Surprised by thanks
As Thanksgiving nears, we recall that gratitude is something we best cultivate and express every day, not just once a year. Of course, few people actually restrict their gratitude to the fourth Thursday in November. Birthdays, anniversaries of various kinds, special moments shared with friends and family, recovery from illness or hard times, and the kindnesses of strangers are among the opportunities we take to say “thank you!” Psychological studies have shown that grateful people often enjoy other benefits in their lives, including more stable mental health, greater physical vitality, wider friendship circles and better relationships, as well as better sleep, self-esteem, and resilience.
Thanksgiving is a practice that the Bible encourages as a natural characteristic of the life of faith. “Thanksgivings” are a whole class of psalms, both for communal celebration (e.g., Psalms 100, 107, 136) and to carry an individual’s appreciation of God’s grace and mercy (e.g., Psalms 111, 138). Paul and other New Testament writers remind their readers to be thankful, even in all circumstances (Ephesians 5:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:18).
They often give thanks for the communities they are addressing. The gospel of Luke portrays Jesus commending the thankful Samaritan leper who was healed for the faith he displayed (Luke 17:11-19).
In church, this focus on thanksgiving comes in the celebration of Holy Communion. One name for the Lord’s Supper is “Eucharist,” which means “thanksgiving” in Greek, and the prayer that includes the Words of Institution is called “the great thanksgiving.”
This was all reasonably well known to me for years before the habit of daily thanksgiving entered my own life. A few folks have commented, or chuckled, or smiled and nodded in concert when I have responded to their congenial greeting, “How are you,” with a simple, “Thank God.” Where did I learn it? How did I come to adopt this somewhat surprising pattern of response?
It first came into my life through Orthodox Jewish colleagues. Within their community, and among some Conservative Jews, it is customary to respond to a greeting with the phrase, “Baruch haShem.” Literally, it means “bless the Name,” and “Name” is a way of saying “the Lord” without using God’s personal name, lest it inadvertently be used in vain. So the greeting is, “Bless the Lord!”
The first times I heard it, I was taken aback. What? Did I hear correctly? Did I miss something? What happened that we should “bless the Lord?” It seemed confusing, even a bit like hiding behind a formula.
No, really, I wanted to say; how are you? In time, as the response became more familiar, I reflected more fully on it. How are you? Bless the Lord! And the logic emerged. If I am conscious, engaged, able to hear and to respond to the question, then the first thing that should be obvious is that God still, in the words of a Christian teaching, “preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason, and all mental faculties.” For that alone, and above all, it seems appropriate to bless the Lord, to thank God. And what a joy, to be given the opportunity to do so dozens of times in a day, whenever someone offers a simple, “How are you?”
The richness of the opportunity was deepened when I began to work more closely and regularly with observant Muslim colleagues. How are you, I would ask; “Al-hamdulillah!” came the response. Really?! I recognized the pattern. In Arabic, the phrase means “praised be Allah.” Baruch haShem. Thank God. I don’t know how many other cultures have similar habits, but it is a blessing to share at least with Jews and Muslims this simple practice that puts God first in our thoughts and puts thanksgiving on our lips every day.
For that, too, I give thanks to God.