The Practice of Gratitude
Taking the five loaves and two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks…
I’m writing a book. Have I told you that? Well, I am. It’s a book about this whole recovering abundance concept and about all the amazing the amazing people like you who are bringing renewal and revitalization to small towns and rural regions. It’s about the 12 practices demonstrated in the story of Jesus feeding the multitude that help us deepen and expand that work. One of those practices is the Practice of Gratitude. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, it seemed appropriate to share some of the work I’m doing as the deadline approaches and as we cultivate a spirit of gratitude…
Saying and Seeing Grace
One of the rituals that was consistent and nonnegotiable in my household was saying grace before the meal. We would have self-serve meals from time to time, every Sunday evening, for example. At those meals we were encouraged to “pray to ourselves,” which meant to pray by yourself or within yourself. But whenever we had a meal together, we said grace before we ate a single bite. As the “head of the household,” Dad led the prayer almost every time. His prayers were not lengthy but they were heartfelt and tender. He typically began with something like “Father, we pause and thank you…” While we may have some theological differences, it would be hard for me to improve on this tender, thankful beginning. “Father…” We both relate to God as a Divine Parent who is loving, attentive, and caring. “We pause…” We both believe in the importance of pausing for prayer, reflection, and recognizing God’s presence and activity in our lives. “We pause and thank you…” We both believe the first and foremost response to divine goodness and grace in the world should be gratitude. Neither of us could say it better than Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you ever say in your life is ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.”
I’ve heard hundreds of other pre-meal prayers, spontaneous or memorized, some deeper than others. I remember liking the one I learned as a kid: “Good food, good meat. Good God, let’s eat!” And another classic, kid-friendly prayer I remember was: “God is great. Good is good. Let us thank him for our food. Amen.” My Catholic friends had a pre-meal prayer they recited before meals that I’ve come to appreciate more over the years: “Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.”
One of my favorites was a prayer we got to sing. It was called the Johnny Appleseed Prayer, a man (legally named John Chapman) who travelled and planted trees in land local to my hometown. I don’t think it has any direct historical connection to his words or prayers but it loosely connects to his sense of spirituality and ecology, which were shaped by his Swedenborgian faith. I think it comes from a Disney short called “The Legend of Johnny Appleseed” that aired in the 1940s. But I learned it with these words:
Oh, the Lord’s been good to me.
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need:
The sun and the rain and the appleseed;
The Lord’s been good to me.
Though unique, all of these prayers have things in common. They assume and address a good and generous God. They name the food, drink, and company “gifts” from this Creator. And there is, to use the language we’ve used in this book, an “assumption of abundance.”
We call it “saying grace” for a reason. The Greek word charis is translated as both “grace” and “gift.” When we “say grace” before a meal we are affirming the Grace at the heart of the universe and the many ways we experience that grace in “these thy gifts,” including the gifts of life-sustaining food, drink, and community. We cannot separate gratitude from grace. Indeed, as theologian Karl Barth wrote: “Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.”
This orients our attention to “the Giver of all good gifts” (James 1:17) and the abundant world that exists under God’s loving reign. In her book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, Diana Butler Bass describes this orientation beautifully: “The universe is a gift. Life is a gift. Air, light, soil, and water are gifts. Friendship, love, sex, and family are gifts. We live on a gifted planet. Everything we need is here, with us.” When we decide to go deeper in gratitude, we don’t just say grace, we learn to see grace. Everywhere. Because this is a gifted planet, continually created by a generous God who is the continual Giver of many good gifts. “To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything he has given us,” wrote Thomas Merton, “and he has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of his love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from him.” What a worldview! If we really do dwell in a gifted planet and receive every breath and every moment by the love of God, that changes everything. We can breathe easier, live simpler, share more freely, and pray more joyfully. Merton goes on to say: “Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.” If we were to live in that orientation, it really would make all the difference, both for our own mental health and for the life of the world.
