There are many reasons why people are generous. Perhaps for tax reasons, for public relations, for peer pressure or for any number of other motivations. As I get older, I find that a sense of gratitude is at the heart of my motivation to be generous. Gratitude is also at the heart of my faith: my relationship with the Divine. Gratitude, however, is something I have to work on all the time.
It seems that gratitude is not something most of us are born with. We all like to be on the receiving end of gifts, kind words, and good wishes, of course. But even the sweetest child often needs to be reminded to say “thank you” or to write a card or note of thanks for a birthday or Christmas present.
As we age, we learn that we are not the center of the universe. Nor are we the source of all the good that comes our way. Much of what we receive is not earned, and this is, I believe, at the heart of gratitude: an understanding and appreciation of the fact that we are the recipient and beneficiary of an abundance of wondrous blessings poured out on creation by a loving God.
I have also become aware that some of those blessings are disguised. Looking back, I did not realize the blessing in many of the events of my life at the time they occurred; it’s only now that I realize how fortunate I was to have had those experiences, and how valuable the lessons learned were. I did not feel joy or gratitude when my parents insisted I spend a day cutting the grass, trimming bushes, and washing windows for an elderly neighbor for free. I was not particularly grateful when I got fired from a job, even though it gave me the opportunity to change what I was doing. I learned, and grew, and discovered things about life that have proved to be enormously valuable. Aging has given me time and perspective to reflect on the unrecognized gifts and blessings that have been poured onto me over the years. But recognizing these blessings is not meant to be an automatic path to gratitude or generosity. There is much work to be done.
All of us have probably known someone who had great athleticism but who never became a great athlete. All of us have most likely known someone who had a natural talent for music or art or math, or some other skill, but who never fully developed or used that talent. I read somewhere that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to master a skill. Gratitude, a great skill, is just like that. Just as we learn to write thank you notes, we learn to recognize our blessings and to express our gratitude. We do so through reflection, by prayer, or by expressing our appreciation through a smile or kind words. However, in order to fully grow into who I am made to be, I must try to see, understand and be thankful for the gifts that are mine in abundance. Taking the time to look and pray for vision and appreciation, to say “thank you” to God and to others, is part of growing in faith, in maturity, and in wisdom. That’s the first step on the path. But there are still more steps to be taken.
Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Like many of the blessings that have come my way, this is sometimes hard to see and even harder to acknowledge. Again, I must stop and pray for vision and appreciation with a prayer to ask that I see those around me through the eyes of Jesus. The view is amazing. When I am given that view, however, the response has to be more than a whispered “thank you.” James Chapter 2 tells us that faith without works is dead. Gratitude without giving in return amounts to not much more than self-congratulation. Remember the Pharisee whose prayer was “Lord, I thank you that I’m not like these sinners”?
My wife reminded me of the story of the widow who had nothing but gave her mite in gratitude for her life. Giving from gratitude is like the call and response pattern of liturgy: God calls us into being and overwhelms us with His gifts in an abundance we scarcely can imagine; our response is to give back in gratitude. The form of our giving is not what’s important, whether it’s money, time, the use of our skills and talents, or a combination of those things. Those things are not the actual gifts. Rather, we are more like the little boy who gave his loaves and fishes to Jesus. The boy did not give the food to feed the five thousand, but he did give Jesus the opportunity to work a miracle.
Over the years, people whose names I will never know and whose faces I will never see have given from their gratitude in many ways which have been to my benefit. God often uses those gifts to work miracles. When I can sit in our beautiful church, when I can hear glorious music, when I can see smiling faces, hear laughter, or feel peace and rest, I am enjoying the benefit of the gifts from many, many people. God is using those gifts to open other doors, other possibilities. As I grow older, I see how individual gifts, large and small, have a cumulative effect beyond the reach of most of us. I also see that while the Spirit moves to make miracles, it’s incumbent upon me to act, not to wait or pray for miracles to happen. God’s work must be of my own hands. The resources, skills, and talents I have are not given to me just for my comfort or enjoyment.
I’m also very aware that time is short. In my gratitude, I am called to give, and give abundantly. The question during this season of stewardship for me is simple. What can I give in thanks for a beautiful wife who has loved me all these years? What can I give to thank God for a life of blessings, known and unknown, that have helped me toward becoming the person God calls me to be? What can I give to help God show us all that the kingdom of heaven is at hand?