Three Essential Prayers: Thanks
Luke 17: 11-19
What are the magic words? You know, the ones parents coach and coax out of their kids. Until I read a certain book last year, I thought there were two “magic words” phrases and I thought they were “please” and “thank you.” This is what I hear parents of small children endlessly reminding their kids to say at the appropriate times. This is what I still rehearse with my stepson Blair, because autism takes extra rehearsing, too. Please and thank you.
Then I read a thoughtful little book about the differences in American and French parenting, a book called Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman. Druckerman is an American mother living full-time with her family in France, raising small children there, and encountering some interesting differences in our assumptions about and methods of parenting. One of them is in the magic words category. In France there are 4 magic words, or magic phrases. In addition to please and thank you, they also insist upon bonjour and au revoir (hello and goodbye). Every child is rehearsed in greeting adults as they enter a room and then again as they leave.
Druckerman explains that to the French, saying bonjour is “the first part of a relationship” (Bringing Up Bébé, p. 154). She writes that it’s “crucial” to say bonjour as you climb into a taxi, enter a shop, or approach a salesperson to ask for help. She says, “Saying bonjour acknowledges the other person’s humanity. It signals that you view her as a person, not just as someone who’s supposed to serve you. I’m amazed that people seem visibly put at ease after I say a nice solid bonjour. It signals that – although I have a strange accent – we’re going to have a civilized encounter” (Bringing Up Bébé, p. 155).
When you get right down to it, that’s what our measly 2 magic words do also – they acknowledge the other person’s humanity. Even with just please and thank you we are recognizing that we need one another. I am acknowledging that I am not the center of the entire universe, that I depend on others and they depend on me.
This doesn’t come easily to us. That’s why it takes so much rehearsing and coaching. Grandma just gave you a pretty doll. What do you say?… I would be happy to get your some lemonade but what’s the magic word? Children are just more transparent than the rest of us. They want what they want and if they have to say thank you to get it, then that’s a small price. But they aren’t going to start off saying it automatically, or even meaning it when they do say it. It’s a “magic word,” after all. Like “open sesame,” it’s the thing that magically transforms wanting into having. For a while, that’s all they know about this strange transaction of thank you.
I don’t think we’re that different from small children in this way. Two weeks ago I told you about Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers and we considered the first prayer, help. When the help comes, it is so easy to forget how desperate we were just a moment ago. It’s so easy to forget to acknowledge from whence the help came and to pause again for thanks. Like a child who wants to dig right into that cookie you gave him without saying thank you we sometimes have to remind ourselves, like parents with small children, to finish that transaction with the magic words.
According to Luke, even people healed of leprosy have this problem.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem when 10 people with leprosy approached, keeping their distance and shouting out for mercy (that’s their help prayer). Jesus sees them and instructs them to go and show themselves to the priests. “And as they went, they were made clean.” One of them men, upon seeing that he has been healed, turns around and begins praising God loudly. He prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks him. Now Jesus notices that only one man comes back to offer praise and thanks and he asks, “Weren’t there 10 made clean?”… “Where are the other 9?”… “Didn’t any one of them besides this Samaritan think it was fit to turn back and give praise to God?” He doesn’t wait for any answers to the questions but turns back to the one healed man and says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17: 11-19).
Ten people pray for help and all receive it. One person – the foreigner who would be seen as the least likely candidate – returns to praise God and give thanks. And Jesus notices. He notices that praise and gratitude are not universal. He notices that those who are supposed to already know God don’t seem to act like it. And he calls it like he sees it. He says to the one man, “[Y]our faith has made you well.”
We just heard the story. Don’t we suppose that Jesus had something to do with this healing? But what does he say? Your faith has made you well. Jesus loves to say this at healings! (cf., Mt. 9: 22 and Mark 10: 52) Your faith has made you well. What did Jesus see and experience of this one man’s faith? What did the man do in Jesus’ presence? He turned around and came back; he praised God loudly; and he threw himself down at Jesus’ feet to offer thanks. That’s the faith Jesus is referring to: gratitude and praise.
This may be one of those chicken-and-the-egg things for us: Is he thankful because of his faith or does being thankful lead to faith?
You could say this about children, too. Just because I coax a thank you out of a three-year-old, it doesn’t mean she understands or means it. But we start doing that with them even before three-years-old, don’t we? We don’t wait until they are 8 or 10 when they can “understand” the concept of thanking someone. Perhaps that is because part of how we learn to understand the concept is to engage in it before we completely understand it. Anne Lamott calls this habit a “position of gratitude” (Help, Thanks, Wow, p. 50). Perhaps putting ourselves in a posture of thanksgiving leads us to understand how to be thankful – something we might never learn if we sit on the sidelines and wait to “get it” before we say it.
This is where skeptics might say that we are just “going through the motions.” Yes, and? So what? What if the motion itself helps prepare the soil of our hearts for growth?
It is no accident that we gather around this table each week for a meal, praying The Great Thanksgiving. Eucharist – which also means “thanksgiving” – is the central act of Christian worship and the way we go about it is to make a “sacrifice” of thanksgiving. Every time we gather for this meal, we pray that “we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving, as a holy and living sacrifice.”
Even on the weeks when we don’t feel thankful, when we feel angry or fearful or scared or doubtful. Even then, we come back together and say thank you. Thank you for all that is, even when it seems like crap. Thank you for the things I don’t understand. Thank you for being there even when I can’t feel you anymore. Thank you for this long story of your relationship with your people – even though I don’t understand where the story is going right now. It might feel less than inspired, like the rehearsed magic words of a small child but that’s ok. Showing up to say thank you shows God we are starting to get it. And, perhaps more importantly, the practice of thank you works on us until we start to actually feel thankful, too.
The truly hard work is cultivating a thankful heart. Some claim that gratitude is “the purest measure of one’s character and spiritual condition” (NIB Commentary, Vol. IX, p. 327). Gratitude, praise, thanksgiving. This is a way of life and the primary orientation of a Christian: praising lips and a thankful heart. It’s our primary orientation, flowing from our baptism, that cleansing, quenching ritual when God acts – God gives – before we even know about or understand the gift.
Some days this work is harder than others. Some days you have to really pay attention in order to see where you can slip in a thank you. Some days it doesn’t seem likely…until you find yourself doing it. I’m going to close with a couple of pages from the end of Lamott’s chapter, describing just such a day… [Read except from Help, Thanks, Wow: “This morning at six…” pp. 65-68, end of chapter].
Thanks be to God!
© 2008, 2013 Deborah E. Lewis