Monday, August 23, 2010

A life without thanking

August in Barbados is often seen as a bit of slow period. Coming after the energy and jump up of "Crop Over" (carnival) but before the back to work and school frenzy of September. However there is one thing that lights up the front pages in the middle of every August in Barbados , it is the announcement of the names of the students who have won the prestigious Barbados Scholarship. This story from the Barbados Nation features some of this year's winners. You couldn't fail to notice how well God did too, even though the picture suggests that one scholar considers that football is his religion. Here are some of the comments:

“The exams were very challenging but by God’s grace I came through.”

“I prayed right there in the exam room and God answered my prayers, so I am really grateful to him,”

“All last week while I was at church camp I was praying that God would help me to be successful.”

Amazing! In case you are wondering this is not one student going on about his Lord, these are three separately interviewed students. This is a great example of how omnipresent God is to Caribbean people and the way that the youth pick up the vibes. But apart from the belief that God is in control of all in the world, at least all the good stuff, this article highlighted something else for me. The importance for our people of giving thanks, or as we would say in the Caribbean,"giving tanks." Yes, thanks is very important in the Caribbean. One of the things I can really give parents in our region credit for, at least in years gone by, is the emphasis they placed on politeness. You always had to say 'please' and 'thank you' and there was no compromising on that. You couldn't get that piece of chewing gum or wind-up toy unless you used those 'magic words.' That early training has remained with me until today and I am grateful or should I say thankful for it. It is now so automatic I don't even realise I'm doing it. Sometimes I think I come across in North America as being a bit too pedantic in a culture that often values getting to the point without the need for all of the niceties. I find it hard to write an email without a 'thank you' somewhere. However, so many here in Canada like you to use that valuable bandwith to actually say something of consequence.

Of course in growing up, giving thanks did not end with simple gifts from adults it extended to the ultimate provider. It was really a sin to take anything for granted, you always had to thank somebody. We were so programmed to thank, that if we got something and it was not immediately clear who was responsible we just thanked God. Indeed we thanked God for pretty much everything. From first thing in the morning to last thing at night. As the song goes, " He woke you up this morning." At primary school, before lunch the prayer we recited was, " For what we are about to receive, nay the Lord make us truly thankful, for Christ's sake, Amen." Wow, that's quite an intersting prayer, looking back, we actually prayed to God to make us more thankful to him. Indeed as a new atheist I find one of the most difficult things for me is not having somebody to thank. For example,who now gets the credit for what I formerly referred to as my 'God given' talents? For me the thought of living a life without thanking is intuitively uncomfortable. Anyone who has given a 'Vote of Thanks' at an event knows there are not many feelings worse than forgetting to thank someone who made an invaluable contribution. Not thanking a God makes me feel at times like an ungrateful child, taking what life has on offer without pausing even to acknowledge a source.

I think many times in discussions on religion this aspect of faith is overlooked. We often think of religious people as going to a 'wishing well' with a grocery list of requests for a God. The truth is much of worship is really about thanks. I remember hearing many sermons while I was growing up that chastised us for being 'Gimme' Christians. Thanksgiving I was told on many occasions, was what being a Christian was all about. I must say that I rather liked that aspect. So much in the church is about thanks, from the annual harvests, to the celebrations of weddings and christenings. Even many funerals today are referred to as, " Thanksgiving services for the life of................" I know its curious to many visitors to our region, but if you ask a West Indian, especially a Rastafarian, "How are you?" The reply quite often is "Giving thanks."

Make no mistake, the term " giving thanks" is a religious reply. It means giving thanks AND praise to Jah, Jehovah, Jesus, the most high or whatever name or title that fits. This is the point at which thankfulness leverages into worship. Thanks and praise are two words that are never far apart from each other in those parts. "Praise the Lord, thank God," was a phrase my grandfather use to mutter several times a day. In everyday life if we like the way someone has done something we praise them, we pat them on the back and tell them 'well done.' God essentially is no different. God immediately becomes worthy of much much praise, because we have so many things for which we are thankful. So suddenly we are worshipping and bowing down before a deity, prostrate at his feet all because we started with a simple and honourable desire to give thanks.

So we must be careful about being too thankful,as it can so easily end in subservience.When I think of the Caribbean and the wider developing world there is another far reaching effect. It can make us prone to settling rather than pushing for that extra. In our thanking culture, the emphasis is so much on being content with what you have. You are always reminded that things could be so much worse than there are.This way of thinking is extremely useful when survival is the primary or only goal, which has regularly been the case for black people throughout history. The world stood in awe when the Haitians, in spite of going through the most devastating earthquake , were out in the streets next day, praising God and giving thanks. That is a great illustration of the mindset of our people and this attitude has helped to endure the many hardships that have come our way over the centuries.

But spending time on thanks can be a hindrance when a society is looking to drive ahead. You become risk averse, worried about losing what you have, like the man in that famous parable you want to sit on your talents rather than invest in them. We end up comparing ourselves with those who have less rather than trying to achieve something more so we can assist those with less. Indeed, yearning for more is sometime seen in our islands as being ungrateful for what you have. Meanwhile the developed world always seems to be looking for what more they can achieve, the next frontier, the next step to innovation. There is that one day in October in Canada and November in the US where everyone pauses to 'give thanks' but by and large it's all about forging ahead in these nations.

So now I recognise, that when it comes to things that nature and chance determine, I can live a life without thanking. I will be quick to give earthly thanks to individuals that have made my life better along the way but none of my praises will be going skywards. To a large extent I accept that things just are. I am fortunate in many regards and less so in others. I will not spend too much time reflecting on what I have or don't have or how far I have come. My emphasis is on what difference I can make or what I can achieve with what I have now. I can only hope those brilliant young scholarship winners also look to what they can do for the future of their land when all the thanks and praises are over.

It has taken me many years, but I realise now that you don't always need to thank. So,when someone offers me a gift of eternal life in return for a life of thanksgiving to one I have not seen, I can just turn to them politely and say, "No thanks."

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