A Commitment to Gratitude

Psalm 103:1-5

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For men my age, if we received any appreciable guidance in matters of religion, it was in all likelihood, this very text. I remember hearing it from my football coach. Our coaches were not in the regular habit of praying with the team but sometimes we would take a knee before a championship game, and this is what we would hear. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”

It made a big impression on me, probably because my coach had played for the New York Giants and was incredibly fit in middle age.  Talented, fiercely independent, a self-made man with discipline. To hear him publicly acknowledge that the source of his accomplishments comes from something beyond himself made a lasting impact. Parents if you memorize only one line of scripture to acknowledge the Creator in front of your children, this one will do just fine.

After Michael Jordan won his first NBA title, right as he got to the locker room before the throng of reporters overwhelmed the place, he briefly knelt beside his locker in silent thanks. I think it was the reporter from Sports Illustrated that said, “For all of his impressive acrobatic feats, His Airness never looked so good as when he humbly bowed to give thanks.”  Michael Jordan has struggled with his ego and who doesn’t at that level. But for that moment, he embodied a way of looking at the world, articulated so well by Brian Piccillo when he was playing for the Chicago Bears.

A reporter was asking Piccillo why he did what he did and he answered, “My God is first; My country and family are second; I am Third”. Brian Piccilo was a man of honor and he lived and died with honor guiding him.

“Bless the Lord, Oh My Soul, and forget not His benefits… who redeems you from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you shall live.”

When we are younger, we are so anxious to prove to ourselves that we are accomplished, that we are worthy, we keep achieving and achieving and achieving. Particularly if you are in certain fields, you spend most of your time in your 30’s and 40’s in a competition beating someone else and after a few years of this, you can start believing that you alone are responsible alone for your achievements (certainly no one else is), that you alone are the master of your own destiny. Of course, being in control of your own ship is very important and relishing accomplishment with healthy pride is a good thing.

But at some point, after you’ve become accomplished, after the accolades and the dollars come pouring in, you probably have a moment when you realize just how different this whole story could have become. You were blessed with a great team that jumped your whole project to another level altogether. You were blessed that events of history broke your way and opportunities opened up that could just have easily stayed closed in a different economy

General George S. Patton had one of those moments rather late in life (if the movie about his life is generally accurate). After the European campaign was over and the Nazi’s were defeated, right at the end of the war, he was leaving a meeting at a Café, just about to step into the cobblestone street, when a colleague pulled him back to the curb to avoid a runaway cart that would have killed him. All of the Generals were joking about how ironic it would be to survive all of the tank battles of WW2, and die from such a silly accident.

But those moments, you ought to reflect back that the world could have been quite different and that you are more dependent on contingencies out of your control than on virtues that you possess, and that a certain humility and gratitude should pervade your being. Suddenly, it is not such a bad thing to take a knee and remember that actually a whole lot of things had to break for you at just the right time. Come to think of it, you are actually blessed beyond your knowing of it.

And if you don’t take that knee, if you aren’t moved to see the many ways that you have been blessed by the team that is around you, you will be sidelined prematurely because you don’t have the spiritual attunement inspire and motivate people at the top levels. Management Professors refer to it as “Servant Leadership”… people that create a culture that fosters personal and communal growth as the key for transformation. Service is characteristic and they embody that sense of service, building trusting relationships through collaboration, creating communal commitment.

When you think about these really great leaders, they are good at listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to growth of people, and building community. These are skills that point in the direction of being emotionally and spiritually attuned. Part of the spiritual attunement is having learned to exercise the muscle of gratitude.

Gratitude directs us up and out of ourselves to a wider mission. It is a capacity to be developed. Partly we must develop it because self-interest is powerful and petty as every family knows. Wendy Mogul remembers the year her daughter was in first grade and she got a check in the mail from Nana and Papa for her birthday.[i] Her daughter had been obsessing about a Pound Puppy Playhouse. She was going on and on about having one. Alas, they didn’t carry them at the wee toy store on Main street, so her daughter convinces her to go to Kmart, way far away. They get to the store, but no Pound Puppy Playhouse, and her daughter is crestfallen with disappointment.

Now Mama Bear develops missionary zeal and they go to a couple more stores, where finally at the Mega “Toys R Us”, they locate the veritable Holy Grail. She buys it before her birthday, let’s her open it right away, and for three days the daughter plays with it constantly. And then… it was over… never played with it again. Now she wants a Backstreet Boys CD, also so, so, so bad.

Without really realizing it, it can become easy to fall into habits that weaken our sense of gratitude in our families, without really intending to undermine our sense of gratitude. We rely on outings to the Mall for rewards for our children (even more so for our teens). It makes shopping more of a panacea than it is in reality. We could be at the museum, exploring nature, or making a field trip of some kind- the Mall is a kind of default indulgence in our metropolitan culture.

We are flooded with catalogues and on-line shopping, so we keep feeding our sense of desire and we create more of an ethos in our home and we don’t quite realize the degree that our children are influenced by all of the things we leave lying around. We could be exploring new ideas on-line or learning together.

We find ourselves using the word “Need” when you really mean “Want”. As our wants become needs, opportunities become flattened into expectations (entitlements).

