In the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey really struggles. He had big dreams -- since he was a small child. He wanted to leave the small town of Bedford Falls and travel the world. He wanted to make a difference in the world with impressive architectural projects. But his strong sense of responsibility makes it impossible to walk away when Bailey’s Savings and Loan and Bedford Falls needs him. From that point on, he struggles between gratitude and ingratitude. He has much to be grateful for, but he resents the loss of his dreams. We can relate.
Most of us experience a gap between our beliefs about being grateful and our lived practices. A Gratitude Gap. We have heard from both church and culture that being grateful is important. Even that it will improve our quality of life. But we don’t really do it well. We may even feel guilty about not being grateful.
Diana Butler Bass talks about her childhood failure to write “Thank you” notes, despite her mother’s urgent reminders; her frequent embarrassment at the generosity of others, and even shame at “failing in gratitude.” Her book, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, details her struggle with gratitude. She wrestles with this “gratitude gap” and discovers that overcoming it can set us free.
In a timely reminder, she reflects on the Thanksgiving practice of having everyone share something for which they are thankful. “It is supposed to remind us about the real meaning of the holiday. But it feels more like a turkey hostage situation than a spiritual exercise in grace.”[i] Ha! THAT’S how much we struggle with gratitude! Even on the holiday dedicated to giving thanks -- we feel awkward about it and long to rush past the thankfulness straight to the turkey!
Bass also talks about our uncomfortableness with both giving and receiving gratitude. When someone does something for us, we start thinking about repaying the favor so we aren’t on an unequal status. When we do something for someone else, and they say “Thank you,” we sometimes say, “No problem,” rather than “You’re welcome,” as if whatever we did and whatever they are grateful for is no big deal.
We can be embarrassed by gratitude. When our daughter Carol was terribly sick, and several prestigious medical facilities said that she wouldn’t live to be 13 –her liver was failing and her immune system was repressed – we found Dr. Thomas Stone and brought her to his Center for Bio-Ecological Medicine in Rolling Meadows, IL for treatment from Tennessee. As her liver began to heal, my gratitude for his skills and dedication was embarrassing for him. I began and ended each visit with thanking him for taking the time and care for Carol that was saving her life. At one point, he began greeting me with, “I know - you are thankful. Can we skip all that? Here is what we are going to do next…” In his 2007 obituary, it lists a lot of accomplishments and honors. But it couldn’t possibly list his real ones – lives saved because he looked at challenging cases differently. We’re still very grateful.
The “Gratitude Gap” is a challenge for most of us. It is hard to be comfortable with our feeling grateful – it makes us feel indebted. Expressing our gratitude is often awkward. Receiving it isn’t necessarily easier.
Gratitude strengthens communities.
We read the description of the Acts Church and it seems like utopian literature. Sharing their assets? That is a far cry from anything we feel comfortable with. We might even feel a bit angry and resentful at hearing it! We’re amazed at gratitude that might lead to this sharing of resources!
We might call it a more primitive perspective. They began with an understanding that everything came from God as a gift. It’s easier to share gifts – like the holiday treats that are unwrapped and immediately passed around – gifts seem to be for sharing. They trusted that the God who gifted them with life and showered them with gifts would provide them with what they needed – so they could afford to share. They also trusted in their community. No one struggled alone. No one was afraid for their well-being because they did trust in God and the community.
It happened in Bedford Falls too. George Bailey, who had helped so many people, was helped when he needed it. Mary just made the calls to let the need be known. In Bedford Falls it is the people who matter – the relationships that matter. People take care of each other. The town showed up at the Bailey house with whatever they could give – and it was enough. Loving your neighbor means that your neighbor will love you too. Sharing resources…Yes, it is a story – but the story is true whether or not its fact. We could go around the room with stories like this one: a fire burns a house down and the community steps up to provide what is needed or a parent dies unexpectedly and a bank sets up an educational fund for the kids. When a church member’s house burned in Freeport, they sent the Red Cross away because they knew their church would help them and someone else would need the help. Fellowship Hall became the gathering place for what was needed…money and clothes, a curling iron, gift cards for restaurants…and then other help as it was needed. Sharing resources…
Sharing is part of our DNA as Christians. We are the people who follow Jesus – he of the loaves and fishes miracle. Everyone needs to have enough. So we feed the hungry. We house the homeless. We give blood. We share Christmas with families in need. We send health kits to disaster areas. Because we want everyone to have enough. Sharing resources…
But its more than just that. It is because we care about people. Social psychologists have found that gratitude strengthens communities. Bass explains it succinctly in her book:
We are safer and happier when we care for each other in community, when we do things for each other. If we recognize mutuality, we experience gratitude as central to civic life. When we work together, when we share, and when we care, there is enough for all. We appreciate each other for what we all contribute to flourishing communities. And we appreciate one another for the good gifts of life…How we live together in and with gratitude makes all the difference in the world. Indeed, living gratefully makes the world different.[ii]
Community support takes different forms. The northern indigenous villages of Australia have a practice that supports grieving families. On the night someone dies, everyone in the village moves a piece of furniture or something else into their yard. The next day, when the bereaved family wakes up and looks outside, they see that everything has changed since their loved one died—not just for them but for everyone. That’s how these communities witness, and mirror, grief. They are showing in a tangible way that someone’s death matters. The loss is made visible – and it is shared. Community.[iii]
Gratitude strengthens communities – and communities make hardships easier to face. The Acts church understood that life is challenging enough – we don’t need to go it alone. We go together – and we share. Of course we do.
