Gratitude and Grace

On a scale of 1 to 10, how grateful do you feel right now? Chances are, if everything has gone right so far this morning—you woke up at the right time, the coffee machine worked the way it was supposed to, and you’re reasonably comfortable sitting there in the pew—you may feel a kind of easy, pleasant thankfulness that the day seems to be unfolding well so far.

And that’s a good baseline, but it also may change quickly if something happens to interrupt your sense of ease. True gratitude is more than just a feeling that something has gone well, more than just saying “thanks” for a kind gesture or a gift that we appreciate. When we bring God into the mix, real gratitude can become a kind of portal through which we connect with God’s grace. And that grace is a creative, blessing energy, opening our hearts to allow love and healing to flow into our lives—and through us, into the lives around us. That’s how God’s light spreads in a real and tangible way.

This idea of gratitude as a transformative power comes through loud and clear in this quote from writer Melody Beattie:

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion to clarity…Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

And M. J. Ryan, the author of Attitudes of Gratitude, identifies gratitude as something essential to our nature. It’s something we already have within us. She writes, “Gratitude helps us return to our natural state of joyfulness where we notice what’s right instead of what’s wrong. It makes us feel complete, that we have everything we need, at least in this moment.”

Noticing what’s right instead of what’s wrong is one of the secrets to being able to feel grateful about anything. In a coffeeshop in Chicago, there’s a sign on the wall that says,

As you wander on through life, sister/brother,
whatever be your goal,
keep your eye upon the donut,
and not upon the hole.

With so much opportunity to recognize beauty, peace, and goodness all around us—we can see it when we step away from the computer, the phone, and the television—you might think that gratitude would be a constant part of our daily lives. But because of the way our brains are wired, we are designed, thanks to the fight-or-flight impulse at the center of our brains, to be constantly scanning for what’s wrong. It’s an ancient impulse that does what it does to keep us safe. But because of that, we can rarely sustain a feeling of well-being and thankfulness for long. Soon something upsets or threatens us, and our peace gets interrupted, plunging us back into focusing on how less-than-perfect things seem to be. And then our brains switch into problem-solving mode (and our brains love that, because they relish having something to chew on), gratitude once again gets delayed until things feels right again. And that may be a while.

But in reality, gratitude isn’t just for that time down the road when everything falls into place, when nations are at peace, when there are no natural disasters, when people are fed and safe and happy. Gratitude is for right now, when almost nothing feels right; when tensions are high; when nations are posturing; when half the country is at risk of flood or fire; when people are hurting, afraid, hungry, and unjustly treated.

Skeptics might think trying to be grateful in a time such as this is a Pollyanna thing to do, a way of pretending there’s nothing wrong and absolving ourselves of any responsibility for trying to make things better. But what if instead of gratitude turning a blind eye to the suffering in the world, gratitude instead seeks, finds, and says thank you for God’s presence in the midst of our suffering. That type of gratitude—which carries the light right into the middle of the darkness we’re experiencing—might just plant a seed of transformation. And bring us all some hope.

In our Old Testament reading from Psalm 28, we hear David expressing his thanks to God in the midst of what sounds like a challenging time. He claims that God is his strength and shield and says God heard the sound of my pleadings. David is remembered as a great king but he also was an imperfect and flawed human being. He made bad choices that brought violence and heartache to his kingdom and his family. David had the humility to admit his wrongs, though, and he yearned to restore his relationship with God; ultimately, eventually, all was well again. But through all the seasons of David’s life—in joy and in heartache—his trust and faith in God never wavered. He is described in scripture as having been “a man after God’s own heart.”

David is revered in the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions, and Qu’ran scholars says David’s voice had “a captivating power, weaving its influence not only over man but over all beasts and nature, who would unite with him to praise God.” Perhaps there was something in David’s soul—and we can hear this in many of the psalms—that simply had to praise God, no matter what he was facing in his daily life. His own voice, lifted up in prayer and song, could inspire all life around him—animals, nature, and people—to praise God.  It reminds me of the gentle, inclusive, blessing energy of St. Francis, many centuries later. That’s gratitude as a magnetic, transforming power.

