Two old friends met each other on the street one day. One looked forlorn, almost on the verge of tears. His friend asked, “What has the world done to you, my old friend?” The sad fellow said, “Let me tell you: three weeks ago, my uncle died and left me forty thousand dollars.” “That’s a lot of money.” “But you see, two weeks ago, a cousin I never even knew died, and left me eighty-five thousand dollars, free and clear.” “Sounds to me that you’ve been very blessed.” “You don’t understand!” he interrupted. “Last week my great-aunt passed away. I inherited almost a quarter of a million from her.”
Now the man’s friend was really confused. “Then, why do you look so glum?” “This week . . . nothing!”
We know we are to be thankful. We’re to be thankful to God, as scripture says, “I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.” We’re supposed to be thankful more than this however. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 tells us to “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
If we’re to become more grateful people, we’re told these days by the innumerable blogs and books written on the importance of gratitude, we’re supposed to adopt practices like sending thank-you notes, count our blessings, write in a gratitude journal, place in visible places post-it notes with things we’re grateful for. These are fine, and they probably help, especially when we’re feeling a bit blue and concerned to the point of forgetting how often the sun does actually shine on us and how fair the wind blows upon our faces.
But everything today is a project. Gratitude, happiness, grace, faith—all achievable in a few simple steps, documented with journal entries, status updates, and photographs. There’s nothing we can’t think and attitude our way to, including God.
I’m all for gratitude reminders bringing us a temporary relief and a quick mood change but let’s be honest, by now we all know that just like any of the other spiritual biggies, such as love, hope, faith, compassion, self-discipline, when we’re talking honestly about gratitude happy post-it notes placed around our home or office will affect us over time for about as long as they stay stuck to a refrigerator door.
Our Christian spiritual life should have more strength and endurance than the super thin coating of glue used by 3M corporation on its tiny colored pads of paper—which by the way are so much fun to use.
I mean look at us complain about our kids for being ungrateful for what they have and how easy life is. Don’t we remember when our own parents gave
us the same speech that we could use a little more gratitude. Yeah, and probably their parents before them gave them the same speech.
So, let’s get real here. Is your child ungrateful? Disappointed? Not thankful enough for your satisfaction? Welcome to the human experience and welcome to being a parent.
The oldest ones in any room shouldn’t demand the impossible from the youngest ones in the room. Kids (and adults) are not always going to remember to be grateful that they will have had more to eat at one meal than a family in Haiti will have in a whole day, or that the amount of clothes bulging out of drawers and closets would clothe a small town’s children in sub-Saharan Africa.
It’s impossible to live constantly aware of how good we have it. It’s unrealistic to think we can continually set an attitude of gratitude as the shining star over all our thoughts.
The truth is, gratitude is less a star than a river, less unattainable ideal than necessary oxygen. Those who are good at living gratefully don’t even know they’re doing it sometimes. It just comes across.
When Mrs. Klein told her first graders to draw a picture of something for which they were thankful, she thought how little these children, who lived in a deteriorating neighborhood, actually had to be thankful for. She knew that most of the class would draw pictures of turkeys or of bountifully laden Thanksgiving tables. That was what they believed was expected of them.
What took Mrs. Klein aback was Douglas’s picture. Douglas was so forlorn and likely to be found close in her shadow as they went outside for recess. Douglas’s drawing was simply a hand.
A hand, yes, but whose hand? The class was captivated by his image. “I think it must be the hand of God that brings us food,” said one student. “It looks more like a policeman, and they protect us.” “I think,” said Lavinia, who was always so serious, “that it is supposed to be all the hands that help us, but Douglas could only draw one of them.”
Mrs. Klein had almost forgotten Douglas in her pleasure at finding the class so responsive. When she had the others at work on another project, she bent over his desk and asked whose hand it was. Douglas mumbled, “It’s yours, Teacher.”
Then Mrs. Klein recalled that she had taken Douglas by the hand from time to time; she often did that with the children. But it meant so much to Douglas. Perhaps, she reflected, this was her Thanksgiving, and everybody’s Thanksgiving—not the material things given unto us, but the small ways that we give something to others.
Gratitude is a practice. It’s a life. It’s measured by how much you give vs. how much you take, by how much you demand vs how much you accept. It’s revealed when we are misunderstood and yet seek to understand; when we are failed by someone else but refuse to fail her or him.
We are full of gratitude when we’re not full of ourselves.
Let go of being argumentative. Stop demanding so much from others. You know just as plants may not get enough water, so their roots grow deeper or wider to find what they need, we need to accept we’re not always going to get our way. But if our spirit digs deeper, we will grow more resilient rather than resentful.
