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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: When thanks aren’t enough

Lynne Baab • Thursday January 18 2024

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: When thanks aren’t enough

“Thanks for a delicious meal.” “Thanks for doing that favor for me.” “I’m grateful for your help with the project at church.”

“Thanks for changing my life.”

We use “thanks” or “I’m grateful” in response to specific actions and also to convey gratitude for huge, life-transforming support and encouragement. These things don’t seem equivalent. Knowing how to convey our gratitude for big, significant gifts is challenging. We don’t have a word that conveys really, really big thanks.

We sometimes say, “I could never thank you enough.” I feel that way when I think of certain friends who have given me far, far more than I gave them. A couple of months ago, I wrote about how frustrating I find it when people thank me over and over. It makes me feel like they actually aren’t grateful for my help. Instead, it seems they are embarrassed to need help. With respect to the friends whose care has been life-transforming, I want to thank them over and over.

Am I embarrassed to admit that I have needed friends in ways that transformed my life?

I’ve mentioned before that my family moved 12 times in my first 15 years. By an amazing miracle, a close friend I met in second grade moved to some of the same places, or near enough to visit on school vacations. She was and is a warm, caring person who gives compliments easily, a stark contrast to my exacting mother. Without my friend’s affection, warmth, care, and loyalty during my childhood and teen years, I don’t know if I could be happily married or sustain friendships today. I don’t think I would know how to love. I don’t think I would have very much self-confidence. Her friendship is one of the miracles of my life.

I have thanked her, but I could never thank her enough. I don’t want to sound like that person who frustrated me by thanking me so many times. What can I do? And especially, how can I pray about this?

1. I can ask God to help me accept that the big gifts of my life are just that — gifts. Our job is to open our hands to receive them humbly. We can ask for God’s help to rest peacefully in the deep truth that all gifts, big and small, don’t come to us because we deserve them. They are gifts of grace.

Yes, saying “thank you” is a really good thing, and most of us need to nurture our ability to express thanks to humans and to God. On some level, though, I need to stop frantically saying “thank you,” as if my abundant thanks will balance out the significance of the gift. My compulsive thanks can be an effort to tell myself that I am not indebted to anyone or to God.

2. I can thank God for the gift of love because all love originates in God. All gifts are gifts of grace with their source in the deep love of God. I can ask that the Holy Spirit would help me rejoice that God calls me “Beloved.”

3. I can ask God to help me examine my heart. Am I embarrassed that I needed life-changing help from a friend? Am I ashamed to admit that I needed friends in ways that transformed my life? I can ask God to teach me humility and give me a receptive spirit.

4. I can pray to pay it forward. We can’t know which of our actions might be transformative for others, but we can pray to love friends in ways that genuinely make a difference for them.

About a decade ago, the word “receptive” was significant for me. Pondering that word helped me see that my Enneagram One desire to do a good job at everything had made me feel I had to work so hard. Even in the area of thanking people, I had to do it right. A receptive stance involves open hands to receive the gifts God brings to us—big gifts, small gifts, one-time gifts, and gifts spread over a long period like some friendships bring. Our job is to receive with gratitude. We definitely should say “thank you” at appropriate times, but a central challenge is to be humble enough to receive God’s generosity to us, born not of our deserving but from the hugeness of God’s love. Some of that abundant generosity of God comes to us through friends.

Beloved Lord, thank you for the people who have shaped our lives: friends, family members, mentors, pastors, leaders. In many cases, we can’t thank them enough. Help us receive their love, or the memory of the ways they cared for us, as a gift. Help us rejoice that all gifts originate in you and your deep love for us. Help us let go of our need to earn love. We long to be the kind of people who show life-transforming love to others, and we ask that you empower us to do that.

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Next week: Listening with empathy. Illustration by Dave Baab: Dave's painting desk and the view from our airBnB in Dunedin, New Zealand, January 2021. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”

A fun article that quotes me in answer to the questions, “Where are you finding joy in congregational life, and what types of generosity are lifting your spirits?” Lots of diverse answers to those questions, including mine.

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