So, I was thinking that giving thanks is harder than it sounds. Now that does not mean I don’t favor giving thanks. With G.K. Chesterton, I am well aware that at the least “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” It is too easy to live each day taking the “daily bread” God showers upon us for granted. Gratitude is the antidote for slipping into a sense of entitlement.
But, I maintain that giving thanks is hard. The difficulty is partly cultural. It is not lost on me that the day named for the practice of giving thanks has become but a prelude to the “Black Friday” that follows. We try to give thanks for a few hours, but by midnight we will have turned from gratitude to anxiety over what we need to get and what we do not yet possess. After all, there are only so many shopping days to find the things that will make everyone happy – for a day or two.
Black Friday rises from our preoccupation with tomorrow without remembrance of the past and attentiveness to the present. Worry about the future, anxiety over what is not yet, is the seed of sin and all matter of evil. As C.S. Lewis, has the demon Screwtape say in one of my favorite books, The Screwtape Letters, “Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.” If you can get us to fret over tomorrow, we are undone. If we can give thanks, we have an antidote. Is it a coincidence that Madison Avenue wants us to zoom by the gratitude and love of the past and present so we can worry about Christmas as soon as possible? I think not. 😉
Giving thanks can also be hard because I find that saying, “Thanks be to God for the table full of food” is such a short distance from “Thank God I’m not starving like those who have nothing.” Giving thanks for abundance when so many suffer scarcity tweaks my conscience. It darkens my festive demeanor – and it should. Abundance, from a biblical perspective, is from God and for all, not just the privileged few. I’m not sure that gratitude means giving thanks for my personal affluence. Justice makes giving thanks hard.
But what makes giving thanks the hardest for me is that I have heard people throughout my life give thanks in circumstances I do not understand. When I heard someone say “I give thanks for my cancer” the first time, I was dumbstruck. Since then, I have come to understand a little more fully what they mean. The discipline (and yes it is this, not a feeling or a thought) of giving thanks is something we must apply to everything in life – even our pain and suffering. This is hard. Henri Nouwen, one of the wisest spiritual teachers of the last century says: “Grateful people are those who can celebrate even the pains of life because they trust that when harvest time comes the fruit will show that the pruning was not punishment but purification.” Can we say thank you for our pain and brokenness? Perhaps only by knowing that this is precisely where Christ meets us. But it is still hard.
As difficult as it may be, gratitude is an absolute necessity in our world. Without it, contentment is impossible and we are a very discontent lot. Gratitude that leads us to contentment makes us less afraid of the future. Gratitude that leads to contentment opens our hearts so we can share our bounty and help provide abundance for others. Gratitude that leads to contentment acknowledges the pain in our lives, giving God a chance to transform our teas to joy. Gratitude that leads to contentment lasts more than a day and it changes the world. Happy Thanksgiving to all.