A woman is barren, prays for a child, then—at last!– conceives. In response, she offers a beautiful song of thanksgiving to God. A great story! Hope-filled! Miraculous! Inspiring! Annoying.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for Hannah. She really wanted a baby. And she prayed until she got one. Hannah has a lot to teach us about faith in God….and about offering thanks for answered prayer.
But what about the rest of us? …those who pray for children and never get them…those who pray for jobs that never materialize….those who pray for healing but seem to end up attending funerals anyway? What does Hannah’s story say to those of us whose prayers have not been answered or have been answered with a firm no? Hannah sang her song of thanksgiving because her prayer had been answered. How do you offer thanks when your prayers aren’t answered? How do you give thanks when it’s the last thing on earth you feel like doing?
In December of 2007, John Kralik found himself in a pretty thankless place. His law firm was losing money and its lease, and was being sued; John was going through an acrimonious divorce and was in danger of losing custody of his young daughter; his adult sons were growing distant; he was completely out of money; he was living in a tiny, stuffy apartment with little furniture; and the woman he’d been seeing had broken up with him.
The morning after his girlfriend broke up with him, John’s friend, Bob, met him for breakfast at a chain restaurant whose inexpensive prices were still too pricey for John. Of that morning, John writes: “The man Bob saw across the chipped Formica table was 52 years old, forty pounds overweight, pasty, and tired, with a terrified sadness in his eyes. After 28 years of work as a lawyer, I had little more to show than I’d had when I started—and the little I did have was in jeopardy.” (K 86)
New Year’s Day 2008, John traveled to an area outside of Pasadena for a hike he originally had planned to take with his girlfriend. As often happens when we get away from everything and out into nature, John gained some clarity about his life—pretty much, he saw just how far into the toilet it was. His inner voice intoned a painful mantra: “Loser, loser, loser.”
After he’d been walking a while, slipping even more deeply into hopelessness, John heard another voice. It said: “Until you learn to be grateful for the things you have, you will not receive the things you want.” John couldn’t explain the voice or the words it said… (K 208) ….but the words stayed with him….
…and led him to a memory of his beloved grandfather. When John was a boy, his grandfather had given him a silver dollar. “He promised that if (John) wrote him a letter thanking him for this silver dollar, he would send another one.” John wrote the thank you letter and received another silver dollar. He never got around to writing the second thank you letter… and thus received no more silver dollars from his grandfather.
As he hiked back to his car that New Year’s Day, John’s thoughts strayed to mundane offices matters—like all the envelopes he’d just bought for his law firm that were now useless because they contained the address of the office from which the firm had just been evicted.
As his thoughts about the invitation to be thankful, his grandfather’s silver dollar lesson, and the unusable envelopes coalesced, John formulated a plan: He would “try to find one person to thank each day of the year.” In that way, he would practice gratitude and use up all those envelopes. “If my grandfather was right,” John writes, “I would have a lot more of what I was thankful for by the end of the year. If the voice was right, I would begin to get the things that I wanted. And if not, well, I had little more to lose.” (K245)
John’s book, 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life, recounts his year of writing thank you notes. He begins with a thank you note to one of his sons for a Christmas gift. He thanks clients who pay their bills on time. He even thanks his ex-wife once. One day, uncertain of who to thank, he writes a note to the barista at Starbucks.
This might sound hokey, but the discipline of practicing gratitude really does change John’s life for the better. He reunites with his girlfriend; he works through the divorce settlement with his wife amicably; his business gets back on its feet; he gets healthier.
In January 2009, he asks his friend Bob—the one who’d paid for breakfast a year before– if he had noticed any differences in John after 365 thank you notes. ‘A lot,’ Bob said. ‘You are a different and much better person.” (K 2186)
Could expressing gratitude really make that big a difference? Could the simple act of thanking others really change your life for the better? Thirteenth century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, once said: “If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is “thank you,” that would suffice.” Would it really? Could it possibly?
Let’s try something. Take a minute, get comfortable where you are…and reflect on your life. Is anything stressing you out? Is something not going well? What is the one thing you pray for over and over? Or maybe it’s the one thing you’ve stopped praying for because you’ve given up hope that you’ll ever receive it.
Now, even as you keep this stressful, hopeless-seeming thing in front of you, think about the things you can give thanks for—I’ll suggest a few; they might or might not apply to you: home, family, church family, health….For what are you thankful this morning? It can be as simple as having running water or a functioning car or an eggshell that cracked the right way this morning….anything….just find something for which you can offer thanks…
Now, in the quiet of your heart, say thank you. You can say it to God if you want. Or if you’re angry with God or aren’t sure God’s around or exists or cares, say it to the universe or to yourself, or your hymnal, or the chair, or the air…just say the words, “Thank you.”
I doubt any of us have been miraculously changed in the last two minutes. Feeling grateful when life is difficult takes time. John Kralik’s story demonstrates just how hard and slow the process can be. But maybe, just maybe, what we’ve done this morning can be a start. As John suggests: It couldn’t hurt, right?
In the final stage of her life, my great Aunt Inez was well into dementia. The last time I saw her, there was only one phrase left in her vocabulary: Thank you. Now, she didn’t mean to express gratitude every time she said the words “Thank you.” You could tell more what she was really trying to say by interpreting her tone of voice. “Thank you. Thank you! Thank you?”
Of all the phrases for her brain to latch on to as her life was winding down, of all the things she’d said in her 90+ years of living, I found it fascinating that those two words—“Thank you”–were the only ones left. Even as she neared death, confined to bed, devoid of mental faculties, completely dependent on others for everything—still, the words her brain chose to be her last were “Thank you.”
Is life hard right now? Is little going right? Are you slipping into hopelessness? If so, perhaps you might make Aunt Inez’s last words your first: Thank you. If all the other prayers are going unanswered, maybe you might try shifting to the one sufficient prayer suggested by Meister Eckhart: Thank you. Even if it’s the last thing on earth you feel like doing, maybe it would be helpful this morning to say Thank you. It couldn’t hurt, right?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2018