Monday, August 26, 2013

Thanks Be To God

When an Evangelical Christian attends a liturgical church, what he notices first about the worship service is that other people seem to know something one is supposed to say and when one ought to say it. The priest may be praying or a congregant reading scripture when suddenly the congregation just starts saying something or performing some motion at the same time.

The visitor may feel lost, confused and left out because he just doest know the dance. For some, it is a very unpleasant experience. He may leave the church muttering about “vain repetitions,” or “forms of Godliness without power,” and such. It may not dawn on him that his own familiar worship service is also full of corporate responses that others find off-putting; such as raising ones hands, responding “praise the Lord,” or “all the time” if the worship leader suddenly shouts out “God is Good.”

Every community has ritualized responses like these though. We salute the flag. We say the pledge of allegiance. We all shout “play ball” together after singing the national anthem. That is the way American community works. Similar kinds of communal responses emerge in every community, that is if it stays around long enough.

In the church, believers have traditionally said “thanks be to God” after the public reading of scripture. The practice goes back to an era when few churches (and even fewer individuals) had Bibles. Handwritten copies of the entire Bible were huge. They were also extremely extremely expensive. Even by the time our great-grandparents came around, Bibles were still massive and usually kept in one place.  So hearing the Bible read could be a moving experience. People needed a way to respond together.

Admittedly, people are not always, or even normally, filled with great joy when they go through the ritual of saying “thanks be to God” after the reading. They may not even be able to tell you what they just heard. For many, perhaps most, it is a learned repetition. It just means something like “well, that parts over; on to the next part.”

However, the meaning of any ritual is only offered, not forced upon those individuals who perform them. The hearer must determine if he really is grateful for the reading from God's Word or whether he even paid attention to it as it was read. We cannot know what occurs in our fellow believers when they mumble, “thanks be to God.” We can only determine what we mean when we say those words.

The other day, I was reading from the Rule of St, Benedict. Benedict said that if a troubled person or someone who just takes up our time interrupts our work, we should should take a moment before responding and say to ourselves, “thanks be to God.” Benedict’s point is that we must instruct our hearts to shift away from viewing the moment as an interruption. 

We must tell our hearts to view the moment as a potential visit from God.  A bearer of God’s image and likeness has suddenly appeared, perhaps in the guise of a child, or a mentally ill person, or simply a lonely pest.   

Benedict chose these words deliberately. He knew full well that the phrase, “thanks be to God, was what believers said after the reading scripture. He understood that for a premodern Christian, the reading of scripture was supposed to be treated like a tape recording of the prophets and apostles. So the people’s formal acknowledgement of that reading was an instruction to their own souls. It was a way to teach one's souls to honor the Word that had just come coming through the saints of God.

We must remember too that the liturgical readings of scripture were not designed to placate anyone’s taste in reading material. After hearing “the desert shall blossom as a rose,” we can enthusiastically say “thanks be to God.” However, when we hear a passage that ends with, “lest I come and strike the earth with a curse,” we also say “thanks be to God. When we hear the reader say “straight is the path and narrow is the gate that leads to eternal life,” we also respond “thanks be to God.”

Some scripture is not immediately uplifting or inspiring. Nonetheless, it is God who is speaking and we given Him thanks. 

Many of us in professional ministry are doubtlessly terribly important. We have much better things to do than meet with whiners, grumblers and time-wasters. We have books to write. We have sermons to
prepare. We have many earth shaking things to accomplish. We can’t do all these things if we pay close attention to everyone who emails us, phones us, or just walks into our office and starts to chat.

So what do we do?

Well, according to Benedict, we should say “thanks be to God.” And then he adds, “auscuta!” That means listen. Really listen. It’s the same word doctors use when paying careful attention to the someone’s heartbeat through a stethoscope. The doctor not only listens, he attends, he focuses upon, or, to use the medical term, he auscultates.

That great saint of the church, John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens as we are making plans.”

Behind the chat, the small talk, the jokes and the banter, a soul is trying to connect with another soul. A lonely heart is seeking to be heard. That is often a form of prayer because people sometimes want a God who wears some skin. That would be those of whom St. Paul said, "Christ in you the hope of glory." 

For those of us who grew up in communities that emphasized the gift of tongues, perhaps it is time to ask God for the gift of ears. 

Perhaps the word we await to come through some anointed, appointed and highly respected leader may come instead through a recovering drug addict, or even through a simple minded chatterbox.

Thanks be to God. Auscuta. 

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