A Life of Gratitude
By Charles Rush
November 25, 2007
Colossians 3: 12-17 and esp. v.15
(mp3, 6.9Mb) ]
e New Yorker has a cartoon of a middle aged man and a middle aged woman dining out at an elegant restaurant. Both of them look tired, cross, and uptight. The waiter is holding a huge bottle of wine that contains a few gallons like you might see at a display at a wine store. The man says to the waiter, "That will be fine… we've got a lot to talk about".
There are a
myriad of factors that pile up at the end of the year that contribute to this
general attitude of hostility that bristles just beneath the surface: there are
the legitimate conflicts of the workplace, the many hassles of living in an
overcrowded paradise, disappointments with family, an inchoate sense that we
are not being loved so that our needs are taken care of properly.
You feel it
creeping up in you, often with your family, or in your internal thoughts. There
is creeping sarcasm, a biting humor; you are defensive and suspicious of the
motives of other people. You don't trust. You don't really believe other
peoples motivations. You attribute cynical intentions in people that are
distant from you. You are quick to attack those around you for their
short-comings and their failings. You are easily embittered remembering some
real or imagined offense that has been done to you in the past, and you
actually call this event up in your mind more than you would be comfortable
sharing with others in truth.
are on a low boil over the unfairness of life and/or you feel like you are doing
more of your share than people around you. You are defensive about yourself and
find it difficult to actually be caring or nurturing, even when you know that
you ought to be different than you actually are. You find it difficult to laugh
about small mishaps and instead notice that you are just ready for a fight.
Your loved ones complain that you are disagreeable. You complain that 'no one
cares about me' and you find yourself keeping a list of fresh examples
throughout the day, even as you are vaguely aware that you are doing things to
distance yourself from others, so that meeting needs becomes something of a
competition rather than a co-operative effort.
uptight, of course, because what is going on emotionally is that you have interjected
enough subterranean anger to the point that you are filled nearly up to the
brim internally. The smallest extra slight dropped into this pool of gall
spills over the edge and, left unchecked you are capable of becoming a
perpetually hostile person.
And for some of
us, this is a career hazard because our professional atmospheres feed on and
encourage aggressive behaviors that can mask cynicism and deep anger, so that
the only real check on it comes from our family and our friends.
No one wants to
live like this because, small problem,
we are not happy. And no matter how many perq's come our way or how much
cheddar we are packing in the asset portfolio, something is just not hitting.
This is not working and you don't really want to be this person, despite the fact
that you can't seem to exactly stop it either.
We will never
eradicate our anger, nor should we. But, it must be managed. Spiritually, it is
a dangerous disposition and you know this because the people you care about the
most and you love the most don't want to be around you when you are like this.
St. Paul was very
realistic about developing a healthy spiritual disposition. In this long list
of positive attributes, he mentions the antidote to hostility, developing a
life of gratitude. In our translations, we usually have something like, "And be thankful". But that is not
enough. The Greek is a continuous participle (eucharistoi) that means "always be giving thanks". We might say, 'cultivate a life of gratitude" or "infuse everything you
do with the dimension of gratitude". It reminds me of Cicero who said that "Gratitude is not
only the greatest of all virtues, it is the parent of all others". We have
to come back to it but you also know that it is all around us all the time.
Last week, I
was standing in the back of the church. In comes David Rosoff and his wife
Lindsey Clark. Lindsey is pregnant and about to give birth any day. It so
happens that her mother Becky comes walking in, unbeknownst to her through the
tower door. At the same time Peter and Leigh Rosoff
come walking through the other door. They all meet and they have that deep
delight that expectant grandparents have that their children are so great, how
blessed they are, and how good life is at the moment. They just kind of bubble.
prayer concerns, towards the end, someone asks for us to remember Squire and
Alex Knox, as Squire has stopped eating, and has begun the process of dying
from a brain cancer that has recurred. I looked up and my eye happened to fall
on Lindsey Clark with her hand on her belly, sitting next to her husband. And
I'm thinking that they are about to mid-wife this precious new child into life.
