Gratitude?

I heard the story this way: One evening a man was taking a stroll down the sidewalk in his neighborhood. As he walked along, all of a sudden a rubber ball bounced over a fence and landed at his feet. He picked it up as a little girl came running toward him and stuck out her hand, obviously wanting her ball back. Trying to prompt the girl to say “Please” or “Thank You” he said, “Well, what’s the magic word?” With a frown on her face, the child shouted, “Now!”

We witness this story every day. We live this every day. We are the culture of gratification, not the culture of gratitude. Fast food is the norm. Internet speeds are never fast enough. Amazon now offers same-day delivery in large cities. Same-day delivery! And life at breakneck speed is taking its toll on our entire population. We know there are no easy solutions for such complex challenges, but we also know that small changes add up to big differences—changes like more sleep, families eating together, saying no to work and yes to time with family and friends. Sabbath rest was great idea in Genesis and it’s still a great idea!

It’s easy, even comfortable, to condemn the larger culture and its shortcomings. It’s much more daring, however, to say, “I’m going change. I’m going live differently. I’m going to make a difference—today.”

It’s one thing to feel or express more gratitude, but the biblical challenge is downright outrageous. What does gratitude mean from a Christian perspective? One verse that imagines the possibilities of such living is I Thessalonians 5:18. Translators keep trying to capture the audacious notion of such extreme gratitude:

 “Whatever happens, keep thanking God…”

 “Give thanks in every situation…”

 “Be thankful in all circumstances…”

 “Give thanks, whatever happens…”

The Christian experiment isn’t just to feel gratitude; it’s to feel gratitude no matter what. Every situation? All circumstances? Whatever happens? It’s born out of a trust that God is present and God cares. It’s grounded on a confidence that there is more to life than my instant gratification. It’s based on a knowledge that I don’t have to feel happy every moment, and that struggle may actually turn out to be a good thing, or even a God thing. But such living has to be intentional and practiced. Do we trust God enough to try such extravagant faith? Most days, I confess, I do not. But today, this day, can be different.

It begins with internal conversations. How do I respond when no one else is around? How do I react when I don’t feel instant gratification? Am I only willing to explore positive, happy feelings, or can I allow my humanness to explore and learn from difficulty, disappointment, and even pain? For those of us who are parents, there’s also the issue of modeling. What is my child learning from me? Gratification or Gratitude? Shallowness or Depth? Discipleship or Selfishness? Fear or Confidence? Anxiety or Peace? Anger or Compassion?

I suspect the Apostle Paul knew that particular line would be shocking when the people of Thessalonica first read it. After all, that kind of faithfulness begins by focusing not on one’s fears, but on what already prompts feelings of gratitude. There’s an old spiritual discipline of listing one’s blessings, naming them before God, and then giving thanks. What’s your list right now? Stuff? People? Institutions? Spiritual matters? “I am grateful for….”

Not a bad way to begin and end the day.

Gladys Stern (better known as G. B. Stern) was born in London, England, in 1890. Author of many novels, short stories, plays, memoirs, and biographies, she wrote her first novel at the age of twenty and then continued to write a novel every year for most of her adult life, until her death in 1973. Incredible. She once wrote, “Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.” I think I understand. Be grateful and tell someone.

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