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Cultivating a Grateful Life

A friend of mine recently told me that if he had one wish for his children, it wouldn’t be that they’d become wealthy, or famous, or prestigious, or influential.  It wouldn’t even be that they’d live happy lives, or healthy lives, or long lives.

He wants the best for his children, of course, but he knows that life’s joys are invariably accompanied by sorrows and sickness, losses and limits – and that sometimes, those trials enrich our lives as much as they burden them.  No, if there’s one thing he hopes for his children, it’s that they learn to live with a deep, abiding sense of gratitude.

Living a grateful life – now there’s a laudable goal.  And as we enter this fall’s season of thanksgiving, it’s worth asking how we might more nearly approach that goal in our everyday routines.

One ancient practice for cultivating gratitude is to intentionally make time to “count our blessings,” as we say, in a diary, a gratitude journal, or some other method of reflecting and recording.  The sheer discipline of considering on our days with an eye to what we ought to be grateful for can be a wonderfully illuminating exercise, helping us see aspects of reality we might otherwise miss, distracted as we often are by our difficulties and complaints.

But there’s another practice that’s even more elemental.  If you want to cultivate a grateful life, many thoughtful teachers have said, try daily prayer.

When it comes to prayer, one of the oldest theological conundrums is this:  if God is all-knowing, then why do we have to inform God about our needs and wants, our struggles and requests?  Why pray at all?  Over the centuries, many Christian theologians have answered this question along these lines:  You don’t pray for God’s sake; you pray for your own sake, to help you have a felt experience of what’s actually going on whether you pray or not, namely, that God is graciously, generously providing for your daily needs.

How does prayer work in this way?  Well, suppose tomorrow you are going to eat a sandwich for lunch.  For many of us, the experience of eating can become something we do without thinking, as if consuming a kind of fuel, or simply laying claim to our own property, something we pulled out of the fridge or ordered off a menu.

But the deeper reality of our situation, these theologians insist, is that in and through the sandwich, God is providing for us with love and grace.  The food in the fridge or on the restaurant’s plate is a divine gift – but we miss this fact in our entitlement or obliviousness or distraction.

But suppose we begin the day tomorrow with the Lord’s Prayer, which includes the line, “give us this day our daily bread.”  This wouldn’t guarantee that we’d experience our sandwich as a gift, as an answer to our prayer, but it may well increase the likelihood that we do.  More to the point, consistent daily prayer may increase the degree to which we cultivate a life of conscious, grateful acceptance of the many blessings in our lives.

We might say, then, that daily prayer is a discipline of noticing, a practice that helps us be mindful of our actual situation as children of God whom God cares for every day.  Praying daily for our basic needs helps us receive whatever provisions come our way not as our own achievements or property, but as God’s loving gifts.  And receiving our lunch this way will make us more thankful, infusing our day with a palpable sense of appreciation.  It also promises to make the sandwich even more enjoyable!

So this Thanksgiving, let’s count our blessings.  But let’s also commit or recommit to daily disciplines that help cultivate one of the greatest gifts of all:  a grateful, gracious life.

Is Religion Violent?

We commonly speak of “this religion” and “that religion,” but in fact, religions are less like clear, coherent objects and more like big, uproarious, often messy family reunions. There’s real kinship under each tent, of course, and common customs, and perceptible family resemblances that allow us to speak generally of “Christianity” and “Islam” and so on. But at the same time, as any careful reading of the daily paper will tell you, these families are constituted not only by agreements and common cause, but also by fierce, longstanding arguments driven by very different points of view.

Your family is probably the same, and so is mine. In fact, in some respects, it is closer to the truth to say that Christianity is a community of debate about Jesus Christ – not a community of lockstep agreement about him. What makes us “Christian” is that we are committed to interpreting Jesus (and therefore to arguing about him from time to time) and following him as best we can.

And this is why a crucial question in religious life is the question of essentials, of boiling things down, of interpreting certain aspects of the tradition in terms of other, more important aspects. In the Christian Bible, for example, though Deuteronomy 22 reads that if a new bride is found by her husband not to be a virgin, she shall be stoned to death by the men of her town (Deut 22:20-21), it is also written that above all, God requires us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). And so in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph, faced with Mary’s surprising pregnancy, confronts an interpretive challenge: which text should govern his actions? Joseph decides to read the law as a guide to mercy, not violence – and so begins the Christmas story.

Joseph gets it. He understands that though certain portions of his own religious tradition may be quite readily interpreted toward violence, the essence that that tradition, the key texts and themes and narrative contours, actually point in the opposite direction. And of course Jesus, the good rabbi, does the same, interpreting the essence of the law in terms of loving God and neighbor. Acting violently in the name of Christianity – or for that matter, in the name of Islam or any other religion that essentially asserts peace – may be historically common, but it is nonetheless mistaken. It misses the center of things, the heart toward which God calls us again and again.

Is religion violent? It certainly can be, and it often is. But Christianity, to take the religion I know best, is at its heart a ploughshare, a tool meant to make for harvest and bounty, and ultimately for nourishment and good health. It’s true that we too often beat it into a sword, and for that we should continually confess and seek forgiveness. But we shouldn’t let such misuse distract us from seeing what Joseph and Jesus saw so well: religion’s blade isn’t for violence. It’s for turning over the earth, so that all may eat together.

From the Wilderness

Whenever the Israelites’ “wilderness wandering” comes up, it presents a golden opportunity – especially in the current U.S. political climate – to talk about immigration.

This kind of preaching and teaching “with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other” (as Karl Barth is said to have put it) provides at least two major advantages. It’s an opportunity to consider and engage a major political issue in light of the gospel. It’s also an opportunity to consider and engage Christian life in light of a major biblical and theological motif: the idea that every disciple is fundamentally a pilgrim, a “stranger in a strange land.”

As far as immigration from the South is concerned, the reality is that our southern border is everywhere – it’s not just along the far rim of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Undocumented workers’ extremely low wages enable low prices in supermarket produce sections across the country, and a similar subsidizing effect is in place in a whole range of homestead industries: construction, housecleaning, landscaping, house painting and so on.

The U.S. standard of living depends on poor people who work for low wages and are often separated from their families for long periods of time because of immigration laws. Becoming more aware of these dynamics means becoming more aware of reality itself – and of the real consequences and costs of our everyday decisions.

It isn’t for nothing that the Bible spends so much time reminding readers that they, too, were (and so in some sense still are) slaves, strangers, aliens in a foreign land. It’s a point that might motivate us again and again to work to reform our society into a more humane, self-aware, graceful place to be.

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