One of the dangers of a comfortable life is that comfort becomes our norm. So, we notice when events dip below that standard, but become so accustomed to it that we begin to take things for granted. One of the first casualties is gratefulness.
Busyness also erodes gratefulness. True thankfulness occurs within the pauses of life, in those moments when a kindness melts our heart or when the beauty of creation overwhelms the flurry of noise and activity we use to distract us from the things that matter most. “‘Crazy-busy’ is a great armor, it’s a great way for numbing,” Brené Brown says. “What a lot of us do is that we stay so busy, and so out in front of our life, that the truth of how we’re feeling and what we really need can’t catch up with us.” And we actually need gratitude. It isn’t just a social nicety, a bit of etiquette that we somehow inherited from prudes who thought up arbitrary and trivial rules of acceptable behavior while sipping tea in china cups with their pinkie extended. Gratitude is part of humanness, and we lose something essential when it is squeezed from our souls.
Swiss writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, author of The Architecture of Happiness and Religion for Atheists, believes that gratitude is important within a secular perspective, for those who, like him, do not believe in God.
One of the differences between religious and secular lives is that in the former, one says thank you all the time: when eating, going to bed, waking up etc.
Why does the secular world tend not to say thank you? At the most obvious level, there seems no one to say thank you to. But, more importantly, offering thanks for relatively minor aspects of life risks appearing unambitious and undignified. The sort of things for which our ancestors bowed down, we pride ourselves on having done enough work to take for granted. Would we really need to pause for a moment of gratitude at the oily darkness of a handful of olives or at the fragrant mottled skin of a lemon? Are there not greater goals towards which we might be aiming?
In our refusal, we are attempting to flee a sense of vulnerability. We do not say thank you for a sunset because we think there will be many more—and because we assume there must be more exciting things to look forward to. To feel grateful is to allow oneself to sense how much one is at the mercy of events. It is to accept that there may come a point when our extraordinary plans for ourselves have run aground, our horizons have narrowed and we have nothing more opulent to wonder at than the sight of a bluebell or a clear evening sky. To say thank you for a glass of wine or a piece of cheese is a kind of preparation for death, for the modesty that our dying days will demand.
That’s why, even in a secular life, we should make space for some thank yous to no one in particular. A person who remembers to be grateful is more aware of the role of gifts and luck—and so readier to meet with the tragedies that are awaiting us all down the road.
I can’t speak for secularists, since I am not one, but I do wonder why we Christians, at least in America, tend to be known more for being negative in outlook rather than for being thoughtfully, humbly, and unrelentingly grateful.
Even Jesus, who according to Christians is the second person of the Godhead, was grateful. After he had raised his friend Lazarus from the dead by simply calling him by name, he paused to pray. “And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said,” St John records, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me” (11:41). This is not the only instance in Scripture where Jesus’ gratitude is noted (Matthew 11:25, Luke 10:21). This is hardly surprising since he was rooted in the ancient wisdom tradition of the Hebrews. Thankfulness to God was considered normative in properly receiving his grace (see, for example, Psalm 35:18; 52:9; 107) and in their liturgy of worship were sacrifices brought to the Lord as thank offerings (Leviticus 22:29; 2 Chronicles 29:31). Their biblical prayer book, the Psalms, is alive with expressions of gratitude and thankfulness. One that is rich with metaphors for beauty and spiritual realities is Psalm 104.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.
He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;
he makes the clouds his chariot;
he rides on the wings of the wind;
he makes his messengers winds,
his ministers a flaming fire (1-4).
The psalm is an extended meditation on nature, the works of God’s hand in the world in which we live and have our being. I have often wondered whether the psalmist had been out alone for a while to write this poem, surrounded by the glories of all that the Creator called into existence and sustains by the power of his word. Psalm 104 observes creation, and gives thanks, properly seeing our lives as intricately set within the circle of life that is the earth.
He made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the beasts of the forest creep about.
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they steal away
and lie down in their dens.
