• David McNitzky

Gratitude Lesson 3: Gratitude is both personal and public

Diana Butler Bass in her excellent book Grateful observes that our nation with its division and many social problems looks like a “society of ingrates.” Last week I suggested that part of the problem might be misunderstanding gratitude as giving thanks for material possessions rather as recognizing that life itself is the gift. There are still a large number of grateful individuals in our society. That should make a more significant difference than it seems to make. This could be because of another misunderstanding- not seeing that gratitude is both personal and public. Perhaps what we need are more effective public displays of gratitude. Brene Brown has written about the power in collective experiences of joy. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written about the “moral elevation” that takes place when people witness acts of public goodness. I thought of the breakfast group that left the restaurant waitstaff a $10,000 tip after dining in a coffee shop. This act went viral and spawned other copy cat acts of generosity to waitstaff nationwide. Gratitude is like that. It can be contagious.

Here is where the church should come in. Yet journalist Barbara Ehrenreich notes, “For most people in the world today, the expression of collective ecstasy is likely to be found, if it is to be found at all, not in a church or at a concert or rally, but at a sporting event (Bass, p.115).” I recall walking early into a worship service years ago in time to overhear a mother correcting her child with these words: “Quit smiling; this is church!” Of course, with COVID 19 crowd restrictions, the sports that I have watched just haven’t been the same joy generating event.

Public thanksgiving is in our DNA as Christians. Our Jewish ancestors were commanded to go to Jerusalem three times a year to participate in collective festivals of gratitude at Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. They often left crops, flocks, and businesses behind. Walter Brueggemann says that this was to remind them that their freedom was not their own work, but was a gift given gladly by God. And Christians celebrate Holy Communion called also the Eucharist. Eucharist means ‘thanksgiving or gratitude.’ So the Bible witnesses to the importance of God’s people getting together to express thanks. Apparently our worship is not just for own benefit, but is for the benefit of the larger world. If personal gratitude can change an individual’s life what could public displays of gratitude do for a society? Our worship both energizes us for the life of faith, but perhaps even more importantly, it gives the world an example to follow- the example of public gratitude.


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