A Spiritual Path to Gratitude

A Spiritual Path to Gratitude November 24, 2014

Brother David Steindl-Rast has contended in his writings that gratitude is foundational to a healthy spiritual life. If that is true, and I believe it is, then how might we expand our capacity for gratitude?

Perhaps some reflections drawn from the story of Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 33:12-23 can lead us along a path to gratitude. Moses says,

“If your presence will not go with us, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”

The sense here is that Moses is requesting some sort of visible presence – like the pillar of fire and cloud of smoke that accompanied Israel in the wilderness. For in this way, Moses says, we will be distinct from all other peoples.

I read this as an example of first-level spirituality, which is a necessary part of our spiritual development and growth. We all need to feel special. One of the joys of being a grandparent is that we get to do this for our grandchildren over and over again and then leave it to their parents to smooth out their rough edges, reminding them that they are special – yes, but not that special.

My youngest granddaughter, Addie, is two-and-a-half and loves to hear stories about herself. When she was one-and-a-half we took her and her sister, Sophie, who was three swimming.  Melissa, my wife, had to take Sophie to the restroom, so Addie was left with me. Well, she didn’t like being left with me, she wanted her Nan and started to cry. Do you know how I got her to stop crying? I held her close, which she at first resisted, and then I began telling her how special she was. I told her the story of the day she was born and how excited we were, and then I told her stories of some of the experiences we have shared together in her brief time in the world. Soon she calmed down and had her arm around my neck as she listened to me tell her how special and loved she was.

All of us need to hear that we are loved. All of us need to feel special. It’s part of a soul’s healthy development. But there comes a time when we need to move to the next level of spirituality. We need to feel distinct, special, blessed, but . . . there comes a time when we must realize that we are all in this together, that we are all loved by our  Abba, our Compassionate heavenly Father, Mother, Friend and Liberator. We (as individuals and communities of faith) are parts of a greater whole and participants in a larger story.

According to the Abrahamic tradition, God called out a people, entered into covenant with that people, so that through that people all people/nations would be blessed. I believe that part of our calling as the chosen people of God is to spread a message of chosenness to everyone we can, so others will know that they are chosen too. Jesus made it quite clear that we are to share this message while serving our sisters and brothers as equals. Unfortunately, the missionary activity of the Western church has too often been conducted from a place of superiority, rather than solidarity and unity.

Samir Selmanovic, in his book It’s Really All About God, tells about an experience he had on the morning of September 11, 2002. One of the Christian family radio networks had lined him up for an interview. He was mentally prepared to tell about the many ways he and his faith community had learned to love the city and its people in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks over the previous twelve months.

But while he was waiting to go on the air, he overheard the two co-hosts boasting about Christianity, literally patronizing the world. He suddenly found himself disoriented by what he heard, and realized that he was not ready for the interview at all. He had to quickly rethink what he was going to say, because he knew what they were going to ask. And it came right on schedule: “Pastor, tell us, don’t you find people in New York more ready to receive the gospel after the tragedy? Aren’t they more receptive than ever to the message? Can we take this city for Jesus?”

Selmanovic paused and said,

“No. New York is a great opportunity for us Christians to learn. Most of the people here feel that to see the world our way would be a step backward morally. They see Christians as people not dedicated to following Jesus on earth, but obsessed with their religion. They see us as people who are really not interested in the sufferings on earth like Jesus was but driven with the need to increase the number of those worshiping this Grand Jesus in heaven. They wonder why, of all people, we are the first to rush to solve the world’s problems with weapons instead of patience and humility. I learned that it is we who need to be converted after September 11 to the ways of Jesus.”

The radio personalities didn’t ask for clarification. They quickly changed the subject and cut the interview short, not even halfway through the time allotted. In reflecting on his experience Selmanovic says,

“I realized that it is our Christian superiority complex that makes us an inferior force in making the world a better place.”

First-level spirituality claims God’s love for one’s self and one’s community, but second-level spirituality realizes that everyone else is loved too, and we are responsible for sharing that love and working for the common good. First-level spirituality can become toxic and even deadly if we never expand beyond our own belief and belonging systems to embrace others as God’s daughters and sons. Dualistic, “us” versus “them” thinking has wrought enormous damage in the world.

In Exodus 33 Moses prays, “Show me your ways, so that I may know you . . . Show me your glory.” In response God says,

“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’. . . . But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live. . . . See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Seeing the backside of God may be a way of talking about the glory (presence, reality) of God in the visible, material, physical, tangible world. The great perennial truth that the Christian religion has made visible on the stage of human history is the truth of incarnation, which really began with the Big Bang when time and space and matter first erupted into the making a new universe. God engaged a creative process that in time brought forth life and then in “the fullness of time” became particularized (for Christians at least) in the person of Jesus, the Christ.

I’m convinced that God is incarnational. God is hidden in the visible world. Matter has always been the hiding place for Spirit. God resides in the depths of things, which is why God resides in the depths of our souls.

