Last fall, the ladies’ Bible study group at my church did a book study of One Thousand Gifts. What follows is the manuscript of the introduction I gave each week, designed to be a summary and a homily based on the week’s reading assignment.
from Chapters 3-4
I’m kind of a nerd, if you don’t know this already, and one of my favorite ways to waste time on the internet is by reading online reviews of books that I’ve already read. People tend to love or hate this book, so the comment boards are usually pretty heated. But as I was scrolling through some responses, one negative comment caught my attention. “I believe Christian women ought to spend more time ‘setting their minds on things above,’ not sit around giving thanks for cheese curls.”
I sympathize with this woman’s big idea. We probably could all stand to think more deeply and profoundly about God and theology. (I know I could.) But I had to laugh, because let’s also be real: Cheese curls is where I live.
I’m so thankful for a mindset that reminds me that I don’t have to choose between pursuing God and putting food on the table, or making animals out of play-dough, or keeping the house clean. That I can find God…think of Him…love Him…even as I carry out the responsibilities he has given me.
That we should be thankful is not really a new concept for any of us. We’ve got decorations, especially at this time of year, that say “Give thanks.” We have seen Madame Blueberry, which reminds us that “a thankful heart is a happy heart.” We have memorized the verses that say “give thanks in all things.” What I love about OTG, and these chapters in particular, is that it brings thankfulness down to the bottom shelf. It gives me a very practical way to begin to develop this as a habit.
Because I have always thanked God for friends, family, health, provisions, and left it at that, and my heart has remained unchanged. But as Ann says, “Slapping a sloppy brush of thanksgiving over everything in my life leaves me deeply thankful for very few things in my life.” (57)
In the idea of a gift list, we are invited to give thanks for the “seemingly insignificant” and we find “The way to live the big of giving thanks in all things is this: to give thanks in one small thing. The moments will add up.” It’s planting a tiny seed that will grow into something that can color your whole life. (57)
A few reflections on what eucharisteo (and the gift-list in particular) IS, and what it is NOT.
It is NOT the power of positive thinking.
Keeping a list of what you’re thankful for is not a new idea. Oprah recommends it, as do my women’s magazines in the be-happier articles that come out every other month. Obviously, thankfulness for its own sake has some advantages, or these sources would not keep recommending it. But if all we’re doing is sending happy thoughts out into the universe for the sake of our own mental well-being, we’ve missed the point.
It is NOT denial.
It sounds a lot like Pollyanna and “the glad game.” But true eucharisteo, as we saw in the examples of Jesus last week, is not a denial of pain, suffering, or brokenness. I really appreciated the point Ann makes in Chapter 3:
I only deepen the wound of the world when I neglect to give thanks for…all the good things God gives…Rejecting joy to stand in solidarity with the suffering does not rescue the suffering…The brave who focus on all things good and all things beautiful and all things true, even in the small, who give thanks for it and discover joy even in the here and now, they are the change agents who bring fullest Light to all the world. (58)
In our community, we live with the daily reality of war, of loss, of stressed families and angry kids and eyes that have seen unspeakable evil and suffering. We know! We know that the world is groaning. The question is, “What will our lives magnify?” All the ugliness and pain? Or the God who sends light into darkness?
It is NOT a quiet time.
The habit of eucharisteo is a way of opening our eyes to God’s gifts in our everyday moments; it is a frame of mind that makes us think of Him and praise Him often. In a sense, it’s even a way of hearing from Him as we think about each moment as a gift of love from Him. But it is not a replacement for reading the Bible and devotionals, or for more extended times of prayer. If we think of our spiritual life as a meal, eucharisteo might be a nutritious vegetable to add to our plate, not a Boost shake meant to replace everything else.
It IS a spiritual discipline.
Spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, confession, meditation) are not works that in themselves save us or sanctify us, but they are habits we cultivate to put ourselves in a position to be changed by God. Eucharisteo falls into this category. The act of writing a gift list is not sanctifying in itself, but it puts us in a frame of mind for God to work on our hearts.
It IS an antidote to hurry.
