THE VIRTUE OF VOICING OUR THANKS
Introduction: A Tip Of The Hat To Pavlov
Each year, around Thanksgiving (we celebrate twice, enjoying both Canadian and American events) I’ve noticed that I have a Pavlovian response that kicks in. You remember Pavlov, don’t you? Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was the Russian scientist who, in 1904 won the Nobel Prize for his studies with dogs, the digestive system, and what is called “classical conditioning.” Present some food, we salivate. Present a bell, then some food, we salivate. Just present a bell, and (you guessed it) we salivate.
I salivate around Thanksgiving time. Just like the dogs of the famous experiment, when the piece of meat is put before me, my instincts kick in.
I salivate just thinking about the turkey, the dressing, the cranberries, the mashed potatoes with creamed corn, the pumpkin pie, the pumpkin pie and the pumpkin pie. Oh, did I say that thrice?
I’ve also noticed that I don’t simply salivate physically during this time, though the fine foods my family both prepares and devours so well do make my mouth water. I also salivate figuratively. I long to do something around Thanksgiving that seems to bubble up in me every year. I long to, hope to, look to, even ask to speak.
To speak? Why would I have a hidden desire to speak each time Thanksgiving rolls around. Well, we live in a world in which God has entered. In space and time, God has acted. He was born as the incarnate Son in Bethlehem (a space), and around the time that we call 6 A.D. A place and a time – God acts in both.
God is not put off by time, though the Scriptures seems to speak to us that He dwells both within and beyond it. God knows that we are creatures of time, and sense, and we respond to seasons, along with their smells, relationships, feelings, thoughts and yes, tastes.
I respond to Thanksgiving every year with a similar movement rising up within my soul. I long to speak.
To Speak About What?
Something in me tells me that it is not enough to be thankful, grateful, appreciative. Something in me tells me that there is a need for that moment of fleeting perception that something good has just been given to us, the flicker of awareness that a gift has just come our way, needs to be told in a story, or a song, or a painting or a talk. Something must be said – it’s not enough for our appreciation to remain inside.
Today, I get to give a talk.
A story about a moment of spoken thankfulness rises from the pages of the Scriptures. I wrote my first song, ever, about this story. The first time I read it, really read it, it moved me. Something about the players, something about the actors in the narrative, something about one particular character has always drawn me back to the story again and again.
One Voice Of Thanks
It happened that as he made his way toward Jerusalem, he crossed over the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten men, all lepers, met him. They kept their distance but raised their voices, calling out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Taking a good look at them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”
They went, and while still on their way, became clean. One of them, when he realized that he was healed, turned around and came back, shouting his gratitude, glorifying God. He kneeled at Jesus’ feet, so grateful. He couldn’t thank him enough—and he was a Samaritan.
Jesus said, “Were not ten healed? Where are the nine? Can none be found to come back and give glory to God except this outsider?” Then he said to him, “Get up. On your way. Your faith has healed and saved you.”
From what we can see in this passage, ten men who have various forms of leprosy, have met Jesus as he enters their village. They stay back, knowing that they are never to come near another who has no leprosy, or they may give them the disease. Their backs may be hunched, their faces distorted, their fingers mangled beyond recognition, their hair patchy, their skin numb, stretched tight, hot white and infected. They may have even lost entire limbs, but the greatest pain within them would not be the loss of their members of their body. Their greatest ache would be internal – the loss of the members of their family in close physical relationship – wives, children, parents, friends all kept at a distance for possibly decades.
They cry out to Jesus, as Master of skin and bone, and beg for a mercy that could come from God alone. He speaks a simple phrase, for them to go to their local priest, to offer a gift of thanks to God for their healing. Shocked, and possibly deeply disappointed and weeping, they turn to go. This was not what they had hoped.
Then, as they are some distance away, something begins to happen. A sweet coolness begins to flow like cool water inside their skin. A pleasant tingling sensation in their hands and feet begins to displace the itching and deep pain of infection. Backs and bones begin to crack and pop, fingers push out where only small stumps had been before. Taught, thin, transparent skin begins to thicken, soften and loosen. They look at one another. A flood of emotion takes over the group. They are healing – everything is healing! Some scream in sheer delight, or ecstasy or awe-filled fear. Then, their minds take off like a horse kicking at its racing gate. “My wife,” one thinks. “My children,” another thinks. Ten men’s men begin to squeal with delight, hug like children, and then, as if by involuntary impulse, they begin to scatter and to run wildly toward their homes.
