“Gratitude: More Than Just an Attitude” (1 of 4)
Matthew 2:1-12 ~ Northwood United Church – Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook – September 22, 2019
I recall the day I lost my three year old daughter in a department store. A desire for growing independence and an emerging skill to run allows little ones to play ‘hide and seek’. So, while Mom was clothes shopping, we decided to play. I counted to ten and my daughter quickly found herself hiding among the clothing racks in the ladies’ section. Usually, a wise parent need only crouch down to see their little one’s legs under the t-shirt rack or wherever they are hiding. But this time it was different…I couldn’t find her. I looked…and I looked…and I looked. I began to get a little nervous. My wife saw me behaving oddly “everything OK?” she inquired. “Oh fine” I attempted a calm reply. But inside, I wasn’t calm…I was increasingly growing afraid. I couldn’t see my daughter any were. My daughter was LOST. The next few moments seemed like an eternity until an announcement came over the loudspeaker. My heart was filled with gratitude as I heard the voice of an angel: “would the parents of a lost little girl please come to the customer service counter immediately”. I raced to the counter with tears of joy in my eyes and saw Mikayla’s little face. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” I said to the clerk. Deeply embarrassed, I explained how we were playing ‘hide and seek’ and I begged my daughter not to tell her mother of this occurrence. My heart, at that moment, was filled with incredible gratitude. At its deepest level, gratitude involves powerful feelings that held deeply in our being. I felt overwhelmingly thankful to the clerk that day. So much so, that those feelings I held then are still incredibly vivid almost two decades years later. Can you think of feelings of deep gratitude? Moments when you have felt profoundly grateful?
The text before us that tells the story of the Wise Men presenting the Holy family with the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It lifts up that same feeling and overwhelming awe that they felt for God’s gift of Jesus. God’s gift of a Messiah, prophesied over the generations, had finally come! We think of the various times when the Hebrew people had been defeated and overcome by neighbouring countries…the times of their living in foreign lands as slaves…all the while holding out that deep hope for a Messiah, a Christ…and that moment, when under that brightest star, the hopes and fears of all the years were met in thee tonight. And so, those Wise Men opened their treasure chests with overflowing emotions of gratitude.
As we begin to dig into this concept of gratitude, we will find that it has quite an interesting development throughout history. In more recent history, we are reminded that gratitude is originally based on the concept of reciprocity: gratitude was the idea of doing something in return for the person who has done something for us. A gift is given, which in turn causes the recipient to owe a response: an act of gratitude. In its earliest forms in culture, this system was called ‘quid pro quo’ which literally means “something for something”. Within this framework, ingratitude was more than just bad manners. Returning the favour was a social duty, a requirement. It served in the early days as a foundation of society where benefactors and beneficiaries existed in binding relationships that were built on benefits. We recall the days when emperors and kings offered “gifts” (such as protection and provision) to their subjects and, in return, their subjects would offer loyalty, or service, or taxes. Over time, however, reciprocity slowly was shaped. Classics scholars, note how beginning in the 1700’s, philosophers (such as John Locke) argued that public and private life should be separated from gratitude. They argued that civic relations should be based on laws instead of gifts, favours and ‘quid pro quo’ arrangements. And over time, laws distributed political benefits through the will of the people. Yet, gratitude has not disappeared. Rather it has been increasingly exiled into the private sphere. Feminist theorists note the language used around gratitude today and how it increasingly signals a realm of “less than”. Concerns are raised at how gratitude has been relegated to nothing more than a polite nicety being taught to children as gratitude loses the wonder and power it once had back in the days of Mary and Joseph.
One of the interesting things to look at with gratitude are the roots of the word. ‘Gratia’ – the latin word which gives us gratitude has roots back to the Greek word ‘kharis’. Kharis was the name of one of three goddesses who bestowed the world with gifts of charity, beauty, joy, festivity and song. The Kharites were indiscriminate givers who embodied gratitude and benevolence in the ancient world. Classics scholars teach us that it was only later that gratitude was reduced to a political exchange or an obligation or duty. Kharis ~ Gratia ~ Gratitude, in its origin, came primarily from our hearts with a sort of wildly unpredictable pleasure attending with it. This was the opinion of philosophers, such as Aristotle, writing several centuries prior to Jesus. Gratitude is that unbridled, deep sense of emotion that one feels in their heart. And as we begin to wade into this Fall theme of gratitude, I would suggest it is time for us to reclaim this beautiful part of our faith that our world has increasingly been holding at a distance ~ Gratitude.