Gratitude in Everything
I like Merton’s dynamic description of gratitude. It’s not a static “thank you,” like a forced thanks to an aunt who got you another ugly sweater for Christmas. Instead, it’s an orientation of attentive-responsive gratefulness which is “constantly awakening to new wonder.” In other words, saying grace for the basics of life nurtures within us a practice of seeing grace in more and more ways and in more and more places. Gratitude is always expanding. G.K. Chesterton said it well in his typical fashion: “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.” There’s nothing wrong with maintaining a ritual of saying grace before a meal, of course. But that baseline practice should be expanding as we learn to see grace in the everyday and ordinary events of life. The structured practice can give way to a spontaneous expression of gratitude. We find ourselves whispering “thank you” as we watch our son stepping up to the plate for his little league game. We can’t help but say “thank you” when a grand sunset catches us by surprise. We even let out a silent “thank you” when a long-time friend comes to visit us in the hospital. We are sick but we are not alone. There is still grace in the world; we notice and cherish it.
Gratitude keeps growing until, in Merton’s words, we learn to “see the love of God in everything.” I want to stop here and make sure you don’t hear me saying “everything is God’s will” or even “everything that happens to you is a gift from God.” The Apostle Paul, for example, instructs us to “give thanks in all things” not for all things (1 Thess. 5:18). And he says “in all things God works for the good” not “God sends all things for our good” (Romans 8:28). There are genuinely evil things that happen in the world. If we believe that Jesus reveals the heart of God to us, we should not attribute these evils to God’s hand. We live in an interrelated universe with many actors and factors. Sometimes things happen that are not good and not God. We don’t force positive interpretations on others. We shouldn’t pressure a rape survivor, for example, to proclaim their rape was actually a gift because God let it happen so she could help other rape victims. No, this is not the heart of God. But we can learn to witness grace in all circumstances. We can train our eyes to see the goodness and generosity of God that is always responsive to our suffering, always engaging with our life reality, always drawing us toward healing and transformation, always weaving together our beautiful and broken lives into something redemptive. We can acknowledge suffering while still finding gifts and graces in every moment, discovering “the love of God in everything.”
Gratitude as Social Act
The reality of grace is so rich and expansive that it directs our gratitude in a multidirectional way, not only toward our Creator but also back to our ancestors and around us to the workers and innovators who bring us many of the gifts we enjoy today, as well as the great community of creation upon which we depend. “Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me,” author Linda Hogan witnesses. “Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.” When we recognize our interdependence on “the love of thousands,” we can’t help but feel gratitude rise within us. It not only impacts how we see God but also how we see our neighbors, nature, and our place in the world. “I argue that gratitude is not a transaction of debt and duty,” submits Diana Butler Bass. “Rather, gratitude is a spiritual awareness and a social structure of gift and response.” The practice of gratitude opens our eyes to see the gifts before us and the abundance around us. And it moves us into a life of free responsiveness and responsibility toward the Giver and givers of good gifts.
Most Buddhists are not theists but they still “say grace” in the sense that they reverently remember their interdependence with the broader community of neighbor, nature, and ancestor. One meal chant comes to mind often, when I seek to gather up all the givers and gifts that go into even a simple meal. It’s worth quoting in full:
Innumerable labors brought us this food,
May we know how it comes to us.
Receiving this offering,
Let us consider whether our virtue and practice deserve it.
Desiring the natural order of mind,
Let us be free from greed, hate, and delusion.
We eat to support life and to practice the way of Buddha.
This food is for the three treasures,
For our teachers, family, and all people, and for all beings in the six worlds.
The first portion is for the precepts,
The second is for the practice of samadhi,
The third is to save all beings.
Thus we eat this food and awaken with everyone.
Rural folks who garden or farm, or enjoy farmer friendships, should especially be able to relate to that first line. “Innumerable labors” indeed. Most of us have no idea. While the “farm to table” journey is becoming shorter in some cases, most of the time it’s a massive undertaking, requiring farmers and farm workers, truckers and distributors, grocery stores and grocery clerks. In gratitude, we remember them. We seek to use our consumer “vote” wisely and justly. We pray for their well-being.
