Friday, September 7, 2012

Blessed Thankfulness

"Healing" by Brian Kershisnik

I came across something recently in my scriptures that instructed and delighted me. Have you ever noticed the peculiar, powerful, lovely connection between giving thanks and blessing in the accounts of the life of the Savior? The two ideas seem to be synonymous, interchangeable, in the Gospel writers’ minds. When John Mark—that young boy who lived in the bright warm home of a mother who received apostles and prophets after they had escaped from prison with angelic help, and who grew up to write the greatest hero story in the universe—records the feeding of the four thousand, he writes that Jesus “took the seven loaves, and gave thanks, and brake, and gave to his disciples.” And then Peter's friend Mark writes that Jesus, (perhaps smilingly, certainly knowingly and  compassionately) reached for “a few small fishes: and he blessed, and commanded them to set them also before them. So they did eat, and were filled.” As I read this, I wonder if He did or said anything different when He gave thanks and when he blessed. Or are they one and the same? Is gratitude the essence of blessing? Does it sanctify and set apart? Does it render a thing holy and wonderful and blessed? Does the act of thanksgiving make life more radiant, saintly, godly, blessed?

And this isn’t the only time this connection occurs in scripture. Matthew—that filthy treacherous publican who used to take taxes from hard-working gentle Jews to fill the coffers of their overreaching Roman overlords, and who immediately abandoned money at the first beckon of the Divine Rabbi and thus showed the true tenor of his heart—writes of the feeding of five thousand that the sensitive, holy Son of God “took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. And they did all eat, and were filled.” And when he records the later feeding of four thousand, the words are almost identical, with one slight variation: “And he took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and brake them, and gave to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. And they did eat, and were filled.” But the stories don’t end there. These are stories of abundance and extravagance. God’s grace was not only sufficient on these days to fill the hungry masses, but the profligate kindness of the mortal Messiah produced baskets and baskets of excess. Seven. Twelve. More than we can possibly eat. When I give thanks, I acknowledge and access the prodigality of God’s goodness. And I am blessed.  

During those last solemn hours with His mortal friends, Jesus broke bread and blessed wine. Both Matthew and Mark make the link between blessing and thanking obvious: “And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they drank all of it.”

Joseph B. Wirthlin, that tender, temperate apostle with the small voice and enormous soul once said, “Gratitude turns a meal into a feast and drudgery into delight. It softens our grief and heightens our pleasure. It turns the simple and common into the memorable and transcendent.”

My grandmother was a small, smiling woman. Her family was her life. She had eleven children in a small and loving home. She played the piano and my grandpa sang. When grandpa died, she was left with three small children still at home and no money. She taught piano lessons and trusted in miracles and grace. Every year at Christmas, she made batches and batches of strawberry jam. Every child and every grandchild got their own, with a small loaf of homebaked bread. And when I got married and had kids, I got a loaf and a jar of jam for every new member of the family. Everyone was family to grandma. She sent a dollar bill and a handmade birthday card without fail every year of my life. For me and my wife and my children and my forty-five cousins and all of their wives and husbands and children. She came to every baptism, every baby blessing, almost every baseball game. I don’t remember seeing my grandmother sad. When she was dying, her children and grandchildren took turns spending the night at her house. It’s just a matter of time, the nurses said, we just want to make sure she’s as comfortable as possible. There was lots of singing in those days around her bed. One night when I was sleeping over, I read to her from the Book of Mormon, sang her some of her favorite hymns, and asked her to tell me all the wicked things my father had ever done in his youth. She couldn’t come up with one. He was always such a sweet child, she said. If he hadn’t been so good, I wouldn’t have had any more children, she laughed. As it turned out, he was number six; five more would follow. After changing her briefs and her pads, I went to wash the dishes. The Christmas before, all of her progeny had banded together to buy her a dishwasher. She had lived for sixty-plus years of marriage with eleven children and she never had a dishwasher. As I rinsed the dishes in the sink to load into the automatic washer, I noticed a small sign I had seen before. It sat on the sill above the sink. It said, “Thank God for dirty dishes, they have a tale to tell: While others may go hungry, we’re eating very well.” I thought of my grandmother silently, smilingly washing dishes for all of her holy children for all of those years, and I sobbed at that sink as I thought of the power and beauty of a life defined by what is present rather than by what is not.

Gratitude is the highest form of praise. To acknowledge all that God is, all that He has done, all that He does, gives Him pleasure, I think. He does delight to bless us: “Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth . . . are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and enliven the soul. And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man.”

I spent two years living in Mexico as a missionary, and I wasn’t especially surprised at the poverty when I arrived there. I had expected dirt floors and one-room houses. I had not, perhaps, expected houses with no running water or cockroaches in the bathtub. But they did not shock me. The shock came when I returned home from that gentle, violent, miracle-ridden land. I remember very clearly my astonishment at the size of houses in my home state. And when I stepped into my parents’ house, I rolled on the ground with explosive, joyous laughter. My little sister thought I was crazy. And I was—crazy in love with carpet: wonderful, soft, miraculous carpet. I had not seen it for two years. And then, wonder of wonders, I stepped into the shower. I didn’t have to wear flip-flops to ward off cockroaches or snake bites or fungus. And when I turned the water on, not only did it come out of the faucet, but it rushed like a mighty river, with enough pressure to drench my whole body. It was the beginning of the cold season, and the wetness plummeting from this miraculous indoor waterfall was warm warm warm. I said a silent prayer of gratitude. And then it struck me: if I wanted to drink the water, I could, and I would not vomit violently, would not spend days in the bathroom, would, in fact, be nourished and refreshed. I cried, and my tears mingled with fresh, purified water. Now every shower is a prayer, if I remember. Every shower is a praisesong. And when I remember to give thanks, my life feels brighter, holier, blessed.

One of the greatest of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s holy sonnets is “God’s Grandeur”:

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The whole commonplace world shimmers and sparks with a brilliant holiness. God’s grandeur is ever-present. I think that gratitude is the act of removing one’s shoes and wriggling our toes in the rich, astonishing earth. It is the removal of that which separates us from the divine. Every child’s face and every sunset and every blade of grass possesses “the dearest freshness;” everything glistens, glimmers, glows, glitters, gleams with a miraculous light. Gratitude is the lens through which this light is perceived. It is attentiveness and reverence, awe and affection. John Ames—my favorite fictional pastor—writes, “It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light.” In this passage it appears that visions of the divine come unannounced and apparently uninvited, which may be true in certain instances, but Ames recognizes that the temporary nature implied in these words does not quite do justice to his notion of theophany. He amends, “But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than [that] seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?” When I live in thanksgiving, swim in gratitude, bask in open-eyed awareness of God’s goodness and the blessedness of life, I manifest such courage. I see and I bless.

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