And I had an image of Alex on that sad, but precious journey, mid-wifing her
husband into death. In all of its phases, life has this ineffable wondrous
quality to it. Our deep blessings and our profound sorrows underscore a
reverence for living and a fundamental gratitude for the poignancy of existence
settlers of our country had a visceral experience of poignancy like that just
laying eyes on the New World for the very
first time. Giovanni di Verrazano, for whom the Bridge is named, sailed here in
1524. He knew that some great wonder was near because everyone on the ship
could smell cedars one hundred leagues out at sea before they ever saw the
land. Indeed, the crew on Henry Hudson's boat, the Half Moon, were literally
overcome by the fragrance of the New
Jersey shore. They reported that their boat would
occasionally swim through large beds of floating flowers.[i]
Our country was lush with vegetation, a "rich riot of
color", full of fish and wild-life. I read the journal of one of the
founders of Jamestown that they were afraid to let the children play on their
own because the trees were so thick that you couldn't see the sunlight in the
day and it was easy to become disoriented in the woods and get lost.
Likewise, I read a description of the
scout for Lewis and Clark, on their expedition out West, who riding up ahead,
all by himself, came upon the edge of the Grand Canyon.
That must have produced a hushed awe, wonder, and puzzlement. Or when they
first got to the vast plains of Montana to see
tens of thousands of Buffalo
stampeding across the countryside- but you don't just see it, you feel it… What
a visceral wonder that must have been. Our world is indeed full of wonder.
And sometimes we just need to zoom
out for a minute to get our own lives in a certain context and perspective. It
is a petty temptation to compare ourselves only against our immediate neighbors
and carp that we aren't measuring up. Truth is that if we could zoom out, we
would appear to God like two toddlers in a huge toy store, fighting over one
single doll. God, in a good mood, must roll her eyes.
If we could zoom out for a minute and
view the world as a village of just 100 people, 80 of the 100 would live in
substandard housing. 70 would be unable to read. 50 would suffer from
mal-nutrition. 6 people would possess 59% of the world’s wealth and all 6 would
be from the U.S.
Only 1 of the 100 people would have a college education. Only 1 would own a
The truth is that if you have money
in the bank, in your wallet, or in a spare change dish, you are among the top
8% of the world's wealthy people. Just being able to come to church today
without fear of harassment or arrest, you are ahead of over 500 million people
in the world. In fact, just making it through the week, you are more blessed
than a million other people who will not.
No the truth is that we are
surrounded by wonder and blessing. We need to recognize it for what it is. We
need to name it. We need to call it aloud in prayer and let it guide and orient
us when we face the day.
In Hebrew, the word for "blessing"
comes from the root word for "knee"… That is probably because when
you say a blessing, you should bend a prayerful and humble knee in gratitude.
How important that is for small things and for great.
I remember watching Michael Jordan right after the Chicago Bulls won
their third NBA championship at the buzzer and His Airness had dropped in that
game-winning shot. The arena exploded, all his teammates piled on him. It was
literally a dream come true and the pinnacle of his great athletic career. And
in the middle of this melee, when he got to the bench, Michael
dropped to his knee and bowed his head. The next day, the writer, I think for
Sports Illustrated, said, "The man
who could fly through the air never looked so impressive as when he took a
knee." In the middle of the excitement, when everyone is telling you
that you are the Man, you are Superwoman, you've done it all, stop and remember
that your life is a blessing, how you got there, how different it could have
been, how dependent you were on so many people and how blessed you have been by
I watched one Corporate executive at
his retirement as the Chairman of the Board of Directors got up and listed this
long list of achievements and accomplishments that this man had made, the
obstacles that he had overcome. After all these accolades, they asked him to
say a few words to the hundreds of people that were gathered to fete him. He
took the mike and began to thank all of the secretaries that had worked for
him, memorable clerks that ran the mail room, gregarious people that ran the
cafeteria, a long list of people by name that had been part of his team. He
remembered that he didn't do it alone, there were a whole host of people
working with him. There was a lot all around him that could have been taken for
I thought to myself as I was
listening to him speak, "that is leadership". That is what we hope
for our young people to become. The Spirit of Gratitude keeps us focused on
others. Reinhold Niebuhr used to say that the bible teaches us that
self-fulfillment is a by-product of the fulfillment of others. It brings people
together. It is such a positive force. It is gracious and inspiring. I think it
is particularly important for us to focus on developing gratitude in our
families and modeling it for our children. So many of them will be the leaders
of our country in the very near future. I can think of no greater blessing that
to hear grateful and gracious young women and men embodying these life-giving
values that they learned from us.
Because in the end, our scriptures
teach us that what fundamentally matters is excellence of character. We may be
successful; we may not have a market for our talents. We may life in an age of
affluence; we may find our life rudely interrupted with war, famine, disease
unto death. It is important to remember that our character will be tested by
success and that it will most certainly be tested by the decline and
deprivation that life will serve up for us sooner or later.
