Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The painful work of gratitude

From Toledo, IA
"Lead me not into..."
It's Thanksgiving week here in the U.S., and last month I agreed to speak on the topic to our local Kiwanis club meeting/lunch, which was today. For a simple, fairly informal 15-20 min. talk, I agonized over it since first receiving the invitation.

It is difficult for me to think and speak about - much less practice - being thankful in the context of our national Thanksgiving holiday. It is difficult for a range of reasons, many of which have to do with the triumph of consumerism in American life in general, but especially for the months of November and December. This relates not only to shopping but also our food system and practices. All this consumption, all this excess, all this waste, all in the name of it being "good for the economy" - and none of which makes anyone happier, healthier, or better people. To the contrary...

So my critical brain goes into overdrive during this season, quickly and easily sprinting down the paths of critique and lament. Capital-T Thanksgiving, for me, then, always has scare quotes around it.

But as a minister of the Christian faith, and the gospel/good news that Jesus announced, enacted, and invited us into - I know that (small-t) thanksgiving is a concrete expression of gratitude and should be the first thing to escape our lips when we pray to God. I also know that joy is a fruit/gift of the Holy Spirit, and one that Christians can and should embrace and embody. So yes, Lord, I am grateful; help my ungratefulness!

Being delivered from my form of cynicism isn't easy, because gratitude takes practice. It doesn't just happen. It is an attitude/disposition that is cultivated by good habits, and is mis-shaped by bad ones. (Being overly critical is my chief bad habit; also see this recent piece of wonderful satire: The 14 Habits of Highly Miserable People, esp. #s 7, 11, & 14.) One key practice which helps cultivate gratitude is the giving and receiving of hospitality, being a welcoming and loving person (or community) to each other but also strangers.

Seen theologically, gratitude flows from our confession that all that is and all we are is a gift we receive from the very breath/Spirit of God. Such gracious love can only be faithfully responded to by first giving thanks in worship and through other Christian practices such as prayer, and by then extending that gift to others by loving yourself, your neighbors and neighborhoods, and even your enemies in the manner which God first loved us.

Gratitude in this fashion is more relational than it is material (though material gifts are not inconsequential). In light of this primacy of relationship in gratitude, here's a partial list of relationships I'm grateful for, because I wouldn't be who I am with out them:
  • My mother - For showing me what humility and service to those in need looks like
  • My father - For showing me what hard work and servant leadership looks like
  • My home congregation - For a beautiful picture of what a humble, simple, and practical approach to the Christian faith looks like
  • My pastors - Whom I’ve always regarded as friends and mentors, and who (with my home congregation) called out the pastor in me
  • My teachers - From pre-school to seminary & grad school, for showing me what patience and wisdom looks like, and for instilling in me a love of life-long learning, and for calling out the teacher in me
  • My wife - For showing me what long-suffering, patient love looks like, and for calling out the husband in me
  • My daughter - For being the beautiful gift that she is to me, and for calling out the father in me
  • For the grace of God - That has been active in all of these loving and nurturing relationships, through thick and thin
For Christians, it's my hope that Thanksgiving can become less about the things that make me grumpy or even about the more benign "count your blessings" activity that privileged people can engage in during the holiday. More importantly, perhaps it can become an occasion to remember that gratitude is 1) primarily relational and meant to be shared as gift, and 2) one of the foundational Christian virtues, closely related to humility. When those two virtues work themselves deeply into our personal and social character, then look out: There's nowhere to go with them than toward a more daring and faithful love.

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