When we study Jesus’ life and ministry, we find ample evidence that he was a leader with a profound sense of this grace-based worldview. He knew that life was a gift from Abba. He knew the interdependence and mutuality of the community of creation. He saw the abundance of God in the world. He embodied a spirit of compassion that comes from knowing our relatedness. Our gospel story is no different. Jesus gathered up all the gifts that surfaced in that sacred space. He called them forth and collected them. And he lifted the gifts to God in gratitude.
We are told that Jesus said a “blessing.” Typically we think of this as praying a blessing over the food. I’ve known folks who are superstitious about this; if we don’t pray a blessing over the food, we may be poisoned and get sick. While there may have been an element of this priestly blessing, the common Jewish practice of that time was actually to bless God. A contemporary blessing for a meal of bread (likely similar to one Jesus would use) goes something like: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”
Gratitude in My Town
Rural people are often grateful people. We try to notice the simple joys of life and not take them for granted. We sing and tell stories about gifts like family life, good food, summertime, faith, freedom, and time spent with friends outdoors. This is a strength to claim as we recover abundance in our homes, faith communities, and towns. We remind the world to slow down, take it in, and count blessings. “Don’t blink” Kenny Chesney reminds us. “You’re gonna miss this,” Trace Adkins says. Country and community pride is a form of gratitude. “This is my town,” we say with a grateful pride that we are fortunate to know this place and these people. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think our country would benefit from a little more pride of place. But there is a shallow version of this gratitude, much like there is a narrow version of hospitality. And this shallow version has a shadow side.
“This is my town” sounds lovely when it’s shared with affection and welcome to guests. But those same words can take on a decidedly different tone when they are said to close the door and build a wall: “This is my town.” It’s not yours. It’s not open for business. It’s not open for immigrants. It’s not open to new folks and new ideas. Gratitude that is closed off to surprise and novelty is no gratitude at all. Brother Steindl-Rast writes that surprise is the gate of gratitude: “In moments of surprise we catch at least a glimpse of the joy to which gratefulness opens the door. More than that – in moments of surprise we already have a foot in the door.” Without openness to surprise, we miss out on the joy and peace that gratitude brings. And we miss out on the communal transformation that collective gratitude initiates. After all, without surprise there is no miracle. There’s nothing new under the sun. Without surprise, there is no multiplication, there is only the subtraction and entropy. Small town scarcity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Loved into Being
My favorite gratitude intervention has to be one that Fred Rogers (A.K.A. Mister Rogers) performed on the most unlikely of occasions: the Emmy Awards. Sure, lots of guys and gals say thanks when they receive their award but oftentimes, it seems to be mostly about their talent, attractiveness, and achievement. Well, Mr. Rogers did things differently.
Fred climbed the stairs and stood behind the podium. And rather than focusing on himself, he turned his attention to others. Not only the others that were there in the room. Also the invisible others not in the room who made the success and flourishing of those people possible. He said:
All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are — those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life? Ten seconds of time. I’ll watch the time.
So the whole room hushed and memories filled their hearts and minds. Many began to cry. And after those sacred ten seconds, Mr. Rogers said: “Whomever you’ve been thinking about. . . how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made. You know, they’re the kind of people television does well to offer our world.” He transformed that moment often defined by vanity and individual achievement into a holy moment of intergenerational thanksgiving and open–heartedness. It was a gratitude intervention.
Let me ask you this: “Who has loved you into being?” During a hard time in your life? In the daily grind? In the big win moments? We keep their faces and graces before us. And we use our words, written and spoken, to make it known that their love has not gone unnoticed. Let’s not stop there. “Who has loved your community into being?” Who shows up, serves, contributes, risks, gives? Who is ready to love it into new ways of being but they haven’t been given a chance?
Ordinary leaders in small towns and rural regions are moved by gratitude. They notice the “innumerable labors” and the invisible helpers. They make the effort to insert gratitude interventions into our common life. And they seek to become the kind of people who love their neighbors into being, and love their community into being, and thus become co-creators with the ever-loving God.