Man goes out to his work
and to his labor until the evening (19-23).
The psalm I believe is not meant to be an occasional expression of praise, though it is that, but also an echo of how we should see reality. For in reality we are God’s creatures, living in a web of relationships with all our fellow creatures, our very existence a reason for being grateful, world without end.
When St Paul instructs Christ’s followers to live all of life under Christ’s Lordship, to his glory, he adds, “And be thankful” (Colossians 3:15). He is essentially insisting that gratitude is characteristic of service to the rightful king. Which only makes sense: if one’s life consists of pleasing the one who reigns over all, then true and lasting significance is guaranteed. Calvin thought, given the context of what Paul was addressing that the apostle wasn’t asking us to list the graces we have received as much as pointing out that the people of God should exhibit what he called “sweetness of manners. Hence, with the view of removing ambiguity, I prefer to render it, ‘Be amiable.’” Which is precisely what a life of gratitude demonstrates before a watching world. “Through him,” that is Christ, “let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15). Some Christians have thought this means they should continually be exclaiming “Praise God,” but that is mistaken. Trivializing thanksgiving also trivializes the reasons for gratefulness and makes the demonstration seem mindless and insincere. Silent gratitude would be more amiable.
I’m searching for phrases,
To sing your praises,
I need to tell someone,
It’s soon after midnight,
And my day has just begun
[from “Soon after Midnight” on Tempest (2012)]
As Dylan notes, the right words do not come easily. When gratitude erupts in awe our ability to capture it in words often seems to fail, as if we drain away the awe simply by calling attention to it.
I’m not certain when I first became aware of the 104th Psalm as an expansive poem of thanksgiving that ranges across the whole of creation. I was raised around Scripture, heard it read at mealtime, in periods of family devotions, and at church. I don’t think the psalm registered in my consciousness until I was a bit older and suddenly noticed it mentioned wine. We were stern teetotalers, told the stuff tasted horrible, though I always liked the tiny sip I was allowed at Communion. We celebrated Communion weekly and used a common cup, which permitted an adolescent a chance to take a gulp if your parents had their eyes tightly closed in quiet meditation, which mine usually did. I don’t remember being too bothered about the warnings I heard against imbibing (my worldly interests lay in different directions), but one day I became aware that this psalmist apparently not only liked wine, he appreciated its effects. God is being praised for his goodness, expressed in the bounty of his creation, when suddenly alcohol, as it was referred to in our circles, makes an appearance (v 14-15):
You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
I asked about the text and heard reasons why it didn’t mean what it says. The explanation seemed unconvincing to me, though I am not certain my reason was all that compelling. Let’s just say my heart was gladdened by the whole idea.
It still is, as a matter of fact. The variety of wines, white, rose, and red lend a richness to life that can lift us for a few moments past the merely mundane. I have a friend with whom I share an occasional glass of bourbon, usually Maker’s Mark or Bulleit, as we sit on my back porch and talk theology and culture and the surprising appearances of grace. The unhurried hours of conversation are sweet, when we can relax together, and simply be.
It is true that alcoholism is a deadly plague and as a Christian I take very seriously the apostolic word to “not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery” (Ephesians 5:18). Like everything in a fallen word, wisdom is found in moderation, and like all God’s good gifts, wine can be abused and misused. Still, it is a grace that God has provided something that can gladden hearts that are often close to breaking over the seemingly endless brokenness of this sad world.
The psalmist’s gratitude for food reminds me how that for most of human history and in much of the world today people have precious little variety in their menu. Many do not have enough. I am not certain why I have been allowed to live at this time and in this place where such variety and abundance is possible, but I do know I have not earned the privilege. This past summer our friends, Daniel and Hannah Miller, who run Easy Yoke Farm, an organic farm, used Toad Hall’s front porch as the drop-off point for the weekly CSA boxes. (For those who aren’t familiar with CSA, it means Community Supported Agriculture. People purchase a membership at the beginning of the season and then each week can pick up a box of fresh vegetables.) The Millers work hard over long hours each day, but the crisp loveliness of the produce is a delight that cannot be put into words. We joked that the contents of our box tended to define our menu for the week, except that it wasn’t a joke. One thing is certain: the produce always produced a weekly burst of gratitude in us that was spontaneous and sincere. Now the season is over, and thankfully our basement shelves are lined with jars of canned goods to get us through the winter.
