Writing Your Thank You Notes
By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
When I was growing up, something my family insisted on was that I write thank you notes for gifts I received for my birthday, Christmas, and other occasions. I did not find doing this easy. Oh, once I sat down and began the task it wasn’t so bad, but I procrastinated. Written expressions of gratitude did not come naturally to me. There was often something more pressing, more interesting, more enjoyable to do.
Today’s gospel reveals some people who do not get around to expressing their thanks.
In the time of Jesus, those suffering from various skin diseases were treated as social outcasts. They had to keep their distance from other people. The only company they had were their fellow lepers.
One day Jesus is traveling through border country that separates Samaritan and Jewish territory. From a distance, a group of lepers call out to him, begging to be healed of their affliction.
Jesus tells them to show themselves to the priests. He seems to be getting ahead of himself. Inspection by a priest is the rule for certifying that a former leper is now disease-free. This rule is recognized by Samaritan and Jew alike. But the lepers accept what Jesus says; off they go to see the priests. And on the way, they become clean; they are lepers no longer.
Notice what happens now. These people are free from their disease. After who knows how many years of separation––perhaps a lifetime––they can rejoin their families and their communities. Now they belong to their people, and to the human race! A new and joyous world has opened up for each of them. There’s so much to do, so much they can do, because they are outcasts no longer.
But, as my family might have said years ago, “What about the thank you notes?” Only one of these ten turns around and demonstrates gratitude. Ten percent is a pretty poor response from people suddenly set free form a living hell.
The young Charles Hoffacker was no quick study in writing his thank you notes. He procrastinated.
Ninety percent of this group of lepers seem never to have thanked Jesus. In a way it’s easy to see why: they were hugging their relatives, perhaps for the first time in decades.
Do Christians today do much better when they can offer thanks during public worship? Listen to this observation from seminary professor Thomas Troeger.
“Because I preach in many different congregations throughout North America, I have the privilege of participating in a form of corporate prayer that has become common to a great many Christian traditions. . . . No matter what forms these prayers take, I have observed the following pattern to be nearly universally true: When it comes to concerns and prayers for others the church fills with the sound of the names of particular persons and places and needs. But when it comes time to offer prayers of thanksgiving, silence often descends. There are a few voices here and there, ‘Thank you for the lovely day,’ ‘Thank you for the children’s choir.’ But the prayer of thanksgiving never rises to the level of the chorus of human need. Why is giving thanks so hard for the human heart? Why is it that we are quick to let God know our need and reticent with gratitude?”
So much, then, from Thomas Troeger. To me it seems that many of us, and perhaps all of us together, need help in expressing our gratitude. Doing so does not come naturally. It is an activity we need to learn and practice.
I would like to suggest two sources for us to learn from.
The first is the poor. Often the poor are thankful, whether they are conventionally religious or not. Many people from privileged backgrounds discover this when they go on mission trips, even so short a trip as across town to work at a food pantry. Paradoxical as it may seem, the poor are often thankful.
This is what Henri Nouwen learned when he left Yale Divinity School after teaching there for a decade and began ministering among the poor in Lima, Peru
In his book Gracias! A Latin American Journal he tells us: “Gratitude is one of the most visible characteristics of the poor that I have come to know. I am always surrounded by words of thanks: ‘Thanks for your visit, your blessing, your sermon, your prayer, your gifts, your presence with us.’ Even the smallest and most necessary goods are a reason for gratitude. This all-pervading gratitude is the basis for celebration. Not only are the poor grateful for life, but they also celebrate life constantly. A visit, a reunion, a simple meeting are always like little celebrations. Every time a new gift is recognized, there are songs or toasts, words of congratulation, or something to eat and drink. And every gift is shared. ‘Have a drink, take some fruit, east our bread’ is the response to every visit I make, and this is what I see people do for each other. All of life is a gift, a gift to be celebrated, a gift to be shared.”
We can learn from poor people to celebrate life as a gift. We can also learn from the Jewish tradition toexpress our gratitude in words addressed to God.
In Judaism both the home and the synagogue are centers for worship. Yet there are many blessings meant to be recited outside the synagogue and the home on one occasion or another. Here are a few examples of these specific expressions of gratitude to God.
On eating a seasonal fruit for the first time in its season
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.
On hearing thunder
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, whose strength and power fills the universe.
On seeing an exceptionally beautiful person, tree, or field
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has this in his universe.
And even this one!
On seeing exceptionally stranger looking people or animals
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who makes the creatures different.
Perhaps we find it hard to express our thanks in prayer.
Perhaps we can learn from the poor that life is a cause for celebration.
Perhaps we can learn from Judaism to put our gratitude into words addressed to God.
And perhaps any of us can learn to be habitual in our thanksgiving, to follow patterns that expand our gratitude and enhance our lives.
Here is one possibility for you to consider. All that’s needed is a notebook, a pen, and a few minutes every morning.
Every day reflect on the previous day and celebrate three blessings you experienced. Then put your gratitude into words by writing down a phrase about each blessing. Do this for thirty days and then see what happens.
You may find yourself writing down more, of course. But write down at least a phrase.
And you may find yourself listing more blessings than three. But write down at least three.
And after a month has passed, you may want to keep doing this. But when you start, commit to thirty days.
Let me warn you, however: this practice may transform your life.
You may discover for yourself what the pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he said: “It is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”
You may find out for yourself the truth of perhaps the most famous sentence from the mystical writer Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.”
If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was “thank you,” that would be enough.
Copyright 2010, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.