When we can bring ourselves to remember the blessings that come into our lives unearned, unbidden, but freely bestowed, we feel grateful for the abundance of them that fills our lives. Recently a dear friend of mine gave me a dishtowel embroidered with the phrase, “Count your Blessings!” It hangs there on the corner of the counter, and when I use it to dry a glass or two, I smile because the words ring true. Count your blessings because if you look around, blessings are all around you. And of course, I think when we can bring ourselves to remember the blessings that come into our lives unearned, unbidden, but freely bestowed, we feel grateful for the abundance of them that fills our lives.
Martin Copenhaver, in a recent piece in The Christian Century titled, “Learning to Give Thanks,” notes that of course no one is born thankful. No, you have to nurture gratitude and its thankful expression, and so we teach our children to say “thank you” when Grandma has given them a gift. It doesn’t come naturally, so they have to be trained to be grateful and express it to others.
For most of us, we live in an abundance of goods – certainly compared to most of the rest of the world. But it turns out that thankfulness is not particularly correlated with abundance. Copenhaver notes that if that were true, then if we had some abundance, we’d be somewhat thankful, and if we had a great deal of abundance, we’d be even more thankful. But that’s not the case. In fact, it turns out that the more we have, the less likely we are to be grateful to God or anyone else, and the more we feel just entitled to what we have amassed for ourselves. A sense that I deserve what I have and I actually deserve even more than this.
But the fact is, if you think real hard about it, you’ll see that everything you and I have is a gift. I know, I know. You work hard, so do I. And we’ve achieved such and such and the worker deserves the fruits of the labor. But if you think it through, I believe you will realize that your life itself is a great gift. Whatever intelligence and drive you have exerted to get where you are and have what you have is the result not only of your own effort, but also of your culture, your genes, your temperament, and just plain luck – if you want to call it that – or grace or blessing, if you want to call it that instead.
In Copenhaver’s piece, he tells the story of John Kralik who wrote a book titled 365 Thank Yous. At the time when Kralik decided to write those thank-you notes to others, it was actually at a very low point in his life. His law firm was losing money, he was going through a messy divorce, and was “middle-aged, overweight, and at the end of his rope.”
One day he was on a mountain hike and got completely lost, not knowing which way would get him home. By the time he had safely made his way back, he’d decided on a strategy to express gratitude in his life – presumably the happy fact that he had survived his mountain experience prompted his resolve. However, after thinking more about, it he wondered what in the world he had to be thankful for. But he decided to give it a try anyway. So he began by writing to family and friends who were still close to him, expressing his gratitude for their support.
But then it got harder. He drew a blank about who he could possibly write to next. Then he walked into a Starbucks and the guy behind the counter greeted him by name and remembered what he always ordered when he came in. Now you might be saying to yourself that that was just good business. But Kralik felt warmed and grateful that the guy had taken the trouble to remember him. So he wrote that clerk a thank-you note. And on it went, for the rest of the year. He kept his eyes open every day for some act of kindness, and lo and behold, there was always at least one blessing to brighten his day. And he says that expressing thanks day in and day out changed his whole approach to life. Even got him going to church because he became drawn to the idea of being blessed with grace with each gift of kindness.
Copenhaver says that “there is something about offering thanks that makes us whole. There is something about offering thanks that can make us feel … that we are blessed with grace.” In fact, as he points out, the word that is translated thanks in the New Testament is the same word that is sometimes translated as grace. And grace can be understood as both an act of giving and an act of receiving – as a freely given gift or gratitude for the receiving of it. It’s all grace. It not only gives us life but it binds us to one another in the best possible way.
There’s an old song lyric that goes, “When I’m worried, and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep, and I fall asleep counting my blessings.” There is truth in that, there is comfort in that. “Those whose lives are marked with gratitude, infused with thankfulness, join in the echo of grace and receive a particular blessing reserved for them. They are made well. They are made whole.”
Thoughts as we enter this holy season of Advent and approaching Christmas: Thoughts to give us pause among the shopping and excess of abundance. Thoughts that may awaken our sense of gratitude and open our eyes to the blessings, those gifts that come to us from others every day. Like Kralik, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to write those notes of gratitude when you send a card this season.