If the people picking up their boxes on our front porch had glanced up into the ceiling corner farthest from our door they could have seen a nest constructed by a pair of purple finches. The female laid five eggs and three hatched. She cared for her young unflinchingly during one of the hottest periods of this very hot dry summer, standing over her nest, beak open to pant, her wings spread as if to shelter them from the sun. The young grew feathers, welcomed their parents to the nest with gaping, begging mouths, and then one day flew away.
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills;
they give drink to every beast of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell;
they sing among the branches (10-12).
The female finch always flew away when we opened the door and would perch in a nearby tree, scolding. How much poorer our lives would have been had they not chosen our porch to raise a family.
There is a hard edge in nature, and the heat and drought this summer that reached even the upper Midwest where we live was a searing reminder of that reality. We kept the birdbath filled so the front porch finches wouldn’t have far to fly to find water. Or the chickadees that nested in the birdhouse that hangs under the eave on our back porch. Or the robins that nested in our chestnut crab, and the host of sparrows that live in our hedge.
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Here is the sea, great and wide,
which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great…
These all look to you,
to give them their food in due season.
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground (24-30).
The three surviving baby finches pushed the two eggs that had failed to hatch out of the nest—or perhaps it was the parents who did the deed—we did not witness the event.
Just as the lovely purple feathers of the adult finches reflect a hint of God’s glory, the struggle for life in the face of death also provides a hint of realities that cannot be seen but that are true nonetheless. The title song of Bob Dylan’s album, Tempest, is about the sinking of the Titanic. That is a story told and retold so often that one doubts there would be anything new to say, but Dylan has always seen past the details of ordinary experience to the bigger issues that lay just beneath the surface. “The ship was going under / The universe had opened wide / The roll was called up yonder / The angels turned aside.” The poet of Psalm 104 would know what he means even if the actual phrases were unfamiliar.
It seems impossible to write of nature, it’s beauty and cruelty without thinking of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. If you haven’t read it please stop reading this and order a copy—you’ll be grateful, I promise. In this classic work Dillard lives alongside a stream, Tinker’s Creek, and learns to see. Simple enough, but as she allows us to see through her eyes we learn to the see the simple things of existence with greater clarity, and through them, catch a glimpse of the brighter realm that is usually hidden from our eyes.
Dillard’s writing is not the sentimental prose that sometimes passes as “Christian” reflections on nature, simplistic devotions in which observations of creation are turned into little fables with morals at the end. This is solid stuff, the stuff of reality where things come into sharp relief because truth and beauty are not seen as optional. And what she sees is how things are, full of glory yet broken, splendid with light yet awful with cruelty. It is a fallen world, yet it remains the Lord’s. Listen to Dillard as she observes the insects populating the shores of Tinker Creek:
Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see. More than one insect—the possibility of fertile reproduction—is an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god. Even that devout Frenchman, J. Henri Fabre, who devoted his entire life to the study of insects, cannot restrain a feeling of unholy revulsion. He describes a bee-eating wasp, the Philanthus, who has killed a honeybee. If the bee is heavy with honey, the wasp squeezes its crop “so as to make her disgorge the delicious syrup, which she drinks by licking the tongue which her unfortunate victim, in her death-agony, sticks out of her mouth at full length. … At the moment of some such horrible banquet, I have seen the Wasp, with her prey, seized by the Mantis: the bandit was rifled by another bandit. And here is an awful detail: while the Mantis held her transfixed under the points of the double saw and was already munching her belly, the Wasp continued to lick the honey of her Bee, unable to relinquish the delicious food even amid the terrors of death. Let us hasten to cast a veil over these horrors.”
