The first time I really thought at all about gratitude was about 24 years ago in a UAW Hall in Bedford, Indiana. I was 20, had just rolled into rehab, and was crawling out of my skin. When the group leader announced that we would be having a “gratitude meeting,” I rolled my eyes so hard I almost gave myself a concussion.
I wasn’t grateful.
I was ticked off that people were telling me I probably shouldn’t drink anymore. I was like: how did a progressive, east coaster, dyke, feminist, high school honors student like me end up at this redneck, tee-totaling, right-wing Christian hell-hole? Seriously, all they played in the smoky rec-room was Country Music Television. My fundamentalist rehab counselor informed me that she “loved me, but didn’t love the sinful things I did.” (aka being gay.)
Also: “occupational therapy” consisted of painting ceramic figures scored from the seconds bin at JoAnn Fabrics.
I wasn’t at all grateful.
So when the people in the meeting were going around talking about how grateful they felt, I just sat there, smoking, wondering if I could go AMA and how I could get home with no money and no car.
But slowly, as these other people starting talking about the things and people they were grateful for, I started listening. It might have been the first time I had thought about another person through the haze of my fear and addiction. The things seemed like small things — someone received unexpected help for a car repair they couldn’t afford, another person was glad to wake up without a hangover, a woman was visiting her mother. But as we went around the room, these things started to add up. I found myself listening and really seeing the person talking, and it was like this strange love began whispering around the room that kind of swept me out of myself and into a current of actually caring about the people who were sitting around me.
For me, gratitude started with getting out of myself and really listening to other people. The feeling was a bi-product of the spiritual practice of listening and being present, despite my not-particularly-receptive attitude.
When I was initially considering Christianity about five years ago, I wondered how Christian spiritual practice might be transformative in my life, so I started experimenting with different practices, such as lectio divina, or holy reading (which is largely what we do at ItW during Monday Meditation), church attendance and prayer. In the beginning, any practice felt kind of lame to me. But usually, if I could sit with it, something in me would open and slowly I became more connected to the communities around me, and my higher power.
But really, it was only a few weeks ago that I experienced a deep gratitude that emerged from my Christian practice.
A bit of back-story: this might seem a little odd, considering that I graduated from seminary in May, but even after almost 5 years of Christian practice, I was still pretty uncertain about what to do about the whole Jesus thing.
I was willing to say that the story of his life was a great example of a good spiritual teacher. I thought the metaphor of resurrection was really compelling. But I’d had a little bit too much time in the Midwest to be onboard with the whole Jesus-is-my-personal-savior thing.
And as a consequence, I’d been diligently procrastinating on writing my ordination paper and scheduling the interview with my conference. Because I didn’t feel like I should move towards ordination without some resolution of the whole Jesus question.
But the other day, when I was walking my dog, I figured out the Jesus thing. I was thinking about how recently I’d finally become successful at taking care of my body (going to the gym, quitting smoking, and eating better) and that how that success emerged from a sense of love I was feeling for, and from, the community of people around me. Then I remembered that the initial call experience that I had about going to seminary was all about love. And I was thinking, yeah, I really only become disciplined through love, not shame or guilt or fear. Then, randomly, I was thinking about how the word discipline is related to disciple.
And then I thought this: oh. wait. if the story of Jesus is all about the embodiment of God’s love — that Jesus is the love of God incarnate, and that his life of healing the sick, helping the poor, challenging oppression is all about love — then I’m totally on-board. I can be a disciple of Jesus Christ because that means being someone who works to be loving with everyone, and who tries to act out of love and not fear or resentment.
I don’t really care what anyone believes about religion. I care what people practice. And what I know is this: when I am looking for ways to love better, and doing things that express my love of God (higher power/spirit/celestial wonder dog etc) I am grateful. And that gratitude is grounded in love. And that love gives me the energy and resilience to be more creative, more patient, more present.
Since today is election day, I’ll close with this. Dr. Cornel West said: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
So go and act in gratitude, love, and justice today, friends.