Week of October 23, 2013

Todd JonesMy Dear Friends,

If I were to mention one characteristic that is most essential to a vital Christian life, I think it would be gratitude. C. S. Lewis believed that gratitude was the essential difference between heaven and hell. Lewis said “that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” He believed that people chose their own hells. “Heaven is the house of gratitude,” Lewis declared, but “We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his or her own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance and where everyone lives the dearly serious passions of envy, self-importance and resentment.” In many ways, gratitude is the opposite of both envy and resentment. Gratitude is also the opposite of entitlement. Lewis said, “If hell is the Kingdom of Entitlement, heaven is the Kingdom of Gratitude.” People who quietly assume that they are entitled to certain comforts, privileges and rights spend their lives missing out on the sheer joy of recognizing life for the gift that it is.

I have returned often over the summer and fall to Anne Lamott’s little book on prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow. Lamott says that for her, these are the three essential prayers that she finds herself voicing to God. And the most life-giving may well be the prayer of Thanks. She writes, “This one truth, that the few people you adore will die, is plenty difficult to absorb… Awful stuff happens and beautiful stuff happens, and it’s all part of the big picture. In the face of everything, we slowly come through….And at some point, we cast our eyes to the beautiful skies, above all the crap we’re wallowing in and we whisper ‘Thank you.’”

What does it take to recognize that life is a gift and that the only possible response is gratitude? I think some of this recognition never comes fully until we learn in our own lives what grace is, until we experience the miracle of God’s forgiving, healing love. This is the heartbeat of worship, and thanksgiving is what turns worship into a life-giving act. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian and rabbi, suffered late in life a heart attack from which he never fully recovered. A friend visited him in the hospital and found him weak, barely able to speak at all. When Heschel saw him, he whispered, “Sam, when I regained consciousness, my first feeling was not despair or anger. I felt only gratitude to God for my life, for every moment I have lived. I have seen so many miracles.” As a pastor, I have listened to dear friends with the end of life in view utter similar words of thanks. This only comes from seeing life clearly for the gift that it is, and it makes all the difference in the world to how we live.

Gratitude can change a life. Without it, marriage is more a sentence than a source of joy. Without it, our jobs soon become drudgery. Without thanksgiving at the very heart of things, our churches are reduced to places that exist to meet our endless needs. All these important places also become sources of disappointment and resentment if we approach them without gratitude. I have seen it again and again — the most grateful people end up the most joyful, the most satisfied customers of life itself. When we become thankful people, we unlock the fullness of life. Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and then into even more. Gratitude turns a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a marriage into an intimate friendship and life into an adventure. That is why the Psalmist said again and again, “O, Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.” I smiled the other day when Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, Afternoon on a Hill, came across my computer screen:

I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.

Where is this gladness found, but in a heart that is filled with gratitude? Karl Barth said, “Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.” We are envisioning ourselves to be a church family whose life is increasingly marked by Gratitude, Hospitality and Generosity. I honestly believe that the key to becoming everything God wants us to be is gratitude to Almighty God. Anne Lamott puts it so plainly: “Saying and meaning ‘thanks’ leads to a crazy thought: What more can I give?”

With Love and Prayers,

Todd Jones

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