The essayist, poet, and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson was a big proponent of gratitude. In this little verse, he offers thanks for the simple blessings in our day we often take for granted:

“For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything thy goodness sends.”

Kind of covers it all, doesn’t it? And recognizes that it’s all a blessing from God. Emerson also wrote, “People only see what they are prepared to see. If you look for what is good and what you can be grateful for you will find it everywhere.”

This idea raises the question of how much our expectations help to shape the world we experience, and it’s a tough one to think about if you’re going through a heartbreaking, scary, or difficult time. None of us would choose to create the most painful experiences of our lives. But what if—even in the midst of upset and turmoil—we could intentionally look for something of God gleaming in that circumstance, something—maybe something tiny–we could be grateful for? A place where we see God working. That might just be the spot where we become aware of God’s grace, already flowing in.

Paul’s letter to the Romans contains a few remarkable ideas that back this up. He says that through Christ, we have “obtained access to this grace in which we stand,” promising us that the goodness we yearn for is in fact here, already so close we are standing right in the middle of it. He goes on to say that even when we are suffering, we can know that grace is present, because our suffering produces endurance, and our endurance makes us strong in character, and a good character produces hope. And that hope—the hope is important—because it connects with the love of God, poured into our heart by the spirit.

Perhaps it is at precisely that point—right where we hope to see the presence of God in our circumstance—that gratitude opens the door to the grace of God. David knew God so well that even in difficult times he was sure God was working on his behalf. His hope was justified, and Spirit poured more and more love into his heart—so much so that it inspired everyone and everything around him.

What if we, in much the same way, are all portals through which God’s grace can flow? Right now. And maybe all we need is the willingness to recognize God at work in our lives and say thank you. How like God that would be, to give us every answer we need long before we even figure out the question to ask.

This week I was driving to work on a perfect morning, past my favorite farms with the cow and dog and horse friends I see every day. I felt like I was overflowing with contentment and gratitude, and through my mind a litany of praises played: Thank you for the beautiful colors, thank you for the health of the crops, thank you for the happiness of the animals, for the evidence of peace, for the harmony everywhere.

It suddenly occurred to me that that kind of continual song of praise, that living energy of gratefulness, is what the angels must be doing—forever and ever, amen–in the eternal realm. Just happily singing God’s praises, full of celebration for the goodness of all created life. And this thought occurred to me: Why not now?

Why not now? Why can’t we be praising like the angels for all the good that’s here? Why do we have to wait for the next realm to do what we’re naturally created to do anyway? All things, through their beauty and peace, are praising their Creator. What would it feel like to have that kind of praise, that thankfulness, that gratitude, bubbling up in our own hearts all day long? It might just change what we experience each day, spilling out with a sense of light and love to all those who come in contact with us. It sounds so lovely to be able to wake in the morning with gratitude and lie down again at night with thanks on our lips for all the good we beheld during the day. I think it is possible. I think it is imperative, especially if we hope to be part of the ocean of light that George Fox saw flowing over the more limited ocean of darkness. This is the calling of our time. And we Friends are particularly well suited for it.

Dorothy Steere was a life-long Quaker and a spiritual writer; she was also the spouse of Haverford professor Douglas Steere. She traveled widely for the American Friends Service Committee and had visited Montgomery, Alabama in 1956, where she met and befriended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She and Dr. King had a correspondence for some time after, as she shared encouraging news with him about those interested in his work (most notably, India’s Prime Minister Nehru). In the year before that visit, she wrote these words:

“I believe with all my heart that
every act, every word, every attitude and longing that is creative
is caught up in the heart of the Eternal and is preserved…
What each one of us does is more important than it would appear
and hope can “spring eternal,”
for its triumph, if we are in the hands of God, is ultimate.”

As living portals for God’s grace in the world, what each one of us does it more important that we know. Even in moments of trial, we have Paul’s word that suffering brings endurance, which builds character, and then blossoms into hope. And that hope is the door that our gratefulness unlocks, opening our hearts and lives and ultimately, our whole world to the living, healing touch of God’s grace and presence.

Let’s try it this week and see.



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