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November 18, 2012 | 8:00 a.m.
Holy Moments of Gratitude
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
We savor these moments out of time, when we are conscious of love’s presence, of Someone’s great abiding generosity to our dear and motley family, these holy moments of gratitude. And that is grace.
In last Sunday’s Parade magazine, there was an article by Anne Lamott, whose newest book is called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. In the article, she talks about the fact that, though it was not a custom for her family as she grew up to say grace before meals, now when she and her two adult siblings, all of whom became believers in middle-age, gather for their Thanksgiving meal, someone always ends up saying grace. She wrote, “I think we’re in it for the pause, the quiet thanks for love and for our blessings, before the shoveling begins” (Anne Lamott, “Counting Our Blessings,” Parade, 11 November 2012).
I was really struck by her phrase “I think we’re in it for the pause”—the pause being when we stop for a moment to acknowledge God’s abiding presence in our lives. We step out of time for a moment to recognize that all of life is a gift, a gift we have freely received and not earned. We pause to thank God as the Source of our many blessings.
In the story of the ten lepers healed by Jesus, only one of them paused to praise God. That was the one who, upon realizing he was healed, turned around and returned to Jesus to thank him. My guess is that this one wasn’t the only healed leper who was grateful. If I had been burdened with a chronic illness that separated me from the rest of society and doomed my future and then found I had been fully healed, I would certainly have been grateful and immediately overjoyed. No doubt the other nine hurried to the priest to have him officially declare they had been healed, then couldn’t wait to return to their loved ones to celebrate with them in their new life.
My guess is that they all were grateful. But only one paused and returned to Jesus to praise God as the Source of his healing. That one was a foreigner, a Samaritan. We don’t know anything about his theology or religious practice. Jesus’ response to this man is interesting. First he questions: “Where are the other nine? Did only this foreigner return to praise God?” Then he says to the man, who had prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Jesus makes a close connection between faith and thanking God. Central to our faith is not right belief, nor duty and obligation, nor guilt and fear. Central to our faith is gratitude to God. Giving thanks honors God and nurtures life.
We all know how much our attitude towards life makes a big difference in how we live. We can go around moping and whining, focusing on the negative, complaining about our disappointments, our hurts, our hardships. We can in essence be like Eeyore, the donkey in the stories of Winnie the Pooh, who is always in the dumps and never has a positive thing to say. Or we can approach each day thankful for what a miracle it is to be alive with God by our side and amazed over both small and large blessings.
A hymn or prayer that praises God is called doxology. We sing the Doxology at the opening of every Sunday morning worship service. Fred Craddock, who is a minister in the Disciples of Christ church, says that one evening, while he was sitting alone on his porch under the stars, an idea came to him. He realized it was not a new idea, nor his alone. But he ”exercised an owner’s prerogative by giving it a name.” Craddock named the idea Doxology. He says, “I took Doxology inside to our family dinner table. Supper is family time, and conversation is usually a reflection upon the day. . . . Tongues are loosed and all of us . . . share our days. Supper is a good time and pleasant, and the whole family agreed that Doxology belonged at our table.”
Craddock reports that the next day Doxology went with him when he and his wife went
downtown for some routine errands, but somehow (with Doxology along) they did not seem so routine. We laughed at a child losing a race with an ice cream cone, his busy tongue unable to stop the flow down to his elbow. We studied the face of a tramp staring into a jewelry store window and wondered if he were remembering or hoping for better days. We spoke to the banker, standing with thumbs in his vest before a large plate glass window, grinning as one in possession of the keys of the kingdom. We were delighted by women shoppers clutching bundles and their skirts at blustery corners.
“It was good to have Doxology along,” Craddock says.
But then, he continued, “I had to make a stop at St. Mary’s Hospital to see Betty. Betty was dying with cancer, and the gravity of my visit prompted me to leave Doxology in the car. Betty was awake and glad to see me. I awkwardly skirted the subject of death. It’s all right, she said. I know, and I have worked it through. God has blessed me with a wonderful family, good friends, and much happiness. I am grateful. I do not want to die, but I am not bitter.” Craddock said, she was the one who had the prayer. “Back at the car, Doxology asked, ‘Should I have been there?’ ‘Yes,’ Craddock said, ‘I am sorry I did not understand.’”
Craddock went on to say that he took Doxology with him when he went on vacation with his family. “There is no question Doxology belongs on a vacation.”
When the vacation ended and he was back in school, Craddock received word that his oldest brother had died. He drove to the place where his brother had lived, wondering on the way what he would say to his sister-in-law, newly widowed. He says, “I was still searching when we pulled into the driveway. She came out to meet us, and as I opened the car door, still without that word, she broke the silence: ‘I hope you brought Doxology.’”
“Doxology? No,” says Craddock. “I had not even thought of Doxology since the phone call. But the truth is now clear: If we ever lose Doxology, we might as well be dead” (Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, ed., Craddock Stories, pp. 153–155).
To bring Doxology along wherever we go, in whatever circumstances, is to create the pause in which we recognize God’s loving presence in our midst and give God praise and thanks.
Pausing for moments of gratitude, bringing along Doxology, is the key to an abundant life. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism declares, the chief end of humankind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.
I don’t think only we are “in it for the pause,” as Anne Lamott puts it. God may also be in it for the pause, those sacred moments when we notice and appreciate God. We know when we spend our hearts and time and effort on behalf of another, when we have tried hard to find just the right gift for the one we love, we know we’re disappointed and hurt when the receiver acts like they are entitled to our gift and takes us for granted. It’s even worse when our gift is rejected. I read about such an incident in the program notes of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this past week. Piotre Tchaikovsky had in mind his friend, the master pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, to play the first piano concerto he composed. But after Tchaikovsky played through the first movement for Rubenstein, the composer was greeted with complete silence. He later wrote to another friend, “What a foolish and unbearable situation it is to offer a friend a dish one has cooked oneself and to have that friend eat and say nothing!” (Philip Huscher, “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23,” Playbill – Chicago Symphony Orchestra, November 2012, p. 34).
I imagine God doesn’t like that either. Sure, it is God’s nature to pour out love abundantly for us. Nonetheless, when God gives to us, wouldn’t God, like we, really be hoping that the gift will lead to making a deeper connection between the giver and the receiver, that there will be a strengthening of mutual love in the exchange? God showers blessing after blessing upon us every day. Still, I imagine God especially delights in giving to us when we pause to notice and remember to say thank you, to connect.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order of Catholic priests, taught that the most important spiritual discipline one can practice is what he named the Examen of Conscience. Every day, such as at the end of the day, one examines or reviews the past twenty-four hours. First one notes everything for which one is grateful and thanks God. Then one notes all those moments for which one is sorry and confesses them to God to gain insight and receive forgiveness. When I practice this way of praying, taking time to thank God for many things in the past day, it really shapes my mind and heart to be more joyful, more hopeful, more connected to God, more fully alive.
Let’s practice the thanksgiving part of this prayer now. In the next few minutes of silence, I want you to review the past twenty-four hours. Begin to name silently all the things that happened or were true for you in the past day for which you are thankful. As you think of each one, thank God for it. I will then say Amen.
. . .
May you continue to carve out moments each day to thank God, for such moments are holy—to us and to God. Amen.