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Later this morning, I’ll be speaking to a group of students at Pittsburgh Seminary, sharing the story of Upper Room as a case study in a class for their new Church-Planting M.Div. Specifically, I’ve been asked to share about vibrant faith in God, a characteristic which the course’s instructor identifies in his book as an essential trait for successful church-planters.  Most of what I’ll say will focus on prayer.  I’m taking the advice of St. Mark the Ascetic from the Philokalia: “If you want with few words to benefit one who is eager to learn, speak to him about prayer . . .” But after I wrote out my notes for the talk – filling it with illustrations about the importance of prayer in the life of Upper Room, the way we use the Jesus Prayer, the way Mike and I pray together –  I realized there was something missing: How do we maintain a vibrant faith and an active prayer life? It’s one thing to say to someone “pray more” and expect them to do it.  It’s a much bigger question to ask: What actually makes us want to pray more? What motivates us to stay active in our spiritual lives?

I think part of the answer is thankfulness.  Not long after my revelation earlier this summer that I needed to be more thankful, I read these words from my missionary hero, the monk Charles de Foucauld:

O beloved Bridegroom, what have you not done for me? What do you want from me? What do you expect from me, that you have so overwhelmed me? O God, give yourself thanks through me, create remembrance, gratitude, fidelity, and love in me; I am overcome, I fail, O God; create my thoughts, words, and deeds, so that they may all give you thanks and glorify you in me. Amen. Amen. Amen.

As I read this passage again this morning, I was overwhelmed. Brother Charles had such a deep sense of God’s blessing and presence in his life that he knew he could not thank God enough, and he believed this even in the midst of living a very ascetic and lonely life.  I can’t help but think that this very sense of thankfulness was part of what allowed Charles to be so bold in mission to the Tuareg people group of the Sahara. Thankful for the grace bestowed upon him, Charles responded both by expressing deeper love and affection for God and by eagerly seeking to share that blessing with others.  May the Lord grant us such thankfulness.

Lately I’ve spent a lot of time complaining. Complaining that I’m tired, stressed, tired, overworked, tired, unsatisfied, and (yes, again) tired. I’ve also been complaining about the sad state of my denomination, the oppressively hot weather, and a dozen other things beyond my immediate control. Though my wife and co-pastor have heard me complain out loud about most of these things, the majority of my complaints have been internal. I’ve been filled with those brooding, depressing internal complaints that grow more and more bitter each day. This is not good.

Then this morning, the Lord told me to stop. Literally. While praying the office of the first hour in the prayer book I’m presently using, I heard a voice inside me say, “Stop complaining.” It wasn’t an audible voice, but the words were crystal clear in my mind, and they seemed to come out of nowhere. This is how God has called me to repentance in the past, and it’s how he did so this morning. Stop complaining. Ok. I’ll try. But how? Every bad behavior is easier to leave behind if we replace it with a more positive behavior. What should I do instead of complain?

The point in the morning office at which I heard this internal voice was during the recitation of Psalm 5. To be more exact, it was at the point where the Psalmist says to God about his enemies: “No truth can be found in their mouths, their heart is all mischief, / Their throat is a wide-open grave, all honey their speech.” I think there’s a connection here: When I complain, is there truth in my mouth and purity in my heart? Or am I dwelling on a distortion of the truth, a half-truth skewed in the direction of self-pity and pride? If I’m serious about practicing the truth, then I should learn to question the truthfulness of my complaints. Is it really that bad? Is there something that can be done to change it? What good could there be in this?  By asking these questions today, I realized l that my pessimism was blinding me to the many signs of hope and joy which surround me.

And this means that practicing the truth should lead us to thankfulness. Thankfulness is the opposite of complaint. From a spiritual perspective, thankfulness is the choice to dwell upon God’s goodness, gifts, and mercies. Yes, there is suffering in this life. Jesus told us to expect it: “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). St. Ephrem the Syrian had some beautiful words about dwelling on God’s goodness and mercy which I think can lead us to choose hope, thankfulness, and courage over complaint. I read them with some friends a few nights ago, but their profundity eluded me until the Lord called me to repentance this morning.

Let us see those things that He does for us every day! / How many tastes for the mouth! How many beauties for the eye! / How many melodies for the ear! How many scents for the nostrils! / Who is sufficient in comparison to the goodness of these little things? / Who is able to make thousands of remunerations in a day? [Even] if there dwell in him a great spring of words, / he will be unable by words and melodies to make / the great remuneration of every hour, / O Gracious Cheated One, Who, although cheated daily, / does not cease to do good!  (St. Ephrem the Syrian, “Hymn 31” in “Hymns on Virginity and the Symbols of the Lord” in Hymns [Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press 1989] pp. 401-402).

God is the Gracious Cheated One, cheated out of the thankfulness which is due to him every day for the multitude of blessings which we fail to notice.  Even if we did notice them, Ephrem says these blessings are so vast that we could never thank God enough. And yet the Lord still pours his mercy out on both the just and the unjust, making his blessings all the more astounding. In the face of such good gits, complaint has no legitimate place.  Instead we ought to join the saints and angels in the heavenly doxology of truth which they exclaim in Revelation 7:12: “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”