A record of thanks

Ponder this: right here, right now, what are you grateful for — as in truly thankful? Some people, for example, might say, “I’m grateful for my health.” But if the truth be told, most days we simply take good health for granted, so much so that we may continue to indulge habits that we know aren’t good for us. Those same words would mean something different, for example, coming from someone who survived long haul COVID and finally made it home.

Believers might add, “I’m grateful for my salvation.” But those words, too, shift in weight and meaning depending on the story of the person speaking them. Our gratitude for salvation, for example, might not be much different than how we’d react to getting a free promotional gift in the mail: Wasn’t really looking for it, not sure how much I really need it. But it’s kinda nice, so thanks! Or it can be the gratitude of someone who found themselves in the deepest, darkest, and most hopeless of pits when God lowered the rope and pulled them out.

So again, for what or for whom are you truly grateful? And specifically, what does God have to do with it?

Think about it. I’ll wait.

. . .

Unless we’re the most incorrigibly bitter of people, we all have stories of gratitude to tell. In 1997, Fred Rogers — known to television viewers mostly as “Mister Rogers” — was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Emmy award. With his soft-spoken earnestness, he seemed out of place among the Hollywood glitterati. He was wearing a tuxedo at the time, but it was hard not to imagine him still in his trademark cardigan.

Famously, during his acceptance speech, he did something no one saw coming. Winners typically say thank you for the award and then express their gratitude to the people who helped them along the way. But Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, took it one step further. “All of us,” he said, “have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. Ten seconds of silence.”

Mister Rogers spoke; who would refuse? “I’ll watch the time,” he said simply and unpretentiously, as he pulled back his sleeve and stared at his wristwatch for ten seconds.

In TV time, ten seconds of silence is an eternity. Heck, I suspect many churches couldn’t tolerate that long of a break in the action without people squirming in their seats.

The camera panned the audience. Some people looked thoughtful. Some wept. But most everyone, I suspect, had a story to tell.

. . .

Recently on this blog, we’ve been considering the importance of what the writer of Hebrews calls a “sacrifice of praise” (Heb 13:15), and the psalmist calls “a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (Ps 50:14). These reflections were spurred by the critique of the sacrificial system embedded in Psalm 40:

You don’t relish sacrifices or offerings;
    you don’t require entirely burned offerings or compensation offerings—
    but you have given me ears!
So I said, “Here I come!
    I’m inscribed in the written scroll.
    I want to do your will, my God.
    Your Instruction is deep within me.”
(vss. 6-8, CEB)

The ancient prophets, as we’ve seen, declared that sacrifice was never meant to be an end in itself, but the external expression of a heart yielded to God (e.g., Micah 6:6-8). Similarly, in Psalm 40, what God really wants is for the psalmist to listen — so he gives him ears to hear (the Hebrew verb actually suggests “digging” ears into the psalmist’s head). The psalmist listens and is ready to obey.

But what does God want him to do? And what is the “written scroll” that tells of the psalmist?

When the author of Hebrews puts these words into the mouth of Jesus (cf. Heb 10:5-7), they seem to say that Jesus came to obediently fulfill the mission of sacrifice that was foretold by the ancient prophets. What do they mean when they come from the pen of the psalmist?

Interpreters, of course, differ. But verses 9 and 10 imply that the psalmist’s obedience consisted of telling the congregation of what God had done to save him. And in that context, it’s possible that the scroll into which the psalmist was written was the psalmist’s personal record of God’s acts of love and faithfulness.

Today, we’d call that a gratitude journal.

A substantial body of research suggests that gratitude is good for you; in other words, people who regularly take the time to write down their reasons for being thankful experience greater well-being overall. But it’s important to be thoughtful about it. You can’t just dash off “I’m grateful for my car, I’m grateful for my cat” day after day and expect to derive any benefit. You have to slow down and ponder the ways in which you have been blessed, then put it into writing.

We have gratitude stories to tell. But telling such stories isn’t just good for the individual; Psalm 40 suggests that stories of praise should be part of the life of a congregation. Especially in a season of shared suffering and pandemic, when God may feel distant, we need each other’s stories of the faithfulness and mercy of God.

So…what’s your story, and whom have you told?