One man, running with tears flowing down his newborn face, goes a few yards. Then, he stops. He turns, and he runs as fast as he can to find Jesus. When he sees him, he screams “Y’shua, Y’shua, Y’shua,” Jesus name in Hebrew – Joshua – “the Lord saves.” One can almost see him doing a full knee slide, dust flying and arms open, right to the feet of Jesus. He bows, he worships, he kisses, he embraces Jesus feet, and he voices his thanks. Words come tumbling out of him – he will never remember what he said in that moment. He is ecstatic, he is humbled, he is out of his mind with appreciation, and he speaks out – with bumbling words, ineloquent speech and incomplete sentences – his heartfelt thanks.
1. When We Voice Our Thanks… We Gain Perspective.
The man in our story was not the only one who was thankful. I imagine that at the moment of seeing their skin begin to change, at the moment when their skin began to feel washed in coolness as it was restored before their eyes, I imagine that they were all very, very thankful. Then, in their ecstasy, in their expectation of utterly restored families, lives and hopes, they simply forgot to say thank you.
My wife keeps a small book by her nightstand. Every evening, she writes down 3 things for which she was thankful that day. Many of our days in the past few years have felt hard and rigorous, but she still writes down these 3 things. Yesterday, I asked her why. She said, “When I say what I’m thankful for, I remember the gifts of life and love and sustenance that I’ve been given – and things fall back into perspective.”
In other words, her little journal is a tool of memory. She remembers by writing at the end of the day, and the gift she receives for saying “thanks” is perspective.
2. When We Voice Our Thanks… We Change Our Minds.
It is not unusual in Ignatian prayer forms to allow ourselves to imaginatively enter into a biblical story. In this story, I watch the man get up (probably by the forceful lift of some of the apostles), say a few more thank you’s, and then run home. But something else besides his skin changed. By saying thanks, his brain physically changed. Nerve endings, endorphins, electrical impulses and even the grey matter shifted in their turn, and his mind physically changed.
My father-in-law is one of the most thankful people I’ve ever met. He’s survived war zones, working for presidents, extended years in and out of hospitals, chronic pain, and having to watch his son-in-law (me, not the other one) work with tools. Yet, when he answers the phone, he puts on a smile and says “Good morning, God bless you, how may I help you?” Words of appreciation are regularly on his lips.
By personality, he doesn’t first see the flowers – he first sees the weeds, what needs to be fixed. It is clear however, that out of his followership of Jesus, he has determined to be a positive, thankful person. Over the course of decades, I believe that he has allowed God to literally change his mind, and he has partnered with God in that work by choosing to voice his thanks. To God, he mostly speaks it. But I continually hear him offering appreciation to others, for even small acts of kindness.
Scientists tell us that the brain can change. The internal wiring, the pathways and chemicals that chain our thoughts together, can literally shift according to the choices we make. “In all things, give thanks,” the scripture says. This reminder may be more of a gift than we realize – God is welcoming us to partner with Him in the literal changing of our minds.
In other words, my father-in-laws words are a tool of transformation. He changes by making choices to integrate words of gratefulness for life, for relationships, for every small thing, and the gift he receives for saying “thanks” is a changed mind.
3. When We Voice Our Thanks… We Participate In Creation’s Vocation.
A vocation is a calling, from the Latin word “voce,” which means “to call.” Our grateful friend stumbled upon a truth that has been weaving through creation since the beginning of time. When he fell on his knees in worship, he jumped into a mighty, glistening river. He jumped headlong into the river of creation’s never-ceasing, ever-cascading expression of thankfulness. He joined the created order, the ordo amoris – God’s loving order – in it’s highest vocation – the thanks and praise of God.
My nephew is a strong young man. Full of grace and personal liberty – he’s comfortable with who he is – he is a fountain of appreciation whenever someone gives him a gift, or a meal, or a Wii. One of my favorite moments with him was the time we took him to a music festival. I think I ran out of fingers and toes counting how many times he said “thanks” for something we had done for him.
He is learning, at this young age, a pattern of thinking and behavior that he comes by partly by family and nature, and partly by modelling and intentional teaching. Little does he know that everytime he says “thank you” – to a person in front of him or to God in worship – he is stepping into the river of the calling of creation. “All creation gives you thanks,” the Psalmist said, and if we will lift our voice to do the same, we will find ourselves “in the middle of the math” of the universe.
“It is good and right,” we are told, “to give thanks to God.” Good and right, correct and healthful, appropriate and aligned with the purpose of the cosmos.
In other words, my nephews constant, verbal appreciation is a principle woven into the fabric of the universe. He fulfills his purpose as a lead worshipper of the created order when he says “thank you”, and the gift he receives for saying “thanks” is a deep participation in Creation’s highest vocation and purpose.
When we voice our thanks, things happen that don’t when we hold it in. Our perception of our circumstances begins to change. Our minds literally take on new ways of thinking – new pathways of thought and contentment are created. We align ourselves with the purpose of the loving order of creation, and find ourselves in right relationship with all things in doing so.
This Thanksgiving, voice your thanks to God and to people – and let the healing begin.