Living in gratitude
"Give thanks with a grateful heart ..."
Meister Eckhart, the 13th-century mystic and philosopher, said it best: "If the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you, it will be enough."
Yet too often any leaning we might feel towards gratitude is displaced by our inclination towards complaining. In a world torn asunder by mass shootings, political divisiveness and natural disasters, perhaps we should commemorate the seasons of Thanksgiving and Christmas by returning to gratefulness.
What might sound like a platitude can actually redirect one's life, say United Methodists who have joined a quiet movement of people emphasizing gratitude in personal and community life. Churches turn to the praises present in so many of the psalms to stress gratitude in worship. Individual Christians keep gratitude journals. Clergy teach and preach the value of gratitude in a confusing, sometimes less than soulful world.
"The whole idea is we give to God not out of obligation or guilt, but out of gratitude for all that God has already done for us," says the Rev. Kent Millard, president of United Theological Seminary. The Rev. Gail Joyner, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Staunton, Illinois, agrees. "If everyone showed their gratefulness to others by passing that joyful feeling along, negative attitudes would be the exception not the rule," she says.
In Huntington Beach, California, the Rev. Ginny Wheeler, raises up gratitude each Sunday to her congregation, Community United Methodist Church. She begins worship with the words of Psalm 118. "I start every worship service with it," Wheeler says. "I feel we've been given this day, this moment together."
John Wesley wrote often about acts of mercy and acts of piety, Wheeler says. She thinks gratitude is more "caught than taught. I think generosity is a puddle. When you step into it, the waves flow out from it. You cannot help but inspire others."
Thanks in all circumstances
For "thanksgiving is inseparable from prayer," said Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement in 18th-century England. "It is almost essentially connected with it. One who always prays is ever giving praise, whether in ease or pain, both for prosperity and for the greatest adversity. He blesses God for all things..."
Millard testifies to the truth of Wesley's words. When his wife died of pancreatic cancer six years ago, he coped with that loss by recalling life and love shared over more than four decades of marriage. A United Methodist pastor for 47 years, Millard served St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Indianapolis for 18 years before becoming a seminary president. One year to jumpstart what became a very successful fundraising campaign, Millard stressed gratitude to his congregants.
"I asked people to count their blessings. Every blessing in their lives – their loved ones, their family, their friends, their opportunities, their resources," he says. "Really, the very ground we walk on, the air we breathe and the Christ we serve are gifts from the hand of a generous God."
Gratitude for all one's blessings does not depend on having endless money or a stress-free life. Millard quotes the Apostle Paul's words in 1 Thessalonians 5:13: "Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus."
Moreover, Millard notes, "Jesus gives thanks all the time. Before he fed the 5,000. Before the Last Supper. Over and over again, he gives thanks to God."
Thanking people, thanking God
California attorney John Kralik turned his attitude – and eventually his life – around through the practice of gratitude. Kralik's law practice, personal relationships and financial solvency were all in jeopardy one January when he decided to spend the next year writing 365 thank you notes. He began by sending handwritten notes to 10 people who had given him Christmas presents.
The practice eventually turned into a book A Simple Act of Gratitude.
Now a judge with the Los Angeles Superior Court, Kralik views gratitude as a natural – though often neglected – human response to God. As his thank you note project progressed, he experienced God's grace.
"I think the Bible reflects a special place in God's heart for those who are appreciative," Kralik says. "There's the story in Luke about the 10 lepers that Jesus healed. Only one of them came back to say ‘thank you.' Jesus gave him a special blessing. So, for me, appreciation is an expression of love and a manifestation of God's grace in the world."
Joyner finds grace as she keeps a daily gratitude journal. When she began, her life changed. "As I saw my joys, concerns, fears and desires written on paper and not just in my mind, they became more real than just thoughts. As I went to God with all that I felt, he came to me while I was writing. Sometimes before I finished a sentence, I felt his response," she says.
And now? She doesn't miss a day "writing to God."
The spiritual discipline has made her a better pastor. "When you write down your thoughts it takes more time than just thinking about something," Joyner says. "I have learned to slow down and digest my thoughts which helps me understand people when they talk to me. People learn and understand in different ways. I am a visual learner and do better when I write things down.
"I am also creative and love art, so along with my written journal I have a daily calendar of the things I talk to God about. The calendar is colored in artwork. As I talk with people I give them ways to express their feelings through written words or art, which I would never have done before I started my journal."
"I believe that practicing gratitude causes us to connect first and foremost with others relationally," Lowe says.
"In our (American) culture where we tend to be so focused on the instant gratification and ‘I want everything five minutes ago,' practicing gratitude towards others causes us to slow down and see the other person – to notice them and to appreciate them as one created in the image of God, one that is of worth.
"I personally experienced more patience as a person – I still have much room to grow and mature in this fruit of the spirit. And I developed the joy of noticing others around me such as the cashier, the custodian, the construction worker and even deepening relationships within the church and my family. At the same time, I noticed how rude, hateful and mean so many fellow human beings were towards others through comments, impatient actions and egocentricity," Lowe says.
Such actions felt antithetical to the Gospel and to the command "to pick up our cross and bear it daily," Long recalls. In addition, as he went about his daily life wandering into offices, restaurants and stores, he noticed gratitude notes written by Long's Chapel members posted on the walls of businesses. The church helped sow the "seeds of gratitude" into community life.
Just as with the biblical miracle of the loaves and fishes when belief meant there was enough food to feed thousands, belief in gratitude is powerful. It winds out of one person, one church, to meander through a town, even a city. Gratitude changes people, one person at a time.
Wheeler knows that to be true. "I have seen people who have been transformed by gratitude," she says. "Through a crisis – a death, a grave illness, depression, a dark night of the soul. That's when they've really been able to recognize the power of Christ, and within that there is always a natural exuberance of grace."
Positiveness at any level is contagious, Wheeler says. "I think it's the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives us that contagious power. What flows from that is we become patient. We are centered. We are calm. We automatically become those things."
Bringing gratitude into daily life often begins with "spiritual disciplines that help us recognize God's grace," she says. "One is definitely the spiritual discipline of patience, waiting on God. Another is daily prayer. When we are still and quiet before God, with God, we usually end up being grateful."
The heart of Christian faith
Larry Malone, retired from United Methodist Men, now lives in Rockledge, Florida. "If gratitude comes from an inner place, it's a genuine thing." He likens it to the fruits of the spirit outlined in the New Testament book of Galatians.
"As soon as you start recognizing that God not only radically loves me, God loves me in my worst moment, then you can get out of this thing's way," Malone says. "You start to realize that God's relentless love comes through regardless of my behavior, even in my sorriest moment. When you start to understand that, how can gratitude not become part of who you are?"
Millard traces his devotion to gratitude to his youth. The son of an alcoholic, he was nonplussed and deeply grateful when a United Methodist church in South Dakota welcomed him, his family and his formerly alcoholic father when his dad dried out and decided the family must go to church.
Practicing the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous, Millard's father had acknowledged his powerlessness over his addiction to alcohol. Walking on the South Dakota prairie, his father said to himself, "I just wish there was a power that could save me" from this addiction.
"Then he felt it," Millard says. "He felt the presence of God around him like a bright light."
Where Millard lived, everyone knew his dad had a drinking problem. Yet that didn't stop that Methodist church from embracing his family. Millard was only 11.
"I didn't know much about God or Jesus but I liked the church people because they accepted an alcoholic and his family," he says. "I realized you come to church to say thank you to God for what he has already done. Gratitude is at the heart of Christian faith."
Cecile S. Holmes, longtime religion writer, is an associate professor at the University of South Carolina's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.