The general thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer reads:
ALMIGHTY God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men; We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.
Those of us who spend any amount of time on social media have run into the "feeling blessed" expression. This is not something that I wish to sneer at, but it is something that occasions a certain amount of head-scratching thought when one considers participating in it. For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, there is a little smiley icon that you can attach to a Facebook status update in which you tell of some positive thing in your life for which you are thankful. The smiley icon has tiny words next to it that say, "Feeling blessed."
In and of itself, this is a good thing for Christians to do. The Bible tells us repeatedly to do all things with thanksgiving. The Psalms put it in the imperative again and again--"Give thanks unto Him, and bless His name." "Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise." So does the Apostle Paul: "Whatsoever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." "In everything give thanks."
So when someone on Facebook posts, "My beloved husband and children just brought me breakfast in bed, and the view outside my window is lovely" with a photo of the view and a little smiley that says, "Feeling blessed," how can one possibly demur?
And I don't. Not really. Indeed, to get critical about that would be to join the ranks of hipster snarkers who seem to get pleasure out of nothing but sipping latte whilst making fun of innocent evangelical expressions of piety. And I'd rather miss out on my turkey dinner for many-a year to come than even seem to be one of those.
But, though I do express thankfulness on social media, I haven't used the icon. A couple of tensions go into that. First, there's the worry about possibly looking or sounding smug, as though God has specially reached down and given me whatever it might be because...something. Because I deserve it? Second, there is the worry about people who are in painful or even dire circumstances. Even among the ranks of my Facebook friends (let alone Christians being crucified by ISIS), there are people suffering. What will it make someone who is on the edge of bankruptcy feel like if I post a picture of my new drapes? (I did, I confess, post a picture of new drapes recently. I'm not sure it made it any better that I didn't put a "feeling blessed" smiley next to it.)
When one is in the midst of ambivalent feelings about publicly counting one's blessings, the Prayer Book comes to the rescue. There is something about corporate thanksgiving that helps a great deal to remove all trace of smugness. Moreover, the authors of the BCP liturgical pieces knew a thing or two about balancing all considerations and creating a unified, dignified address to the Almighty. Look at the general thanksgiving. We begin by giving thanks that is both humble and hearty. We include in this, unashamedly, thanksgiving for "all the blessings of this life." But then we go on to say that we thank God above all for the spiritual blessings--for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. We wrap up by admitting to God, and reminding ourselves, that much is required of those to whom much is given, that we need to walk before God in holiness all our days as a response to all His undeserved mercies toward us, both temporal and spiritual.
Another bit of relevant liturgy comes from the consecration of the Eucharist:
And we earnestly desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; most humbly beseeching thee to grant that, by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ and through faith in his blood, we, and all thy whole church, may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion. And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him. And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice; yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Earlier, the priest has said, for all of us, "It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto thee, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God." Then the liturgy implicitly refers to that bounden duty of thanksgiving, acknowledges that we are unworthy to offer up to God any sacrifice (including our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving), but beseeches God to accept our duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses.
Nothing could be farther from smug. But at the same time, nothing could be farther from unaware of the need to give thanks.
The American Prayer Book contains many frank and unashamed prayers both asking and thanking God for temporal blessings. Viz.
Most gracious God, by whose knowledge the depths are broken up, and the clouds drop down the dew, we yield thee unfeigned thanks and praise for the return of seed-time and harvest, for the increase of the ground and the gathering in of the fruits thereof, and for all the other blessings of thy merciful providence bestowed upon this nation and people....
We give thee humble thanks for this thy special bounty; beseeching thee to continue thy loving-kindness unto us, that our land may yield us her fruits of increase, to thy glory and our comfort.
For Rogation days:
Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth; We beseech thee to pour forth thy blessing upon this land, and to give us a fruitful season; that we, constantly receiving thy bounty, may evermore give thanks unto thee in thy holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
The secret to feeling blessed without feeling smug must lie somewhere in that phrase "humble thanks." If you simply hold the Prayer Book in your hands and flip through it and read at random, the atmosphere of (in the best sense) piety and true humility arises like incense. Most of the prayers in the "Thanksgivings" section are fairly specific: "For a child's recovery from sickness," "For a safe return from a journey," "The thanksgiving of women after childbirth," "For rain," and so forth. The picture is not of ease and comfort but rather of real human life, fraught with all its pains and perils. The one who prays these thanksgivings with full awareness is one who has turned to God in his deepest need and now turns to God with due relief and gratitude in the time of deliverance.
Finally, there is the opposite error to be avoided--the error of thinking that we have no right to give thanks or that the world is so bad that we must forever be solemn, worried, or filled with Weltschmerz. Those of us born with a less-than-sanguine nature are prone to this mistake.
We are teased out of such gloomy thoughts by many gleams of joy--the Scriptures and the liturgy not the least. Also, the beauty of nature, which, paradoxically (since that beauty itself is ephemeral), reminds us of things eternal beyond the frets and sorrows of this world.
When joy alights like a bird on a fence post
arrested in fragile flight,
do not frighten her away.
When she comes in the clutch of the heart
at the scent of the evening air
instinct with life and memory,
in the grey-blue of the sky at twilight,
in the sweep of the pine tree to the sky,
Do not say,
There are depths to be plumbed,
There are knots to be worried at.
I have no time for this.
Nor listen to the more insidious voice that lectures,
Death and disease roam the streets.
Pitiless murder with bloody sword unsheathed stalks all the ways of the world,
and beauty and innocence fall before him.
What right have I to be happy?
Rather stand still,
It is a gift.
To all our readers at What's Wrong With the World, and to my esteemed fellow contributors, a Happy Thanksgiving.