St Stephen’s Lewisham

11th February 2007

The General Thanksgiving
1: The Natural

‘Our creation, preservation
and all the blessings of this life’

Some of you will remember a prayer called The General Thanksgiving which was often used in Church of England services. Well, this Sunday and next, we shall consider two passages which occur one after the other in this prayer.

This Sunday it will be ‘We bless Thee for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this lif’e; next Sunday it will be the turn of [We bless Thee] ‘for the means of grace and for the hope of glory’. On both Sundays at the end I shall read the prayer in full because it is such a splendid example, not only of good English, but also of everything that a prayer of thanksgiving ought to say.

But first a short history of the prayer. When the bishops of the Church of England met at the Savoy Palace in the Strand in 1662, one thing they discussed was how the Book of Common Prayer (even by then more than a hundred years old) might be improved. One bishop, Reynolds of Norwich, pointed out that there was little or nothing about giving thanks to God in the Prayer Book.

Like many other people who have a good idea, Reynolds found himself landed by his colleagues at the Conference with doing it himself. The result was the General Thanksgiving as we know it today.

It begins by thanking God ‘for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life’, which forms this morning’s topic. In other words, thanking God our Creator for everything which might be called the natural part of our lives on earth.

Let’s admit that ‘giving thanks’ is one of the trickiest things we find ourselves having to do. What a struggle one has every Christmas getting children to write Thank-you letters to their grandparents!; and when you meet Mrs Finkelstein by chance at the post-Christmas sales in The Shopping Centre, could you remember what Christmas present she had given you?: was it a bottle of port or a book-token?; and just how long did you spend searching for The right words to thank people for those presents, chosen with obvious loving care, but presents you would prefer they hadn’t given you? As John Betjeman described them:

‘Bath-salts, and inexpensive scent,
And hideous tie – so kindly meant!’

If it’s difficult to give thanks for human gifts, why should it to be easy to thank God for those gifts which He, in his wisdom has chosen to give us?

Well, here’s a different way of giving thanks to God: a way which works well for many of those who have tried it out. It’s based on those word the psalmist says to God:

‘Thou has covered me in my mother’s womb.

‘I will give thanks unto thee for I am fearfully and wonderfully made : marvellous are thy works and that my soul knoweth right well.

‘Thine eyes did see my substance yet being imperfect : and in thy book were all my members written,

‘Which day by day were fashioned : when as yet there was none of them!

Outside the medical profession, few people know how the human body works, how cells reproduce themselves, and even the very fact that everyone’s DNA is different from everyone else’s.

Did you know, for instance, that during the last five minutes, several million of your body-cells have quietly died and been replaced by others? This process, known as apoptosis or ‘programmed cell death’, has been going on every minute of our waking (and sleeping) life since we were born and even before. Each cell, on a given signal, quietly takes town all the struts and buttresses which hold it together and quietly ‘eats up’ its component parts. Had they not done so, our life would have lasted for only days and not years.

Then there’s DNA: Deoxy-ribonucleic acid (in case you didn’t know) – of which there is, scientists tell us, some twelve-and-a-half million miles inside each one of us – thirteen-foot of this thread-like stuff squeezed into almost every single cell in our body. They’re the Identity Card, so to speak, which makes each one of us different from everyone else, unique, in other words. As each new cell replaces the old one, our body tells its DNA to manufacture another thirteen feet of itself to go with the new cell, each length of DNS stamped with our very own three billion letters of bar-code.

But perhaps the most extraordinary thing of all is that in the case of human beings, God has, so to speak, taken us into partnership with him in his creative work, and allowed us to choose how and when we co-operate with what is going on inside us all the time. We have to feed and clothe ourselves, but there is a vast choice of what we eat, when we eat it and what we wear. We need to sleep, but lets us to decide when to go to bed: but after we’ve chosen, He takes over, so to speak: that vital, life-giving process of body-rebuilding and cell-replacement take place without any input from ourselves. And perhaps most remarkable of all, he has called us into a partnership with him in the matter of our self-reproduction.

Most people take for granted things like eating, drinking, dressing, sleeping, bathing (to name but five of the bodily processes in which God allows us an element of choice) and simply ‘do’ them without thinking; but if you and I are people who are aware of God’s presence in our everyday lives, we should develop the habit of regularly and consciously thanking God for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life.

If we do so we shall find our attitude towards both God and ourselves changing for the better. If, instead of just ‘going on living’ in ignorance, we take the trouble to discover a bit more about how our bodies actually work, we shall make the discovery that every one of us is in fact ‘driving’ the most wonderful piece of equipment in creation: we’ve been given a ‘custom-built model’, a unique Rolls-Royce body and mind, different from everyone else’s.

One example is saying Grace before meals. Instead of ‘just eating’, Grace reminds us that by eating we co-operate with God in his re-creative process. Go on from there to thank God for other things that happen inside and outside our body. It soon becomes a habit. For example, you’ll find yourself saying ‘Thank God for hot water’ each time you take a bath and ‘Thank God for sleep’ each time you wake up in The morning.

And from there it’s only a short step to saying ‘Thank God’ for ‘all the blessings of this life’ – in the words of the General Thanksgiving. Thank God for families, wives and husbands, children, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers; entertainment, recreations, hobbies, homes, neighbours and friends – all things which the world thoughtlessly takes for granted, yet each of which has in some way or other made us both what we are, at the same time different from everyone else. At the climax of creation God made Man in his own image, to be a living soul.

And yet, as we shall see next week, thanking God for natural things isn’t the whole story. God’s most important gift is something quite different – something super-natural, something, so far as we know, which can only be obtained by doing it in company with others – thanking God for the means of grace and the hope of glory in the Eucharist which simply means ‘thanksgiving – the very thing we are now doing together within these four walls.

So here, as I promised you at the beginning, is the General Thanksgiving in its entirety. Do feel free to join in if you remember it:

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.

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