The remarkable thing about the world of insects, however, is precisely that there is no veil cast over these horrors. These are mysteries performed in broad daylight before our very eyes; we can see every detail, and yet they are still mysteries.
There were hard things that occurred this summer that I could list—the kidney stone that bent me double was memorable, as was Margie’s hospitalization 1,200 miles from home, and the steady deteriorating of a beloved aunt with Alzheimer’s. And all of that is true, uncomfortable and even frightening. But this is about gratitude, which does not erase these realities or make them easy, but which keeps them in perspective. Even in these things the hand of God is not absent, nor has his providence failed. He does not reveal their purpose, which is his right, and I know they are not reason to be ungrateful, because they are not the entire story nor are they the final word in the history of our lives.
Then we notice that the 104th Psalm ends with a statement that jars our postmodern sensibilities.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more! (35)
That’s not the entire ending. The Psalmist waxes eloquent in his appreciation for God’s glory expressed in creation and cannot restrain his praise. Still, he includes this seemingly harsh sentiment, the sort of statement that makes many readers uncomfortable with the Bible, and especially with the Old Testament.
I wonder why. There are texts that make me uncomfortable but this is not one of them. So often the view of God’s handiwork is marred with evidence of humankind’s greed, a seemingly insatiable appetite to take as cheaply as possible even when the taking destroys beauty, pollutes God’s good world, and scars the landscape in irreparable ways. I add my voice to the psalmist’s: may these wicked sinners be no more, consumed in the fire of God’s renewing, cleansing wrath.
Before I began writing this essay I made a list, scrawled in a little moleskin notebook I carry. We had read a portion of Psalm 104 in corporate worship and once again the lines of this old poem had awakened my imagination. So I jotted down a list that came to mind of things that filled me with gratitude:
Hearing Norah Jones, Bob Dylan, and Gillian Welch in concert, and the Parker Quartet play Mozart.
Sweet corn, and watching a single plant just outside our back porch produce around a hundred cucumbers over the course of the summer.
The publication of Margie’s superb memoir, The Exact Place after so many years of faithful, hard work.
The male wren, which built a nest in the birdhouse after the chickadees moved out, though no female was attracted to his singing and so the nest went unused.
Anita Gorder’s cheerful addition to our work as Ransom, bringing creative landscaping to Toad Hall’s yard, fiber art into our living room, Honeysuckle the angora rabbit on our back porch, faithful help in the work needing to be done, and steady community into our lives.
Friends who have given so generously so that Ransom could continue, and the sweet notes people occasionally include with their checks, notes that encourage us to keep on keeping on in what we are doing.
An office with two windows, and a desk that allows me to look out of one into a tree in which hangs a thistle feeder, usually surrounded by squabbling goldfinches.
My list could go on—and probably should. What would be in your list?
And I should draw up such lists far more often.
Of course, for the Christian there is a reason for gratitude that strikes to the very heart of all we believe. Because of the cross and the empty tomb, we have evidence of God’s love. Every other religious system sees god or the gods as beings to appease, where sacrifice or good behavior is the means by which their favor can be achieved. It is a burdensome thing, because never can it be assumed that enough has been accomplished to receive a blessing rather than a curse. In the Christian faith all this is reversed. Christ accomplished all that was necessary, offers his people free grace, and in response—in gratitude—his people are free to serve and love him. When grace is not understood and when gratitude is absent, legalism takes root and a slow rot enters our souls. The law can never solve the deepest problems or answer the deepest yearnings of the human heart. His initiative and grace surely should evoke our gratitude, and our gratitude is the only proper motivation for our obedience.
