I was standing at the information desk of a very busy suburban library the other day. Next to me was a breathless nine-year-old boy, impatient with the help he was not getting from the librarian behind the counter. The librarian, in his turn, was making a nominal effort to sift through the assorted junk in an open drawer in front of him, letting one of his fingers draw across the surface of the contents like a lover hanging his hand over the side of a boat and lightly disturbing the smooth surface of the lake.
Do you really need a pencil? sighed the librarian.
NO! Just an eraser! It sounded to me as though this, to the boy, had already been explained quite clearly.
I watched the librarian, who appeared even to me to have no intent of finding what he was searching for.
It happened to be my day to carry my large shoulder bag, the one with outside pockets, bottomless ones on either side, one in back, a zipped one in front. And that was just the outside of the bag. One of the voluminous side pockets carried my stash of writing utensils. I made sure it was always at least three-quarters full, enough to forget one or two pens and still leave me equipped to make notes as needed; and with enough mechanical pencils that should I ever find myself in want of completing a crossword puzzle, I had what was necessary. And from past classroom time, there was always a number 2 pencil, complete with functional eraser, or two in there.
I’m not really sure why. They’re like no-longer-used Christmas cookie cutters that get to stay in the drawer.
Just in case.
So, ever efficient and preferring that this waste of a mini-drama come to an end as soon as possible, I plopped my bag down on the counter, ripped open the pen/pencil pocket, quickly found a number 2 pencil with a functional eraser on top, whipped it out, and handed it to the boy.
Is this what you are looking for? I asked.
The boy was gobsmacked. He stood there speechless.
And so we stood there together. Staring at each other.
Even at my age, I still get a body chill whenever I encounter the reality of a person so neglected in this world that the free gift of a number 2 pencil with a functional eraser overwhelms him. I’ve come across them ever since I’ve had my own children. I’ve even seen that face on one my own. When, having spent some time with their father without me, they were standing behind me as I scrambled some eggs and toasted some bread for their breakfast, and a tear leaked out of my daughter’s eye as she whispered, You’re doing this for us?
I forced myself never to ask her why my making them breakfast made her cry.
Say, Thank you, I instructed the boy. Looking to break the deadlock.
He did manage to choke it out.
He looked so relieved that this overwhelming experience was now officially over that he actually finally smiled at me.
A number 2 pencil with a functional eraser.
It made his world.
Most of the writing on gratitude is about the discipline: encouraging us to remember to feel grateful for the elements of our lives, to remember to say, Thank you, to those around us, to include praise to God for all he has done for us in our prayers.
But if you look at these writings, they really only include that expression of gratitude that belongs to those in our circle, those with whom we are comfortable. Those who we feel are our equal. Even God can fall into this category: we have become so familiar with our prayers, that to say, Thank you, to God has no more significance to us than putting in our earrings.
It’s just one of those things we drill ourselves to do.
Say, Thank you. Be grateful.
But gratitude can be one of those immensely powerful tools that God has equipped us with to overcome spiritual mountains of pain and suffering. In two ways.
First, when we allow ourselves to surrender to feeling grateful for those who have power over us, people who misuse that power, perhaps, so that we come to feeling resentful of them should we ever be put in a position of being obligated to them. If we take gratitude with us into a prayer for that person, we can transform the built-up resentment and anger against them into something more useful to our lives, like acceptance. Perhaps even understanding.
At the least, gratitude to those above us for their kind attention to us puts us, even just for the moment of the prayer, on an equal footing with this giant.
It is a difficult challenge: to come to the point of putting out our hand to express our appreciation without afterward spitting in the dirt.
And it does wonders not only for our ability to walk smoothly through life, but also for our self-esteem. Breathing effortlessly through encounters with people for whom we formally held our breath eases the tensions in our souls.
Second, when we remember to list our gratitude for those we deem are below us, we are reminded of what Jesus wants us to remember: that we are on Earth to reach out and help those in need.
The world these days, confusingly, is a place that wants to kick dirt over that group of people, or that group over there. They are not as good as us. Sometimes these expressions are even attached to some imagined Bible teaching. And it runs through all the churches these days, from divorced people to people who believe in the resurrection.
Everyone seems to have a group of people who are not us to spit on and wish they were off the face of the Earth.
How many of us can remember to be thankful for the homeless man who sits in the shadow of a doorway with his blanket and dog? Or for the transient workers who live just outside the law, but who help to bring in our crops?
When do we include such people in our corporate prayers at church?
In each difference-in-level expression of gratitude, we find a means of forgiving the other. Another who may have taken advantage of us, or who may just have caused inconvenience in our lives.
Jesus came to save the sinners.
So sinners should be on the top of our prayer list.
And finding our gratitude for them could be the way of opening our hands, changing them from fists into means of service.