Paul, the mystic, perceived this when he said, “You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Or when he said, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  The true Self is actually God, who we know as the Christ, living in us and through us. Our false self is what we are when our ego is in control.

Sometimes we use religion (our scriptures and traditions) to avoid any real God encounter in the depths of the soul.  A common temptation for all of us is to use a belief system or a belonging system to substitute for any personal or life-changing experience of the Divine. It is easy for us to make belonging to the right group, believing the right things, or practicing the right rituals a substitute for genuine God encounter. Authentic God encounter always leads us into the depths of our souls to face our inconsistencies and contradictions in order to change, to grow, to become more loving and compassionate persons and communities.

If God is incarnational, if God hides in the material world, then all the world is God’s temple, and the world is a sacred place. We can find God everywhere and anywhere. Every event, experience, conversation, every place where we are present God is present and presents us with a potential God experience/encounter. Third-level spirituality is the capacity to see, sense, and experience God anytime, anyplace because we know that God is present in all of it.

This is true of terrible and tragic situations too. In the tsunami and earthquake, the hurricane and tornado, where acts of violence and terror are performed, where persons are wounded and killed, in the children’s ward where kids are dying with cancer, in one’s darkest moments – God is there. God, of course, is not responsible for any of these things, but God is there. God is suffering and hurting and dying too.

And on the flip side, God is on the beach where waves are rolling in and the evening sun is casting an orange haze over the water. At the birth of your child or grandchild, or when your daughter or granddaughter reaches up and squeezes your neck as hard as she can and tells you that she loves you and you think it just can’t get any better than this – God is there. In the best of times and worst of times God is there. God is at one with the world and at one with each of God’s children, whether we know it or not.

God’s presence in all of it is grace. The Exodus text calls this “goodness” – “I will make all my goodness pass before you” God says to Moses. This goodness is passing before us every day – in the sunshine and rain, in the air we breathe, in the touch of our lover’s hand, in a thousand ways. God’s goodness, God’s grace is not an add-on, not something doled out on the churched or religious, or a prize won for believing or doing the right things. God’s goodness is what sustains and is inherent in all life.

I believe that a healthy, holistic, and transformative spirituality will move us along a path where we first recognize that we are loved with an eternal love, that God holds us close and never lets go, for we are that special. But rather than claiming this all for ourselves (which leads to an unhealthy, toxic kind of spirituality), we realize that God loves all God’s children this way. We then sense a connection to all our sisters and brothers and are compelled to work for the common good. As we grow in love, the blinders come off, and we are able to see God’s goodness and grace everywhere. As we drink from this reservoir of boundless grace gratitude fills our hearts and overflows into all the outlets and places where we live our lives.

Giver of all good gifts, you give us space and time

This new day, in this place, is your gift.

Make me live gratefully.

This day is opportunity

To receive your blessing in a thousand forms

And to bless.

To listen to your word in all that I hear,

And to respond in obedience of heart.

To drink deeply from your life,

And to make others come alive,

By radiant smile, by cheerful answer,

And by a secret blessing.

— Brother David Steindl-Rast



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12 responses to “A Spiritual Path to Gratitude”

  1. “Incarnational” is my favorite new word that Progressive Christians use to dance around what we are. 🙂 Before that it was “sacramental.” We can’t come right out say, “we are G-d,” not with DoomGod and Rhonda Byrne chasing us down with their own insipid versions of what “I am God” means.

    I say it like this:

    When a duck has a baby,
    We call it a duckling-
    Or just “duck” for short.

    When G-d has a child,
    We call it a Godling-
    Or just “God” for short.

    Yes, gratitude puts us in an entirely different mode of Being.

    And no, Christianity has not held the tent down for Incarnation. It CAN. But it HASN’T. It is, in fact, the single greatest source of immanence denial humanity has ever known. Its anti-Creational (and hence antiChrist) bias is killing us. Its majoritarian stream did nothing to avert an entire continent of people forgetting the Sacred Web, it only encouraged and blessed off on civilization-wide ecospiritual amnesia.

    Immanence denial is NOT the AUTHENTIC voice of the Jesus Tradition, of course. It’s just the one most people are familiar with.

    Keep putting those tendrils down into the soil of the Living lineage of Jesus of Nazareth. Claim your faith and don’t ever give up.

  2. Jesus!

    created like Adam! “be and it is”

    not begotten not a son no shared blood line with god!!!

    God Does not Die

    Nails and Spears and Romans are not above God!!

  3. > Dualistic, “us” versus “them” thinking has wrought enormous damage in the world.

    Then drop the Jesus garbage. He taught “us v. them” all day, every day. Goats and sheep. Wheat and chaff. Pearls and swine. Curses and condemnation for the “damned.”

    Hate and Fear are indeed damaging. Jesus is damaged goods.

