A Subversive Thanksgiving: Giving Thanks in Scarcity

Responsive gratitude wells up within us when we are paying attention to the blessings of life. You don’t have to be particularly spiritual to do this. You just have to be mindful of life and what you’ve been given. It always could be a lot worse. It is worse for someone. There always is someone who has it a lot worse than you. But that’s just a “bottomline” responsive gratitude. Responsive gratitude also comes from the discipline of opening your eyes to the blessings all around you.

Two attitudes keep us from this kind of gratitude: the desire for more, and the decision to see yourself as a victim. First, the desire for more comes from our instinct to believe that we never have enough. Timothy Miller says in his book “How To Want What You Have” that our natural instinct is to want more. All your discontent and unhappiness in life comes from thinking that life should be “more” than it is right now. Just this past week, I’ve counseled a friend who is in his mid-thirties, he is a lawyer at a prestigious law firm in Washington, DC and he makes almost $150,000 per year. But he is scared that he isn’t where he should be in his life, that others are getting ahead, that his career isn’t taking him toward his goals. Most of our frustration with life comes down to this desire to have something more than we have: a bigger house, a better husband or wife, more money, better sex, more appreciation, a fitter body, or a better location. This desire robs us of our joy because this desire unleashes a voracious hunger in our life that becomes woven into the fabric of our existence. Our daily lives are characterized by discontent. Whatever “more” you need becomes what you are because it is all that you think about, and it leaves no room in your life for seeing the pervasive Presence and beauty of God in your life.

God has surrounded us with amazing gifts and beauty, but it takes discipline to see it. You know the feeling that you get when you hear Louis Armstrong’s song, “What a Wonderful World.”

I see trees of green, red roses too,
I see them bloom for me and you,
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue and clouds of white,
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night,
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow.
They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know.
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.

That feeling can be yours every day. The secret to happiness is never getting what you want. Drawing on the title of Miller’s book, it is wanting what you have. It is to find the beauty in everyday life: in a child’s smile, in the full moon in the sky, or in the hug of a brother or sister, the sun setting over the ocean, the view of the Channel Islands on a clear day, the satisfying meal, the roses in bloom around our building, the warm air in November, the bright blessed day, and the dark sacred night. “This is the day that The Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24)

The secret to gratitude is to hear and see the beauty of God in all the universe, to find satisfaction in the company of the people already in your life, to see in ordinary things and people the sacred Presence of God, to realize that there is beauty and meaning and truth and love and mystery in the world at all times and places. It is to discover your connection to your Creator, the giver of all gifts. Good life comes down to this: to know that our God is the giver of gifts, to know that all that really matters in life is a gift to us. It really is a wonderful world. When we try to obtain what should be a gift, we go back to anxiety and frustration with the “more” that we want but can’t have.

The church of the first century opened their eyes to a world gifted by the Presence of Christ and The Spirit of God, and they became generous people. You can have the life you’ve always wanted, and it comes when you are able to trust the flow of life, accept it all as a gift, and give thanks. When you live every day surrounded by grace rather than by unfilled cravings, you will see so much more than you ever thought possible to see, and do much more than you ever thought imaginable. But it will require you to live every day a conscious recognition that your life is enough, and even when you perceive that it isn’t, your God is. So accept the life that comes to you as a gift, and when it comes, give thanks.

The second hurdle to responsive gratitude is our decision to remain a victim. Some people refuse to give thanks. They focus on their loss, their hurt, the way others have wronged them, and what life has not brought them. But that is their choice. Complaint is not natural, and neither is gratitude. Life often will hurt. But what comes next is up to you. You can respond by complaining, or by giving thanks. Those who choose to give thanks choose not to be victims. Don’t dare allow circumstances to arrest your heart. Insist on your freedom to choose your response, and choose to give thanks. It sure feels better than whining, and those around you will certainly enjoy you a lot more. The irony is that you may just receive from life or others what you were wanting when your life does not communicate need but satisfaction – and that can only come from giving thanks for what you already have.

But there is a more mature form of gratitude than just responsive gratitude. Creative gratitude does not wait for circumstances to set an agenda for you to respond with thanksgiving. Creative gratitude does not respond to the world you are given but creates new worlds. It is subversive and even threatening to the world we read about in the papers and pain-filled lives we see in the mirror because it insists on giving thanks for a world being reconciled to God and a creation being freed from its brokenness.

The Hallel Psalms were sung at Passover when the Hebrews remembered that God had freed them from slavery and brought them through the Red Sea to a promised land. In the Exodus, God miraculously changed the way it is, brought down an enslaving empire and created hope where there had been no hope. So the Psalms remind us that there we are not called just to give thanks while we are slaves, or just when things could be worse, or when there is temporary relief from what is otherwise a miserable existence. The Psalms call us to gratitude that comes from envisioning a world in which God can do impossible things, a world in which God is going to change the way it is. When the crowds on Palm Sunday repeated this Psalm as Jesus rode past them into Jerusalem, they gave thanks with these words and claimed a new world in their midst. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is The Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118:26). And so our thanksgiving proclaims our gratitude for a world that is coming to be and not just for the one that is.

Amidst the ravaging plagues upon the population, Muslim invasions from the East, a corrupt church, and unstable kingdoms, the Abbott of the monastery in St. Denis in France had the audacity to construct a church with a new architectural form we call “gothic.” The Abbott was creating a church which represented his vision of heaven touching earth. It was revolutionary architecture that shaped a culture for centuries. New discoveries in science, politics and theology followed. The Gothic cathedral made the extraordinary claim that heaven had touched earth, and when people believe that, they become grateful and then become creative. Sometimes they even become subversive, as when the churches of East Germany declared their freedom in Christ, long before the Berlin Wall came down. It’s the gratitude that Christians in North Korea are claiming now, and Christianity is spreading all over the land held captive by a repressive regime. Gratitude refuses to accept the world as it is but envisions a world where God can do the impossible and will.

If you can see that in Jesus Christ, heaven has touched earth, then your heart can be filled with gratitude. Jesus is all in all, and fullness rather than depravity defines your life. Your thanksgiving refuses to honor the disappointments and needs of the present. It doesn’t take the cravings and the disappointments seriously because the present will not last. In Christ, anything can happen, because the earth is filled with the knowledge and Presence of God. Heaven and earth have met.

So when great human tragedy, natural disasters, war, illness, and unemployment invade our lives, we will not be a victim. We will insist on thanksgiving, and that opens up a whole new wonderful world to us where anything can happen. “I will give thanks to You O Lord, for Your steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 118:29)


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