It is nice to look at this text at an occasion other than Christmas and examine it a little more deeply. The story of the wise men is all about unbridled gratitude! This deep movement of emotion that they express is a good way to look at their actions. To view this text with the more modern perspective of ‘the reciprocity loop’ in mind is a misreading of this story. What we see are three wise men overcome by a profound depth of gratitude that causes them to offer this tremendous gift. To later view this as ‘the first gift exchange’…leading to what we do around the Christmas tree is a profound error. What actually happened was a tremendous display of emotion that overcame these men. Imagine their faces…filled with gratitude, with awe, with emotion, with humility. Their emotion over what God was doing in the birthing of Christ. There was no way that the wise men could ever repay the priceless gift offered in the Christ child; there was no way that Jesus and his impoverished family could every repay the debt of the Christ child being born unto them. What this text demonstrates is our human response to God’s undeserved grace for all Creation. This text captures the true feeling of gratitude ~ the gratitude of the wise men, or Mary and Joseph, of the generations. This text serves to turn the system of gifts and benefactors on its head: it is not the case of the poor baby’s parents making good to a wealthy benefactor; it is not the case of wealthy kings giving proper appreciation. The order of things is reversed as we see the undoing of a benefactor’s status and entitlement and we see the unbridled joy and emotion of God’s people receiving the priceless, divine gift. This was the original form of gratitude; something that must be reclaimed in our faith: an awe filled experience as God’s grace is received.
So, what has happened to us? Why has gratitude been relegated to just a pleasant social nicety that we try to instill in our children, rather than an overwhelming feeling of awe and wonder we all hold? Why are we not profoundly grateful? What blocks us spiritually from truly experiencing this emotional part of our faith? An interesting analysis comes from psychologist Robert Roberts in “The Psychology of Gratitude” noting that negative emotions cause ‘self-alienation’ and block gratitude. Negative emotions such as fear, envy, greed, entitlement, resentment, and regret cause this distorted worldview. Dr. Roberts further notes that long before psychologists were making these observations, scripture had been warning about the damage of them in the form of the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. These deadly sin run counter to living a life of thanksgiving and gratitude and they serve to take us to a place where we cannot appreciate the blessings in our lives. I think gratitude, as a part of our faith requires more than just an attitude. It is a part of our faith perspective; it becomes – just like the wise men - who we are.
In his wonderful book “The Spiritual Work of Gratitude”, Catholic writer Henri Houwen wrote about the spiritual work of gratitude in our lives: “to be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives – the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections – that requires hard spiritual work.” I think that moving away from the seven deadly sins allows us to move towards a deep spiritual gratitude in our faith. As Paul wrote his letter to Thessalonica “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances” (1Thess 5:16). Buddhism has an interesting perspective on suffering, noting how it simply exists and is, in fact, intensified by our human refusal to acknowledge the reality of the pain. Gratitude is blocked when we resist, and deny and allow our negative emotions to overcome us. Oprah interviewed holocaust survivor and novelist Elie Wiesel and asked “despite all the tragedy you’ve witnessed, do you still have a place inside you for gratefulness? Having seen the worst of humanity, does it make you more grateful for ordinary occurrences?” His response was so powerful: “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. When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in their very humanity”.
And so, as we take our first step reclaiming this part of our spirituality, this part of our humanity, this part of our faith. We consider how we might be freed, liberated to reclaim the gratitude that our soul yearns to feel. You won’t be surprised by what comes next…I am going to invite you to begin, if you aren’t already, becoming more aware of your gratitude. I am going to invite us all to adopt a gratitude practice over the next four weeks and see how it transforms us. If you are a person who journals, take a moment in your journaling and journal your gratitude. In your prayers, take a moment and lift up to God in prayer your gratitude. When you are saying grace at the table, perhaps you might take an opportunity to lift up each person’s gratitude. As we will uncover over the coming weeks, gratitude is a deep part of our heritage and reclaiming this part of our spirituality is long overdue for us in the world. To revisit Elie Wiesel’s wise words: when a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in their very humanity.”
May we walk with the wise men (and women) and be wise people of gratitude.