Thoughts on praise and thankfulness, taken from my contribution to Jane Redmont’s 1999 book When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life. This excerpt (pages 188-190) is from the chapter entitled “Daring to Raise the Alleluia Song.”
“Everything I know about praise and joyful prayer goes back to the very beginning of my Christian life,” Fred wrote to me. “There is of course the remarkable atmosphere of a living, thriving, charismatic congregation: a loud crowd, lots of emotion, and people just glad to be in church together in the presence of God. There’s a celebratory atmosphere there that’s really something magnificent when it’s going right. Jubilant music, clapping hands, and the more outgoing members of the group feeling free to dance, wave hands, sing too loud, shout, and just generally express joy physically. Not to be underestimated as aerobic exercise, either,” he joked. “That’s stamped in my consciousness from before I was reflective. It’s the matrix for all further understanding I ever got around to.”
He added: “Praise can take over the entire enterprise of prayer, and invade the rest of life as well. This is a hard thing to talk about because the last thing I can stand still for is Norman Vincent Peale happy-talk about having an attitude of gratitude. But ‘the power of praise’ is a big deal in my upbringing.
“During high school, I had a very powerful experience related to praise and thankfulness. We had a long snowy winter and missed a lot of school; this was the winter I had just been converted, and I read the Bible for months on end as if my life depended on it. I was really fascinated with the passages in the New Testament that direct us to ‘pray without ceasing.’ I couldn’t imagine how it would be possible, since you pray with your conscious mind and you need your conscious mind to accomplish anything in the world, so how can it multi-task? Well, at some point and for some reason, I began to praise God for everything that crossed my path. then it occurred to me: ‘pray without ceasing’ and ‘in everything give thanks’ are the same thing: the way to pray without ceasing is to give thanks in everything!”
Well, this was one of those moments when the word jumps off the page and directly into your experience. For a period of several weeks that winter, I prayed without ceasing by giving thanks in everything. Chores, cold weather, trips with the youth group to shovel snow from driveways and sidewalks in town, some homework…. I was in a state of unceasing, uninterrupted prayer and thanksgiving. Now I’m perfectly willing to listen patiently and even accept any reductionist explanation of the whole thing: I had things happening hormonally that made me prone to prolonged euphoria and melancholy, and I was getting to spend time with a couple of girls I liked a lot. And then there’s the obvious fact that I was a recent convert, and this was the period of my falling in love with God. But in, with, and under all that, I believe that God gave me a kind of visionary experience, which is to say a manifestation of what life can and should be. Of course it went away, and I’ve only made teeny little approaches to it since. But that’s the rhythm of spiritual life as far as I can tell: God gives us, as gifts, glimpses of what is possible, and we revel in it briefly before setting out to lay hold of it. This was a formative event for me: the gift of prayer without ceasing.”
Fred quoted Cyprian, the third-century bishop of Carthage in North Africa: “New-created and new-born of the Spirit by the mercy of God, let us imitate what we shall one day be. Since in the kingdom we shall possess day alone, without intervention of night, let us so watch in the night as if in the daylight. Since we are to pray and give thanks to God for ever, let us not cease in this life also to pray and give thanks.”
“This,” Fred said, “makes a deep kind of sense to me: that your basic response to the people, things, and events in your life should be gratitude, and your basic posture joy. Jesus conducted a survey that showed nine out of ten lepers aren’t even thankful for being healed. Go figure.”