Gratitude is a muscle

Thanksgiving is coming up. It’s arguably the best American holiday. Gratitude makes life better. Everyone agrees. Not everyone agrees that every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17) but they’re not far off when they give thanks. So at our morning Sunday meetings at 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken, NJ we’re celebrating with a season called “More Than a Day of Gratitude.”

Gratitude is a muscle, it takes practice, and practice makes perfect, right? I’ve been practicing naming all the good in my life as a gift from God for quite some time. It started before my first cell in New Jersey, but that’s where it really took off in community and got bigger than just me. We called it the “God Check.” We asked each other week after week, “What did God do in your life this week? We don’t have to have anything, but we do have to check. Or maybe something happened and you think God might have been doing something but you’re not sure, so let’s check it out.”

It didn’t have to be anything fantastic. We weren’t looking for bona fide miracles. We were looking for moments when we were aware of God’s goodness, or maybe just brave enough to try naming God in our ordinary lives. Gratitude is good for us humans no matter how we do it, but I believe directional gratitude is even better. Giving thanks to God is a place to start a real relationship. Gerard Manley Hopkins (my favorite poet and the featured artist of our Water Daily Prayer this week) calls God “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.”

How this works in a real life

A while back, I was meeting regularly with a woman who was having trouble seeing God as a giver of anything. She wanted something very badly, but she hadn’t received it. The complicated emotions that came with this threw everything she had believed into question. Did God care? Who was she to demand anything from God? Why did she want it so much? Why couldn’t she be content with what she had? If God is the giver of good things, why not her, and why not this specific good thing? Why not for her? I was with her in that plea, confusion and subsequent anger. We worked together on the second part of the “God Check”: something was happening but what the heck was God doing? Where was God in this? Was God anywhere?

Part of reestablishing a relationship with God was naming God as “You.” She had never really experienced much intimacy with God, so this resentment was seriously threatening the faith she thought she had. Maybe all the good she had received really was just from “the universe” or just random cause and effect. Many of us can relate. This perspective is a common option in our culture. We can choose to see the world this way, but we don’t have to. It seems that humanity has always had a collective sense that there must be a source. Religion’s pervasiveness throughout time and culture is evidence enough that, at worst, we have a common delusion that we just can’t seem to shake; or, at best (and my preference), we have a common desire that directs us beyond chance and the observable universe.

It’s okay if it’s a choice

I submit that this is, indeed, my preference. I don’t have much beyond my subjective experience to back it up, except for the similarities of so many other subjects. Our desire for good and our hope for a God who gives it is significant evidence (Read The Abolition of Man for a ridiculously thorough and compelling argument for this in a scant 113 pages). My suggestion to my friend was simple: just change your language. Choose “You” over “Universe.” Point your gratitude and wonder purposefully… persistently… preponderously.

My practice of you-ing has greatly enriched my life and the life of my cells. Now, a few generations of cells later, and there are five cells who make the “God check” a regular part of their meetings. More folks are getting into the practice. Their gratitude muscles are growing, and their thank you’s are bending in a personal direction, often for the first time. My friend told God about her bitterness, and God has gotten more you-y as a result. All transformative growth takes time. We need more than just a day of gratitude. We need a life of gratitude.

The ancient Israelites had one big event that they made a whole week about to make sure that they remembered (Passover). God liberated them from captivity and made them a people. Time and time again in their book of poems, songs and prayers; the Psalms; they remember what God did to make them a people. We too can start with the basics that we are anything at all, that hawks are anything at all, that clouds are anything at all, that our families are anything at all, that our church is anything at all, that resurrection is anything at all. Lay the gratitude on thick. Do it again. And do it in God’s direction. It will get you somewhere, and as you are arriving, you’ll realize it’s not very different from where you’ve always been, but you are very different.