Thursday, September 25, 2014

Thankful Thursday - Henri Nouwen's thoughts on gratitude

Currently, I am rereading Henri Nouwen's book, The Return of the Prodigal Son - A Story of Homecoming. Today, while waiting to have a filling replaced (I'm grateful for a fantastic dentist!), I read the following.

Gratitude, however, goes beyond the "mine" and "thine" and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy. 

Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart still responds in bitterness. I can choose to speak about goodness and beauty, even when my inner eye still looks for someone to accuse or something to call ugly. I can choose to listen to the voices that forgive and to look at the faces that smile, even while I still hear words of revenge and see grimaces of hatred.

There is always the choice between resentment and gratitude because God has appeared in my darkness, urged me to come home, and declared in a voice filled with affection: "You are with me always, and all I have is yours." Indeed, I can choose to dwell in the darkness in which I stand, point to those who are seemingly better off that I, lament about the many misfortunes that have plagued me in the past, and thereby wrap myself up in my resentment. But I don't have to do this. There is the option to look into the eyes of the One who came out to search for me and see therein that all I am and all I have is pure gift calling for gratitude. 

The choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort. But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace. There is an Estonian proverb that says: "Who does not thank for little will not thank for much." Acts of gratitude make one grateful because, step by step, they reveal that all is grace. 


I am addicted to gratitude. To seeking the miraculous in the mundane. To discovering reasons for joy in the midst of the messiness of life. Certainly we could all choose to complain about something, about someone, about the government, the church, about marriage and about our children. There is always someone to gossip about - or "share prayer requests" about. There are always disappointments and conflicts. Always.

But there is also so much beauty. And so much for which to give thanks.

As I mentioned earlier, I am grateful for our wonderful dentist. Gentle. Thorough. Kind. A few days after my first chemo treatment, at the end of November 2012, I cracked a tooth. My teeth are ridiculously fragile - I am grateful to still have them, but they break easily. My dentist made room for me in her schedule, filled the tooth, and then didn't charge me for it. I had no problem and no shame with "swiping the kanswer card" that day.

I am grateful for dental and medical insurance.

I am grateful for eyeglasses, sunglasses, and those cloths that clean my glasses.

I am grateful for rainy days and sunny ones too.

I am grateful for Panera, their delicious sandwiches, roomy dining areas, and for the company of a dear friend for lunch today.

I am grateful for hot tea and slow-cooked oatmeal in the morning.

I am grateful for Trader Joe's organic corn chips, blue chips, and sea salt and black pepper potato chips.

I am grateful for phone calls, texting, and What's App.

I am greteful for Moleskine sketchbooks, Miquelrius notebooks. and Ecojot journals.

I am grateful for bilingual dictionaries, bilingual Bibles, and bilingual people. 

I am grateful that my car runs so well, so consistently, and without any hesitation.

I am grateful for laughter, for tears, for silence and for solitude.

I am grateful for Alice Walker, Frida Kahlo, Toni Morrison, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

I am grateful for movie theaters, NPR, and the fact that I can connect my iPod to the sound system in my car.

I am grateful that my son celebrated his 18th birthday this past Monday and that he gave himself the gift of accepting an offer to play tennis at Presbyterian College down in Clinton, SC. I love that boy of mine and am proud of and grateful for the young man he is becoming.

I am grateful for the love and support he has received through this process: from his coach, Ben Swain, from other players, from other coaches who have followed his progress and expressed interest in him, from the many people at our church, First Presbyterian Church here in Charlotte who have reached out, written, asked questions, and cheered him on. Love is a beautiful, life-affirming, heart-growing thing.

I am grateful for the many people in my life who do appear to be better off than I am, but who also are willing to share their empty places, their wounded places, and their lonely places.

I am grateful for the people in my life who think I am better off than they are, but who are also willing to allow me to show them my empty, lonely, fearful, wounded, despairing places.

I am grateful that the frequency of my comparisons is diminishing - after all, how is it possible to know, to really know, who is better off than anyone else? What measures and standards am I using to make that judgment? How is my standard any better than anyone else's?

I am grateful for the many times that I have been reminded to look for the beauty, to ponder the grace, and to stand in awe of the miracles that make up my daily life. Water from the faucet. Light from the bulbs. Food in the fridge, the freezer, and the pantry. Clothing in my closet. Paper for me to write on. Pens for me to write with. Sponges and dish detergent, and plates in my sink. Washing machine and dryer and drying racks in the laundry room. A family that eats, sleeps, bathes, and gets its clothing dirty. Eyeglasses. Shoes. Boots. Jackets. Toothbrushes. Toothpaste. Floss. Soap. Towels. Wash cloths. Coconut oil. Shea butter. Hair. Hairbrushes. Razor blades. Socks. Pajamas. Jeans. Skirts. Shirts. Dresses. My laptop computer. My printer. Ink cartridges. My desk. If I started listing the people I'm grateful for, this would turn into the neverending gratitude list - which might not be a terrible thing.

Every single thing, every single person, for me, is a miracle. A gift. Something worth being grateful for. Something worth celebrating. Something we too often overlook, take for granted, or complain about - until fire ravages, turnadoes destroy, floods contaminate, or bankruptcy reclaims it all. May I never take this life of mine for granted, not one day, not one hour of it. May I never presume that I can abandon this discipline of gratitude.

Thanks be to God.

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