“Reframing Gratitude,” Susan Ryder

On the church calendar, we don’t often get to enjoy a full Thanksgiving weekend for it’s own sake. Most of the time, first Sunday of Advent comes along while there is still cranberry sauce and stuffing left in the fridge. But this is one of those nice years where there’s a week in between, something that will happen again in 2018, but then not until 2023. Which means we can ease into the Advent season a little more gracefully and take our time considering gratitude. Even so, it seems like Christmas decorations have gone up earlier than usual this year. I’m used to the stores breaking out the Christmas cheer right after Labor Day, but most people hold off decorating their homes until after Thanksgiving. This year, though, I’ve seen decorations going up around Blo/No neighborhoods since the weekend before last. Perhaps the state of our world encouraged some to get into the holiday spirit sooner than normal. Or maybe it’s just the nice weather we’ve been having. Oops, now I’m getting ahead of the season myself! Let’s back up.

Since this summer, we’ve dedicated a number of reflections to reframing spirituality. This morning we consider reframing gratitude. For the next few minutes, instead of understanding gratitude as a response to good fortune, let’s think of it as a practice, an attitude we cultivate. What if we think of gratitude as a compass or gyroscope that allows us to find our way proactively through difficult times? Maybe the best gratitude, the most useful gratitude, is that which doesn’t come easily. As we begin, I invite you to think of some challenge you’ve gone through when you’ve found yourself feeling thankful unexpectedly, or perhaps when you’ve had to dig deep for gratitude. We’ll begin with a few readings.

Psalm 30 selected verses
I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me. O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; you have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent – and I will give thanks to you forever.

French Proverb Gratitude is the heart’s memory.

Brother David Steindl-Rast Gratefulness is not a feeling – it is an attitude.

Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat, Spiritual RX: The spiritual practice of gratitude has been called a state of mind and a way of life. But we prefer to think of it as a grammar — an underlying structure that helps us construct and make sense out of our lives. The rules of this grammar cover all our activities. Its syntax reveals a system of relationships linking us to the divine and to every other part of the creation.

Earlier this week, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told journalists that they would have to announce what they were thankful for before they could ask her a question. I wonder if “I’m thankful we haven’t been destroyed by nuclear annihilation yet” would have passed muster with Ms. Sanders. After the first few questions, Associated Press’ Zeke Williams ignored the “request” and was chastised by Sanders. The reporter who won the day was ABC’s Cecilia Vega, who said she was thankful for the first amendment – which received lots of “oohs” from the rest of the room. Twitter also jumped in with responses from other reporters, including thankfulness expressed for not being part of the White House Press Corps, appreciation that the year was almost over, and my favorite, responding to Sanders’ condescending request – “When the briefing is done all WH reporters must also put their toys away and sit criss-cross applesauce.”

I empathize with the reporters who scoffed at Sanders’ exercise. Forced expressions of gratitude, in any situation, have always seemed trite and artificial to me. The first time I remember experiencing it myself was 40 years ago, when I spent most of the summer of 1977 at Forest Home, a Christian camp a couple of hours from home in the mountains of southern California. It was the summer before my senior year in high school, and I was there for several weeks as a C-I-L-T – “Camper in Leadership Training.” I loved Forest Home, spent a week of camp there every summer, and I was excited to be accepted into the CILT program, which only invited a dozen teens to participate each summer. The challenge was that I had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis a year earlier, so was in quite a bit of pain, and did not move as well or quickly as my the rest of the group.

Most mornings after breakfast, we hiked up to the cabin where we had our opening devotional. It was only about a quarter of a mile walk on an easy trail, but even that short distance was tough for me. The other CILTs moved faster, so I normally walked by myself except for the rare occasion when someone noticed me and fell back into step. One morning in our opening circle, we were asked to share something we were grateful for. I was not feeling grateful. I was in pain. I had just walked to the cabin by myself – again – while the others left me behind, laughing and chatting as they pulled head and formed a bond that I was left out of. I was homesick and wondered if I should even be there. So when my turn came to share something for which I was grateful, I asked if I could pass. I was told passing was not allowed, but they would come back to me last. As I listened to my fellow teens tell about the wonders of God’s grace and glory for which they were thankful, I struggled to think of something I could share. When my turn came back around, I said, “I’m sorry, but I really don’t feel very grateful about anything this morning. Maybe I can share tomorrow?” I hoped my honest struggle would be accepted and we’d move on, but my response was met with furrowed brows of disappointment, and an insistence that I share something with the group before we moved on. Talk about pressure!

