I came across a story about gratitude in Christian Century magazine last year. It was written by Diana Butler Bass, about an experience she had in her first job after grad school. She had been working at a small Christian college in Santa Barbara, California, but it was not going well. As she put it, “the community expected a certain kind of conformity in regard to doctrine and personal piety that discomforted me.” (Practicing Gratitude, Christian Century, March 28, 2018) I thought that was a pretty graceful way of putting it. Have you ever been in a job that discomforted you?
Still, she stuck it out for four years, despite conflicts with her peers and a hostile tenure committee, and all this right in the middle of her getting a divorce. Clearly, it was a pretty rough time. Finally, everything came to a head. She wrote…
After a lengthy process of evaluation, the president called me to his office. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I’m going to have to let you go.” “Why?” I asked. “Your work is wonderful. You are an excellent teacher,” he assured me. “But you just don’t fit here.” He looked at me somewhat sadly and then continued with a kind of patriarchal assurance: “You just don’t fit. This wouldn’t be a good place for you. One day you will thank me for this.”
Thank him? I wanted to throttle him. In less than two months, I would be without a job and a paycheck, with few prospects for work in a weak academic job market. Being grateful to the person who put me in this position was the last thing in my mind.
About a week later, she was having a conversation with a friend of hers … venting really. “Can you imagine the nerve of him? That one day I’ll thankhim? What kind of nonsense is that?” But unexpectedly, her friend did not rush to her defense. In fact, he said “You know, he’s right.” And then they had this very interesting conversation…
—“Years ago,” he continued, “I lost a job. It was painful, and I was angry. It didn’t seem a favor. But, eventually, it was the event that made me understand that I was an alcoholic. And that led me to get sober. Eventually, I understood that it was what I needed for my life to change. Not that it was easy.”
—[She] looked at him. “I’m not an alcoholic. That’s not the problem here.”
—“I get that,” he said. “But we all need to look at ourselves more honestly. To figure out who we are and where we are really heading. To correct course. Sometimes that only happens in circumstances like this. One day, I bet you will thank him.”
—“Did you? Thank the guy that fired you?”
—“Yes,” he replied. “I did. But not at first. Mostly I wanted to throw him off a cliff. But yes. I did thank him. Years later. After I learned gratitude.”
Learning gratitude, it turns out, proved to be a really hard struggle for Bass. When her friend suggested it, she could hardly think of a single thing she was grateful for. At first, all she could focus on was how awful and frightening everything seemed to be. But her friend advised her simply to think of one thing she was grateful for, each day, and write it down in a journal. And she did, and gradually, it changed her life…
I wrote [she said] about the painful events related to losing my first job and the end of my first marriage. But I also wrote about good things: beautiful California days, meals with friends, music at a favorite jazz club, sitting at the beach, writing poetry, receiving professional praise and recognition. As the months unfolded, the tone changed from mostly desperation to mostly delight.
Out of this practice, a larger story came to light in her life. “What had begun as a difficult personal crisis wound up being a time of profound happiness, deepened courage, and new self-awareness.”
Can you relate? I bet you can. Most of us have been through a personal crisis or two somewhere along the way. Most of us have had our lives thrown up for grabs by some kind of devastating personal loss. And, in the midst of the chaos, it is not at all uncommon for some more or less well-intentioned person to say, “You know, someday you’ll be grateful for this.” It may well be true, but at the time, it’s about the last thing we want to hear.
Gratitude just naturally seems like it should be attached to good things that happen, not bad things. Partly, I think that comes from our early training, at least it did for me. Most of us are taught from a very young age that we should say thank you when someone does something nice for us. My grandmother, on my mother’s side, was particularly keen on Emily Post and the social graces. I remember getting a gift from her one Christmas. It turned out to be a thank you note kit; a gift of note cards, envelopes and stamps, and a little children’s book called “Dear Dragon,” that was all about how to send thank you notes in various situations. I can honestly say I wasn’t very thankful for that gift at the time.
But gratitude is so much more than just a social grace. Some would call it a mindset, an attitude, a lifestyle, a determination to look for the good in things, even when it might seem that there isn’t really a whole lot of good to be found. All that is true, but more than any of these, gratitude is a faith and a practice. Gratitude is first, the faith that the promises of our scriptures are true; that God does love us, that all things do work together for good, that a place has been prepared for us, “a house not made with hands, but eternal in the heavens,” as Paul said. (2ndCorinthians 5:1) And second, gratitude is the practice of living by these truths. It is the intentional forming of the habit of seeing the world through the eyes of Christ, and living confidently because of that seeing.
The more dire, fearful and dark the world seems to be, the more important it is that we return to and cling to the foundations of our faith. I believe that’s essentially what Paul had in mind when he said, “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” “with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” We are not alone. The world is not going to hell in a handbasket, much as we like to think it is. The future is, as it has always been, in God’s good hands. That does not mean we will never have to suffer personal or social crises. It does not mean we will not have to struggle to be grateful. But like all of the skills we have to work to become good at, when we make a point of practicing gratitude, it does gradually become easier, more natural, more of a habit of mind and heart. And as it does, it becomes a shield against all the darkness and hostility the world often throws at us.
Writing in a journal is a good place to start, if you are so inclined, or developing a regular practice of prayer and devotional reading, meditation, yoga, walks in the woods or what have you. There are good spiritual practices for all types and inclinations of people. I even have a little app on my Apple Watch that buzzes my wrist several times a day and reminds me to breathe. Whatever it is that works for you, it is all about finding a center in the midst of the chaos, where we can remember, and be grateful for all that is, has been and will be. Bass’s article includes a lovely quote by Maya Angelou that goes like this:
“If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present … gratefully.”
Gratitude is a practice, a spiritual discipline, that gathers our past, present and future under the umbrella of God’s grace. For those of us who know that grace through Jesus, gratitude is all about learning to allow the peace of Christ to dwell in us richly.
You will have noticed by now, that I had Lauren include the words of a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox in this morning’s bulletin. I did that so you could have a copy to take with you and maybe post on your refrigerator, and so those who struggle with poetry readings can at least read along. Let me close with her words…
We walk on starry fields of white
And do not see the daisies;
For blessings common in our sight
We rarely offer praises.
We sigh for some supreme delight
To crown our lives with splendor,
And quite ignore our daily store
Of pleasures sweet and tender.
Our cares are bold and push their way
Upon our thought and feeling.
They hand about us all the day,
Our time from pleasure stealing.
So unobtrusive many a joy
We pass by and forget it,
But worry strives to own our lives,
And conquers if we let it.
There’s not a day in all the year
But holds some hidden pleasure,
And looking back, joys oft appear
To brim the past’s wide measure.
But blessings are like friends, I hold,
Who love and labor near us.
We ought to raise our notes of praise
While living hearts can hear us.
Full many a blessing wears the guise
Of worry or of trouble;
Far-seeing is the soul, and wise,
Who knows the mask is double.
But he who has the faith and strength
To thank his God for sorrow
Has found a joy without alloy
To gladden every morrow.
We ought to make the moments notes
Of happy, glad Thanksgiving;
The hours and days a silent phrase
Of music we are living.
And so the theme should swell and grow
As weeks and months pass o’er us,
And rise sublime at this good time,
A grand Thanksgiving chorus.
May you have a blessed, and grateful, Thanksgiving.