This post is also an article from The View, the weekly newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the article and learn about St. John's, click here.
At a hospital bedside, I watch the fear that family members hold melt away when the person whom they love responds to their expressions of anxiety with words of gratitude. In my office, I hear someone struggling with grief make a small but significant breakthrough when they discover again what it means to be thankful for each day that God has given them. In my own heart, I see deeply held resentment and the intractable relationships that it has infected soften when my prayers shift from petitions for a change to thanksgiving for a reality.
Gratitude has the power to change us and our circumstances. Even though it is at its core an acceptance of a situation, a spirit of thanksgiving may be the most effective way to transform an otherwise hopeless condition into an opportunity for new life. In fact, as the first of the twelve steps of recovery reminds us, it is acceptance that is the first step toward change. Before an addict can turn his or her will and life over to God (step three), ask God to remove his or her shortcomings (step seven), or make amends (step nine), that person must first admit a fundamental powerlessness over a situation. Such an admission is not the same thing as gratitude, of course, but the same acceptance underpins both of them.
As the word implies, thanksgiving is a transaction of sorts. In return for the thing of value that I have received (a meal, a hug, a compliment), I respond by giving gratitude. The word gratitude comes from the Latin word gratus, which means pleasing. In other words, when you give me something nice, I acknowledge the pleasure I have gained from your gift and return some of it to you. I might say thank you with words, or I might return your casserole dish with a few homemade cookies in it, or I could make a donation to a local charity in your name, but, whatever the medium, giving thanks is about acknowledging the receipt of something that did not originate with me and offering a sign of appreciation in return.
In grade school, we made hand-print turkeys and decorated the finger-traced tail feathers with objects of gratitude. Family, food, freedom, and friendship were likely choices for the feathers. This Thanksgiving, what if, instead of four feathers of thanksgiving, we filled a whole turkey with markers of gratitude. A Google search suggests that a mature turkey may have as many as 3,500 feathers. Can you name even a hundred things for which you are grateful? What happens when that list grows from the dozen or so easy answers to more subtle statements of gratitude? What happens when we run out of things we like and have to start listing the things we usually take for granted? What happens when we exhaust that list as well? Might we even mention the objects, names, or circumstances that we would rather forget?
Near the back of the Book of Common Prayer, there is A General Thanksgiving, which begins to embrace this wider concept of gratitude: “We thank you for the blessing of family and friends…We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts…We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone” (p. 836). What happens when we begin to approach God with gratitude for the disappointments and failures that we would just as soon forget? What happens when, instead of slapping away the hand that has dealt us those frustrating moments, we search for ways to respond to them with appreciation?Thursday is Thanksgiving Day. Many of us will celebrate with family and friends and too much food. Some of us, however, will not. Whatever our situation, how might true thankfulness open up new pathways for blessing? How might we use the power of gratitude as a vehicle for the transformation that God is enacting in our lives, in our community, and in the world?