Many of you know the great violinist Yitzhak
Perlman. I first saw him play when I was 18 years old at college. Perlman was
stricken with polio as a child, so when he walks out on the stage, he has to
struggle with two crutches as both of his legs are in braces. He is painfully
slow and he almost gets winded just adjusting himself to his seat. And then he
puts the bow to the string.
At one concert, he signaled to the
Conductor that he was ready, the orchestra started behind him, he played just a
few bars, when you could hear one of his strings snap like the report from a
Now at that point, he was close
enough to the beginning of the piece that he could have stopped the Conductor,
called for another violin, and started the piece over. Everyone would have
understood and waited.
But he didn't do it. He kept playing
on three strings. When the time came for his solo, he found the notes on his
other three strings and where it was not possible to replicate those notes, he
improvised and filled in as he could. It was a masterful improvisation, full of
the characteristic passion that Perlman brings to his art.
The piece was astonishing enough that
when he finished, the audience erupted in applause. After the applause died
down, Perlman raised his bow to call for silence. Then he said, "You know, sometimes it is the artist's
task to find out how much beautiful music you can still make with what you have
I can fairly well guarantee you that
you will one day have to find out how much beauty you can still make with what
you have left. Life eventually declines and all of us here will die. None of us
is exempt from suffering, frustration, injustice. Some of us will know all
three in spades.
Especially for those of us that are
Christians, it is important to remember that we follow a man that knew hunger,
isolation, injustice, serious suffering, deadening pain, and premature death.
We don't get a pass on this side of life.
In some meaningful sense, our
spirituality actually prepares us for the inevitable day when we have to go
through difficult times. Yitzhak Perlman is right though. We can make beauty
out of what we have left. Even in diminished state, our lives are still
precious and there is this transcendent dimension of wonder and joy. I hope you
don't have to go through those difficult days… but you will.
I think of the diary entry of a young
woman, just 28 years old. She wrote, "Sometimes
when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on earth, my eyes
raised towards heaven, tears run down my face, tears of deep emotion and
gratitude." She wasn't at the Canyon Ranch having a spa treatment
weekend. She wasn't at her wonderful summer camp in Maine. She was an anonymous woman, except
for this diary that she left behind. Her name was Etty Hillesum and she was
rounded up as a young woman in Amsterdam, herded
on a cattle car to Poland,
and she died shortly after she wrote that because she was Jewish.
And the cynics would be right, noting
the bitter irony of this fate. In the Bible, Jacob and Leah, the Patriarch and
Matriarch, had a 4th child. We are told that Leah named him 'Yehuda' (or we say
which means "I am grateful". The Jews are named after Judah, 'The
Grateful ones'. This people who have been hounded, scourged, suffered pogrom
and holocaust are the grateful ones. How ironic.
Yes, it is. And, when gratitude
infuses your Spiritual way of being in the world, it is not dependent on
external circumstances for it to flourish. It is part of hardship and victory,
of sickness and health. Spiritually, we can be grateful even in suffering.
There is a line in the Proverbs that
says, "Who is it that is rich? Those who rejoice in their own lot."
Cheryl Crowe was pretty close when she sang in a song, "It's not having
what you want. It's wanting what you've got."
This is not settling for mediocrity,
nor accepting your lot in life with indifference. No, we can feel the roil of
discontent as we struggle to overcome and improve our lots in life. But, there
is a transcendent gratitude that persists in the midst of suffering, even at
the edges of degrading existence. Our world is shot through with meaning and
beauty, even at the end.
Put your game face on. Take some time
in the morning shower, during your first cup of coffee… Open your mind. Reflect
on what has blessed you. Name what is important to you. Give thanks to God. And
if you find this hard to do, you need to do it that much more. Open yourself to
grace. Ask God to give you opportunities to grow in grace and bless other
people. Fulfill those around you…
May peace be with you. And as my
Grandfather used to say to me, "Don't let the bastards wear you
[i] This was
reported by Franklin Turner. I have not
had a chance to independently verify it but it certainly sounds correct.
[ii] I got this story from Dr. Alan Morinis at his
website. http://www.aish.com. He wrote a
series on the path of the Soul. One of them is about gratitude. Dr. Morinis
acknowledges that this story may be more legendary than historical but I have
heard a quite similar version from graduate students in Music. I hope it is
All rights reserved.