We practice theme-based ministry at Pathways and November’s theme has been gratitude (thanksgiving, appreciation). Doing my best to practice what I preach, walk the talk and do some pastoral modeling, I have engaged the spiritual practice of gratitude in earnest since November the first. It has been an engaging experience. Like all spiritual practices approached with honesty and openness, intentionality, repetition and depth, my engagement with gratitude has taken me places I never would have imagined when I began.
First of all, gratitude seems like such a positive thing. Gratitude is a no-brainer theological concept for a month containing the holiday of Thanksgiving, right? Yet, like the holiday season itself, my spiritual practice of gratitude has had it’s darker, shadow side – or rather revealed my darker shadow side and forced me to grapple with it. During the weeks while I have been preaching and teaching gratitude, I have encountered two periods where I experienced a couple of stretches – a few days at a time each – that contained more than their share of expressions of ingratitude aimed at me. Whoa! OK. Here we go. Don’t take it personally. Or try not to take it personally. What can I be thankful for here? What can I learn? Geez this sucks. OK. I am grateful this isn’t worse, and so on getting back on track. Then I noticed how my practice of gratitude and my attention to cultivating thankfulness and appreciation helped me right the ingratitude ship and not get knocked down by what was some pretty hefty negativity. Like all practices, gratitude helps you more, the more you practice. I’ve benefited a little bit for my little bit of practice this month and I’m eager to see how much more this practice can enhance the rest of my spiritual life and my life in general. It’s good ministry and it’s just a plain good way to be.
I’ve also noticed that gratitude pays itself forward like random acts of kindness intentionally committed. The more I talk about gratitude, the more others do as well. I’ve received thank you notes for sermons (indeed! how about that?!), gifts left on my desk at the church office, more people are mentioning things they appreciate about me, the church, my ministry, dropping notes, and this is great, but it’s all reciprocal as I have been very conscious during the last month to say thank you, tell people I appreciate them and how grateful I am for what they do. No blowing smoke, no false praises, but trying to remember not to let things go and not forgetting to remember to tell people their contributions are valued and they are valued and what they mean to me. At first it was a bit of an exercise and I was ashamed that I noticed it took some effort. Do I really not do this enough? Do we all really not do this enough? I guess so. Well, another lesson learned. I suppose that’s why it’s called a spiritual practice.
I also made it a habit during November of giving thanks for something every morning during my sitting meditation and posting something for which I was thankful as my status update on facebook. This was a personal exercise, another change of habit exercise, if you will, to train my attention to be more focused on appreciation. I’ve noticed it has resulted in an appreciation contagion. Over the last week or two, I’ve noticed more and more friends on facebook starting to post status updates making note of things for which they are thankful. I don’t know if I am responsible for this or not. If I am, that’s great. If I’m not, that’s perfectly fine because my practice has made me wake up and notice that others do this and for that, I’m grateful. It’s probably a better gift in the second instance.
I’ve also noticed that even in terms of social justice issues, and social justice is a particular passion of mine, I’ve moved in the last month from trumpeting and sounding siren calls to giving thanks for those that do the hard work.
All around, as I close in on Thanksgiving I am realizing that I probably won’t be able to keep up the intense focused practice of gratitude that I have engaged in the past three weeks, but if I can carry one of them forward that will be great personal progress. I have made a forward looking commitment to doing this again next year with the intention of making it a yearly practice. To borrow another holiday tradition – Gratitude has done me good, will do me good and I say God bless it!