder,” which leads to “Wow.” Til next time…

*quotes taken from Lamott's most recent book, "Help, Thanks, Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers"

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