The Gift of Gratitude
Being happy isn’t easy. There’s a world filled with stories that cause us unhappiness. Yet we read stories both biblically and outside of scripture, that show us another entryway to happiness, rooted in gratitude.
Gratitude is the practice of thankfulness…and it can lead to happiness…but it’s more than that. As we read in the latest Observer, in an article by Trisha Elliott,
you’d think that expressing gratitude is as natural as breathing. How hard is it to dash off a thank-you note or to thank a family member for doing the dishes? Yet, gratitude is oddly neglected. In a 2012 gratitude survey conducted for the John Templeton Foundation, 90 percent of respondents described themselves as grateful for their family and nearly as many for their closest friends. But just a little more than half of these respondents expressed gratitude on a regular basis. 
Gratitude is more than turkey and potatoes and harvest. It’s more than farmers and honouring creation. We can fake thanksgiving so that we just get through that one meal, or that one church service, or saying thank you that we don’t really mean. How many of us are just so excited and thankful that the Jays are winning for once? It’s much more difficult to be grateful for the time and energy and talent that goes into a team that loses.
Being grateful each and every day requires a radical reshaping of our lives.
True gratitude is seeing the world as full of gifts and beauty and possibility. It is looking beyond our current circumstances in order to see how our lives have been touched throughout.
This is impossible for some. Think of the families of the 900 dead in poverty stricken Haiti as a result of Hurricane Matthew, where just 6 short years ago this region was devastated by earthquake. If you’re lucky enough to survive, I wouldn’t think gratitude would describe the feelings of having to rebuild again.
It is a challenge to learn to be grateful when our world is falling apart.
This is where scripture comes in. At the end of the Torah, the story of Moses, the Jewish people are nearing the chosen land, and they are reminded to never forget whence they’ve come. In order to remember, this sermon from Deuteronomy teaches them a song. It grounds them in the present beginning with the refrain:
when you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you…
you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you…
(and you should take that harvest and give it to God singing)
A wandering Aramean was my father…
(they sing of history and hardship)
we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression
(they sing of help and healing)
[God] brought us out of Egypt
and they ground their current circumstances in the past.
That’s something we all share.
We’re all here because we’ve made it through pitfall and struggle and joys and blessings. As they say, growing older is a privilege denied to many. We are the sum of our history – the collected wisdom gained – the accumulated thankfulness and disappointments – things we’d rather forget and the stories we remember and share with others.
And we’re here. In this moment.
And the scripture writer reminds us that because we dwell in this land that the Lord your God is giving you, because we dwell in this land, this present moment, today, we have opportunities to live with thankfulness, because whatever challenge we face in this moment is no more powerful than that which we’ve faced before today.
So be grateful, the scripture urges. Offer the harvest from the land, the sum of the blessings that have carried you to this moment, and offer them thankfully to God. In giving to God (or as described here) to the Levites (that is the church), one also gives to the foreigners, (and if we keep reading into Deuteronomy) the orphans and widows…
Gratitude becomes something you do – an active verb that connects you to someone else. Gratitude is rooted in the past as it informs how we can respond to the world today.
We remember that our wandering ancestors were taken in, given new hope, and allowed new life, and so when faced with Middle Eastern refugees we are to do the same.
We remember (or imagine) days of hunger and affliction in order to respond to those in crisis today.
We may convince ourselves that we do not have enough, yet these words from Deuteronomy remind us, when we ground our current circumstances in our history (even though we may have to go back a generation or two) we learn that out of our gratitude, we can become a blessing for someone else.
This is echoed by Mary Jo Leddy in her book Radical Gratitude. In it she adapts the words of John Henry Newman as a prayer for all of us:
You have created me to do some definite service:
You have committed some work to me,
which you have not committed to another.
I have my mission –
I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.
I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.
You have not created me for naught.
I shall do good, I shall do your work.
When we root ourselves in the past to offer our thankfulness for this moment (whether we find ourselves in good times or bad) it becomes easier to see where and how God has acted in our lives and how God calls us to respond in this moment. We have been created to be a link in a chain, a connection between persons. And whether we can see it or not, this connection binds us to one another.
This connection ties our gratitude not just to our past and present, our gratitude, Leddy says, informs our future hopes as well.
As a society, we’re struggling to find this future hope. We have generations of me first individuals from boomers to millennials, ungrateful and unconnected to that which has come before. We don’t see a common vision, a common hope that we all share.
And yet there is one thing…one thing we all share.
Our past has led us to this moment, and no matter the diversity of what has brought us here, we share the gift of this moment. The gift of today.
And the power and possibility of just one day is enough to change the world.
As a moment for us to reflect on the blessings of today, there’s a Ted talk by filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg and in it he uses the words of Brother David Steindl-Rast. I’m going to use David’s words as a moment of reflection for us, and I’ll invite us you to first close your eyes.
You think this is just another day in your life? It’s not just another day. It’s the one day that is given to you today. It’s given to you. It’s a gift. It’s the only gift that you have right now, and the only appropriate response is gratefulness. If you do nothing else but to cultivate that response to the great gift that this unique day is, if you learn to respond as if it were the first day in your life and the very last day, then you will have spent this day very well.
Begin by opening your eyes and be surprised that you have eyes you can open, that incredible array of colors that is constantly offered to us for pure enjoyment. Look at the sky. We so rarely look at the sky. We so rarely note how different it is from moment to moment, with clouds coming and going. We just think of the weather, and even with the weather, we don’t think of all the many nuances of weather. We just think of good weather and bad weather. This day, right now, has unique weather, maybe a kind that will never exactly in that form come again. That formation of clouds in the sky will never be the same as it is right now. [When you leave church…] Open your eyes. Look at [the sky, as if for the first time. As if for the last].
Look at the faces of people whom you meet. [Those who share your pew] Each one has an incredible story behind their face, a story that you could never fully fathom, not only their own story, but the story of their ancestors. We all go back so far, and in this present moment, on this day, all the people you meet, all that life from generations and from so many places all over the world flows together and meets you here like a life-giving water, if you only open your heart and drink.
Open your heart to the incredible gifts that civilization gives to us. You flip a switch and there is electric light. You turn a faucet and there is warm water and cold water, and drinkable water. It’s a gift that millions and millions in the world will never experience.
So these are just a few of an enormous number of gifts to which we can open your heart. And so I wish you that you will open your heart to all these blessings, and let them flow through you, that everyone whom you will meet on this day will be blessed by you, just by your eyes, by your smile, by your touch, just by your presence. Let the gratefulness overflow into blessing all around you, and then it will really be a good day.
 Leddy, Mary Jo, Radical Gratitude, pg 136
 with modifications in italics