One of the ugliest scenes to see at Christmastime is the little kid surrounded by presents on Christmas morning. He rips through one gift after another, not stopping to enjoy or say thank you for any of them. It’s so greedy and ungrateful! But if we accept that every moment, every next breath, is a gift from God, when we hurry through our days, we’re just like that kid: hurrying through one moment just to grab onto the next.
Eucharisteo reminds us that one minute is not just a stepping stone to the next. By living attentively, thankfully, in the moment we’ve been given, we create sanctuaries–sacred spaces–throughout our days. Yes, there is work to be done, and lots of it. But it doesn’t matter whether we’re washing dishes, chauffeuring kids, making phone calls: what we’re doing is not nearly as important as the mindset we have as we go about our tasks. When we rush through our days with eyes fixed on the next five minutes/next hour/next day, we miss the joy that God is giving to us now…we miss God himself in the present.
One Christian classic is called “The Practice of the Presence of God” by a monk named Brother Lawrence who lived in the 17th century. He wrote about living in constant prayer and communion with God even as he went about his tasks in the monastery kitchen. One of his followers wrote about Brother Lawrence:
Our sanctification did not depend on changing our works. Instead, it depended on doing those things for God’s sake which we commonly do for our own…It was observed, that even in the busiest times in the kitchen, Brother Lawrence still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its turn with an even, uninterrupted composure and tranquility of spirit. “The time of work,” said he, “does not with me differ from the time of prayer. In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great a tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Supper.”
It IS a conscious choice to live attentively in the present.
I love the reminder that we meet God in the present. He reminds us of this by His name, I AM. We may look back on His provision in the past, we may trust Him with the uncertainties of our future, but, as Ann says, “Here [in the present] is the only place I can love Him.”
Eucharisteo challenges us to take a break (and maybe change our lifestyle) from multitasking and give our full attention to where we are.
It IS an antidote to the habits of ingratitude.
Complaining, feeling entitled, feeling like a victim, discontentment–these are my default patterns of thinking. But I can’t just say “that’s my personality” and let myself off the hook. Those patterns of thought are habits, and that means they can be changed. (Not that it’s easy.) Ann quotes Erasmus: “Habit is overcome by habit.” It’s not enough to stop complaining, I need to take up thanksgiving in its place. Keeping a gift list reminds me to walk through my days with eyes open to see gifts…to see God. Putting pen to paper helps me discipline my mind/thoughts/body to prevent me from slipping back into old habits.
We learned in our previous study that language can shape our attitudes. What we call something both reflects and influences what we believe about a situation or circumstance. When you get pregnant and are happy about it, you call it a “baby,” give it a nickname. When you get pregnant and are not happy, you call it a “fetus” or some other name that allows you to feel distant from what’s growing inside of you. In our study of Jonah, we learned not to speak of “divine interruptions” but rather “divine interventions.”
We choose to take hold of snatches of beauty, of moments in a day, and we call them gifts. This must and will shape the way we accept them and use them.
In conclusion: a few “rules” for gift lists:
- There is not one right way to do it. Don’t force flowery language, nature imagery, or sentence fragments just because that’s what Ann does. You are not Ann; your list does not have to look like hers!
- Don’t get caught up in what should or should not be on your list. Start by looking for moments of joy, beauty, unexpected blessing. It’s okay if it’s manmade (beautiful art) or not even inherently “Godly” (dancing to the Glee soundtrack).
- Do be specific. Don’t paint with the “sloppy brush of thanksgiving.”
- You don’t have to write throughout the day. If that is overwhelming, try writing down a few at night (but think eucharisteo all day!). Or try making notes on your iPhone.
- Think outside the box: write song lyrics, Bible verses, quotes from books or sermons that speak to you.
- It’s okay to have repeat entries.
- Photos are optional, but might be a fun way to add to your gift list.
Last, a reminder from Ann from later in the book:
All gratitude is ultimately gratitude for Christ, all remembering a remembrance of Him. For in Him all things were created, are sustained, have their being. Thus Christ is all there is to give thanks for; Christ is all there is to remember. To know how we can count on God, we count graces, but ultimately, there is really only One. (155)
Let’s never let the gifts distract us from the Giver himself, or from Jesus Christ, the ultimate gift.