just say thank you

Reflection: Psalm 8:3-5

Earlier this week I played guitar and sang at a special prayer service at my church. Afterwards, as with any performance, people came up to me and congratulated me on a job well done.

I’ve never been good at accepting compliments. They’ve always made me really uncomfortable and awkward. Mind you, this isn’t because I’m modest – me? modest? I could laugh out loud – but because I didn’t really earn any of these talents. Of course, I do work hard at my craft so to that degree I’ve “earned” my accomplishments; but for the most part these special abilities were given to me at birth. Because of this, I’ve always wanted to deflect and deny, even straight up argue with people when they tried to congratulate me. My friend Ben finally said to me after one such event back in 2001, “Renee, seriously: just say thank you.”

So I’ve learned to make it a habit: say thank you. Look them in the eye. Smile and nod. Don’t argue. I got pretty good at it, too. Although inside I would be squirming and squealing and wanting to run away, I would stand still and smile, and I would say thank you. I got so good at it that I developed a selection of complimentary lines to sort of round out the conversation:

You are so sweet; thank you for your kind words.

It is certainly a gift, and I am grateful for it everyday.

What a delight that God spoke to you through my music. 

Nice expressions. Polite. Sweet. Even vaguely pious. None of them were ever untrue, but they were all definitely rehearsed. It was the only way I knew to respond without appearing weird or ungracious.

Well, a day after my performance this week, I received a text message from my friend Agnes. She is a sweet, sincere woman whose undercurrent of faith is so strong you can almost hear it rushing through her veins whenever she speaks. And she doesn’t speak much; but when she does, I always get a real sense of honesty and humility in her words. Her text wrote, “Your music and meditation service was soothing and beautiful. Thanks for your leadership.”

I picked up the phone to reply to her text and was about to type in one of my standard thank you comebacks, when I suddenly froze. I considered the person giving me the praise and the manner in which the praise was given, and suddenly none of my ready-made, well-rehearsed comebacks were quite adequate. As a matter of fact, in contrast with this kind of sincerity, a pre-meditated response felt inappropriate, even unappreciative, which was exactly the opposite of what I wanted to express.

And then I started thinking, Well, what exactly am I trying to express? 

I’ve been so busy being uncomfortable with praise that I haven’t really let myself take it for what it is. I’ve never understood it. I’ve never learned what it meant to be thankful for it.

My talents were given to me for free, before I’ve had a chance to earn them or deserve them. They were given to me as gift. And the praise and applause that comes with these talents, all of that also comes with the gift. Unearned. Undeserved. Completely free.

There is an element of discomfort that comes with being given something at no cost. There’s a part of me that’s always going to wonder about the catch, the fine print, the interest rates. Most of all, there’s a persistent fear in my stubborn human mind that what I did not pay for, I can not claim as my own and can not take credit for.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it: gratitude is not about taking credit. It’s about knowing what I ought to have, and in light of that, knowing what I have been given. I ought to be poor, but I am rich. I ought to have nothing, but I have plenty. I ought to be dust, but I am flesh, blood, breath, and life; loved enough to have been given a name; loved enough to have been given a purpose.

So now I realize that practiced lines are not enough. Pre-meditated, PR polished, spin-doctored elocutions are not enough. If I strung together every flowery word of thanks that I could find in my limited vocabulary, the bouquet would be nowhere near magnificent enough. Because in the end, the gifts that I have been given were not earned and can never be deserved.

That’s why they are called gifts.

And that’s why the only response that needs to be spoken – the only response that will do – is thank you.

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