Gratitude and anxiety
Giving thanks is a fundamental act of faith. The Psalms are filled with
calls the give thanks and offer thanksgiving. "O Give thanks to the
LORD..." In my own Calvinist tradition, gratitude is understood as the
prime motivator of a Christian life. And so this week when most all
Americans celebrate Thanksgiving would seem to be a moment when an
entire nation could engage in a shared religious experience without
worrying too much about particular theological doctrines or
differences. So it would seem, except that we have a hard time
squeezing much thanks or gratitude into what we call Thanksgiving.
Most of us know some version of that first Thanksgiving celebrated by
the Pilgrims. But aside from the fact of a meal, I'm not sure it has
much in common with our celebration. Theirs was centered around joy
that they had survived, that God had provided (with the assistance of
Native Americans being a significant part of that providence). In the
midst of suffering and death, of the very real threat that none of them
would make it, God had seen them through.
But our version of Thanksgiving has become a celebration of abundance
and excess. We stuff ourselves, catch a parade, watch some football,
and get ready to shop. Some of us may offer thanks for all this
abundance, but of course it is an abundance produced by our hard work
and by American ingenuity. It is not about God providing our daily
bread. It is all about having more.
Despite Jesus' repeated warnings on the subject, despite the Bible's
repeated warnings, we have become a nation obsessed with consumption and
accumulation. The gospel that spews non-stop from our televisions and
other media is that happiness is about having more. And so we simply
cannot reconcile our culture's gospel with what Jesus says in today's
gospel reading from Luke. "There is still one thing lacking. Sell all
that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have
treasure in heaven; then come, follow me... How hard it is for those who
have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a
camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to
enter the kingdom of God."
Our need to accumulate is rooted in our survival instinct, a drive to
store up enough food to get through the winter and so on. But of course
our accumulating has nothing to do with survival. Instead it comes
from our anxiety, our worry that others may get more than us, our worry
that there isn't enough to go around. At a fundamental level, our need
to accumulate is rooted in a fear that if we don't grab our share, we
will be left out. We simply do not trust that God's providence will be
sufficient to give us all that we need.
I am suspicious that true gratitude becomes more and more difficult the
more we have. Wealth often breeds a sense of entitlement. And somewhat
surprisingly, wealth often diminishes generosity. People of limited
means are often much more generous with what little they have than those
who are wealthy. Having more, it seems, often leads to more anxieties
and worries about holding on to it. Perhaps this is why Jesus says
wealth and the Kingdom of God are so incompatible.
On Thursday, my family will join with a few others to celebrate. We
will enjoy turkey and pumpkin pie and good wine and many other delicious
dishes. I will have a grand time and wouldn't miss it for the world,
nor would I begrudge anyone else such enjoyment. But I do find myself
growing increasingly uncomfortable with just what it is that motivates
me. To what degree is my life an act of gratitude and thanksgiving?
And to what degree is it an attempt to accumulate things, status,
reputation, respect, etc? To what degree is my life a joyful response
to God's gifts? And to what degree is it an attempt to assuage my own
Originally posted at Pastor James.