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Lessons of Autumn: Gratitude

The third lesson of autumn is gratitude. It rides on the coattails of an abundant mindset which reminds us that we have all we need within us – the spiritual strength, the wisdom (sometimes the wisdom to seek help), the tenacity and fortitude – to get through whatever life throws at us. Abundance prompts us to be grateful for life, for the good that we have.

In Paul's letter to the Colossians he writes, "Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness." What a concept! If we could all do this on a consistent basis wouldn’t that be a beautiful way to live? Because the energy of gratitude lifts us up. It brings us contentment, joy, inner peace, hope, and an ability to rise above the petty irritations of life.

I read a great little anecdote by Philip Gulley this week. You may know that he is a Quaker pastor and author. In his book Porch Tales he tells the story of a sermon he wished he could unpreach. It was in his first church and he was serving under a kind pastor by the name of Keith Kirk. Well, that year Keith fell ill the Sunday before Thanksgiving and the task of preaching fell to Philip. He had only a few hours to prepare, but he said he was so young and idealistic and probably gung-ho to be preaching that he wasn’t sure a week of prep would’ve changed anything he said.

So, he stood up to preach, told a joke or two to “pacify the crowd” who were really there to hear Pastor Keith, and then he launched into a series of exhortations, "ordering the congregation to be grateful, lest God be angered by their ingratitude and zap them."

After the service, he stood at the door shaking hands and everyone commented on the weather, which he finally figured out meant that they had nothing good to say about the sermon.

Over time, Philip finally figured out that, first, there is no “be grateful or else.” The Divine Presence simply doesn’t work that way. And, second, probably no one anywhere ever became instantly grateful because they were forced. Sure, you can make your kids say “thank you” but you can’t make them truly feel gratitude. That has to come from inside.

In her book, Help, Thanks, Wow, Ann Lamott shares this about gratitude:

Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means that you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.

Most humbling of all is to comprehend the lifesaving gift that your pit crew of people has been for you, and all the experiences you have shared, the journeys together, the collaborations, births and deaths, divorces, rehab, and vacations, the solidarity you have shown one another. Every so often you realize that without all of them, your life would be barren and pathetic. 

Basically, gratitude is about how we live, what we do, how we treat others. 

The hardest time to be grateful is, of course, when life is difficult or things aren’t going the way we’d hoped. How can we reframe our situations so as to dedicate ourselves to thankfulness, choose the expansive (abundant) mindset instead of the contractive (scarcity) one? This doesn’t mean that we don’t allow ourselves to be sad or hurt, but that even in the midst of sadness and hurt, we can find things to be grateful about.

We've had a few challenges in the last two weeks and I had to consciously choose between seeking the silver linings and blessings, or allowing myself to get caught up in worry, anxiety, stress and fear. My pit crew was awfully helpful, and no matter what goes wrong, they are always something to be grateful for!

Sometimes the dailiness of life gets to me. Like, perhaps I get sick of trying to figure out what to make for dinner again. Or I don't want to clean the house again. Or walk the dog again. My choice is to wallow in that or remind myself to be grateful that I have food and a nice house and a loving (if somewhat crazy) dog. It's about choosing our perspective. What are you struggling with right now that could be reframed with gratitude?

Rachel Remen tells a story about her Jewish grandfather. When she was about five or six he gave her a small, silver wine goblet, so small that it held no more than a thimbleful of wine. She and her grandfather sat together many afternoons at the kitchen table memorizing phrases from his old books, but when she would become restless, he’d bring out the sacramental Concord grape wine he kept in the back of the refrigerator. He’d put a little Manischevitz in her tiny goblet and then put a splash in his big silver ceremonial cup. Then together they would offer a toast, L’Chaim! Which means “to life!” Once she asked him “Is it to a happy life, Grandpa?” He shook his head no, “It is just to life, little one.”

At first she didn’t quite understand this and asked, “Is it like a prayer?”

“No, little one, we pray for the things we don’t have. We already have life.”

“Then why do we say this before we drink the wine?” He just smiled at her fondly and she was suddenly suspicious. “Grandpa, did you make this up?” He assured her that, no, he had not made it up, that it was thousands of years old. It was a Jewish tradition.

Still confused, she asked, “Is it written in the Bible?”

“No, little one, it is written in people’s hearts.” Then he explained that L’Chiam! meant that no matter what difficulty life brings, no matter how hard or painful or unfair life is, life is holy and worthy of celebration. “Even the wine is sweet to remind us that life itself is a blessing.”

Much later in life, Rachel could still recall the joy with which her grandfather toasted life, and the twinkle in his eye as he did so. She said it “always seemed remarkable that such a toast could be offered for generations by a people for whom life has not been easy. But perhaps it can only be said by such people, and only those who have lost and suffered can truly understand its power.” 

L'Chiam is a toast of gratitude for living. And sometimes it’s a radical gratitude, flying in the face of pain and sorrow, accepting all that life has to offer in one cup. May we all remember the holiness and sacredness of life and dedicate ourselves to thankfulness.

Love & Light!