The Faith of Gratitude
By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
A column in a California newspaper talks about “Hallowthankmas,” the three month marathon of card sending, party throwing, putting up and taking down decorations, overeating and overbuying.” Says the writer, “Hallowthankmas starts before Halloween, continues through Thanksgiving and Christmas and ends after New Years. (Someone insisted, ‘after the Superbowl). Nobody will admit to liking it, but we seem powerless to dump it.”
So what if we could achieve an inner equanimity that would enable us to sail through such seasons with their hectic pace with a glad heart and serene spirit? Good days and bad, hectic and gray, a deep joy and central peace. And not only in this impossible season, but all the seasons of our lives. What would we put out for that prize?
Well, that’s precisely what the Apostle Paul offers his friends in Philippi long ago. “All joy be yours.” “The peace of God be yours.” Note that he is interested in the mood of his friends. Mood does make a big difference, in how well we function at our labors, in how well we get along with one another, in our attitude toward the world and its future.
And the secret of his offer seems to lie in two words at the heart of his remarks, the words “with thanksgiving.” For this old story and faith, thanksgiving is the one inner dynamic, the one spirit and emotion, that springs us loose for joy and peace and hope.
Not the gratitude of a seasonal turkey dinner. Not the gratitude of “thank you” notes after last night’s party. Rather gratitude as a fundamental stance, all pervading attitude toward life. The famous sage of another era, G.K. Chesterton, said it. “The test of all happiness is gratitude.” So this is what does it, according to an old faith. Grant us inner peace and joy, because gratitude is the one emotion where we are truly focused outside ourselves, truly caught up in the gift and the giver.
Paul writes, “do not be anxious, but make your needs known… with thanksgiving.” So does gratitude save us, grant us inner peace and stability, joy and sense of purpose because it is one human emotion in which we are clearly called out of ourselves, caught up with God and life. Gratitude does it.
But how to get it. If I were to stand here and tell you that you are all a bunch of despicable ingrates; you should all be more grateful for all the advantages you enjoy, would it arouse feelings of gratitude in you? I doubt it. Much more likely it would arouse feelings either of guilt or anger, depending upon whether you thought I had a right to beat on you.
You can make your child say “thank you,” and you ought to do so. Even that is not so easy in this day. One woman went to the drugstore to pick up a prescription. She had her five-year-old along, and when the pharmacist gave the woman her medicine, he handed the boy a piece of candy. “What do you say to the man,” prompted the mother. Without hesitation, the little guy said brightly, “Charge it!” You can insist that your child say it, but you can’t coerce the attitude.
Nor can we force gratitude within us. We cannot directly conjure it up by beating up on ourselves. So how does gratitude come? First of all, I think gratitude is a matter of perspective, what we focus on, pay attention to in life. The grateful tend to be those who make a practice of paying attention to the positive.
There is even a growing school of thought in the world of psychology called “positive psychology,” which argues that it is the recalling and sustaining of memories of the strengths and gifts of our past rather than just the traumas and disasters that diminishes depression and elevates mood. And they claim to have the data that proves it. So the Apostle appeals to his friends, “All that is loveable and gracious, excellent and admirable, fill all your thoughts with these things.”
Joseph Fort Newton, the great churchman of another century calls attention to Rupert Brooke and his inclination to inventory the things for which he was grateful. “Each item meant a memory, started a happy thought, brought back a picture, revived a joy.” Look at his list. “White plates and cups; wet roofs beneath the lamplight; the strong crust of friendly bread; rainbows; radiant raindrops in flower cups; the cool kindliness of sheets; the benison of hot water; sleep; footprints in the dew; oak trees; shining horse chestnuts; the blue smoke of wood.”
Then Newton comments in contrast. “For the person lost in ingratitude, every sunset is bleached of color; every meal is rendered bland and tasteless; every dream is cankered; every relationship is soured. Ingratitude stops prayer, represses joy, misdirects energy, robes the middle years of their productivity, and crowns old age with a thorny wreath of bitterness.”
Further, the Apostle points to the importance of focusing on someone we admire beyond ourselves. He is not afraid to speak of what they have seen and heard in him. I have been rereading Bonhoeffer lately, particularly his “Letters and Papers from Prison,” and I caught myself the other day filled with a kind of inspiration and encouragement the morning paper rarely elicits.
But if this is so obvious, why is it that we so often miss it? Do not see and appreciate the good things and the good souls who people our lives? Is it not often because we get caught up in another kind of focus and perspective, another kind of mood pressed upon us by the culture around, whether in first century Rome or twentieth century America. Is not the gratitude killer invariably various forms of envy.
We are diverted by the apparent advantages of others, the houses and happiness, the comforts and children we see over there. Envy, as much as anything, can be the killer of gratitude, a central source of unhappiness for many in this affluent age. Envy of the success of the other. The apparent happiness of their marriage. The incredible children they seem to have managed.
Judith Viorst catches the problem well. “Some people’s children have always known a starboard from a port, and that inchoate without the in is not the way a person pronounces Choate and some people’s children are never anything less than third or the fourth, and enter life equipped with a mummy, a nanny, good bones, a private income, and all the right friends and labels in their coats. and … some people’s children always marry girls named Whitney Cartwright or Cartwright Whitney and never marry girls named Charmaine Glitz but even if our children went to Harvard and joined racquet clubs and summered in Newport and wintered at St. Moritz and no longer took off their shoes and their socks in the living room in order to scratch the bottom of their feet and turned into ambassadors and bankers and Republicans and gave up trying to talk and eat at the same time and even if they learned which things that, no matter how much they like them, they shouldn’t admit it and even if they learned which things that no matter how much they didn’t like them, they should and even if they acquired the finest in elocution and riding boots and tailors you still would never mistake them for some people’s children.”
