Thomas Lynch is an essayist, poet, and undertaker who believes our prayers correspond to the different ages and stages of our lives. When we are small children for example most all of our prayers start with the word “Gimme.” Gimme this, God, or gimme that!
That is certainly how it started out for me. When I was a kid I loved sports. I asked God to make me as good a football player as Cliff Harris of the Dallas Cowboys, as good a baseball player as Mike Hargrove of the Texas Rangers, and as good a tennis player as John McEnroe, and all at once! Of course, you can see how that turned out.
Later, I asked God to give me a brand new Pontiac Trans Am as my first car. Instead, I got a 1974 Vega with a failing transmission that cost me $900. I then asked God to let me date a cheerleader. I actually did take her to homecoming, but then she unceremoniously dumped me. It was always “gimme, gimme, gimme.” We are always asking God to give us something.
But around the time we go off to college our prayers take a different shape. We don’t say “gimme” as much. Now our prayer is more often “show me.” Maybe we read a little philosophy and learn of medieval attempts to prove God’s existence ‒ as though there might be evidence somewhere that God doesn’t exist. Maybe we hear a professor speak not only of the presence but also the absence of God. And right about then we decide what we need most is for God to show up.
I know I wanted a sign during those years. After I was exposed to a world full of new ideas about God, my evangelical/fundamentalist viewpoint began to fall apart, and my father became very ill. I prayed for proof of God’s existence. “If you are really there God, prove yourself. Do something. Give me a sign.” The proofs I prayed for never appeared. None of those prayers were ever answered.
Once we get a little older our prayers take still another form. It’s not so much “gimme” or “show me” but “why me?” Why is this happening to me? Why did I have a stroke? Why did my child get Type 1 diabetes? Why can’t I win the lottery? You know how it goes. And when we run out of “why me’s” we start asking “why them?” Why do bad things happen to good people or for that matter, why do good things happen to bad people? If anyone’s in charge, why do children sometimes get hurt? Why are some people hungry and homeless? Why are there hurricanes and earthquakes and more shootings?
I have asked a lot of “why me” and “why them” questions over my lifetime. And I don’t think it’s always a bad practice. I still ask the question sometimes, but I now know better than to expect a complete or final answer.
At this particular point in my 51 years of life, I have found that the simplest prayer I can pray is also the most profound. It has only one word: “Thanks.” It seems to me that all of our prayers should somewhere concentrate on the idea that life is a gift for which the only necessary or adequate response is simply gratitude.
Annie Dillard, who wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Teaching a Stone to Talk, says that “the dying never say please. They only say thank you.” I think that means that the people who’ve lived long enough to know better than to pray “gimme prayers” or “show me prayers” or even “why me” prayers. At some point we understand that although we’ve not gotten everything we wanted, we have received all we ever needed.
We understand that although we never received a sign from God, we have seen enough to know that life makes more sense with God than without God.
The dying don’t say “please” any longer ‒ please give me more: more stuff, more certainty, more explanations. They just say “thanks”‒ thanks for everything that has been given.
In my case I am thankful for a loving and faithful spouse who has stuck with me through health and sickness and is the most encouraging person I know. There is nobody I would rather spend a day with than the woman to whom I’m married. I am thankful for two wonderful children with whom I now have great adult conversations. I am so proud of both of them, for the obstacles they have overcome, and how deeply they care about the world around them. I am thankful for the unconditional love of our three dogs. I am even thankful for our three cats, 17 chickens and our horse! They all bring such joy to our family.
I am thankful to be surrounded by an outstanding staff of colleagues. I give thanks for a congregation that really strives to make a difference in the world and church members who care deeply for one another. I am thankful for the times that they love me in spite of my faults and flaws.
Thanks for Jesus, who shows me God’s way and tells me God’s truth and gives me God’s own life. Thanks for so many tender mercies. On and on it goes.
Surely you have a list like this, too, and if not, I encourage you to make one before Thanksgiving this year.
You’ll say, “thanks,” and before the darkness comes, you will get an answer.
Rev. Brent Barry is the lead pastor of NorthPark Presbyterian Church. Brent and NorthPark have a deep commitment to working with the poor and hungry in Dallas, helping those with Alzheimer’s disease, and reaching across religious and cultural lines to do their part to bring Dallas together as one.