It is right, and a good and joyful thing…

Nearly every Sunday, Episcopalians hear the words of introduction to “The Great Thanksgiving” a long narrative liturgical prayer that is the central part of the Eucharist.

Celebrant: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.  

People:  It is right to give God thanks and praise.

Celebrant:  It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…

Whether it is “Form A,B,C or D” in the Book of Common Prayer, or some other version from some other liturgical tradition, The Great Thanksgiving always recounts in some form or fashion the very first communion, the “Last Supper” on the night before Jesus’ Crucifixion. This uniquely Christian tradition symbolically transforms the simple gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and offers great thanks for the gift of human redemption.

While it may be a “good and joyful thing” for us humans to truly give thanks, it’s also damn hard.  (Maybe that’s why we, as a nation, can only manage it once a year.)

Jeff Bridges in Starman: A keen observer of the human condition.

Jeff Bridges in Starman: “Do you want to know what I like best about your species?”

Being in a state of genuine gratefulness is, for me, full of mixed emotions. If I am really honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that much of what I have I did not earn.  Yes, while it is true that I can and should pat myself on the back and give myself due credit for the hard work I have done to help put food on my family’s table, it is also true that the quality of the table, as well as the quantity of the food upon it, have been determined not only by my labors but by sheer accident of birth.

Truly serious contemplation of all these blessings can bring such uncomfortable feelings of unworthiness, and maybe even guilt. I confess that I tend to resist it. No amount of rationalization can help me escape the plain and undeniable fact that although I have worked hard for what I have, others have worked far harder, and have far less.

And yet, it is also a mysterious and equally undeniable truth that we as human beings do have this capacity, not just in times of bounty but even in the most wretched conditions, to “always and everywhere” (as the Prayer Book urges us) be thankful. Stranger still, it often seems that the less folks have, the more grateful they are for what little they have.

There is this wonderful line from the movie Starman decades ago, where Jeff Bridges plays some alien who has taken the form of a human. He is slowly dying because he cannot adjust to earth’s atmosphere as the “bad guys” from the government are closing in on him. In one of the final scenes, one of the “good guys” has managed to find him in his hideout waiting for his mothership to return, and they have a brief dialogue.

“Do you want to know what I like most about your species?” asks the Bridges’ alien character, ashen and gasping for breath.

“Please…,” urges the good guy.

“When things are at their worst,” the Starman whispers, “you humans are at your best.”

And I think that’s true in a weird mysterious way. I am coming to believe more and more that such a wondrous and wonderful human trait is NOT of our own doing, alone.  Somehow, something or someone (or Something or Someone?) surrounds us,  protects us, nudges us forward, not taking away calamity, but somehow being there fully present in the midst of it.

As I go into this particular Thanksgiving, with various calamities and crises swirling around the globe (as well as inside my head), my belief in that Something or Someone — shaky and unsure but indeed present — is becoming for me both the object and source of “most humble and hearty thanks.”

All of this has led me to yet another mysterious but undeniable truth. When I can manage to adopt a true “attitude of gratitude,” it seems somehow to beget more blessings, or at the very least, my awareness of them.

That is no small thing, which of course is another blessing in itself.

Lift Up Your Hearts

Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the LORD.

A broken and contrite heart, so the Psalmist tells us, The Lord will NOT despise. (Ps. 51:17) Good thing, too, because when our Spirits are beset with doubts and despair and dark imaginings, the last thing we need is God despising us, and piling on.

Wonderfully, what The Divine Presence of the universe somehow mysteriously and miraculously “piles on” is Grace upon Grace, if we can only raise our gaze to recognize a portion of it.

Sacrificial Lamb 2

“…To “lift our hearts” to The Lord is to have them become the weak and vulnerable lamb, held overhead and shown to the clouds before being placed on the altar ready for slaughter.”

Such a heaping helping of Grace happened to me one Thursday morning, during a small Eucharist service I sometimes attend. As I have written before, one of the great gifts of the liturgy is its unending capacity to surprise. Never more so was it true than on this particular morning.

Maybe it was just the way the priest said the words. Maybe it was my still sleepy head, trying to wake up from a long week of little sleep and a lot of worry. More likely it was the Mysterious Force that I cannot explain but have experienced too many times to ignore. Whatever it was, it led me for the first time in my 57 years to deeply, profoundly HEAR the opening invitation of The Great Thanksgiving prayer that leads into The Breaking of the Bread:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to The Lord.

In the past, I had always heard that priestly urging to lift our hearts as some sort of liturgical cheer to raise our spirits: “OK gang, get those hearts joyful!  And get ready for some really good stuff!!!” But on this morning, my heart was heavy if not broken; weary, if not wary and bitter. Such cheerful sentiment was beyond my grasping.

Perhaps that is why, on THIS morning, what I heard instead was sheer Grace.

What I heard in the call to “Lift up your hearts” was not a jolly greeting, but a solemn, gracious invitation. What I realized in that holy nano-second was that to lift our hearts to The Lord was not necessarily to make them happy, happy, happy. To lift a heart to God is to offer it. It doesn’t matter a damn what kind of shape it is in. What matters is the offering.

To “lift our hearts” to The Lord is to have them become the weak and vulnerable lamb, held overhead and shown to the clouds before being placed on the altar ready for slaughter. Just like the lamb, a heart may be totally ignorant of what the future holds, fearful and struggling in a futile fight against whatever ropes are holding it down; helpless, defenseless, utterly vulnerable; nothing left. Nothing, but the offering of it.

THAT was my heart on this particular morning, and in that single instant, I knew it.  It was nothing more, but nothing less, than a holy, sacred sacrifice, “lifted” in presentation like the flawed, imperfect offering that it was, and laid before the King of Creation.

I heard my voice cracking as I responded with the rest of the small early morning congregation: “We lift them to The Lord.”