    • Luke 14:26 If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.
    • John 12:25 anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life
    • Matthew 10:28 Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
    • Luke 12:5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

    > God is hidden in the visible world.

    Not hidden. God is the visible world. pantheism.net/

  4. I believe God is in the visible world holding it all together, but I also believe God is more than the visible world. We all tend to fall back into binary, dualistic thinking from time to time – just as you did above, by focusing on those texts that are dualistic. Though the texts you quote can easily be understood differently. In the Lukan text above (I think the Matthew as well, can’t check it out because I don’t have a Bible with me right now) the logic of the passage is: God is the one you should fear because God could throw your ass into hell, but God never would, because God is good. God even notices a bird that falls from the sky. So while God would be the one to fear, there is no need to, because God is good. The ref. to “hate” in Luke and John above is metaphorcial and hyperbolic no doubt intended to grab attention and exagerate the point that one has to die to the ego/false self, the little egocentric self to be a disciple of Jesus and live a kingdom of God kind of life- a larger life, one committed to a larger good. The judgment parables also reflect exagerated, hyperbolic language, and it is likely that the really harsh, vindictive elements of the judgment parables where added by Matthew. Though, I think, Jesus was not immune to using shocking language to make a point. However, I think the heart of Jesus’ life and message can be found in the passage where he calls upon his disciples to love their enemies (Matt. 5, Luke 6). His reason: Because God loves God’s enemies. This is truly radical – unparalled in the ancient world. This must have been how Jesus experienced God. Jesus is not “damaged goods” – Jesus is the quintessential human being incarnating divine goodness.

  5. Good people don’t dehumanize other people, i.e., referring to other people as animals less than human, like dogs, pigs, snakes, and other vicious names like Jesus used all the time, even going so low as to refer to foreign woman as a bitch worthy only of table scraps, and humiliated her, making her beg like a dog, e.g.:

    “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Mark 7:24-30

    “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Matt 23.33

    “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs.” Matt 7:6

    Jesus did the same horrible thing that was observed in the Stanford Prison Experiment. The psychologist running the experiment calls dehumanization “The Lucifer Effect.”

    Dehumanization: The Lucifer Effect

    Jesus was just that evil.

  6. Ridiculous. Jesus was human like the rest of us and I am not one to argue for his sinlessness or perfection, but to focus on a few disputed texts (the hyperbole like “brood of vipers” are probably embellishments) to assess his character as evil is hardly worth a response.

  7. Well, Josh, I think I agree. I am not all that smart, and you are at times a little over my head, but yes, I would say that in a very real sense we are God, or in God, or filled with God. I don’t have my Bible with me (forgot to pack it) but I think there is a text in John 10 where Jesus says as much – that we are gods – which I take to mean that the Divine fills all of us. John in his prologue says that the Light that became incarnate in the Word enlightens everyone of us. I will keep claiming the faith, brother. Amen.

  8. A dear leader who dehumanizes people and condemns them to the tortures of burning in hell, and purports that human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism (symbolic to Protestants, of course) can somehow make people good, has been quite an immoral example and has yielded the most horrific of “fruit.”

    “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!” ~John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, September 3, 1816

    “Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.” ~Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

  9. It takes a little bit of wind out of the sails when God is perennially born in a barn like the Christian mythos teaches. Yes, substantially, if we must talk about substances, there is one “substance” in and out of existence, and that substance is God/Spirit/The Sacred. This is creatio ex deo rather than creatio ex nihilo.

    But to what end? The important thing is: when are we going to learn to Love our neighbors as ourselves?

  10. The important thing with the Syrophoenecian woman story is that Jesus changed his mind and healed her. So-called orthodoxy (which I am NOT) can say that part of the human condition is to make mistakes, and Jesus could not have been “fully human” if he was sinless. Again, as a heretic, not my problem, but that wiggle room is there.

    The rest is just bad-ass. Mimetic theory over across the way sees no real place for anger in the spiritual Life. I respect that position, and don’t agree with it. Anger and moral outrage gets balls rolling. Anger can be used tantrically by the Soul or even the ego, as tinder for a Holy end. As long as it doesn’t stay there. Then nothing gets accomplished. Anger makes very poor kindling for the bonfire of Love-Justice the Spirit is seeking to ignite in our World.

  11. I have no problem with righteous anger and moral outrage. I don’t see how you can construe Jesus’ dehumanization of the Syrophoenecian woman as that.

    If you want to call Jesus’ dehumanization a mistake, good! Finally, somebody is willing to admit that. Jesus made a mistake.

  12. To the extent that story is historical, it was a mistake. I don’t need Jesus to be a god or a superhuman. I can’t do anything with a divinity that can’t grow and can’t change, that divinity being so unlike me. Nor am I trying to “become more like Jesus.” Jesus finished his Earthwalk. I am trying to become more like Joshua, the being who God & Nature is Creating me to be right now.

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