Radical Gratitude

I admit to sometimes being (how can I say this nicely) unimpressed with the standard call to be thankful at Thanksgiving. Surely displaying gratitude—deep, deep attentiveness to and pleasure in knowing that life is a gift in a good and ordered world that comes from the breath of a benevolent Creator and faithful Sustainer and gracious RedeemerÑis a spiritual discipline to be nurtured. Being immersed in communities of faith that live into that ethos and encourage daily spiritual practices can help develop within us this kind of a thankfulness.
Still, as we whisper (or in some cases shout and publish) our gratitude for homes, families, health, meaningful work, food– whatever– these gifts must be named with an awareness that not everyone has such gifts. If we thank God (and as one with a high view of the sovereignty and goodness of God, I surely think it proper) for us getting this stuff, does that mean it is GodÕs fault that others do not? If I attribute to God’s special blessing my good fortune then does it not follow that other’s bad fortune also comes from the hand of God? And is that not close to attributing evil to God? Such is the quandary we feel if we care at all about the suffering of the world and if we have a fairly developed doctrine of the Fall.
Barbara Brown Taylor, the eloquent and articulate Episcopal priest and renowned preacher/writer writes about this kind of thing powerfully and thoughtfully in her many books; she reminds us to not say too much about what we know for sure about God. In one of her sermons she tells of a church which was nearly hit by a tornado, and they understandably thanked God for His providence when it swirved and missed them. Of course, the next town over was demolished. In light of that suffering, dare they give thanks? What does it mean to Ã’rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weepÓ as the apostle instructs? How do we generate gratitude in an age of horrific sorrow and injustice? (Once again I come back to the book I reviewed at the website nearly a year ago, Unspeakable by Os Guinness, surely one of the very best books on the problem of evil; although I cringe through some of it, John Piper is passionate about affirming God’s providence in such things and is an interesting counterpoint to Taylor and Guinness.) Authentic thanksgiving surely must be offered, and this day celebrated, if to be done with integrity, robustly and yet chastened by the knowledge of the plight of others.
And yet, we just well up with thanksgiving at times, even without the obligatory calls to do so after the MacysÕs parade. (Was it sociologist Peter Berger who noted that this human tendancy is a “signal of transedence”—something from our shared experience which illustrates that there is something beyond us, Someone to be grateful to!) I am indeed thankful for my dear family, for friends, for specific acts of support here and there (even this week: an extraordinary act of kindness from a teacher amidst a frustrating meeting with intransigent school administrators; Scott and Tim fighting off bears etc to get to and sell our books in Texas at Ivy Jungle), a good day for my often-sick daughter, a 29th wedding anniversary, the beauty of a late fall day, being moved to tears by a David Crowder Band song and an old Indigo Girls song, nice notes from people who read this blog, strangers that order from us. And on and on: food, housing, cars, good relatives, caring friends, fellow bloggers [something IÕve never had reason to be thankful for before] our church, good books, good employees to sell good booksÉ
So, how do we think about this perennial theme? Here is my suggestion. The best book IÕve read on the subject is Radical Gratitude: Discovering Joy Through Everyday Thankfulness by Ellen Vaughn (Zondervan; $19.95.) She is a born storyteller, it seems, has written widely with other authors (including some fairly important evangelical names like Chuck Colson) and we have found her to be an amazing, charming, thoughtful and very well-read writer. We cross paths occasionally at the C.S. Lewis Institute in DC and it is always a happy moment to realize just how thoughtful and vibrant she is. Thankfully, there are some other books of hers in the pipeline—for instance, one on awe, inspired, in part, by her study of quantum physics. How about that?
IÕve been wanting to write about EllenÕs good work and express, well, gratitude, for this helpful and important guidebook. Today seemed like the right time. She does address some of my ÒissuesÓ (one chapter is specifically on grief and another is entitled ÒThe Domain of Drudgery.Ó) It is very nicely written, fun and funny and times, and very moving. I think it could be helpful to many. Coupled with Barbara Brown TaylorÕs brief When God Is Silent (about preaching) or the collection of short sermons, God in Pain, or any number of books on suffering, consolation or grief, I have been deeply and significantly challenged.
I think you would be too. Is it dumb to say that we would be grateful if we had the privilege of actually selling a couple of these? That, too- –the selling of really good booksÑis more rare for us than it could be and is such a gift for which we are notably grateful when it happens. Thanks to all of you who pay attention to these notes. Happy Thanksgiving!
Radical Gratitude: Discovering Joy Through Everyday Thankfulness Ellen Vaughn (Zondervan) $19.99

3 thoughts on “Radical Gratitude

  1. Thanks for the good questions and the suggestions of Ellen Vaughn and Barbara Brown Taylor. I’m kind of crazy about Thanksgiving, and I think it’s because it’s the only genuine Sabbath-like behavior in our culture, the only time nearly everything stops, or at least the only time businesses stop. I enjoy the cultural mandate to feast, also, and I think of Old Testament feasts and long stretches of time with people. We have a potluck Thanksgiving with friends, which means all those extended-family-dysfunctions are avoided, and we have chosen to celebrate with friends who work hard to be simple, and there is no television in sight. I’m a little afraid to describe our Thanksgiving feast, as it is almost too sweet and charmed to describe. This year we went to friends’ tiny farm. After an early dinner, we broke out the third bottle of wine and followed the children’s lead: we did crafts by the hearth until all were practically begging for sleep. Our neighbor came with us, and she said, “I just had Thanksgiving in a Louisa May Alcott novel!” I do want to be skeptical enough of state holidays and of celebrating gluttony in the face of such a devastated world. But I also want to roll with the excuse to look at our blessings and pray for others to be blessed, too.I like the idea of radical gratitude. I will look at that one.

  2. Thanks for your good example (and, as I always say, your good writing.) I hope this doesn’t sound defensive (because I know you were not being disagreeable) but my post was not (in case someone looking on didn’t read it carefully) about–let alone, against–holiday feasts or celebration. I was pondering what it means to be grateful, and the rather glip way we count our blessings. It was more a theological question (does the very act of thanking God for what he gives to us imply a sense that God didn’t give these gifts to others, which is a mystery of Providence, I suppose, but needs to be honored in the way we say our thanksgivings.) As for the hearth and the wine and the friends, it sounds like a foretaste of the New Earth. Except for the crafts. love & gratitude for you,Byron

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