There are times when feelings of gratitude just simply well up from inside. Good things happen and you are thankful; an act of kindness makes you feel appreciated; a piece of music lifts you up; the flight of a bird excites you; a beautiful sunset makes it good to be alive.
But not always. And, dare I say, not often.
Life can be a dreary affair. Where are the feelings of thankfulness when you wake up tired with a long day ahead of you, or come home from work with life sucked out of you?
Circumstances can easily and quickly crowd out our sense of gratitude, taking over our minds like an invasive species and destroying any sense of thankfulness that we might have. It doesn’t take much – a few days of rain, a flat tire, a grumpy person at work, a plan that doesn’t work, a friend who doesn’t keep a promise.
Most days, thankfulness is something that has to be cultivated.
The question is how?
For Christians, the answer is closely related to prayer. We express and cultivate thankfulness through prayer. Prayer holds a special place in our lives. It is the most important part of our thankfulness. The words we say most often in prayer is not “please” or “help”, but “thank you.”
We pray not just because we feel thankful, but because we have someone to thank.
Prayer is conversation with God. We open ourselves to God’s presence. And something happens when we do that. We develop a new awareness. We learn to pay attention, to live with our eyes wide open. “Don’t you ever get tired of noticing things?” is the question that one of Lucy Shaw’s friends asked her.
My question is, how can we stop noticing when we are open to God in prayer; when there is so much going on, so much grace, beauty, mercy, and goodness? We pray and start to notice the small things. And our lives are flooded with a sense of abundance.
Cultivating thankfulness through prayer requires time. It is true that we can pray anytime and anywhere. We often pray on the run. But cultivating thankfulness through prayer requires more. We intentionally have to set time aside for prayer, for paying attention. This is why Sabbath-keeping is such an important spiritual discipline. I’m not just talking about taking a day off. I’m talking about a day where we rest, cease from our work and worries, and pay attention to God; a day where we embrace God and one another, and feast on God’s goodness.
When we pray, we do more than saying a few words. We offer our lives in love and in service to God and to our neighbour. Cultivating thankfulness through prayer therefore also includes acts of kindness. This does not have to be spontaneous. We often don’t feel like it. Serving others is a discipline. You discipline yourself to pay attention to the person in front of you, and to help and serve in practical ways, maybe even taking the time to pray with that person.
Have you ever experienced the difference that doing a simple act of kindness can make to your own life? How it refreshes your soul, and makes you feel full and whole again? How you do something for someone else and are touched by grace? How you pray with someone and find you own thankfulness restored?
Maybe this is also what Lucy Shaw writes about in her poem Forecast (from The Green Earth):
changes my feelings
Gerard Booy is a pastor at Haney Presbyterian Church.