A cell phone went off right in the middle of the church conference I was leading as a district superintendent. It happened eight years ago, right before Thanksgiving, at the Salem and Bradley Indian Missions in the West Michigan Conference. Normally, we would all just smile and move on, but retired local pastor Joe Sprague was inspired to tell a story about a time before cell phones, the Internet, and even land lines. He said that many years ago the Bradley church itself used to be the telephone.
When there was important information to share, someone would ring the church bell at Bradley Indian Mission. Hearing the bell, people dropped whatever they were doing and began a journey from all directions: from Shelbyville, Gun Lake, Bradley, and Hopkins. Because there were few roads, they would make their way to the church, creating paths through woods, fields, and meadows. Even after the fields had been plowed, new paths would continually appear as the people of God walked. After reaching the church, they not only heard the information but were fed with spiritual food as well. It was that food which nourished them to return by the same paths to spread both the news they heard and the Good News of Jesus Christ.
As people of faith, we have a bell to ring and important information to share at this time of year as we move from celebrating Thanksgiving to entering into the season of Advent. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday because gratefulness lies at the very core of my being. Having been born on Thanksgiving Day, gratefulness is literally in my DNA.
Over the past few weeks I have been pondering the difference between thanksgiving and gratefulness. On Thanksgiving Day our family has a tradition of going around the table before we eat and sharing those things for which we are thankful. Every year we give thanks for specific blessings such as family, good health, a new job, a car that still runs, supportive friends, a wonderful church family, and opportunities to serve.
Gratefulness, on the other hand, is a state of being that springs from deep in the heart. I am grateful. Gratefulness is a disposition to express gratitude by giving thanks. What is gratefulness? I am standing outside in the driveway at 6:00 a.m., about to go for a run. It’s pitch black except for a sky dotted with bright, glittering stars. I can’t tear my eyes away from the wonder of the universe. I am taking my evening walk and am mesmerized by the swirl of intricate cloud patterns, a sunset palette of red, orange, and yellow and the jet streams of two planes forming a perfect cross in the sky. I am scrambling up a steep mountain trail in Arizona and am awestruck by the stark beauty of the desert. A cardinal sits quietly in the backyard and stares at me as I work at the kitchen table. I am grateful.
“Gratitude is the memory of the heart.” (St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier) Gratefulness is the bell calling us to a deep awareness of God’s presence in our heart. Just as a bell summons us and then sends us back home transformed, so the heart gives life by taking in and then pumping out blood. In the silence of our hearts, we breathe in the gift of life: gratefulness. Then we breathe out hope for our world: thankfulness. Whereas gratefulness has to do with being fully alive and attentive, thankfulness has to do with cultivating gratitude in a social context.
Gratefulness without thanksgiving is incomplete and empty. Conversely, thanksgiving without gratefulness is disconnected from the Giver. Because I am grateful, I can be thankful. How ironic. At the very time when our nation is called to gratefulness by expressing thankfulness to God and others, we are poised to respond the very next day to the bell of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The insidious message that gratefulness is best expressed through the rituals of purchasing and giving things often crowds out the rituals of spiritual practices, family time, and the cultivating of relationships.
What is it that inhibits gratefulness?
• We have too much stuff and too few life-giving friendships.
• We have too many distractions and too little silence.
• We are over-committed (too much doing) and under-rested (not enough being).
• We believe that we can only be grateful when we are happy.
• We’d rather ask God for what we want than thank God for what we have.
• We focus on the small stuff rather than look to the stars.
• We overeat at the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts while starving ourselves of the Bread of life.
Joanna Macy has written, “Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art… It is a privilege to be alive in this time when we can choose to take part in the self-healing of our world.”
As we move into the expectant season of Advent this Sunday, we not only enter a season of waiting and wondering, but we are also invited to participate in the self-healing of our world, which is nothing more than doing our part to bring in the reign of God on this earth.
Tomorrow is Giving Tuesday, which was created in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y and the United Nations Foundation as a way to focus on the generosity that lies at the heart of America and also exemplifies our Christian faith. The first Giving Tuesday was covered extensively by the media as well as the official White House blog, which gave a huge boost to the event. Many organizations now give a percentage of their sales on Giving Tuesday. Others pledge to match contributions.
Through the 2016 #GivingTuesday campaign, over 2,550 individuals in 19 countries contributed a total of $853,909.78 to United Methodist mission projects and missionary support. Click here to learn more about the United Methodist 2017 #GivingTuesday campaign.
How can we transform Advent from a time of focusing on external preparations to internal spiritual preparation? What if each one of us, along with the Salvation Army, make a commitment to “ring the bell?” How can we express our gratitude to God for sending Jesus into the world to show us how to give up our lives in service to others?
• Make decisions about charitable donations first before setting your budget for Christmas gifts for friends and family.
• Click here to make gifts to United Methodist mission projects. One of the projects I support is Haitian Artisans for Peace (HAPI)
• Right-size Christmas this year by giving gifts to those who least expect them and most need them.
• Commit to participate in a local hands-on mission project in Advent.
• Believe in, walk with, show grace to, forgive, and invest your energy in others.
• Give tender care to the world and its creatures by changing some of your habits.
• Shuffle through a pile of leaves, make a pot of turkey noodle soup, and read a book to your grandchild.
• Breathe in the goodness of God, breathe out light and love, and be open to the possibility of transformation.
• Share a word of comfort and courage to someone living in despair or fear.
• Ring the bell – walk the path – share the good news.
The bell is ringing. Can you hear it? If gratefulness is, indeed, in our DNA, then walk, skip, hop, and run to the bell! Become one with the steady pumping of God’s grace into your heart and the rhythmic pumping out of acts of justice and mercy. We cannot be too grateful. “A single grateful thought toward heaven is the most complete prayer.”
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing