As most of you know I have begun studies toward earning a Doctor of Ministry degree through McCormick Theological Seminary. In a little over one week I will be flying to Chicago for my first class (Nov. 11-16) called, “Where Three or More Gather.” The focus of the class is how we live in community: how we do it well and how we don’t. I am now steeped in the pre-class reading. Of the several books to be read, one in particular is capturing my attention: Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us by Christine D. Pohl. It is a very readable book, and one that I have recommended that my session read together in 2013.
Pohl outlines four practices from among many that are vital to sustaining community, particularly in churches: gratitude, promise-keeping, truth-telling, and hospitality. The part that captivated me most was the one on “gratitude” which she entitles: “Embracing Gratitude as a Way of Life.” I am the first to admit that gratitude is not always at the top of my “to-do” list. She writes of living with a grateful heart, but not in the Pollyanna way that seems to ignore with a plastic smile the trials and tragedies that complicate things.
Pohl reminded me that the word “gratitude” comes from the same root as “grace,” which comes from the Greek word charis, from which we get the word eucharist (giving thanks to God), which is the word used to describe the sacrament that we often call “communion.” She then goes on to remind me that Paul wrote about giving thanks “at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5.20). She then writes a curious and troublesome remark:
Ingratitude toward God and human beings is a terrible thing, but it often comes dressed in other clothing—restlessness, concerns about self-fulfillment or entitlement, and irritation at not being properly valued or recognized. Once a ‘culture of complaint’ is established, it spreads through communities and affects everyone. . . . [O]nce we start focusing on flaws in a community, they quickly dominate our attention. (p. 18, 19)
Wow! What an indictment! And as soon as I read it, I was convicted. Not only have I practiced ingratitude, I have expressed every one of the things on her list and more. Pohl acknowledges, practicing gratitude is out of step with our culture of entitlement—a challenging commentary on our way of life.
But she doesn’t leave us hanging. Pohl goes on to provide some guidance on how to develop a culture of gratitude. She brings it back to God almost immediately: “The emphasis on loving God and loving neighbor—our usual foci for discipleship—is most fruitful as it is rooted in a deep understanding of God’s prior love for us.”
When we allow ourselves, both individually and communally, to be shaped by God’s love for us and others, even in the most dire of circumstances elements of our own gratitude will be drawn out—it is inevitable and inescapable. This is not to ignore the pain, suffering, or struggle that we sometimes endure and are very much a part of life. But it is to draw our attention to what God might be doing in the midst of struggle.
As a pastor I have had the privilege of standing in holy moments with people, whether at their bedside as they deal with serious illness or face immanent death, or in their living rooms trying to walk with them through personal struggle. Every once in a while I sit with someone and as we talk the mood of the conversation shifts from naming the struggle, pain, or fear, to language of thanksgiving and gratitude for God’s love and the ways that God is present and walking beside us. And suddenly, it’s as though a door has been opened and they begin to see a bigger picture that puts their struggle in a context of God’s unending devotion to us. It is truly amazing to behold!
Pohl writes that gratitude is at the heart of our worship. She writes that “costly sacrifice and gratitude are profoundly intertwined at the Last Supper” (p. 23). Despite what was to come, despite his being betrayed and deserted by his closest friends, Jesus offered thanks, “offering up both his words and his life.” She goes on to write that “Jesus graced the dreadful evening of his betrayal with gratitude” (emphasis added).
It is a beautiful image of gratitude to imagine it not just being something Jesus did, but it was who Jesus was and is. When we are transformed by God’s love and grace, gratitude becomes more than something we do or even an attitude, “it is our identity.”
It is customary during the month of November for our nation’s attention to be turned toward the idea of “thanks-giving.” As Christians we are called to live lives shaped and infused with thanks-giving all our lives. Pohl writes:
Gratitude involves knowing that we are held secure by a loving God, and that the God we worship is trustworthy, despite the nearly unbearable sorrow we might encounter along the way (Ps. 13). (p. 26).
I could not have said it better myself. So, I won’t even try.
“Be of good courage, and know that you are loved!”
[Reprinted from the November 2012 Newsletter of University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, Arizona.]