After what seemed like an eternity of silence, I finally made something up. “Well, most mornings I walk up here to the cabin alone, and because I am all by myself, moving slowly and not making a lot of noise talking and laughing like the rest of you, I am able to see and hear and enjoy our beautiful surroundings – the sounds of the birds, the smells of the pine, and squirrels hunting for acorns. One morning, when I had to sit down on a log to rest because my legs were hurting, I even saw a deer and her fawn just off the trail in the woods.” That seemed to satisfy them. Having missed what I thought was pretty obvious sarcasm dripping from my response, our female leader smiled and smugly replied, “See, our God is SO great, we can always find something to be thankful for!” Inside I seethed. If our God was SO great, why did I have rheumatoid arthritis? And what, pray tell, did I have to be grateful for at that time in life? When I expressed a toned-down version of those questions in a smaller group a couple weeks later, I was almost sent home because, in their view, I did not have the “right kind of attitude to be there.” Apparently their narrow, regimented experience of Christianity could not abide that kind of questioning and honesty. Thus began a journey that led to the eventual loss of my faith – well, that faith anyway. Instead of inspiring me to grow as a young Christian leader, the events of that summer pushed me away from the traditional God of my childhood. Talk about something to be grateful for! If only we could have a reunion – I’d have so much to tell them I’m grateful for now!

Several years after that summer, as I shared the story with a therapist, I told her the rest of it – that after that morning, as I slowly walked to and from meetings and meals that summer, I actually did start to appreciate the natural beauty of the place. I realized I would be leaving leave the mountain all too soon and return to the city, where cement sidewalks and car exhaust would replace the hiking trails and pine scented mountains; and traffic sounds would take the place of birdsong. So in spite of my frustration and resentment I breathed in the mountain air a little more deeply and enjoyed the remaining time there with a sense of genuine appreciation, often leaving early for our gatherings so I could enjoy my necessarily slow walk in the woods. Of course, I never told them – I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. But as I reflected on the experience, I mentioned to my therapist that while the exercise didn’t result in what my CILT leaders were expecting of me, an unexpected sense of gratitude did help me to find my way forward into some personal growth. So while I still cringe at anyone being required to share something for which to be thankful, I appreciate the potential of gratitude that doesn’t come easily; gratitude we have to find intentionally. We can make a choice, opening ourselves to possibilities even in unwelcome circumstance.

Mind you, I will never be grateful to have RA – I will never thank God or the universe or whatever for the opportunity to live with a painful disease for over 40 years, in part because I don’t believe anyone gave it to me or afflicted me with it. Life happens, the good and the bad – and arthritis happened to me. What I can be grateful for are the gifts in my life that I can appreciate because arthritis is my reality. For instance, I would likely not have gone to seminary had I remained a physically healthy teenager. More than likely I’d have followed another professional path – a lawyer was what I wanted to be at that time, though of course that might have changed. Had I not gone to seminary, I would not have met Bob, and I would not know any of you. So while I am not thankful for the RA, I am very thankful for Bob, for my community here. I am grateful for good doctors and medical insurance, profound blessings in my life I am aware that not everyone has. And that gratitude does help me deal with the daily reality of the arthritis, but on my own terms, not because someone demanded me to come up with something. If I’m anything, I’m stubborn, and if you tell me to do something I will likely do the opposite! Coming to it on my own terms is more authentic.

For many people the world seems to have been bathed in quite a bit of darkness lately, and many are experiencing challenges in a variety of forms. For some, it is so strong that it seems to overshadow everything else, and it is very difficult to feel gratitude for much of anything. Whether it involves political and/or global concerns, a loved one suffering from a lingering or debilitating illness or the loss of the relationship, there appears little hope for brighter days. Yet while I acknowledge that there is much darkness, I also find it an important exercise to be deliberately grateful for the things I can be, even if they seem small or insignificant. So while I am not thankful for the current political situation we are experiencing, I am so grateful to the brave women and men who are running for office in opposition to the darkness. And while I am disturbed by the allegations of sexual misconduct running rampant in our news today, I am so grateful to the brave souls who are speaking up about it, giving courage to others to do the same. So my challenge, my hope, as we reframe our conversation about gratitude might be that instead of merely searching for the good in our lives we can be thankful for, we consider the bad as well, and look for opportunities for blessings within those dark moments. And if we have trouble finding them, perhaps it is our challenge to become or live into those blessings.