I can still faintly visualize it. Many years ago, I was watching the first game of the NBA Championship series when it was announced that the rock band U2 would be performing for the half-time show. U2’s concert was in Boston while the basketball game was being played in Los Angeles. When the cameras suddenly switched from one venue to the other, television viewers saw Bono praying on his knees.
“What can I give back to God for the blessings he poured out on me,” he asked. “I lift high the cup of salvation as a toast to our Father. To follow through on the promise I made to you.” The lead singer of one of the most popular rock band on the planet was loosely reciting a prayer from Psalm 116 (The Message) on nation-wide television in the United States.
Most viewers probably would not have known what he was reciting. However, it was kind of a startling opening shot of a rock star on bended knee quoting from an ancient psalm about gratitude. Those with eyes to see, saw it. Everyone else enjoyed the show.
The gritty emotion of Psalm 116 becomes more visceral and dramatic when the entire passage is read. “I love God because he listened to me, listened as I begged for mercy,” writes the psalmist. “He listened so intently as I laid out my case before him. Death stared me in the face, hell was hard on my heels. Up against it, I didn’t know which way to turn; then I called out to God for help: ‘Please, God!’ I cried out. ‘Save my life!’ God is gracious – it is he who makes things right, our most compassionate God. God takes the side of the helpless; when I was at the end of my rope, he saved me” (Psalm 116:1-6, The Message).
Bono is a spiritual provocateur. He knew exactly when the network cameras switched to his arena. Wisely, this was not a clichéd moment for a cheeky rock star to give the obligatory “thank you” to God after winning a Grammy award. In that televised moment, it was nationwide guerilla messaging about gratitude. “What can I give back to God for the blessings he poured out on me,” the psalmist first asked. What, indeed? What do you give the God who has everything?
“The Bible teaches that the life of thankfulness is the proper way for human beings to be related to God,” writes the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, the noted Episcopal preacher and scholar, in her book The Bible and The New York Times. “He is the giver, and we are the recipients. The most important thanksgiving of all, the one that transcends all human contingencies, is thanking and praising God for being God.”
Even when life is filled with potholes, illness, and confusion, the psalmist reminds us to thank God for his faithfulness. “Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations” (Psalm 100:3-5, NIV).
“The theme of gratitude is the cantus firmus, the constant undergirding melody of the Biblical song,” writes Rutledge. “The giving of thanks is not just an activity to be taken up at certain times and set aside at other times. It is a whole way of life.”
But what about when things don’t go the way we had hoped? What about when our prayers aren’t answered?
“The life of thankfulness – biblically speaking – is lived in view of the hard things of existence,” writes Rutledge. “As the life of thanksgiving deepens, we discover that the more mature prayers of thanksgiving are not those offered for the obvious blessings, but those spoken in gratitude for obstacles overcome, for insights gained, for lessons learned, for increased humility, for help received in time of need, for strength to persevere, for opportunities to serve others.” As she adds, “Gratitude is soul-enlarging. Gratitude is liberating. Gratitude calls forth a response of loving reciprocity.”
The true-to-life biblical message has never denied pitfalls, downturns, and disappointments – let alone tragedy. “In this world you will have trouble,” said Jesus. “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Faith calls us to a life of gratitude and thanksgiving; not once a year, but as a mindful life reflex. “The purpose of salvation is that we might give him thanks,” writes Rutledge. “The effects of thanksgiving are freedom and joy. The commandments are written on our hearts that we might keep them with gladness and with a song. The meaning of life is grounded in the praise of God.”
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.