The Springs of Gratitude
By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
Every November we celebrate an annual Holiday dedicated to turkey and touchdowns. Heloise, a household help guru, writes, “Don’t assume that you’re always going to be understood. I wrote in a column that one should put a cup of liquid in the cavity of the Thanksgiving turkey when roasting it. Someone wrote me that “the turkey tasted great, but the plastic cup melted.”
And there was the observation by another columnist to the effect that Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in twelve minutes. Football halftimes take twelve minutes. This is not coincidence.
For all of the fun of family gatherings, Thanksgiving may ironically be one of our more spiritual moments as a people. For one thing, the commercial interests do not yet have it in their grip. But more importantly, it is concerned with, and may focus our attention for a few hours on a fundamental attitude toward life.
We need to remember that it is how we view reality that determines what we are and with what spirit we live. It is not the way things are out there, but they way we see them in here, in our minds, that finally determines whether we know life. A long time ago someone wrote, “…you choose your life, that is to say, you choose all the conditions of your life, when you choose the thoughts upon which you allow your mind to dwell. Thought is the real causative force in life. You cannot have one kind of mind and another kind of environment …. and this is the supreme key to life … you cannot change your mind without your environment changing too.”
So the Apostle Paul does not say, “Finally beloved, whatever is tragic, whatever is scandalous, whatever is gruesome, whatever is criminal, whatever is threatening, whatever is despicable, whatever is lascivious, whatever is ugly, whatever is degrading, fill your thoughts with all these things.”
So gratitude is more than a passing day in the calendar. Gratitude involves an entire way of looking at life. Why does this way of viewing life seem so rare? Could it be because we are not inclined to see life as gift, sheer gift, gracious gift. We tend so easily to fall into the assumption that it is just there, our due. Isn’t this the natural inclination? We wake up in the morning and it never occurs to us to be surprised. Life? I’ve grown accustomed to your face. It is, after all, my life is it not? Doesn’t belong to you. Or the government, thank God. And all the dimensions of my life, wife, children, home, car, career, pleasures, routines. Have I not worked pretty hard to deserve them? Really now, don’t I have a right to all this? To be sure, some day I will have to give it all up. But until then it feels pretty much like mine to do with as I please. I suspect that’s where most of us are on most days, taking it all for granted.
Until the day comes when it begins to shred, when the reversals come, the spouse walks out the door, the child turns ill or bad, the heart begins to falter, the business begins to decline. Then we turn angry and bitter and envious and disappointed and desperate, and cry out for justice. Master, government, therapist, Dad, save me. Do something, someone. It’s not fair. It’s not just. It is not right. But in either case, complacency or complaint, life is viewed as deserved.
But what if the attitude that saves us from complacency or complaint is the willingness to accept life as sheer gift, from the one who gives it to us with each new day. Faith that is healthy and empowering means to see life only and always as gift, not something we deserve, have a right to, have a claim on, but a gift from loving hands, a gift whatever comes. It is this attitude, this willingness to receive life as gift in gratitude that makes us whole.
We might pause to ask why it is that we resist seeing life like this, why we have difficulty with the thought that life is sheer gift, nothing but gift. It speaks of two dimensions of real life with which we all have trouble, dependency and obligation. If we wake up to the fact that life is not ours to claim, but is a gift that comes to us with each day’s light, we are confronted with our ultimate dependency and that is a disquieting reality. We are much more comfortable assuming our self-sufficiency. But real faith means precisely the recognition that our lives are not finally in our own hands. Faith means trusting ourselves, and those we love, to our God, to the one who gives life.
And, of course, the other reason we resist seeing life as gift, is because it arouses a sense of obligation. If someone does something for me gratuitously, I feel myself indebted to them and I am uncomfortable with that status. So I hasten to balance the scales. You invited us last, so now it is our turn to invite you, and thus we get this obligation out of the way as soon as possible. But what if the gift of life is and remains gratuitous, and there is nothing I can do to balance the scales. What if I remain in debt to my God all my days. If I can somehow live my days as if they were mine to do with as I please, I can avoid these feelings of indebtedness and obligation.
George McCauley has written, “Has anyone else noticed a great deal of ungraciousness and awkwardness in our culture about showing gratitude? We don’t mean how nephews find it hard to write thank-you notes to their generous aunts … Why is it that some of us feel knotted and constrained if another picks up the tab? Why is it humiliating when others go out of their way to serve us?”
William Stidger tells how he liked to use the coming holidays to get off letters to those who had had an influence on him over the years. One year he wrote a teacher who had given him a love for literature. The letter was forwarded from town to town until it reached her. One day Dr. Stidger received a reply: “My dear Willie: I am an old lady in my eighties. I am ill and I cannot leave my room. Your letter came like a ray of bright sun, illuminating my dark day and my even darker life. You will be interested to know that, after fifty years of teaching, yours was the first letter of thanks I ever received from a former student. You lifted the clouds for me.”
We have been taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive. But isn’t it true that in some ways it is infinitely more difficult to receive than to give, to take life as sheer and utterly gracious gift rather than assume it is a right, a possession to live out as we please.
But the reality is that life is gift. To be sure, we have had to play our part and do our share. But who here this morning can truly take credit for who we are and where we are and what we have? We have worked hard, but no harder than many a peasant in the rice paddies of Indonesia. And we have had the advantage of family and education that are the envy of most of the world. And most of us have escaped the illness or ill fortune in career that could have sent our lives into entirely different tracks. By all odds we are the most fortunate of God’s creatures.
