Last week I found another superb quotation from the wonderful G K Chesterton. It sits beautifully with a feeling I have had during my summer holidays. It's all about gratitude: being thankful for so much that we have.
Here's the quote:
When if comes to life, the critical thing is whether we take things for granted or take them with gratitude.
As I have enjoyed the delights of the bush, or delighted in the sweeping coastal scenery, or when I was just having fun riding the waves at Fairhaven beach, or relaxing with the mellow pleasures of good friendships which have lasted through the years, I have had a deep and challenging sense of being blessed. I have so much for which to be thankful.
Furthermore, we have so much for which to be grateful. Those of us who live in this land of freedom and opportunity are constantly tempted to take things for granted.
Or to imagine that what we have and what we gain is by our own achievement and even merit. Yes, we do work hard and there is reward for labour. But even those skills and opportunities are denied to many, and are not finally of our own making.
That brings me to 'the critical thing' Chesterton was talking about. When we take things for granted, we take them to ourselves and for ourselves. And it is a pathway of increasing alone-ness. The pleasures become solo pleasures, and often dissipate. But when we take things as granted, that is with gratitude, in recognition that these are gifts, we are so much less likely to imagine they are for us, alone.
This is one of the challenges of discipleship, for those of us who wish to follow the Christian way in the Western world. I am not sure, but it seems to me that people in the poorer parts of the world do not need to learn this, but for us it is a real effort. We are the ones who so easily, and perhaps in more ways than we ever realize, take things for granted.
But if I try to take things with gratitude, I immediately become a care-taker or steward of these gifts. I have been given these things to use, and to pass on to others. My family heritage, my up-bringing, the values of my parents, teachers, leaders, and those who cared for me even when I was a pain for them, the talents I have, the physical health and mental abilities, the personality and dispositions that make up who I am—and then, too, the love of my life partner and the care of my children, and all those people who give me their friendship, loyalty, support, and even helpful criticism: all this, and so much more sustains me, provokes me, gives me life. And enables me to give to life, to others, to the enrichment of the world.
That's why Chesterton says it is a 'critical' thing whether we adopt the one attitude or the other. It makes a world of difference. It is a choice of one style of life or another.
For me, this gives a whole new depth to that encouragement of the Apostle Paul, in 1st Thessalonians, 5. 18, to 'give thanks in all circumstances'. I have never accepted the idea that we should 'rejoice' when (or even because!) things are bad. I reject the idea that we should celebrate having cancer or having no food for our children or that bombs are raining down on our community. That's idle nonsense, and I don't believe it is Paul's meaning.
Rather, I think Paul urges his readers to see their present difficulties (quite possibly, persecution and real hunger) within the wider context of a life of blessings, and to take heart that in their troubles those struggles are known to God. This is not about denial, or a spirituality of pretence, but an invitation to that critical thing which will sustain them through a hard place, and which enable us to live more creatively in the good times as well as the bad.