The Simplest Prayer

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (4:6-7).

Philippians 4:4-13

My very first gathering at Divinity School was a back-to-school dinner for all returning ministry students, their spouses, kids and significant others, as well all the new students at the home of the Director of Ministry Studies, Cynthia Lindner.   For those of you who love our Tables for Eight, can you imagine this table for about eighty young-adult, hungry mouths?

I was struck with the sharp contrasts between my corporate dinners with suited, conservative bankers and this collection of people with wide-ranging skin colors, ethnic backgrounds, displaying creative body art (tattoos and piercings), diverse sexual orientations and family commitments, all openly talking about Christianity, faith and God.

Cynthia asked each of us to introduce ourselves, but knew the gathering too well, so we were instructed to employ restraint and limit ourselves to just two words. Two words.  We were students of the Word, students of many, many words, in many languages.  This was tough.  Some struggled with this limit, defied her request (much to their later regret).  Candidly, I did not.  I needed only one word then and I need only one word today:  gratitude.

Gratitude.  Grateful. Thankful.  You may be drawn to another word to express a deeply held sentiment of feeling blessed.  I suppose I could have used two words and said “thank you,” but I don’t know if other guests would have understood the dinner celebrated my end of wandering and doubt as well as beginning a new chapter in my life.

Gratitude is a word that emerges from our Judeo Christian history and pervades so many of our customs, hymns and theology.

Our earliest ancestors gave burnt offerings to God as thanks for grain and livestock; recognizing these were not just the basics for life nor the result of human labor alone:  they were blessings received from God. Stories abound within Hebrew Scriptures of those who endured starvation, were cast into the desert or faced life-threatening hardship and whose first response after surviving was to give thanks to God for life and the bare necessities that sustained them.

The front cover of our bulletin contains one of the numerous commands to recognize God as the provider of all that we need to live.  “Rejoice in every good thing the Lord your God has given you” emerged not at the point of a national prosperity, but after the Israelites had wandered in the desert for generations and finally settled into their promised land.

The commands within Deuteronomy look like a list of laws, and they are, but they exist and are validated only by the lived experience of knowing that God alone is our creator and sustainer, not us.  Woven with the command to give thanks is the reminder to be humble – our lives are not all our accomplishments, our lives are gifts from and are to be lived in thanks to God.  At the end of harvests, the Israelites were to give the first fruits, the very best crops and livestock, to those in need as a way to remember they too were once in need and received care.

Teachings such as these stir an awareness of our individual and collective contingency.  We are limited by time and place.  We are always vulnerable, and despite our brazen egos or efforts to deny or prevent it, we will die.  The teachings of gratitude anchor us to God and one another.

Daily practices of giving thanks prevent us from taking the circumstances of our lives for granted or from becoming greedy and possessive of gifts we receive but were meant to share.  Without such prayers and ritual practices to remind us, we could fall prey to claiming our own success, become infected by the spirit of acquiring stuff, let hubris fester, belittle others and let in all the attendant challenges of consumerism.  A daily dose of humble gratitude keeps away such plagues and grounds us in God.

On this day to give thanks, think back on who taught you to say “thank you.”  Was it a parent or grandparent who nudged you to write the dreaded thank-you note?  My mom did.  Did you need to be scripted for calls to your aunt or uncle after receiving birthday presents or a bit of cash during the holidays?  How did you learn the difference between receiving a gift and feeling entitled to something because it was your birthday?  Receiving and getting can be profoundly different.

On the flip side, think of how elated you may feel upon opening a note or acknowledgement of thanks that you knew was heart-felt and penned with more than a formula from Miss Manners.   Think of those thank-you notes that did not feel as some ploy to appease you or keep the gifts flowing; they expressed true gratitude.

You don’t find a great deal of gratitude among those who choose to be loners or those who seem unable to sustain positive relationships in a community.  As we think of those times in our lives when we are most ungrateful or encounter those who seem unable to say thanks, it might be insecurity, fear, selfishness, or anxiety.