Think on these things. We cease being grateful when we envy, which is also attention focused in the wrong direction. In “The Prison Chronicle” Alexander Solzhenitsyn says, “Don’t be afraid of misfortune and do not yearn after happiness. It is, after all, all the same. The bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if hunger and thirst don’t claw at your sides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms work, if both eyes can see, and if both ears can hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes…”
The grace of gratitude comes when we develop the discipline of healthy perspective. And when we learn the patience of waiting for the secret gift in the bad. I think that is implied in what Paul appeals for. He doesn’t say, “Make your needs known and God will meet them.” He says “Let others see your patience. In everything that happens, in prayer with thanksgiving let your needs be known, and then the peace of God will keep your hearts and minds.” We find peace and joy in learning to thank God even in our troubles for the gifts that inevitably surface right there.
So often our envy and complaint are based on our assumption that life would be better without the obstacles, hurdles, troubles, deprivations that fall our way. Can we be so sure? Sometimes in the midst of life, mired in difficult challenges, struggling through painful experiences, we come too quickly to the conclusion that these are unmitigated injustices without a redeeming side. But often in retrospect we learn to thank God for them.
Corrie ten Boom who, with her family lived through the Nazi holocaust, hid Jewish people in her home to keep them from being taken to the camps. Long afterward she loved to tell the story of how she and her sister Betsy ended up in a Nazi prison camp that was such a flea-ridden, terrible place that she couldn’t stand it. Betsy one day said, “But I have found something in the Bible that will help us. It says, ‘In all things, give thanks.'” Corrie said, “I can’t give thanks for the fleas.” Betsy said, “Give thanks that we’re together. Most families have been split up.” Corrie thought, “I can do that.” Her sister continued, “Give thanks that somehow the guards didn’t check our belongings and our Bible is with us.” She gave thanks for that. But Corrie said that she would not even think of giving thanks for the fleas. Later they found out that the only reason they were not molested and harmed by the guards was because their captors were so repulsed by the fleas that they would not enter their cell. Corrie allowed as how this taught her to give thanks for all things, because you never know…
So perhaps the reason thanksgiving brings inner peace and joy is because at its best it involves grateful embrace of all of our life, its good and hard, its bright and dark, as somehow, never-the-less, the good gift of God. It means learning to rejoice in who you are, as you are, right where you are.
Gratefully embracing our place and lot in life. Is this anything other than the spirit of Jesus, who struggled late one night over the agony he faced the next day. I was there in that garden recently and it struck me again that he prays a hundred yards from the desert and escape but he worked through the desire to escape to the point where he could say with whole heart, “Father, not my will, but yours!” Perhaps that is why Paul refers to the peace of thanksgiving as the peace in Christ Jesus. It is the peace shared with one who is able to see in a cross, the gift of God to us all. The ultimate gratitude comes not with pretty packages and easy ways, but with the acceptance of all that comes, of all life, as gift, glorious precious gift.
Perspective with respect to the good in our lives. Patience before the troubles and trials that do come, knowing that even there God has something for us. And finally, Performance. Say it. Do it. I find it helpful that Paul never says, “Feel it.” He says, “Rejoice. Again, I will say rejoice.” “Make your needs known with thanksgiving.” Here is the simple recognition that often emotion follows motion. Perform thanksgiving.
A favorite story of a man who learned this. Cornelius Ryan, author of best-selling novels on World War II, including A Bridge Too Far and The Longest Day, had cancer the last 4-1/2 years of his life – an ordeal he termed “The Longest Night.” His wife, Katharine Morgan Ryan, wrote about it in a book called A Private Battle. She includes these words from her husband, telling how he fought and won.
“Each morning, for the past two or three years, that I’ve awakened, the first words that I’ve said, are ‘thank you God for this fine day.’ It’s not mattered if the weather has been bad or good. What’s been important is that God had seen me through the night and given me another day to work and be with my family. So I continue to thank God.
He’s allowed me to do what is important. I have received more than my share of blessings. I’ve been able to cram so much into my life. The most rewarding moments, the best writing, I think, I’ve done, the love I’ve had from my wife and children, and the joy I’ve taken in their accomplishments. They have all been realized … But I will still continue to fight it. I will continue to say, ‘thank you God for this fine day.”
Say it. Sing it. A story behind one hymn in particular lifts up the power of song to keep us grateful. Words given to us by Martin Rinkart and the little town of Eilenburg, Saxony which suffered so much during the Thirty Years War. Sacked by Austrians and Swedes alike, the town was crammed with refugees. Plague struck, not once, not twice, but four times during twenty-eight years, decimating the population, including Pastor Rinkart’s family. He was the only minister who survived and had to do as many as fifty funerals a day. Yet in the midst of all this chaos misery he revealed the source of his strength and serenity. Pastor Rinkert sat down in his study and penned these words. “Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom his world rejoices, who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way, with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”
Rejoice, and again I will say rejoice. God is near, very near.
Copyright 2006 Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.