And if we learn to accept the life that comes our way each day as gift, we do discover what wholeness is all about. In the first place we find ourselves caught up in the goodness of life, and learn to take joy in all that is given us. “All joy be yours,” urges the Apostle on his friends. Gratitude becomes a source of gladness. People who see life as gift take joy in every moment.
One man reveals the source of his joy in these words, “I offer thanks for just familiar things, the ruddy glory of the sunset sky, The shine of firelight as dusk draws nigh, the Cheery song my kettle sings. The woodland music of my great pine. The last sweet tokens that my garden yields, the mellow rings upon the autumn fields. The far-off misty mountain’s purple line. The sense of rest that home so surely brings, The books that wait my pleasure, true and fine, Old friendships that I joy to feel are mine, I offer thanks for just familiar things.”
Joseph Fort Newton, writer of the Masons in the 20th Century, calls our 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 goes on to say, “For the person lost in ingratitude and complaint, every sunset is bleached of color; every meal is rendered bland and tasteless; every dream is cankered; every relationship is soured. Ingratitude stops up prayer, represses joy, misdirects energy, robs the middle years of their productivity and crowns old age with a thorny wreath of bitterness.”
Accepting life as gift enables not only gladness on good days, but grit when they are hard. The most striking thing about the appeal for gratitude in this old apostle, is that he appeals for gratitude no matter what comes. “in everything… with thanksgiving.” Focusing on the gifts still present even in the tough times, the hard moments, enables us to endure and conquer. One of the most obvious things about gratitude is this: you do not find it in any relationship to the comfort and security of people. One might think that the easier life is, the greater the material wealth and abundance of friends, the greater the gratitude would be. But that is simply not the way it is out there. I am often surprised at where I bump into it. The most grateful are often the most burdened, the loneliest, the most challenged. And the least grateful are those who seem to have it made.
This past summer a woman named Debbie, and her husband, Gary, died tragically when their auto was blindsided by another driven by a young man at a country intersection in Wisconsin. Debbie’s brother, Jeff, a professor at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa gave the eulogy which he reprints in an article in a journal called Perspectives.
Here is part of it. “Debbie was one year older than me. In some places on this planet, 51 is a young life. Not here. It’s not long enough. Neither is 57. It’s too soon. That’s how I feel today; that’s how we all feel. They were too young. It was too soon. “If Debbie were here today, she’d say, ‘Oh, Jeff. You don’t have to be so serious.’ And Gary would flash his great grin and say, ‘No, Debba. That’s what Jeff is, he’s serious. You can’t change that.’ And Debbie would say, ‘I know, Gary, but the Lord has been so good to us all these years – how can we ever complain?’
“And there it is. That’s why we all feel the way we feel. Because we want to hear those sweet voices and see those wide smiles and sit again in the presence of two people who believed with their whole hearts that every breath was a gift not to be despised and always to be cherished. Who has taught us this lesson better than these two? ‘Every breath is a gift not to be despised and always to be cherished.’
“It always seems weird that we would learn such optimism and hope from these two. They knew life’s most bitter lessons. They each had known the dark days of divorce, and the swamping waters that often swallow entire families in the wake of such brokenness. Together Gary and Debbie had faced years of job insecurity, and shortly after they started their own business, they learned that a tornado can easily engulf a town of a thousand. Then, in her fiftieth year of life, Deb was forced to look cancer in the face. ‘But Jeff,’ Debbie would say to me, ‘The Lord has been so good to us all these years — how can we ever complain?'”
The gladness of the grateful heart. The grit of the grateful heart. And the generosity of the grateful heart. The grateful are generous. Perhaps, because, if you stop and think of it, gratitude is a very self-transcending emotion. Gratitude takes us beyond ourselves, our own troubles and complaints, our own desires and concerns, toward others in their need. The grateful, quite naturally and unassumingly, give of themselves to others. “Be known to everyone for your consideration of others,” writes the apostle. And I am sure he does not mean, “Go around telling people how considerate you are.”
The joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard, dies young. A minister tells of a woman in his congregation, an 83 year-old widow who had been, in her youth, one of the Christian world’s most effective leaders. My friend admitted to me one day that her health was so poor she could die at any moment. Yet she didn’t pine for the past, or complain about the present. The way she dressed and the way she sparkled put flight to any suspicion of loneliness. I’m not sure she was aware of how many expressions of gratitude slipped into her conversation with others. But I noticed them. I had noticed them in her letters, too. I had received many of them, words of encouragement and support, assuring me of her prayers. One of them she closed with these words, “Writing here from the Baptist Village, although weary of body and without much else to give any more, I can still love and pray for you daily, and I can still praise our God for each new day.”
Now I have a problem. After writing about the importance of gratitude in this way, I have the feeling that you don’t feel more grateful. More likely you don’t feel guilty because you don’t feel more grateful. As Garrison Keillor puts it, “A good Lutheran guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.” So here is an invitation. Forget about your feeling grateful. Shift your focus to the gift that really keeps on giving, the gift of life here and hereafter by your Maker.
And shift your focus to the good that is still a part of that gift, count your blessings as my mother used to say, make your list, fill your thoughts with all these things. Then gladness, strength, and peace will come. They really will.
Copyright 2004 Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.