Thursday, 1 January 2009

Count your blessings

In my childhood, a shadow lay over the days after Christmas, the shadow of the thank-you letters. Until these had been written, to grandparents, godparents, uncles, aunts and family friends, we were not free for untrammelled enjoyment of our new acquisitions. I still have one contemporary and a god-child who are exemplary in writing their thanks, but it’s a practice which has very largely disappeared, at least among my friends and family. Maybe it went with the general decline in letter-writing, but it doesn’t seem to have been replaced by text, email, or even phone calls. I don’t doubt that those to whom I gave presents are, on the whole, pleased that I did so, but gratitude, it seems, is now to be assumed, not expressed.

There seems to be a parallel withdrawal from an articulated sense of gratitude within our collective church practice. Explicit thanksgiving to God is, of course, part of our liturgies; it is vocalised at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer and is the very heart of that prayer, and it is part of our post-communion response. I can’t, however, remember the last time I said in public worship any form of the General Thanksgiving, so painfully learned at school, and Common Worship has specifically omitted thanks to God from the forms of intercession. A number of our local leaders of intercessions still use the introductory form from the Alternative Service Book: ‘Let us pray for the church and the world’, they say, ‘and let us thank God for his goodness’. Nine times out of ten, however, we are drawn, often eloquently and movingly into the needs of the former, but the latter, the thanksgiving, is entirely absent. When, from time to time, we open intercessions to all comers, so that we can pray with them for whatever they wish to bring before us and before God, we rarely move from need to thanksgiving; just occasionally voices, mainly from Africa and the Caribbean, will be moved to recount and give thanks for God’s blessings.

The absence of gratitude can be seen as a healthy development within the wider culture, the growing understanding of the essential value of each human being and their corresponding entitlement to freedom, justice, education, work, family life etc. Much that was once seen as a generous gift, from those who had to those who had not, is now accepted as a matter not of grace but of right. A properly less deferential society may also be a less grateful one, and if thanks are to be offered with a tugged forelock, then there is little to mourn in their absence. Also at work is a theological change, a move away from a strongly interventionist understanding of God; if the parking place is available by chance rather than as a response to prayer, we are less inclined to offer thanks to the deity who might lie behind the chance.

But to live thankfully, and to articulate those thanks, need not indicate either deference or a god of the parking spaces. Grace said before a meal reminds us of those on whom we rely for the production and preparation of our food, it reminds us of our interconnectedness and interdependence.

‘Thank-yous’ for the presents we received at Christmas brings to our minds those who have invested time and thought and money in us, even when the investment (like so many this year) may have been misdirected into something which seems to have little intrinsic worth. Becoming conscious of occasions for gratitude prompts us to emphasise relationship rather than autonomy; gratitude demands an object outside ourselves, an other who has played some part in our lives. Practised as a habit, gratitude makes us aware of how we are linked to our neighbours and ultimately to God.

So, Pollyanna-ish as it may seem, I bid you, as you say good-bye to the Very Bad Year of 2008, and look forward to the gloom and despondency of 2009 — count your blessings!

Posted by Jane Freeman on Thursday, 1 January 2009 at 1:04am GMT | TrackBack
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Yes - I didn't learn the General Thanksgiving in school, since I went to a secular school in the US, but as a chorister, I knew the usual services pretty much by heart.

My current parish uses a form of prayer at the morning services which explicitly includes thanksgivings, and just to make sure people are aware that this is "for real", the designated reader will include the week's birthdays and anniversaries. At the less formal, contemporary, service in the afternoon, thanksgivings are requested BEFORE petitions and intercessions, and there are usually multiple thanksgivings offered ad lib.

I think your next-to-last paragraph is key, and if we only get one thing positive out of the current economic situation, we'd be doing well if we see the giver and the act of giving (outside) as more important than the item received (implying inward focus on both ourselves and the item). It's a hard sell when economists and politicians are telling us that consuming will set everything back in balance, but if we can do it, it's a much shorter step to giving thanks "at all times and in all places".

