By Tim Lien, Pastor
Recently, my six-year-old delivered this breathless prayer before our family dinner:
Thank You God for the birds and the sky and all of the trees in the world and this food, amen.
Except that it sounded faster than how you read it – like a chipmunk hopped up on espresso, with curly hair. As prayers go, it was the stock variety with no after-market features. If the prayer were a car, we’d be rolling down the windows with a hand crank. And it wasn’t entirely original sounding either; it seems that all six-year-olds must listen to the same prayer podcast. “I’ve heard this before,” you might say, but who wants their legacy to be a scathing exposé on six-year-old prayer plagiarism? Not me.
The other children were relieved. It could have been waaaay longer. This six-year-old has some other prayer lists that include flags, paper, bubbles, and dust. Short prayers seem to quickly move up the Top40 at our house. This particular prayer seemed to connect with the table, especially those closest to the grilled pork chops.
But I did have a few questions pop into my mind (because I can’t turn this chip off in my brain, and I love her exuberance in prayer): Can you be grateful for all the trees? Can you be grateful for all the species you have never seen? Can you be grateful in ignorance? Can you have categorical gratitude if you’ve only seen a fractional splinter of the category?
She said all the trees in the world. I know she doesn’t know about the Arctic/sub-Arctic Boreal forest – the forest that is almost 30% of all the world’s forests. Russians call it the taiga. It’s mainly conifers, spruces, and larches. Come spring and summer in the north, the taiga churns out enormous amounts of oxygen. Can her unknowing-yet-categorical prayer include the kapok, Brazil nut, cercropia, annatto, chicle, abiu, mountain soursop, ilama, Astrocaryum jauari palm, and the rubber tree? Can her undiscovered gratitude cover the nutmeg family, tamarack, aҫai, freijo, acacia, and balsa?
Can you be grateful for all the trees? All the trees you’ve never seen? The yew tree standing in a Welsh churchyard that was already 3,000 years old when Jesus was born in Bethlehem; the Redwoods?
I think the biggest type of gratitude goes beyond our limits of knowing what to be grateful for. In fact, gratitude and worship come from the same place – praising Someone who is beyond our full comprehension. We are grateful for all the great-ful things we cannot possibly absorb, understand, or fully appreciate. If we understood the full mysteries of God, He would not be big enough for us to worship.
David knew God was big, he just didn’t know how big. He had to be unknowing-yet-categorical (from Ps. 139):
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, You know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
David’s paraphrase: You know me, yet I do not know all of You.
This can be mysterious, exhilarating, and frightening, perhaps.
This is the same psalm where David is awed by God knitting babies with atoms and cells. He knows he can’t possibly know everything, and yet he is grateful:
How precious to me are Your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with You.
Can we be grateful for all the things we don’t know about? Can we be grateful for all the trees in the world? Can we be grateful to our God who is in His heaven and does whatever He pleases? Can we be grateful for all the things we don’t know about?
God has no need for our gratitude, but we do; it brings exuberant wonder to us all over again. Like a kid.
Thank You God for the birds and the sky and all of the trees in the world and this food, Amen.
Tim Lien is the church planting pastor for The Way, Pacific Crossroads’ first church plant in the San Gabriel Valley.
Photo by Sun Lee.