Monday, November 11, 2013

Comparative Thankfulness

Thanksgiving Day will soon be upon us.

What does it take to make you thankful?

That might seem like an odd question. But thankfulness is relative. It varies from person to person and from time to time. Just as one man’s junk is another’s treasure, that which stirs gratitude in one heart may dissatisfy another. The same thing which brings us joy and thanksgiving at one point in life can lead to disappointment later on.

One of the ironies of life is that the more we have, the more it takes for us to feel grateful.

Consider the case of Saudi Prince Alwaleed. In 2006 Forbes estimated that the prince was actually worth $7 billion less than the prince believed. The day after the list was released Alwaleed called the person responsible for the rating at her home, almost in tears. Never mind that he has his own 747, complete with a throne. Never mind that his “main palace” has 420 rooms. Never mind that he possesses his own private amusement park, his own zoo, and a reported $700 million worth of jewels. Never mind that he's the richest man in the Arab world, valued by Forbes at $20 billion. None of this was enough. As the late Texas billionaire, H.L. Hunt, once famously said, “Money is just a way of keeping score.” The Saudi prince was not grateful for his score.

But one need not be a prince to allow your possessions to diminish your sense of gratitude.

For most of our first ten years of marriage Joyce and I had a regular routine when we bought groceries together. Joyce would prepare a shopping list organized by relative importance with the “must-have” things listed first and those things wanted but not essential, last. She would then figure out how much money we could afford to spend on food that week. I would bring a calculator. As we wandered back and forth across the store, working our way down the list, I would keep a running total of how much we had spent. When we reached the amount that was budgeted for food (having made an allowance for sales tax) we headed to the checkout. Back then we were thankful when the money lasted longer than the shopping list. It’s been a long time since we had to take a calculator to the grocery store. Our expectations are now greater. We take more for granted.

Tennessee Williams once said, “You can be young without money, but you can't be old without it.” I think old Tennessee was on to something. You can delight a young child for hours with nothing more than the cardboard box that a refrigerator or washing machine was shipped in. What parent has not watched a toddler find more amusement with torn wrapping paper than the gift it once enclosed? Why must the day come when we open that package and ask ourselves, “I wonder how much this cost?”

Our accumulations, our expectations, and our sense of entitlement all color our sense of gratitude and thanksgiving. But so does loss.

Few of us think to daily thank God for our health until our health is in jeopardy. We are not likely to offer up a prayer of thanksgiving, “Thank you, Holy Father, for my healthy heart, lungs, breasts, prostate, liver, ovaries, __________ (fill in your favorite organ) until you are shaken by the fear that good health may not be something you can take for granted. But having once known that awful dread, only to be reassured that good health is indeed still yours, you suddenly find yourself face down on the ground thanking a merciful God for sparing you disease and maybe even death.

But lost health is not the only thing that can change our perception and alter what constitutes thankfulness. For years on end we may take for granted the presence of our children or grandchildren as we celebrate holidays, birthdays or the like. Then life’s circumstances change. Once familiar faces at our holiday table are suddenly far away. And too late, we are aware of what we should have been thankful for all along but only in retrospect—made finally conscious by its loss.

Between now and Thanksgiving Day our Rivermont Avenue family will be deeply involved in collecting, wrapping, and shipping Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes. We have all been moved by the stories of the profound gratitude that these simple gifts generate in the hearts of poor children around the world. Gifts that our own kids would take for granted fill these children of the Majority World with joy, wonder, and profound thanks. We will bless them by these gifts. May they, in turn, bless us with their example of thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Day will soon be upon us.

What does it take to make you thankful?

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