Resilient people are grateful people. They don’t give in because they know there is more good than bad, more for which to be thankful than to be resentful.
Thing is, most people aren’t hardwired to be grateful. What we are hard-wired for however is hoarding. We believe in scarcity much more easily than abundance. So, we gather rather than scatter. We reap then keep. And we wonder why our gratitude is lacking, why being thankful feels like such a chore.
How much good given to you is enough before you’re willing to give some away? How much does it take for us to live thankfully? Gratitude is more than whether we have enough for ourselves and then remember we have enough.
You know dark colors absorb heat. I don’t know how people drive black cars with black leather interiors in South Florida. The darker the color the hotter the car gets. It must be so smoking hot when they open the door and have to get in. The sun’s rays and heat have all been sucked into the car, absorbed and never given back to the atmosphere. You get in and you just cook in your own juices. Heck, while you’re at it why don’t you make a pile of sauna rocks in the passenger seat, throw a little water on them, and fire up your own mobile steam room. I’m sure it would do wonders for your complexion.
That’s not for me. I drive a white car for a reason. I want the heat to bounce back into the world, not cook me in my four-wheel oven.
If you’re driving through life, absorbing all the good things coming at you but doing a poor job reflecting them back, you need to stop, step out, toss the keys, and put yourself into something more grateful.
The story of the woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and her hair is one of the most moving accounts in the New Testament. Jesus is her last hope in this world. There is no doubt she is a prostitute, and there is no doubt she has paid a huge, soul-crushing price to feed herself and maybe a
child or children. She feels condemned but wants to be liberated; she feels ashamed but wants to be made whole.
Simon dwells in the opposing world. Safe and secure in his importance and worth, he has more than enough of pride. He is clearly grateful he isn’t someone like the woman. And yet his gratitude never reveals itself. His gratefulness never shows up or gives itself expression in acts or gestures. For all his supposed gratitude, he comes across as miserly, misshapen, and mistaken.
The woman no doubt waited near the door for Jesus to arrive, since we’re told that since he arrived she hadn’t stopped kissing his feet. She probably expected Jesus’ feet to have been washed by one of Simon’s servants. After his feet were washed, she planned to anoint his feet with the perfume she had brought.
But Jesus’ feet weren’t washed. Even so, she didn’t let dirty feet keep her from what she intended to do. As she kissed his feet, she started to cry, tears pouring down, washing his feet. Since there was no towel for her to use, she used her hair to dry Jesus’ feet. Then she poured her expensive perfume on them.
It’s a stunning scene, more so because Simon permits it to play out completely. Nobody stops her, and nobody removes her. Jesus is allowed to take the lead.
When she’s finished, Simon disparages Jesus for not knowing who she is, which of course is ridiculous since any adult would know. With all the cards on the table before all present, Jesus turns to Simon to tell him a story and ask him which of two debtors would love the creditor more. Of course, the one whose debt was larger.
What Jesus did was to turn the tables on Simon. When first the currency in play was whether one was sinless or not, now the currency is whether one loves or not. Acts of gratitude and love take precedence over sinless superiority and judgmentalism.
The coup de grace, the one that stung, was when Jesus reminds Simon that for all his perfection, he couldn’t see to it that Jesus was given the customary respect of his feet being cleaned. Simon thought he was thankful, but he wasn’t, not really.
You know, he may have had read several passages in scripture that day about giving thanks to God. It didn’t matter. He didn’t know how to act gratefully. He didn’t know how to live thankfully. He didn’t know when to show forgiveness. He didn’t know whom to love. He didn’t know the God of
compassion was under his roof, waiting to see whether he was in or he was out. Simon wasn’t in.
Not a single mention of thanksgiving is made here but do we have any doubt as to the depth of life-changing gratitude the woman now felt? She gave an expensive gift—she acted in gratitude—without thanks being the feeling or the reason for doing.
This person didn’t walk in thankful, but she walked out thankful. She didn’t walk in forgiven, but she walked out forgiven. She didn’t enter knowing love, but she walked out knowing she was loved. She didn’t walk in feeling compassion, but she walked out experiencing compassion. All because she gave herself.
She was the gift to the one who is God’s gift to all.
The truth is we don’t often become grateful until we act gratefully. We don’t get the fruits of gratitude until we plant the tree of gratitude. Miserly is as miserly does. Generous is as generous does. Thankful is as thankful does.
Let’s be thankful people because we do gratefully and act thankfully, just like the generous love of the woman in our story, and of course because of Jesus Christ.
Can the church say Amen?