The One Gift that Unlocks All the Others – A Thanksgiving Reflection

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
     –Elizabeth Barrett Browning

They’re all over the place if you look: marvelous little pennies, hidden in nooks and crannies along every path you’ll walk this week.

In her masterpiece, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard describes how as a little girl she loved to hide pennies for others to find.  She’d stick them in cracks in the sidewalk or in the crook of a tree. Then, she’d imagine with delight the joy that those hidden treasures would bring to those who’d someday discover them.

Dillard herself was a student of nature and lover of God’s world. She cultivated noticing as an art. The more she looked, the more she saw. And the more she saw, the more she marveled at the open-handedness of the God who made it all. It was as if the Creator had stuffed glorious pennies into every crevice of the world, then waited like an eager child for others to rejoice in discovering them. As Dillard expressed, “The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.”

This may seem to be the wishful thinking of a child. But Dillard’s observation merely echoes the words of the cherubim: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.  The whole earth is full of His glory.” Indeed, it is.

I think of my father, who worked as a ranger in Yosemite National Park for nearly a half century. Riding his horse into the deep backcountry, he’d often come upon an alpine meadow aglow with wildflowers – lupine, columbine, owl’s clover, shooting stars, Indian paintbrush and myriad others. He’d marvel at the prodigal generosity of a God who would spread a meadow so lavishly, knowing that very likely only one set of human eyes would see that glorious display all summer.

Of course, it seems that those pennies are hard to miss, whereas such beauty is more difficult to spot in the ordinary places most of us spend our lives. That may be so. But even in the most urban, concrete-infested places I’ve lived, there’ve been plenty of pennies for the finding if I just had eyes to see. The sharp red of tomatoes growing on a front porch garden. The filigreed leaves of a stubborn old maple. The iridescence of a pigeon feather. Clouds drifting high on a cooling wind in summer or the moon peeking between buildings on a winter night.

Decades after reading Dillard’s book, I came to reside in Virginia, the state where she wrote, The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I was taken aback to find that the waterway that gave the book its name was little more than a muddy brook. Given the jaw-dropping wonders Dillard described, it seemed she’d oversold things a bit. But soon it dawned on me. She had seen those wonders. She’d found the pennies. They were there for the taking. One just needed eyes to see.

After all, the whole earth – not just the extra special places – is full of His glory.

What we need, however, is eyes that notice and hearts that receive through thanksgiving. Without that gratitude, all God’s other gifts remain inaccessible to us. We’ll walk right past them unaware, as oft’ we do.

A grateful heart is the one gift that unlocks all the others.

It’s no exaggeration to say that a grateful heart is the one gift that unlocks all the others. So it makes all the sense in the world to ask God earnestly to grow that kind of heart in us. Like the Anglican priest and poet George Herbert (1593-1633) prayed in his beautiful poem, “Gratefulnesse,” we can ask, “Thou that hast giv’n so much to me, give one thing more, a grateful heart.”

As Herbert knew, even if God were to give us everything else in the world, yet withheld that one keystone gift, all the other gifts would be lost to him. So he wrote:

       Wherefore I crie, and crie again;
       And in no quiet canst thou be,
       Till I a thankfull heart obtain
                                           Of thee:

       Not thankfull, when it pleaseth me;
       As if thy blessings had spare dayes:
       But such a heart, whose pulse may be
                                           Thy praise.

Certainly, our world is full of ache and sorrow, too. As the book of Ecclesiastes reminds, there is a time for everything, including anguished lament. But alongside all the wreckage of the Fall, the glory of Creation still glows. The fingerprints of its Maker remain yet fresh and warm upon it.  Though sometimes hidden like pennies crammed deep into a sidewalk’s crack or gnarled tree trunk, they are there for the taking. As another Anglican poet-priest, Thomas Traherne, observed, “We need nothing but open eyes to be ravished like the cherubim.”

Our God, giver of all good gifts, please give us yet this one gift more – hearts rich in gratitude. Please help our eyes to see and our deepest parts to feel the goodness all around us, strewn like pennies by Your generous hand. May we offer this goodness back to You in earnest thanks and praise.  May we extend it to our neighbor with a generosity that reflects your own. And may we feel your good pleasure in all this as we do. Amen.