A Prayer of Thanksgiving, Or, The Dilemma of Giving Thanks

If the surfer's prayer made you laugh, this will make you angry—or at least it should. If the surfer's prayer wins the award for taking a metaphor too far and in the wrong way, then this prayer wins the award for the most atrocious confusing of one's socio-economic status with the will of God. Needless to say, I found this prayer next to the surfer's prayer.

We thank you, God, that we are part of an affluent society. Most of us have "everything a man could want" in the way of material wealth. It would be ungrateful of us to turn our backs on material things—they are your gifts to us.

Thank you for beautiful homes to live in.
For modern automobiles to get around in.
For stylish clothes to wear.
For modern haircuts, so much more expressive of our personalities.
For dogs and cats and other pets.
For sunshine and rain, seedtime and harvest.

Thank you for rich farmland that produces food in plentiful supply.
For washing machines and dryers that lighten the task of a mother or housewife.

We have so much to be thankful for.
And yet all this would be nothing if we lived in a cold world without warmth, without love. Into this cold world you have come, O Lord.

Do I really need to comment on this? To be honest, I feel God's judgment on myself and all of modern, western society just in reading this prayer, which makes it all the more necessary that we confront it head-on: We need to exorcize our demons, or rather, let God purge us of these blind-spots in our faith.

As much as the opening of this prayer makes me vomit, it presents us with a very interesting dilemma: To what extent can or should we see the good things in life as actually blessings from God? The dilemma can be accentuated by writing two lines of our own thanksgiving prayer:
I thank you, God, for my 60GB iPod and my forest green Hummer, which are so much more expressive of my personality and are clearly blessings from you for which I am truly grateful.
I thank you, God, for this wonderful banquet of food, for the turkey and ham and pasta and pies, which are clearly blessings from you for which I am truly grateful.
Now someone will immediately point out that iPods and Hummers are completely unnecessary and are manufactured by western technology as part of our exploitation of the earth. That is true. But we do not need such extravagant food, upon which we gorge ourselves every holiday season. Nor do we think about or even care how the animals that we eat were treated and killed, nor do we even know where are food is coming from, so that what we eat was probably grown and harvested by food companies that also exploit the earth and its creatures. I realize there is still a difference between the two, but where do we draw the line? Are we morally bound to adopting Wendell Berry's lifestyle in order to have clean consciences (whatever that means)? Or do we just need to reduce our consumption?

The writer of this prayer was probably trying to take the old prayers of thanksgiving and modernize them in accordance with the change in lifestyle. On some level, this is perfectly understandable. On another, as the prayer demonstrates, morally suspect. Are we not indeed called to give up "material things" as followers of our Lord? Are the adjectives "modern" and "stylish" fit for giving thanks? Can we honestly thank God that we can express ourselves through more contemporary outlets? Can I thank God for my Apple iBook? for my digital camera? for the invention of DVDs?

I sense that part of the dilemma here is the issue of what is "new" and "modern." We would never saw now, "Thank you, Lord, for typewriters," because computers have replaced them and typewriters are no longer considered a blessing—they are part of our historic past. But a few generations ago, such a device was manna from heaven. Are typewriters or computers necessary? No, they are not. They are modern conveniences that make work more efficient. At what point, however, do the innovations of modernity cross the line from true blessing into unnecessary extravagance? Or is everything beyond monasticism part of a slippery slope into materialism?

I think we are not only prone to novaphilia (a word I just coined meaning "excessive love for what is new") but in some small way we also recognize that we are prone to such excessive love for new things. We are "children of the nouveau," to borrow a phrase from H. L. Foster. Our love for what is new is a love we recognize to be fraught with sinful tendencies, and so we try to counter-balance this by viewing these material objects as modern conveniences or even extravagant luxuries. Consequently, material things that were more recently developed feel more like technological innovations than blessings. So we have no problem thanking God for modern book-making that allows us to read great works of literature easily, but we do not (yet) thank God for DVD technology that allows us to watch great works of film easily. Similarly, we are at the end of a transition from viewing computers as luxuries to embracing them as blessings, a transition that occurs with almost every form of technology at some point.

I am not suggesting that we should start thanking God for DVDs, stylish clothes, and Honda Civics. But I do think there is a double blind-spot at work: first, the blind-spot to our materialistic novaphilia and our endless pursuit of extravagant indulgences; and second, the blind-spot to past innovations which now seem like necessities or at least no longer like potentially dangerous idols for our consumeristic urges. However, just because we no longer idolize typewriters, does that render them innocuous? Can we begin to thank God for these modern technologies once our voracious appetites have moved on to something else, something newer? Can we thank God for iPods once we no longer feel the need to have one at our side at all times (because then we will have ear implants wirelessly connected to an endless stream of music)? And what about food and houses and clothes? These are considered "necessities" by most people, and yet they are denied to many people around the world? Can we thank God for them, even though they remain permanent fixtures in the landscape of western materialism and are still viewed as luxuries by so many?

Finally, (rhetorical question alert!) do we have a right to thank God for material things as long as we end our prayers by thanking God for Jesus? Is the remembrance of Jesus the good deed that washes away a multitude of sins (and bad prayers)? Is the thought of the cross enough, or do we actually need to carry our crosses? And (real question alert!) if carrying our crosses is what true discipleship entails, what impact should that have upon how we view, buy, use, and enjoy material things? In other words, if the prayer above goes too far, where is the line? How much can or should we thank God for the things we enjoy? Or should we live in continual repentance?