I've been thinking about gratitude the last couple days. This coming Sunday that's the theme for the youth group time and I'm giving the "lead." After I talk or do something for 5 or 10 minutes, the kids will be moving around the room, visiting various stations to interact more with the idea of gratitude -- either visually, or by writing or through music, maybe even with food.
And then of course, I've been thinking about giving thanks because Thanksgiving is next week, our national day of gratitude. It's strange, in a way, how big a deal Thanksgiving is--no one has really figured out how to make it tremendously commercialized and yet people travel great distances to be with family and friends, to sit around a table and share a meal, and whether or not they say thank you out loud, they enact it, the sheer act of showing up around that table is some sort of gesture (however complicated and malformed it may be in many cases) of gratitude. It's like as human beings we have some profound need to be thankful and it's not really built into the fabric of our society anymore except on this one day. On Thanksgiving it's still OK to be thankful. On this one day it's still acceptable. Even cool.
On Saturday morning at the Affirmation retreat we talked about prayer, and gratitude was a big piece of that conversation. We started off the morning reading the Mary Oliver poem The Summer Day, which i just love. In it she says, "I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention..." and we talked about how much of our lives we don't really pay attention and that gratitude grows out of looking and smelling and tasting and hearing and noticing. And then we did this exercise in which I asked them all to talk about some very specific things they really enjoy, things that make them happy, bring them pleasure. I guided them through the different senses and we brainstormed and a couple of us wrote down what people said, and at the end we had this huge pile of yellow sticky notes covered with gratitude. I handed out the individual notes randomly, 3 or 4 to a person, and we made a prayer of gratitude in that moment with people reading out, one at a time, the words they held in their hands.
Meister Eckhart says, "If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, 'thank you' that would suffice." Sometimes it seems in my life that "thank you" is the only prayer I know how to pray that feels simple and true and unencumbered. Everything else--when I pray for something--for help, when I ask God to step in and fix a situation or even take care of someone--it always feels kind of weird to me. It always raises the question of what does God really do. Does God intervene? And when there's huge horrible things going on in the world shouldn't God be taking care of those issues versus helping me or someone I love with some minor life inconvenience. Or some stress or fear or illness or pain...
I do know that praying for help is helpful, helpful to me at least, because it reminds me that I'm not totally alone, that there is a God who cares and who wants good things for me and for the whole world. It reminds me that I'm not God, that I can't swoop in and fix situations or control things and that the best thing I can do most of the time is just get out of the way, release my white knuckled grip, and simply let go. It reminds me that I don't know everything and that as Anne Lamott says, most of the time, if I'd actually gotten what I prayed for I would have shortchanged myself.
And ultimately, it reminds me to be grateful. It helps me remember all that I have, all that is beautiful and good and pleasurable around me, it reminds me of the love that is there too, it reminds me to say thank you and to trust the God who gave me the smell of bread baking, the feeling of the wind on my face, the sound of my daughters' laughter, the feel of my husband's hand on my back, trust that that God is love and that God knows what the heck is going on and that everything ultimately, somehow, someway, is going to be all right.