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  • Pondering Thanksgiving: Gratitude As A Spiritual Practice

    Seasons of the Spirit

    November ushers us into the season of Thanksgiving. Our Puritan forebears established here in New England the ritual of giving thanks in recognition that all things come from our Creator. A humble act of thankful prayer was foundational in their life together as they faced the extreme difficulties of their daily endeavors.

    Gratitude is a choice. One way we choose gratitude is to practice giving thanks for the gift of life itself and its experiences both good and ill. This can be a daunting task in our consumer-driven culture, with its constant emphasis on what we supposedly “need” to be complete, or whole, or healed. The very experience of life itself can be overlooked when we are bombarded by what we lack rather than what we have. To re-orient us we remember Meister Eckhart, the 13th Century Christian mystic, who said, “if the only prayer you ever pray in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”

    The practice of gratitude asks us to see each other and ourselves with new eyes. God’s reign breaks in on us when we accept with breathless humility that all is God’s own creation, including others and ourselves as a part of that creation. To live in this realm is to base our own created lives on God’s great Love. It is to release our attempts to live apart from the One who’s Love is life itself in all its abundance. Seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, hearing all of creation as a gift changes us. Our awareness of our own part in the symphony of life grows.

    From God’s side, the reality is always grace. From our side, the call is cooperation with that grace. This is not a weary capitulation to that grace, but our cessation of either self-justification or self-condemnation. This does not diminish us. Instead, we find our true selves, our true identity, dwelling in this foundation of God’s love. We find our true home in this new creation God gives to us freely and fully as a precious gift.

    To live in this world of gratitude as our first choice is to welcome and work through differences. This is a difficult task as we struggle to live together in community. In our disagreements over values, we are asked to examine what we believe to be true, right, and central to our lives. In our diversity of experience, we are challenged to look beyond where life is most familiar to us and allow for other experiences to inform us. In our division born of injury, we acknowledge imbalances of power and feelings of victimization that arise; yet they do not consume us. This awareness and acknowledgment of other’s realities may cause us to fear the loss of our “essential” selves. Ours is the struggle to release each of these “lesser” identities to remember our primary one as “beloved of God”, as is all of creation.

    In our gratitude of Christ’s love and acceptance of us, we realize that we are not renouncing our distinctiveness but simply no longer identifying ourselves only with the “other” attributes by which we are known. We remember to identify ourselves with Christ as beloved creation and in that love and acceptance ponder and live more fully into the attributes of Jesus.

    As Jesus showed us in the living of his life, we do not exploit this unconditional love and acceptance of us by God. (Philippians 2: 5-11) Instead we are free to empty ourselves and be open for loving and serving. “Love one another,” is our greatest commandment. We need neither to self-justify and self-condemn, but simply to live from the wellspring of love God has given to us. It is in this fullness of grace we receive our true identity. Here we are allowed to claim our differences, as long as we don’t let our differences claim us. For the first claim upon us is this great love and acceptance from which all of our choices flow. The fountain of love that ushers forth from God is constantly renewing us. Here we find the power to offer each other the love first given to us. Here we live out the continual rejoicing, the gentleness born of God’s nearness, the calm and thankful spirit of peace that God offers us. We are continually refreshed at God’s fountain of love—a fountain of energy and matter that is continually dancing in new creation.

    May we practice gratitude everyday, rejoicing in our community whose identity, like ours, is based upon God’s love alone. May we give one another and ourselves room to explore this new identity Jesus has given us, grounding ourselves in gratitude and offering to each other a blessed Thanksgiving! Let our thanks always be to God!

    —Rev. Dr. Ken Orth, Pastoral Counseling and Spiritual Direction Affiliate, First Congregational Church in Winchester (UCC); Healing Worship Minister, Old South Church in Boston (UCC).