Friday, November 22, 2013

To BE Grateful

In my own life there are many things for which I have expressed thanks, and then forgotten: gifts, favors, blessings, compliments, each appreciated in the moment, and then stored away in some distant compartment of my memory and virtually forgotten. Sometimes I remember the gift, but not the giver. 

Other times I remember the giver, but not the gift. I can still tell you who was at my wedding, but not what they gave me. Likewise, I can also tell you who stuck with me through the unraveling of that same marriage, but not be able to detail all the specific ways they supported me.

There are also many blessings that I simply take for granted: clean water, a roof over my head, friends and family, freedom of speech, the ability to read, sufficient food, electricity; the list goes on and on. It is a character hazard of being born in the wealthiest country in the world. 

The perennial Thanksgiving hymn Now Thank We All Our God begins with the words of its title, and then goes on to finish the thought: "with hearts and hands and voices." Expressing gratitude is significantly more complex than the mandatory please and thank yous of good manners. It is a commitment akin to learning to play an instrument or training to run a marathon. You can't flip a switch and become a grateful person; you have to live into it.

So how does one go about living into it, to thanking God with heart, hands and voice?  I love these words from Thomas Merton:
"To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us - and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him.
Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference."
Experience God and you will know gratitude. Look for God's loving work in the world everywhere and ascribe all that is good to God and you will live into gratitude. And all whom you encounter will be a little more grateful too, especially your children.

Your children will not learn of God's goodness through your telling of it (though that will help to point them in the right direction) but rather through their own experience. Help them to experience God by teaching them to recognize their blessings, their gifts, and the love behind those gifts. Make gratitude as least as much a part of your Thanksgiving as turkey, stuffing, cranberries, potatoes, pie and football.

Even if it is not your family’s practice to give thanks before or after meals, do so on this day. Even if you are unaccustomed to free and unscripted prayer, use this occasion for a popcorn prayer – where every person gathered for this special meal shares his or her awareness of a blessing.  Baby steps toward a life of gratitude. Thank God.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Season of Holidays

My Christmas cactus is in full bloom. A bit ahead of schedule, but happily reminding me that the season of holidays is upon us.

I am not a good plant person so the fact that this cactus has survived in spite of me, and bloomed for a second year, gives me great joy. It's an old plant, one that my mother has tended for many years.

As I think about hope and the coming holidays, and the impact they have on your children and your families, I am struck by my cactus and how perfectly it captures so many seasonal themes: waiting, hoping, joy, new life, change of seasons, gift.

The first buds will appear as the days shorten and the nights lengthen. You'll first see tiny dots of color on the ends of the plant. You may not even be positive they are buds for several days. And even when you are certain, it will be hard to believe they can possibly produce the large flowers the plant will eventually sport. Can you see that tiny spot of pink right in the center of the photo? That bud is probably two weeks from the full bloom you see just to the left of it. Children will be fascinated to watch it change. And the change is visible almost daily. In many ways it is like waiting for a child to be born. Great anticipation, coupled with the knowledge that there is nothing to be done to hasten or slow the progress. It has its own life, its own schedule. It is outside of your control, yet you can love it, tend it, watch it and water it, and see it change almost before your very eyes. It is exciting to watch and wait.

Eventually the bud will look like the one in the center of this photo. It is still so filled with potential: we know that the bud in the center will eventually become the blossom on the left, but we can also recognize its beauty in the moment. If all you ever got to see was the tightly furled bud, the contrast of the pink and green would still be a thing of beauty. Unique.  No two blossoms are ever exactly the same.

So I commend the Christmas cactus to you as a tool for teaching yourself and your children the rhythms of life, for teaching hope. It can slow life down to a natural pace. It can remind us that the true joys of this season are all tied up in that first gift of the Child. It adds a time of hope to our seasons. Hope that combines waiting with faith. There is no instant gratification. It is not the stuff of department store Santas who make promises they aren't bound to keep. Rather, it is the expectation that change will come, and faith that what will come will be good.