As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.
John F. Kennedy
How good it is to give thanks to you, O Lord!
To sing praises to your name, O Most High!
To proclaim your loving kindness every morning,
and your faithfulness every night,
With music of stringed instruments,
and with melody on the harp.
You make me glad by your mighty deeds, O Lord;
I sing for joy at the work of your hands.
How great are your acts, O Lord!
How deep are your thoughts!
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
Reading from Swedenborg
The Lord does, indeed, require humility, worship, thanksgiving, and many other things from us. This might seem like repayment, so that the Lord’s gifts do not seem to be free. But the Lord does not require these things for his own sake. . . . Rather, they are required for our sake. If we are humble, we can accept goodness from the Lord, since we have been separated from selfishness and the evil things that go with it, which stand in the way of our accepting the Lord’s goodness. This is why the Lord desires a state of humility in us for our own sake: because when we are in this state, the Lord can flow into us with heavenly goodness. The same is true of worship and thanksgiving. (Arcana Coelestia #5957)
I extend to each of you today an invitation. It is an invitation to cultivate gratefulness as your basic attitude toward life. It is an invitation to cultivate gratefulness as the very ground of your being. Gratefulness is one of the most powerful forces in the world. It makes the difference between just going through the motions and really being alive. Gratefulness is the difference between having a heart of stone and receiving a heart of flesh from the Lord.
The 20th century Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that it is only through gratitude that life becomes rich. The Koran says that if you count God’s blessings, you will not be able to number them. And there is a Jewish proverb that says we will never know all that we should be grateful to God for.
Gratefulness is extraordinarily powerful. Thomas Merton, in his book No Man is an Island, said that people who are ungrateful admit that they do not know God. He goes on to say that if we are not aware of our gratitude, we don’t really know who we ourselves are–and we are not in touch with our life and what it means to be alive and to truly be.
To be grateful is to recognize, acknowledge, and accept that we are a recipient of a gift. The most basic gift is life itself. Each of our lives is a given: a gift given to us. Emanuel Swedenborg is very clear, especially in his book Divine Love and Wisdom, that we ourselves are not life, but rather are recipients of life, receptacles of life, vessels of life–cups into which life is poured. Life itself is holy. Life itself is divine. Swedenborg says that the more open our heart is, the more open we are to receiving this divine influx of life–hence the more full of life we are.
One of the most powerful ways to open our hearts, to allow God to remove our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh, is to get in touch with our thankfulness, our gratitude. Sometimes this is very easy. When things are going just the way we want them to go, or when something surprises us in a most delightful way, it feels spontaneous: gratitude just wells up in us, and we feel joy. But other times, every now and then, it’s a little tougher.
The Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, has delineated three steps that can help bring us into a state of gratitude. These steps happen spontaneously when things are going well, but at other times they are helped by our conscious effort. The three steps rely upon the work of our intellect, our will, and our emotions.
The first step calls upon our intellect. In order to feel grateful we need to recognize the gift. Sometimes this is very easy, and sometimes it is hard. In order to recognize the gift, we need to wake up; we need to notice; we need to see: Ah! A gift! God has planted, sprinkled, placed gifts uncountable in every moment, but our intellect needs to recognize them as gifts.
The second step toward gratitude calls upon our will: we need to acknowledge the gift. First we need to recognize the gift and then we need to acknowledge it. We need to say, “Ah, you! I know you!” Acknowledging a gift means that we are acknowledging something outside of ourselves, because a gift does not come from our own self. Acknowledging a gift is actually very powerful because when we acknowledge a gift, we are letting something outside ourselves come in. We are allowing ourselves to be touched, to be moved.
There is a tendency in human beings, especially in Americans, to think that we are self-sufficient and independent, and that we don’t need other people. Being able to acknowledge a gift is stepping out of our false sense of utter self-reliance. It is stepping out of our fortress of isolation. When we are able to do this with our will, we are able to connect and form a common unity and begin to step into intimacy.
The third step we take in order to experience gratitude requires our emotions. We need to accept the gift with our whole heart. We need to say “yes!” It is like someone is saying, “dance with me,” and we accept with our whole heart. It is saying, “Yes, I will step into this crazy, wild, chaotic, confusing, sometimes-distressing dance of life. Here I am!”