The psalmist of the 104th seems to be inviting us to look, and then to look again. But looking takes time, the one thing most of us do not have in sufficient quantities to waste. Around us, the poet insists, are secrets waiting to be discovered, hints of grandeur we have only barely glimpsed, details that have not yet been named. Naming is the essence of the scientific endeavor, the deeply human quest to identify and make sense of the world God has made. It is a quest blessed by God, part of his calling, and it first appears when Adam named the animals (Genesis 2:19-24). No wonder the daughters of Eve and sons of Adam are restless in their effort to continue this quest. Annie Dillard again:
I had been reading about locusts. Hordes of migrating locusts have always appeared in arid countries, and then disappeared as suddenly as they had come. You could actually watch them lay eggs all over a plain, and the next year there would be no locusts on the plain. Entomologists would label their specimens, study their structure, and never find a single one that was alive—until years later they would be overrun again. No one knew in what caves or clouds the locusts hid between plagues.
In 1921 a Russian naturalist named Uvarov solved the mystery. Locusts are grasshoppers: they are the same animal. Swarms of locusts are ordinary grasshoppers gone berserk.
If you take ordinary grasshoppers of any of several species from any of a number of the world’s dry regions—including the Rocky Mountains—and rear them in glass jars under crowded conditions, they go into the migratory phase. That is, they turn into locusts. They literally and physically change from Jekyll to Hyde before your eyes. They will even change, all alone in their jars, if you stimulate them by a rapid succession of artificial touches. Imperceptibly at first, their wings and wing-covers elongate. Their drab color heightens, then saturates more and more, until it locks at the hysterical locust yellows and pinks. Stripes and dots appear on the wing-covers; these deepen to a glittering black. They lay more egg-pods than grasshoppers. They are restless, excitable, voracious. You now have jars full of plague.
Under ordinary conditions, inside the laboratory and out in the deserts, the eggs laid by these locusts produce ordinary solitary grasshoppers. Only under special conditions—such as droughts that herd them together in crowds near available food—do the grasshoppers change. They shun food and shelter and seek only the jostle and clack of their kind. Their ranks swell; the valleys teem. One fine day they take to the air.
In full flight their millions can blacken the sky for nine hours, and when they land, it’s every man to your tents, O Israel. “A fire devoureth before them; and behind them a flame burneth: the land is as the garden of Eden before them:, and behind them a desolate wilderness; yea, and nothing shall escape them.” One writer says that if you feed one a blade of grass, “the eighteen components of its jaws go immediately into action, lubricated by a brown saliva which looks like motor oil.” Multiply this action by millions, and you hear a new sound: “The noise their myriad jaws make when engaged in their work of destruction can be realized by any one who has fought a prairie fire or heard the flames passing along before a brisk wind, the low crackling and rasping.” Every contour of the land, every twig, is inches deep in bodies, so the valleys seethe and the hills tremble. Locusts: it is an old story.
“The essence of all beautiful art, all great art,” philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “is gratitude.” That strikes me as true, and true for our most personal work of art, our lives. There is a sweet fragrance about gratitude just as there seems, somehow, to be a sourness to a grasping attitude, the sense of entitlement, the boring prattle of complaining, or just a failure to recognize the richness of whatever graces, big and small that have come our way. “When it comes to life,” G. K. Chesterton noted, “the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
SourceBrené Brown interviewed by Lillian Cunningham in “Exhaustion is not a status symbol,” in The Washington Post (October 3) online (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/exhaustion-is-not-a-status-symbol/2012/10/02/19d27aa8-0cba-11e2-bb5e-492c0d30bff6_story.html).
Alain de Botton online at The School of Life (http://theschooloflife.typepad.com/the_school_of_life/2010/03/alain-de-botton-on-gratitude.html).
Calvin on Colossians 3:15 from Calvin’s Commentaries, PC Study Bible formatted electronic database Copyright © 2005-2006 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.
Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York, NY: Harper & Row; 1974) pp. 63-64, 208-209.
Though I tried, I could not find the original sources for the quotes by Nietzsche and Chesterton; I found them online (http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/gratitude.html#IeDYsZr0mJrUqYs4.99)