Last Wednesday, I joined parishioners for our Wednesday Lenten Program. It began with the liturgy for Evening Prayer, Rite I. (Not a place I visit often. I go more often to Rite II. ) That liturgy includes one of my favorite prayers, the General Thanksgiving (included below).
From my perspective, that prayer sums up the faith. It says that everything we do should be motivated by gratitude for grace, that we worship not only with our lips but with our lives. I’ve often thought that the prayer should be said along side the creed, maybe occasionally in place of it. The prayer includes many a great phrase, for instance, the call to be unfeignedly thankful. Love that. And then there is this reference (in Rite II language) to God’s immeasurable love.
Here’s what caught my eye last Wednesday. In Rite I, the word immeasurable is rendered inestimable. I began to think about what inestimable love means. I wondered what estimable love would look like. So I let Webster help. Here’s the definition of estimable:
1. capable of being estimated, as in “an estimable amount”
2. valuable (archaic)
3. worthy of esteem, as in “an estimable adversary”
I’m focusing on the first definition, i.e., something that can be estimated. Which means something that can be measured. Which means something limited. Working with that definition, I suspect we all know about estimable love.
We know estimable love because we all give and receive conditional, transactional love. That kind of love can be seen at work and in school, where our worth is defined by productivity or grades. It shows up in relationships. How many times have people said that they hadn’t earned approval of parents (or sometimes children). Advertisers know about estimable love and play on our fears that we won’t measure up. Do we look the part? Conditional love shows up in the Bible. The children of Israel, wander in the wilderness and worship God as long as things are going swell. As soon as they hit a challenge, they’re ready to bail asking “What have you done for me lately?’ Conditional love shows up in church life. Clergy know it, judged by best recent sermon, weekly attendance, number of pledging units, seamlessness of the liturgy. What are the trends? Is flat the new up? One slightly tired bishop counseled me early in my ministry: You dance. They clap.
The scriptures tell us that the love of God is different. In the letter to the Ephesians, the author offers this prayer: I pray that you may have power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3)
Even in situations when the love of God is hard to see (For instance, last week, a bus filled with Baptist senior citizens crashing on a Texas highway), by faith we affirm its inestimable, immeasurable character. We need to affirm it. It’s sometimes the only way to move forward. In his letter to the Romans, in a passage often read at funerals, Paul puts it this way: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword…No, in all those things we are more than conquerors through him who love us, for I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8).
As we move into Holy Week, we have opportunity to focus on our central narrative, which is a story of inestimable love. We’ll sing a song of love unknown. We’ll ask: What wondrous love is this? We’ll survey the wondrous cross, where sorrow and love flow mingled down. We’ll remember, we’ll celebrate inestimable, immeasurable love, love which makes a difference in the ways we live our lives, maybe even making a difference this Monday morning.
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. 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 Spirit, be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.
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