We express our envy in unguarded moments.[ii]

All of these habits communicate fairly powerfully, perhaps non-verbally, but they feed desire and self-regarded satiation. Add these few habits together with a wider culture of Marketing that is already expert at stimulating desire in us, and you realize that if you don’t have a commitment to gratitude, you aren’t going to exercise it enough to combat this social ethos of Entitlement that surrounds us. Left on default mode, with our prosperity, entitlement will win.

It has to be managed and it has to be managed our entire lives because it doesn’t go away when we have more assets. It is always there. Just ask a financial advisor during a really volatile time in the market what it is like advising their clients. No matter how much you have, the prospect of losing it, is unnerving to big fish as well as the small. I remember visiting one of our Investment Bankers who had to take a call, the screaming on the other end so loud, that it sounded like cicada’s in July in his office. Embarrassed, he hangs up and says, “We have a lot of high maintenance clients”.

That anxiety that we don’t have enough, that there won’t be enough, somehow this is hard-wired into human nature and we over-react to it because of our deep evolutionary history. This penchant to anxiety has to be managed with the virtue of generosity.

We become stronger characters with generosity. Giving allows us to become God-like. We are exercising some responsibility for one quadrant of the world that we are in contact with. We are focused on ‘others’ not on ‘self’. When we exercise the character muscle of generosity, we start to see ourselves as channels of blessing. We can direct the flow of blessing.

Reciprocally, it also opens awareness. You pay attention to blessing. You start to realize how blessed you’ve been. You become aware of the people that positively shaped you in the past, people that fostered in you the things that later came to bloom in important ways. And you start to see yourself as a kind of channel in this process. If you are lucky enough to actually be involved in raising more than one generation, how humbling and grateful that awareness really is… We really are, literally, channels of blessing to those around us. It is at the core of what it means to love and allow yourself to be loved by others.

Generosity and Gratitude exercise that muscle. They take you out of yourself, out beyond yourself. They re-direct that anxiety about ourselves and empower our attention to others, our empathy. It channels that anxiety into blessing.

Francine Christophe is 84 years old. She was 8 years old in southern France when she was made to wear a large yellow star of David and then rounded up to be taken to Bergen-Belsen when the Germans swept across France and rounded up the Jews.

Since she was a child with her mother, she was allowed to take a couple items from home. Her mother took a couple of those exquisite French chocolates, wrapped them in their special paper and took them for her.

She told Francine, “When you collapse completely and really need help, I will give you these chocolates and they will make you better.”

There was a woman in the camp who was pregnant. You couldn’t really tell because she was so skinny, she didn’t look right, but the day came and she went into labor.

Francine’s mother came to her and said, “remember that chocolate that I have saved for you. I want to give it to this mother about to give birth. It will be very difficult for her and I think she might die and I think the chocolate will make her stronger. Is it okay with you, if I give her your chocolate?”

“Yes, Mama”, the little Francine said.

She gave birth to a tiny feeble little baby. She ate the chocolate. She did not die. She came back to the barracks. The baby never cried. Never. It didn’t wail.

6 months later, the camp was liberated. They unwrapped the babies rags and the baby screamed. That was the day that this baby was truly born. They took this baby back to France, a puny little thing.

A few years ago, my daughter said to me, “Mama, when you all were liberated from the camps, maybe it would have been easier for all of you if you had been able to see a psychiatrist that could have helped you deal with the trauma you had been through.”

Francine, now in her 70’s said, “Undoubtedly, but we didn’t think of that then… But you know what, it would be a good topic for discussion.” So she organized a conference with a number of bit speakers, psychiatrists, psychologists, historians. They gave their papers and they were excellent. The conference drew quite a crowd.

The last speaker got up to speak. She was a psychiatrist from Marseilles. Just before she spoke she said, I have a special gift for Mrs. Francine Christophe, would you come up to the podium.

The elderly Francine went to the podium. The psychiatrist handed her two pieces of chocolate and she said, “I was that baby that was born.”

If you are lucky enough to live your life to the ripe old age of 84. If you are lucky enough to grow up spiritually through your difficult seasons and through your seasons of triumph, you’ll look back and see that your whole life has been a great channel of gratitude for those that came before you and blessed you and those that you were a blessing to others, perhaps quite in spite of yourself.

And I hope for you that you will live to see the chocolate you gave away come back to bless you. May you live to see someone flourishing in front of you, talented, humane and gracious because of how you have lived your life and what you have provided for others. I think sometimes we are just holding those pieces of blessing for someone else to make them strong and then someone is holding them for us to make us strong. It is a great interwoven tapestry of grace and generosity if only we could zoom out and see the big picture.

If you pay attention to the people that opened doors for you, if you give thanks for the values that shaped you, you start to see your role in this process, you start to see that what is important is that you direct blessing in some tangible way yourself. You don’t generate it and you don’t get to hold on to it forever. You receive it and open the doors to pass it forward.

That is really what you want, to live a life of significance, to make a difference. What can you invest yourself in with your family that is significant? What are you channeling blessing towards? Why don’t you dream about that together?

And among other things, we hope that this community becomes a community of significance for you. We hope you commit your time, talent, and lives with those right around you here. May we dream dreams of good deeds together. May we inspire each other to live out of our higher selves. May we grow in grace and blessing together.

 

[i] Wendy Mogul, “The Blessings of a Skinned Knee” (New York: Scribner’s, 2001), pp. 115ff.
[ii] Ibid. p. 126.