Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Art of Giving Thanks

A General Thanksgiving
from the Book of Common Prayer (1979), 
page 836

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things.  Amen.

The Prayer Book contains a number of prayers of thanksgiving. This one, composed for this revision, ascends rung by rung into the heights of spiritual freedom and maturity.

It begins with giving God thanks for what has been done for us, personally and corporately: in creation and all that flows from it—all of it being an expression of the mystery of Divine Love found in the Holy Trinity. Interestingly, this prayer assumes a theological beginning and end, framing the entire idea of thanksgiving in our participation in the Divine, rather than in the material benefits we have received. The two things are not opposites, but in a materialist culture like ours, it is essential to make clear that the material proceeds from and points towards a spiritual wholeness.

Then the prayer tightens the focus to the particulars of our own experience. This can be difficult, especially if we find ourselves in a season of loss or pain in any of the relationships central to our life. Giving thanks for any love or care we have received, even briefly, is essential at these times. When we are grieving or in emotional turmoil, evil seeks to isolate us from all memory of God’s presence and leading. This prayer speaks to that tendency, recalling before our heart and mind that God has been there, loving us in and through others.

Then comes a thanksgiving for our work, skills, abilities, and the creative capacity God gives us each in unique ways. This includes our work (how often do we really give thanks for work? After all, we were given work to do by God in the story of the Garden of Eden well before the “fall.”) Creativity, stewardship of resources, labor… these are all ways we share in God’s love. When our work or efforts “demand our best efforts,” we find out not only more about the hidden gifts in our lives, but about how much we need God in order to unlock those gifts—and hold them with humility and for the benefit of others when using them.

The prayer dares to contemplate an extremely important, but oft-overlooked part of thanksgiving: for failures and disappointments. This is a high rung to reach for, and usually can only be understood through a costly grace. Yet, it remains true that the greatest learning we will ever have will be from our failures, should we take the time to review them with eye not to self-justification but to a desire to love and serve more authentically. That is true dependence on God. When we learn not to fear failure as rejection, but to learn from all things for deeper discipleship, our very lives become a bridge between God’s holiness and the world’s need.

The prayer then proceeds to give highest thanks for the Word made flesh: Jesus Christ. It rehearses the story of incarnation-ministry-death-resurrection-ascension (His and ours--emphasizing our share in the ascension to God), placing our whole capacity to give thanks in the light of that which frees us to live upright, holy lives. It is not our own smarts, strength, good luck, good looks, personal charisma, or any of the myriad other things the world exalts that gives us hope: it is the gift of union with the Holy Trinity made possible in Christ that should call forth from us the greatest praise and thanks.

Finally, the prayer concludes not with thanks, but a petition: for the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We do this because the Spirit’s work of connecting, urging, and communicating is essential for us to make this act of Thanksgiving—whether said on Thanksgiving Day or at any other time—more than a moment in time, but a way of life.

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