Deep Gratitude is what we need to move past fear and into a new way of living. All too often our “Thank you” list to God is diluted by material possessions. Deep Gratitude moves past that and into a gratitude for the gift of life – and for being who we are. Deep Gratitude is predicated on an understanding of all of life as gift.
Moses wanted the people of Israel to ground their lives on Deep Gratitude. In Deuteronomy, he had just shared the Ten Commandments with them – gifts from God for a good life. But he knew that when they got settled and began to prosper that they might forget to give thanks to God. Hence the instructions:
When you have eaten your fill, praise the LORD your God for the good land that God has given you. But that is the time to be careful! Beware that in your plenty you do not forget the LORD your God….For when you have become full and prosperous and have built find homes to live in…that is the time to be careful. Do not become proud at that time and forget the LORD your God, who rescued you from slavery…Always remember that it is the LORD you God who gives you the power to become rich, and does that to fulfill the covenant made with your ancestors long ago.[iv]
Deep Gratitude to God will prevent mess-ups. We know the story – they forgot God and messed up. But if we can learn this -- Deep gratitude to God for the gifts of life and freedom and everything else helps keep the rest of life in perspective.
Deep gratitude is now an acknowledged factor in health and recovery. Grateful heart patients who are asymptomatic sleep better, are less depressed and tired, and are more confident. “Gratitude promotes more regular heart rhythms, rebalances hormones, reduces stress, increases relaxation, and promotes resistance to common illnesses.”[v] “It seems that a more grateful heart,” says researcher Paul Mills, “is indeed a more healthy heart.”[vi] Gratitude has an affect on emotional well-being, lower levels of anxiety and depression, reduced risk of alcoholism and substance abuse, decreased panic attacks and phobias, and increased longevity. Gratitude is good for us physically and spiritually.
Oprah’s interview with Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, writer and activist expressed Deep Gratitude.
Oprah: There may be no better person than you to speak about living with gratitude. Despite all the tragedy you've witnessed, do you still have a place inside you for gratefulness?
Elie: Absolutely. Right after the war, I went around telling people, "Thank you just for living, for being human." And to this day, the words that come most frequently from my lips are thank you. When a person doesn't have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.
Oprah: Does having seen the worst of humanity make you more grateful for ordinary occurrences?
Elie: For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.[vii]
That’s Deep gratitude – knowing that every hour is grace.
We experience a Gratitude Gap – between what we think we should feel and what we feel. But caring and sharing is part of our DNA as Christians. It strengthens us as individuals even while it builds strong communities. Deep Gratitude goes beyond the stuff around us to the enter of our being, connecting us with God in all kinds of circumstances – down to the meaning of grace. All of life is a gift – every hour is a gift. And it all, every bit of it, comes to us from a loving God. Let us be DEEPLY grateful. AMEN.
[i] Diana Butler Bass, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, “Prologue,” xiii.
[ii] Diana Butler Bass, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, “Prologue,” xviii.
[iii] From Paula Cripps-Vallejo on Facebook, November 22.
[iv] Adapted translation in John Ed Mathison, Treasures of the Transformed Life, 182.
[v] America Psychological Association, “A Grateful Heart is a Healthy Heart,” April 9, 2015. In Diana Butler Bass, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, 29.
[vi] Paul J. Mills, et al.,”The Role of Gratitude in Spiritual Well-being in Asymptomatic Heart Failure Patients,” Spirituality in Clinical Practice 2/1 (March 2015) : 5-17. In Diana Butler Bass, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, 29.
[vii] https://www.oprah.com/omagazine/oprah-interview s-elie-wiesel/all Referenced in Bass, 44.