“Would you be willing to speak at our Stephen Ministry meeting?” Linda’s message on my voicemail surprises me. “We’d like you to talk about gratitude.”
I have a testimony to prepare for the whole congregation. I have blog posts to write, not just for my site but for Tweetspeak and Deeper Church and Godspace, maybe even The High Calling. I’m finally getting some traction in my writing life. Maybe I should say no.
When I ask Susan, she says, “You could talk about gratitude in your sleep. It won’t require much preparation. You should say yes.”
So I do.
But most of the women at this meeting were also at the women’s retreat in the spring, where I also talked about gratitude. I don’t want to simply recycle that talk. Teaching is an opportunity to learn. And I want to go deeper. I want to speak new words.
I pick up Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, which I’d read when it came out in early 2011. I skip the brutally sad first chapter and head straight for the second, where hope begins to seep through the edges of Ann’s life.
She reads the Gospel of Luke, and I read it, too, read again the words that changed her life—and, through her, mine.
When the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”
Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
She discovers a word. Eucharisteo. It’s hidden in this passage, twice: once before Jesus passes the cup and once before he breaks the bread. It’s the word that gets translated here as “giving thanks.” It’s where we get our word Eucharist, which we usually think of as Communion or the Lord’s Supper, but really it’s the Giving Thanks or the Thanks Giving.
Embedded in this Greek word is another Greek word: euCHARISteo. Charis means grace. Ann points out that it’s related to yet another Greek word: chara, which means joy. Grace and joy are hidden in thanksgiving!
In my experience, this is exactly true. The more I give thanks, the more gifts and graces I see, and the more joy I experience.
I look at those words in my notebook. Gift. Grace. They’re related in Greek, too. Grace is charis; gift is charism. The Greek word for gift is derived from the Greek word for grace!
I think about the Latin Jack and I are learning together. We just learned the phrase Deo gratias, thanks be to God.
Gratias means thanks. It sure looks a lot like grace. I think of Spanish, in which folks say gracias to thank one another. That looks even more like grace. Then I think of French, where the word for thank you is merci. Mercy. Grace. Forgiveness.
But gratias and gracias don’t just look like grace. They also look like gratitude.
Holy cow. It’s everywhere, these connections between thanksgiving and grace. It’s all tied together: grace, gift, mercy, joy, thanks.
I bubble over with giddy joy, eager to share my discoveries with the Stephen Ministers.
The Sunday before my talk, as my friend Cara and I talk in the Fellowship Hall after church, she shares her frustration with the constant emphasis on gratitude. (Does she mean my constant emphasis on gratitude?) I cringe.
“I feel like it’s not okay to be sad or angry or afraid,” she says. “I feel frustrated that I have to be up all the time, that any voicing of grief or anger is bad, like it shows I’m ungrateful.”
I shake my head. “Gratitude doesn’t negate pain, Cara. It doesn’t cancel grief. They exist together.” I pause a moment, gathering my words.
“I was grateful all through my depression. So so grateful, and I still couldn’t shake the darkness and the fear. Gratitude doesn’t deny the darkness. It just looks for where God is present in the midst of it and says thank you, God, for being here.”
I want to say I see this in her, how she lives with chronic pain and still smiles and laughs, still counts her blessings, still lives.
Two days before my talk, when I look again at eucharisteo, at the word we turned into a proper noun, Eucharist, I realize that, for Christians, inherent in that word Eucharist is what comes after: our Lord’s betrayal, crucifixion, death. I don’t see Eucharist and think thanksgiving. I see Eucharist and think sacrifice. I think pain. I think death.
And this is as it should be. The Psalmists said it many times, like here in Psalm 50:4: “Make thanksgiving your sacrifice to God.”
The Psalmists understood that sometimes thanksgiving is a sacrifice. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it costs us something.
But, at least so far in my life, it always returns more than it requires.
Giving thanks helps me see what I have, all the gifts and graces of my life (there’s that connection again: thanks, gift, grace). Giving thanks puts whatever is making me sad or angry or overwhelmed into perspective. Giving thanks provides a much-needed counterbalance for my tendency to focus on all I lack, all that’s wrong. And giving thanks makes me strong, makes me able to do the work that is needful without self-pity, with a thankful heart, and sometimes even with joy.
Yes, it’s often been a sacrifice of thanksgiving, a “hard eucharisteo” as Ann Voskamp calls it.
But how else to learn to see that God is present in the midst of grief, pain, fear? How else to learn to find the grace God gives in the wilderness? How else to learn to trust that no matter how deep the darkness, God is deeper still?
This is what I want to say to the Stephen Ministers, who come alongside people in our community who are in transition, in grief, in pain. I want to say: this life is our cross to bear, and sometimes the cross feels too heavy to carry. I want to say: maybe you should be called Simon Ministers because when life gets too heavy to lift, you come alongside and help others carry their cross, and I am so grateful for the community of Christ’s body.
But mostly I want to tell them that transition and grief and pain can coexist with thankfulness, that in the lives of thankful people they do coexist. Thankful people aren’t always happy, their lives are still hard sometimes, but they look for the gifts, the grace, the light in every situation and return thanks to God. Often, it’s a sacrifice of thanks, just as it was on the night Jesus was betrayed, when he took bread, broke it, and gave thanks.
Your turn: Where do you see God or grace or gift in the hard places?
Please list one or two (or ten!) things for which you’re grateful down in the comment box. Let’s lift up a hymn of grateful praise to the Giver of all good gifts, the God who is with us in the valleys of shadow.
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Linking today with Ann Voskamp, who inspired the gift list in the first place.