The only way to say yes and accept the gift is with open arms. We can’t accept a gift with our arms folded across our chest; we can only accept a gift with our arms wide open. Yet we all know what’s scary about holding our arms wide open, don’t we? Let’s say we’re at a dance and it looks like someone across the room is looking at us and smiling at us, and the impression we have is that they are asking us, “Will you dance with me?” and we say, after some hesitation, “Yes!” And then they walk toward us and go right by us to dance with the person standing behind us! We feel crushed and humiliated and embarrassed. We were open.
Being grateful does not protect us from rejection, pain, or sorrow; it doesn’t protect us from any of that. But if we are able to incorporate gratitude into our basic attitude toward life and make it a part of the ground of our being, it gives us another way of responding to what is taking place. When those painful or sad feelings are happening, they are not all that’s happening. Counting our blessings does not mean that we no longer feel the grief that we feel, or the confusion, or the sorrow. It means we are feeling all of that, and we are also feeling a sense of warmth, peace, and connection.
In the example where we are mistakenly thinking that we are being asked to dance, how can we find gratitude in that moment? Well, we can be grateful that we realize we want to dance. And then we can go out and discover ways to bring dancing into our life.
I want to share with you one example from my own life of turning an experience around through finding gratitude, and then give you three suggestions for how to practice gratitude.
Last Thursday morning I had three errands to do in different places around this wonderful city of ours. I went out, and at the first place I could not find a place to park. Can you believe it, in this city? I looked and looked, and I finally gave up on that first errand and just headed off to the second errand. I couldn’t find a place to park there either. I finally did stop in a yellow loading zone and ran in and out, and went on to the third errand.
By that point I was talking to myself: “What is this city coming to? You can’t even go on a simple errand and park in front of where you want to go. This is ridiculous!” As I was talking to myself, I realized that I had picked up a pretty self-righteous sense of entitlement. And then it must have been because I was working on this sermon that a little thought came into my head: “Oh my goodness! I’m alive! It is a beautiful day! I’m in one of the most beautiful cities in the world! If I need anything materially, I can go to a store and get it. And, no, I might not be able to find a parking place convenient to where I’m going.”
I realized what my false sense of entitlement was doing to me–how it was making me feel angry and self-important. Then I let go of it and recognized the gift. I acknowledged the gift, and I accepted and welcomed the gift. And then I saw another gift, and then another and then another, and I saw that my gifts were countless. I practically forgot what errand I was doing as I felt a rush of appreciation for my life. And then I got an extra bonus, because I realized that I could use this as my example on Sunday. I can’t tell you what that’s worth!
There are, of course, countless ways to incorporate these steps of gratitude into our daily lives–but here are three quick ones.
First: “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). We can say this to ourselves each morning when we wake up. What a wonderful way to start the day and invite gratitude in!
Second: When we say a prayer at our evening meal, either by ourselves or with family members or friends, we can have each person name one thing that he or she is grateful for that day. Remember that all gratitudes are acceptable, from the mundane to the profound.
Finally: Throughout our day, if we find ourselves getting irritated or a bit upset, we can take it upon ourselves as a challenge to find gold in the moment and in the experience. This doesn’t mean we have to be grateful that things are not going the way we want them to; we do not have to be grateful that we can’t find a parking place or that we can’t find a job. But we can still find gratitude in the experience. We can have it be like a treasure hunt with ourselves and God. Remember those puzzles where the object is to find objects hidden in the picture? Take this as a challenge, then: whatever the experience, find the gratitude in it. And let that gratitude touch you and fill you.
The Lord said, “I give to you a new heart and I put a new spirit within you. I remove from you your heart of stone and I give you a heart of flesh.” Amen.
O Lord, like a piece of grit in our eye or a grumbling in our stomach, we notice when small things go wrong. Yet as with a healthy, pain-free body, we often forget to remember and be grateful for the thousands, the millions of things that go right each day and each moment. Help us to take our focus away from the grit and the grumbling, and focus instead on the incredible gifts we are receiving both when we are feeling pain and when we are enjoying the beauties and wonders of our bodies, our minds, our friends and families, and especially, of your presence in our lives. Amen.