Some of you know I’ve been a part of a book club for much of my adult life, which prompted one of you to recommend Will Schwable’s, The End of Your Life Book Club.  As Schwable’s mother was in treatment for a terminal cancer, they spent hours and days in the hospital waiting rooms, found themselves talking about books and decided to read books together as long as they could.  In this memoir and tribute to his mother, he recounts their book conversations as well as witnessing how she chose to live her final months.  In this passage, he remembers growing up, learning to write thank you notes.

“The notes could not be perfunctory (either). You had to put real elbow grease into them, writing something specific and convincing about each gift. So Christmas afternoon meant laboring over thank you notes. As children we hated the task, but when I saw Mom beam as she thanked people, nurses, aides, doctors at the hospital, I realized something she had been trying to tell us all along. That there is a great joy in thanksgiving.

“What, in time I realized was that a thank you note isn’t the price you pay for receiving a gift, as so many children think it is, a kind of minimum tribute or toll, but an opportunity to count your blessings. And gratitude isn’t what you give in exchange for something: it’s what you feel when you are blessed – blessed to have family and friends who care about you, and want to see you happy. Hence the joy from Thanksgiving.” [The End of Your Life Book Club p. 203-204]

We are all human and need to be taught by others how to live together and how to live faithful lives.  The same is true as followers of Christ.

The apostle Paul schooled the early church in Philippi in saying “thank you”. His letter was penned while still in chains and yet, if read through to the end, contains a mantra to rejoice and give thanks.  Paul models expressing gratitude is the way to stifle anxiety.

Paul never denies the hardships of life and calls out his personal experience of living in plenty and in scarcity, of being well-fed and hungry, but throughout all manner of existence, he proclaims God’s presence and strength.  The humility of recognizing what we have received from God, however small or large, gives way to a peace that passes all understanding – that is very hard to describe, but the greatest calm to feel amidst anxiety and found through prayer.

It reminds us again that in the depths of challenge, when we lose worldly comforts or are faced with life-threatening situations, we are often humbled to gratitude.

The Pilgrims gave thanks in community after the first harvest, remembering the death and hardships that plagued them the prior year.

We have witnessed tornado survivors from only hundreds of miles who away gathered in auditoriums and make-shift churches to worship God and give thanks.  Photos of the people in the Philippines who worshiped God in devastated churches showcase however crumbling the structures, they represented the one place for them to be together and to be close to God.

It is sad to think that catastrophe or loss oft times teach us gratitude.  Surviving and clinging to life helps us understand how burdened our lives may become with stuff when we stray from the essentials of life, love and relationships.

Holding thanksgiving and hardship together is a spiritual challenge. We struggle to give thanks after the death of a loved-one. We try to be grateful when a child is sick. We do our best to count our blessings when we lose a job, fail a class, suffer an injury, or experience a crushing disappointment.  Those who hold on to gratitude in the face of losses are true role models, the beautiful combination of humility and deep strength.

When others around us seem to have Hallmark holidays, it is difficult for those who have strained or toxic family relationships.  Sometimes all you can do is take it one step at a time, one breath at a time and offer a silent thank you to God.  This may protect you from succumbing to squabbles or steel you against negative criticism.

Thanksgiving is the virtue of interdependence, the recognition that our achievements are not fully our own, but emerge from a network of relationships that sustain and shape us. Thankfulness and gratitude give way to giving. Giving our thanks to each other, and most of all to God, does not compromise us or make us smaller.  On the contrary, giving our thanks, acknowledging our connectedness to each other and God enlarges and strengthens us.

In my home office where I do most of my writing, I have a collection of comics on the bulletin board.  Sometimes the best theologians and preachers are those who literally draw and draw upon life to teach us.  The comic strip Mutts showcases a dog and one particular frame shows a dog leaping through the air towards its feeding dish with the caption quoting the German mystic Meister Eckhart: “if the only prayer you say in your life is “thank you,” that will suffice.”

The simplest prayer of all, two simple words…thank you.