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the in and out of giving thanks

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My office earlier this week
The giving of thanks before a meal is a common Christian tradition. It is a way of acknowledging that God is the Provider. Though the farmer may till the ground and plant the seeds, he cannot make anything grow. A baker can mix the yeast in the bread, but she cannot make it rise. We can be prone to believe that we are masters of our own destiny, but this is a delusion. The giving of thanks to the Creator and Sustainer of our lives (especially before partaking of a meal) is one way to remind ourselves that, in the grand scheme of things, we are humble recipients of grace. We rely on the earth, the crops, the trees, the birds, the bees, the animals, the rain, the sun, the wind, and much, much more in order to be able to enjoy nourishment every day. Even Jesus, Creator incarnate, gave thanks before he broke bread and enjoyed a meal with others.

There is another practice which I have adopted in my life, and that is saying a heartfelt "Thank you, God" every time I go to the bathroom. For any of you who have had digestive issues, you know that bodily elimination is not something to take for granted. A good appetite and regular trips to the bathroom to expel toxins and roughage are two of the main indicators of good health. In the Jewish tradition, we find a prayer called the Asher Yatzar which one prays after going to the bathroom. "Blessed are You, God, our God, sovereign of the universe, who formed humans with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows. It is obvious in the presence of your glorious throne that if one of them were ruptured, or if one of them were blocked, it would be impossible to exist and stand in your presence. Blessed are You, God, who heals all flesh and performs wonders." [1]

Just as the act of breathing is two-fold (we inhale oxygen and we exhale carbon dioxide), the nourishment of the body includes both ingesting food and eliminating elements which are not helpful to the body. Giving thanks for a meal which smells delicious is easy. Giving thanks for waste which gives off a foul odour is less intuitive. We like to ingest, to imbibe, to gorge ourselves, to partake of the good things in life, but how often are we mindful that we must daily excrete, expel, evacuate, and eliminate if we want to remain in good health? Accumulation in the intestines is a sign that something has gone wrong physically. Accumulation in life (such as hoarding) is a sign that something has gone wrong on an emotional, social, mental, or spiritual level.

I am in the process of purging my office after 7 years of graduate school. Needless to say, I collected quite a lot of books, papers, files, and office supplies during that time. I started the week off with some excitement, re-imagining a streamlined and tidy work-space, but after three days of upheaval, tripping over piles of papers and books with seemingly no end in sight, I became somewhat disheartened. I temporarily abandoned the project and read a fiction book, which was probably for the best. Today, I am happy to report that there is only one more drawer to sort through. I realize now that had I done a small purge and reorganization every summer, things would have been much easier, but due to a heavy workload and limited energy, I fell into the habit of accumulating and neglecting instead of eliminating.

We can do the same thing in our emotional, social, and spiritual lives. We tend to spend most of our time focusing on good, positive input and hardly any time on letting unhelpful things go. We are heavy on taking in information and light on confession, repentance, weeping, grieving, righteous anger, loving confrontation, and forgiveness. In our society, it is more acceptable for a person to be an overstuffed consumer (I am rich and wealthy and need nothing) than for someone to have an honest breakdown, leaking out anxiety, anger, and doubt. But in order for us to exist with at least a modicum of health and have any hope of maturity and sustainability, we must orient our lives around the rhythm of ingesting, digesting, and eliminating.  

Going through my papers and books and notes and files has meant making many hundreds of decisions about what will be useful for me moving forward, what can be put in storage, what can be recycled, and what needs to be tossed in the garbage (our bodies do this with every morsel of nourishment we put into our mouths - what a wonder!). It is difficult but necessary work. It requires discipline, discernment, consistency, and a lot of letting go. This week especially, trips to the bathroom have become a spiritual discipline of sorts, helping to reinforce necessary rhythms of elimination in my life.

"Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness. I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself." (Philippians 3:8-10, The Message)

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[1] http://www.jewishpathways.com/files/asher-yatzar.pdf

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