Posted by: RobinD on Thursday, 1 January 2009 at 4:30am GMT

I guess that with the practice of daily Mass, one is reminded of the need for thanksgiving, and it seems the more one celebrates this 'presence of Christ' in the Eucharist, the greater one's awareness of the need to give thanks. The demise, also, of the grace at meals, might signify there is little sense of gratitude for one's daily bread.

As I get older, I thank God for each day as it comes. It is pure gift from a loving God.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Thursday, 1 January 2009 at 8:59am GMT

Well said, Jane. You might like to take a look at the Alternative Prayer Book (1984) of the Church of Ireland, where the daily intercessions are based wholly on the giving of thanks. I think it's also been incorporated into the revised Irish BCP of 2004.

Posted by: Eamonn on Thursday, 1 January 2009 at 1:24pm GMT

I was in my twenties when I realized it was no coincidence that every batch of Christmas presents from my parents while I was growing up included a nice new box of note paper, which, a couple of days after Christmas, my mother suggested would be good to use for thank-you notes. I can't NOT write my thanks for gifts to this day.

I've not got a BCP handy to the computer, but am reasonably sure that all 6 forms of Prayers of the People in Rite II include thanks to God or an opportunity for the congregation to speak their thanks. Our congregation is not one that says much in those places.

Posted by: Cynthia Gilliatt on Thursday, 1 January 2009 at 3:17pm GMT

Thanks for that, Jane. It reminds me of an occasion last year when we took a visiting friend-of-a-friend who works in Singapore to a church where we sometimes attend the Sunday evening prayer meeting, and afterwards she commented on how much thanks there was. We hadn't noticed before, but she was right, and maybe that is why those particular meetings feel so much more 'prayerful' than some of the things we attend...

Posted by: Helen Shephard on Thursday, 1 January 2009 at 4:43pm GMT

ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication) is the Sunday School acronym for the parts of prayer. Splitting Supplication into Intercession and Petition gives five headings, one for each finger oh hands held up in prayer. Anyone who omits this simple scheme from their teaching about Christian prayer is failing to help to produce a balanced prayer life in their hearers.

Posted by: Keith Johnson on Friday, 2 January 2009 at 12:14am GMT

Yes thanks for this timely reminder and encouragment !

Mindfulness really helps with all this. Mindfulness can be deliberatley practiced as can expressing thanks to God and Others. Minfulness of the brathing is a helpful simple practice --simply becoming aware of the in-breath and the out-breath for a few moments. Noting what happens perhaps. Anyways feeling the calm and the nourishment of it.

The joy that can arise. The motion of thankfulness in the heart and thanksgiving of lips and,mind.

Btw shared silence helps sponsor many spiritual blessings. Needs to be a litle more than 5 seconds at a bidding prayer usually.

Shared silence can lead to shared joy & thankfulness.

And what about Adoration ?

Posted by: Rev L Roberts on Friday, 2 January 2009 at 12:42am GMT

'Pollyannaish as it may seem' - that would be a disadvantage? On the contrary it could scarcely be a greater advantage. Playing the glad game is close to fulfilling the golden rule.

Posted by: Christopher Shell on Monday, 12 January 2009 at 12:15pm GMT

Thank you Jane. I too regret very much that there is no modern version of the General Thanksgiving. As a Reader I conduct Wednesday morning services, alternating between BCP and CW, with a congregation 'on the heavenly side of 60'. Leading worship is also alternate, between the vicar and me, and I usually have the CW, which is generous of him, because I am older than he is. When taking the BCP service I usually intruduce the General Thanksgiving, mentioning that it was written by the Puritan Bishop of Norwich, Edward Reynolds, and saying that if there is an eternal Last Night of the Proms in heaven, I am sure Reynolds' General Thanksgiving is being sung or said there.

Posted by: Richard Wilkins on Tuesday, 10 February 2009 at 4:21pm GMT
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