Offering Up Thanks
I was channel flicking the other night, and I happened upon a scene
that truly astounded me. Some doctors were in a hospital counseling a
patient who wanted to get her nose sculpted through plastic surgery. The
problem was, this was her fourth or fifth time at it, and she still wasn't
satisfied. "I want my nose fixed," she said insistently,
"to one of the doctors." "But you've already had it fixed
several times," said one of the doctors, "and each time, the
plastic surgeon did a great job. Your nose is perfect. I don't think you
should go through the risks of surgery for another procedure."
"You can't stop me, I want my nose fixed. It's not the way I wanted
it to be."… and the conversation went on and on, with the patient
getting pretty hysterical. How incredibly sad.
But in these days of reality TV, of People magazine covers
saying "Did she or didn't she?" and rumors about how many
surgeries the likes of Michael Jackson has had, I wish I could say this
woman was an anomaly. Everyone, it seems, on reality TV is fixing for a
fixer upper. There's one reality show all about a day in the life of a
Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who works 'til 11 at night, he has so many
cases. Then there are shows about people getting their homes completely
made over from top to bottom. There's a show called The Swan, where
people go through drastic, dangerous physical overhauls and reconstructive
surgery and even have things like jaws and teeth reshaped and sculpted,
all to see who can be the prettiest.
It's when I come across scenes like this that I remember how truly
countercultural the messages of our faith are. The woman with the multiple
nose jobs was missing an ingredient central to our faith -- central to
what we hear about in scripture today -- she was missing an attitude of
gratitude. A key to her happiness and to her true transformation was
perhaps closer to her than even the nose on her face, so to speak. What if
she lived life with a little gratitude? Can you imagine how her life would
be changed if for all the times she obsessed about her ostensibly terrible
nose, she replaced those thoughts with feelings of gratitude for what she
already had? If she could but only count her blessings, not her nose jobs,
I bet she could
find the kind of transformation no plastic surgeon could even come close
to achieving for her.
While I can't imagine any of us here are like many of these people on
reality shows, isn't it true that we can all so easily fall into the trap
and just plain forget about our blessings? Especially when we think that
there's so much we need to improve upon? We tell ourselves we could look
better, we could live better, and so the story goes.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that if the stars came out only once a
year, everybody would stay up all night just to behold them. We have seen
the stars so often, we don't bother to look at them anymore. We have
become accustomed to our blessings. And sometimes, we altogether forget
that we have them.
The Israelites, when they came out of slavery and wilderness and got to
the promised land, the Israelites not only counted their blessings, they
offered them up to God in thanksgiving. Thank offerings were central to
their practice and to their covenant-making with God. So the Israelites
took the first fruits of their first harvest, and before even eating them
themselves, set these fruits down at the altar of God, as an offering. In
the words of Deuteronomy, each person said: "So now I bring the first
of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me." They
then set the bounty down on the altar before the Lord their God and bowed
The Israelites were the first in line to attribute their bounty to God
but not the last. Jesus asks us to do the same. "Go, tell them how
much the Lord has done for you," says Jesus to Legion after he was
exorcised and healed. "Go, tell them how much the Lord has done for
you and what mercy he has shown you." (Mark 5:19) What has the Lord
done for you and for me of late? What bounty, what abundance do we have in
our lives that come from our God? How has God been merciful to you and me?
Who are we
going to tell? Would we share our gratitude with our friends, our
neighbors, or even strangers?
Not too long ago, a man I know was looking for his perfect job. He had
been an architect for over 30 years, and now, in his late 50's, the job of
his dreams had opened up. And from the way it looked, he was well
positioned to get that job. So he asked me and several other friends,
"Could you remember me in your prayers? I've waited all my life
for this job. I know I can meet the challenge. My wife, my children, they
feel positive about this. Like this job is the one. We'd get to move to
San Francisco. We're ready for change. Our kids are very excited about the
possibilities." So I prayed for weeks for this friend, and so did
many others. One day, after not hearing from him for awhile, he called me
up to say, "I didn't get the job." He was crushed. He had been
going through a hard time, but he wanted me to know something special that
happened. "I knew I was being prayed for," he said, "and I
can tell you, those prayers really helped." But this was obviously
not the outcome he had hoped and prayed for. How did prayers help?
"Because," he said, "you know, as the days passed, even
though I knew there was so much on the line and my hopes were so high, I
ran the risk of being let down, of being rejected, still through it all, I
had the most amazing feeling. I was thankful. I was thankful just
even for the opportunity to apply for this job. I was thankful for the
people who opened doors for me to get this interview. I was thankful that
I had been able to work so hard in my career to even consider this
possibility. I was so touched by the support of my family and friends, for
the way they rooted for me. Don't get me wrong," he said, "I was
disappointed, and I still am, but this feeling of gratitude. It hit me in
a whole new way. It's like a buoy in my life that keeps me afloat
The apostle Paul says to us: "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." My friend came to know that peace. Not only did he pray with
supplication for that dream job, his prayers of need and want were
intermingled with prayers of gratitude, regardless of the outcome.
Not all is rosy to be sure. There are great disappointments in life;
it's not so easy all the time to be thankful. Paul shows us, however, that
it is possible not only to be thankful in the best of times but even in
the worst of times. It's remarkable that Paul was able to write so
adamantly about thanksgiving at a time when, by all appearances, he had
little to be thankful about. He wrote his letter to the Philippians while
in prison, and his prospects were looking dark. He was facing a trial and
most probably a death sentence. He had undergone great suffering in prison
and was even attacked, by one account (1 Cor. 15:32). There was a
ray of hope for Paul when one of the Philippians had sent a messenger to
meet with Paul in prison and to stay by his side and be of service to him.
But the messenger, no sooner had he arrived to see Paul, fell gravely ill.
And to top it all off, Paul was writing a letter to people who were
definitely not living on easy street. His disciples were trying to defend
new faith under hostile rule; no doubt they were ridden with fear and
So just imagine Paul, sitting in a cell, probably with very little
light, surely not good food, most likely an uncomfortable, cramped place
to sleep, if he even got sleep, few if not scarce belongings, in danger of
his life, and out of that darkness he says, "Rejoice in the Lord
always and again I say rejoice. Pray about everything and with every
prayer, be thankful. The Lord is near."
A prayer of thanksgiving is a most powerful vehicle to God. I promise
you the more you give thanks to God, you will find more to be thankful
about. A prayer of thanksgiving feeds upon itself. The more you give
thanks to God, you will find yourself feeling greater love and closeness
to our Holy One.
Author and essayist Annie Lamont writes, there are two types of prayer.
One is "help, help, help." The other is "thank you, thank
you, thank you."
Over a decade ago, Erma Bombeck included in a magazine column a story
entitled: "I Have Everything." She writes:
An estimated 1.5 million people are living today after bouts with
breast cancer. Every time I forget to feel grateful to be among them, I
hear the voice of an eight-year-old named Christina, who had cancer of
the nervous system. When asked what she wanted for her birthday, she
thought long and hard and finally said, "I don't know. I have two
sticker books and a Cabbage Patch doll. I have everything!" The kid
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Copyright © 2004 Gretchen L. Elmendorf. Used by