Scripture can be found here...
"Thank U" by Alanis Morissette can be found here...
How bout getting off of these antibiotics…[i]
A prayer of thanks for ordinary healing… the infection that finally goes away.
How bout stopping eating when I'm full up
A prayer of thanks for simple acts of self-care.
How bout them transparent dangling carrots
A prayer of thanks for the small incentives we give ourselves, that help us to do what we truly want to do.
How bout that ever elusive kudo
A prayer of thanks for unexpected words of affirmation.
Thank you India, Thank you terror, Thank you disillusionment
Alanis Morissette is a Canadian singer/ songwriter who released an album called “Jagged Little Pill” in 1995, to enormous critical and popular response. At the time, she was just 21 years old, but had been actively performing since the age of 16. After that huge success in her professional life, Morissette decided she needed some time off, so she took it. She took some time to simply be. She traveled to India. Later, she said in an interview, “Basically, I had never stopped in my whole life, hadn't taken a long breath, and I took a year and a half off and basically learned how to do that. When I did stop and I was silent and I breathed... I was just left with an immense amount of gratitude, and inspiration, and love, and bliss, and that's where the song came from…”[ii]
We are pairing this 90’s-mid-tempo-alt-rock hit with a psalm that precedes it by at least a couple of thousand years. Each is a song of gratitude. Is that where the similarities end?
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. ~Psalm 40:1-3a
One of the things we notice about the psalms is their use of vivid imagery. At times, those images are meant to represent actual events…a raging battle, a desert wasteland. At other times, those images convey the inner landscape of the psalmist. They are metaphorical, not literal. Sometimes it can be hard to know, at any given moment, which one we are encountering: the concrete or the metaphor.
Take the line: “He (the Lord) inclined to me and heard my cry.” The vivid image we have is of God leaning over, leaning down, stooping and coming close to hear the sad or frightened or frustrated cries of the person calling out. The image brings to mind a mother or father, leaning down to scoop up a crying child and hold him in their arms. The image brings into our hearts the possibility of the nearness of God, whom we so often imagine being far off, in some other realm, heaven, maybe.
And now we understand that this may be a psalm about a person who was stuck in some version of actual quicksand and experienced a miraculous rescue through the power of God. Or, it may be a psalm about someone who was confronted with the pain of a muddy, swampy inner landscape who found release and rescue by opening that landscape to God’s healing light. And suddenly we find this 90’s rock song may not be all that far from this ancient text.
One of the things I believe keeps us from deeper intimacy with God is our conviction that we don’t have time for prayer. Yet, when I listen to “Thank U”, I hear a number of quick prayers of gratitude strung together that probably arose in individual moments. Everything from swallowing the last horse pill of a ten day regimen, to feeling the wheels touch down after a long journey, to making it through something truly terrifying in one piece, and sighing, “Thank you.” Or, for the psalmist, experiencing clarity after time in the emotional mire, feeling himself on a secure footing after a time of feeling utterly wobbly and insecure. “Thank you.” Both psalm and song suggest a life infused with gratitude.
The moment I let go of it
Was the moment I got more than I could handle
The moment I jumped off of it
Was the moment I touched down[iii]
Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud,
to those who go astray after false gods. ~ Psalm 40:4
The moment I started reading this psalm this week, I focused in on that phrase, “false gods.” In the era in which this psalm was written, it is most likely that God’s covenant people were on the verge of a transition between something called “henotheism” and “monotheism.” Monotheism, of course, is the belief that there is only one God. Henotheism is the belief that there are many gods, but that your particular god, in this case, YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the one to be worshiped. So, it is entirely possible the psalmist was referring to the gods worshiped by other cultures, and acknowledging their existence, but calling them false. It is also possible the psalmist was reminding the listener that there is only one God, and any pretenders must be understood to be illusions.
Our false gods are many. By “false gods,” I mean the things we allow to take our focus and to consume our time and energy, as well as the things we rely on to “save” us, from the right job, to the right person, to the escape found in the brownies or the book or anything we use to distract ourselves from the discomfort we find when we try to be still, and know that God is God.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” ~Psalm 40:6-8
How bout no longer being masochistic
How bout remembering your divinity
Another of the things I believe keeps us from deeper intimacy with God is our hesitation about simply pausing, and waiting, and listening, as well as is our absolute conviction that that is something other people do, but we personally are not constitutionally designed to do. We try it, we sit down somewhere and say to God, “Here I am”… and soon we are thinking: What was it I meant to put on the grocery list? It was something really obvious, like dish soap or toothpaste. Oops, sorry God.
But that, right there, is a deep spiritual practice. It is the practice of opening our attention to something other than our own inner monologues, allowing ourselves the space for our minds to wander, and then noticing, and bringing our attention back to openness to God’s voice. (I would like to add that God’s voice is not above reminding us about the toothpaste. If God counts the hairs on our heads, it stands to reason that the state of our teeth is also of interest to the Almighty.)
My point being, we try to sit in silence, and because we don’t immediately have an experience of transcendent bliss, we feel we have failed. We have not failed. This is when we need to cultivate what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” Beginner’s mind tells us, whatever we are trying to do now, whether for the first or the one thousand and first time, is new, and fascinating, and we have no expectation of how it will go. Gone, the preconceived notion of what “real prayer” looks like, or “real meditation,” or “real openness to God’s voice.” There is just you, or me, and a modest block of time, say, fifteen minutes. And, maybe, a psalm to focus the mind. And a reasonable expectation of being able to close our eyes for a bit, or rest them on something restful… like a window-box of late summer petunias, or a picture of a beautiful landscape, or a candle… and wait. With no expectation of “how it will go.” And when the grocery list, or the doctor’s appointment, or worries about someone we love pop into our head, we say inwardly, “That’s a thought,” and we let it float away, like a tiny balloon, and bring our attention back to the expectation of God’s presence. And when the alarm goes off, marking our fifteen minutes, we rise and go about our day. And we have just participated in the radical reorientation of heart that the psalms are all about: reorientation to the goodness of God.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation… ~ Psalm 40:10a
Thank you nothingness
Thank you clarity
Thank you thank you silence...
In the end, both singers have a decision to make. Will they keep their transformative experience to themselves? Or will they sing about it? Will they move from private religion to one that is shared? To use a good, old-fashioned Christian concept, Will they testify? Morissette wrote a song, which made it to #17 in the US and #1 in Canada, her homeland. Most of us don’t have much expectation of giving that kind of testimony. But can we bring ourselves to mention, in the words of our first hymn, that God is the Lord, and God has done wonders? Even if those wonders seem small? When we have tiny acts of healing, tiny moments of joy, tiny bursts of wonder at the beauty of a shooting star, can we become accustomed to giving God the credit? Can we nurture in ourselves the habit of saying “Thank you, thank you, silence?”
Thank you, thank you, silence, and all thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] This and all italicized quotes not otherwise identified, “Thank U,” written and produced by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard, from the album “Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie” on the Maverick label, released October 13, 1998.
[ii] “Rock on the Net: Alanis Morissette,” http://www.rockonthenet.com/artists-m/alanismorissette_main.htm, Retrieved August 15, 2015.
[iii] “Thank U.”