Ruminations on Gratitude

In honor of Thanksgiving, I’m sharing a piece of writing that my husband and I wrote and originally read at the Thanksgiving chapel at Hesston College a few years ago. It’s a mix of personal stories, Scriptures, and a poem I hope you like.

Rebecca

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My birthday was last week. Our son crafted me a home-made present out of Legos. For his mother, who carried him for nine months, who spent 22 hours giving birth to him, and who has cared for him every day of his life, he made a sculpture of… his own initials.

Ephesians 20:19-20: Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything….

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My mother was a good mother, which I know because she insisted on adding vegetables to otherwise entirely palatable foods. I recall one instance in particular when she ruined one of my favorite meals–Manwich Sandwiches–by adding julienned carrots. I adored everything about these greasy, sloppy messes. Right in the middle of my sloppy joe, there was a crunchy, hard, bright orange carrot. I immediately gagged, spit out the food, and insisted that I would STARVE before I ate another bite.

While I was busy complaining, my sister, two years younger, was silently eating her sandwich, demurely swallowing every bite, carrots and all. When my mother told me to go ahead and starve, I turned to my sister and asked her, accusingly, why she was not joining in my protest. “How can you eat this garbage?” I complained, picking out the carrots.

And this was her response: “I just pretend that I’m a prisoner in a concentration camp, and I think, I’m so happy to eat this. You know, Rebecca, all they had to eat was pumpkin soup with maggots.”

Pumpkin soup with maggots, pumpkin soup with maggots. It became my little chant every time I had to eat something I disliked.

James 1: 2-4: My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.

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A reading from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards:

Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf, and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock. Were it not for the sovereign pleasure of God, the earth would not bear you one moment; for you are a burden to it…. And the world would spew you out, were it not for the sovereign hand of him who hath subjected it in hope. There are the black clouds of God’s wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm, and big with thunder; and were it not for the restraining hand of God, it would immediately burst forth upon you. The sovereign pleasure of God, for the present, stays his rough wind; otherwise it would come with fury, and your destruction would come like a whirlwind, and you would be like the chaff on the summer threshing floor.

See the source image

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This past summer, Cindy Burnett, age 48, was a passenger in a car heading westbound on the South Lawrence traffic way in Lawrence, Kansas, where we lived at the time, when a piece of debris, the tooth from a bucket of a front-end loader, flew through her windshield, killing her. Police suspect that the small piece of metal flew off a truck heading the opposite direction and the driver of the other vehicle had no idea that a piece of metal had fallen from his truck.

Matthew 2: 27: Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life or a single cubit to your height?

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We have shared with you three poor motivations for gratitude. The first is gratitude born out of comparison—the knowledge that someone else somewhere else always has it worse. I say this is a poor motivation for gratitude, though we hear it invoked often, especially by our parents when we are children, because it makes another person’s pain our comfort. It does not allow us to develop empathy or compassion, really, in a deep way, but instead asks us to pity and, out of pity, ignore our own troubles, which might be quite real.

Second, if we follow the model of Jonathan Edwards, we develop gratitude for God’s grace—but only as measured in terms of our sinfulness. For Edwards, God is entirely good and humans are entirely depraved. Indeed, God’s goodness is reflected in his grace toward us humans, who deserve none of it. If we live out Edward’s theology, we begin to see ourselves not as created in the image of God but as the enemy of God, and we focus not on God’s goodness and mercy in themselves but instead as they serve us. In other words, our worship becomes selfish.

Lastly, we see in the death of Cindy Burnett that life is precious and death is ever-present. All that protects us from it is the barrier of our skin, which is so fragile. If we motivate our gratitude, though, out of fear death, or of loss, or of not having, we begin to live a selfish life, seeking to protect that which is not ours anyway. We make death the enemy, and we invest in avoiding it rather than in reveling in the abundance of life. We try to control the future, which is a useless task, and fail to gratefully accept our present.

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The best example of gratitude we’ve shared is from our son who, as always, has so much to teach his parents. His present—the Lego statue of his own initials—was entirely disproportionate to the love I have showed him. Yet he gave it unashamedly—precisely because it was not a repayment to me, which he cannot deliver. At age 7, he has no idea of the abundance of my love for him, just as you, if you are a young adult, are probably only now understanding the love your parents had for you. Likewise, we cannot fathom the depth and width of God’s love for us. “There is a wideness in God’s mercy,” says a hymn in The Mennonite Hymnal, “like the wideness of the sea.” Yet metaphors are all we have to explain God’s love and glory. Those metaphors are our best attempt to express our appreciation for God, but they do not come close. It is further testimony to God’s love for us that they are acceptable forms of worship—that God accepts them not only graciously but with delight. We are most grateful when we are grateful out of our love of God and our joy in God’s abundance, not out of fear that it could be worse, that we don’t deserve anything, that life is too fleeting. Our gratitude is richest when we recognize that we recognize only a sliver of the abundance of God’s love but that, in our limited vision, we will respond fully to it.

Let us share one more text with you that illustrates the disproportionate gratitude we have for God’s abundance. It’s an excerpt from “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins:

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

See the source image

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