Don’t let the second part of this title shock you! I am a firm believer in the power of prayer, but I was mulling over in my mind the topic of gratitude, and I feel that while it is always good to give thanks for all we are, all we have, and all that is to the Loving Creator via prayer and silent meditation, contemplation and deep spiritual reflection, at times I wonder about prayer as it relates to the idea of giving thanks. After all, I have in my online and social travels witnessed a few Christians who will make a large display of “Praise God” on Sunday mornings, lifting up their hands in awe and singing praise, thanking God for the promotion, or the new car or that deal they closed last week, and then upon leaving the sanctuary, return to a life that, well, in my opinion, seems a shade ungrateful. They seem to enjoy receiving blessings, but less compelled to share the spiritual wealth. Time that could be spent passing on God’s Love to others is instead absorbed in discussing those people in “that other church” or “that other denomination” or “that other religion” that are perceived as a threat. All too often one can also hear them say, “that other sexual orientation” among those “others” as well. I am not saying that these people are not genuinely grateful to God for blessings in their lives, but in my opinion, I can think of better ways to show it than merely a worship service or a loudly spoken proclamation of thanks. I’m sure that God, if I viewed God in the traditional way of an external being who exists separate rather than within all humanity as some do, would definitely appreciate such a display. It’s just that I feel that Jesus was trying to teach humankind a radically different and beneficial way to show it. But first, some thoughts on gratitude.
I once, when asked what my favorite Christian holiday was, actually said “Thanksgiving,” as I am very grateful to God for so many things. Beginning with the basic things-life itself, my life and all life. Life of those who are close to me and whom I love. The evidence I see of God when I look all around me, the evidence I see of the sincerity of Jesus’ teachings that results from putting them into practice in real life, the evidence I see of Spirit in the sacredness of life. The ability to share this with others. To reason and be able to balance both the rationality of science and human knowledge with a sense of awe and wonder and the spiritual things rely solely on the power of faith, the magic of believing, the miraculous wonder of love that Jesus personified in the Gospels.
I am grateful for who God Created me to be, including my feelings, my loves, my abilities, my creative impulses, my ability to think, laugh, communicate and to love deeply, my senses. For my quirks as well as my qualities. I am grateful for the gift of being blessed with the ability to embrace instead of be ashamed of and deny my natural sexual desires and my bisexuality even if there are others who would deem them as “unnatural.” I am grateful for the gift of learning and knowledge to know that both are, in fact, natural. I am grateful to have finally been true to who God Created me to be, that I had the courage to be open and honest about it. That God blessed me with a truly special and wonderful woman who is also bisexual and who understands and shares my need for an intimate relationship with another partner of the same gender as well as her, who accepts and loves me for me as I do for her. I am grateful we have found both a wonderful bisexual woman and another bisexual man to share in an intimate relationship, which, however unconventional it may seem, is a gift. I am grateful for finding other Christians who have been accepting and affirming of me regardless of my choices being different from their own. And I am grateful for always trying to see the good in everyone I meet, and the support God led me to when I cried out in need.
I am grateful for the gift of Jesus who taught us a better way that focuses on Love as opposed to legality as far as relating to God. I am grateful for gift of knowledge that continues to build the dreams of humankind into reality as we make progress that our ancestors never dreamed of, things some once never even dreamed possible. I am grateful for rainbows and the rainbow of diversity God made each and every one of us to be. I am grateful that I choose to see people as people and children of God, not as belief systems, sexual orientations, or differences of opinion, and that I see no one as irrelevant but all with a purpose in their individuality.
But life is not always externally, outside the clear skies, sunshine and rainbows we may attempt to find within ourselves as we do our best in times of struggle to look, as Jesus said, for Heaven within the here and now and ourselves instead of some far away escape where there are no difficult times. Sometimes, in moments when we lose clarity during life’s trials, life may even seem as if it were Hell. But even when life is not going as smoothly as I would want for it to be, I am still able to find something to be grateful for. If I find myself weeping and hurting from sadness, I am thankful that I am able to feel so deeply and express my emotions rather than retreating into coldness, apathy and unfeeling. When I become angry at injustices, I am grateful that I feel empathy for those being treated unjustly. That spurs me to action to do what I can to come to the aid of another in need and make a human connection and carry on the type of unconditional and non-judgmental love that I feel God has for me and Jesus would have for that person.
When I become frustrated at the way others judge and persecute others and distort the loving teachings of Jesus to justify their fears and prejudices-I am grateful that I am aware of this and able to stand for the real love I know Jesus would have. When I try to help another out of love, only to have them take advantage of my generosity, I am grateful that I know how to love, even if that love is not returned to me in the same measure in which I gave it. When I lost a relationship for awhile with a girl who meant a lot to me, I was grateful later that I did. Because if I had stayed in it, I would possibly be living in a silent closet and never accepted the real me. It was not until I had been honest with myself that I am bisexual that she was able to tell me that she was as well.
When I lost what I thought was the best job I had ever had, I held on to the gratitude for all I had learned and all that others did to help me in the meantime. When no offers came until a year later, I was grateful that they had not because I found work where I could be both helpful to others in reconciling their spirituality and sexuality as God had sent others to help me do, and able to be and express my truest self.
When I could no longer bear the oppressiveness of fundamentalist Christianity and knew I must leave there, I am so grateful that God gave me a new understanding of the Bible and Christianity that was based on love and not legality. When I have lost sight at times and allowed fear to undermine my faith, I am grateful that the smallest ray of hope kept me holding on.
If I were to keep listing everything I am grateful for, let alone in detail, it would take forever for me to type it out. As I thought of memories, things I may not think of all the time and things I may at times take for granted that some people are constantly in awareness of. I tried to go into detail once and write it all down, and filled about five of those “Gratitude Journals” over five years, and at one time would spend hours a day in prayer just giving thanks for all of it, even the little things.
But somehow, that did not seem real to me. I thought that while an attitude of gratitude is always good, and that it was a good exercise to find things one is grateful for every day (even something as simple as a smile from someone or a good laugh, getting that parking space at the front of the lot, or something really big such as a fulfilled dream or an old friend calling to say hello after years), my mind wondered one day if I was really being that productive praying as if God were a person sitting on a throne as seraphim loaded crate after crate of “thank you prayers” into the room. I thought that while personally developing a sense of thankfulness to God was healthy spiritually, was this really and truly showing gratitude to God, who I feel is not human, male or female, but the eternally Loving Spirit which both created and exists in all? Yes, it felt good to sit in church, among other liberal Christians and sing praises, and express devotion and gratitude through that fellowship with others, but somehow I felt I could do more. It just did not seem right so I began instead to pray and mediate on ways I could show my gratitude for all God has done for me. And the answer came to me. I wanted to develop a sense of what I felt was truly sincere “gratuitous gratitude” and it came to me when I was in a prayer of reflection on just how to go about it.
One of the things I am so grateful for is the sense of inner peace and self-acceptance about who I am which God has given me, in a world where I often feel misunderstood by so many for being “different.” I am so grateful for the sense of meaning my life has and the very real sense of unconditional Love that God has shown me, through the love of others, through self awareness and acceptance, and through life itself. When events happen in my life and God sends me angels in human disguise to light my way when it seems as if all hope is lost, I know I am loved. What I want to do to express my gratitude for that, is to pass it on keep the chain of love going, for it is only that love which I feel breaks the chains of pain, loneliness, and depression others may feel. It is these actions, which I choose to show my thanks to God for just the life God has given to me, a life rich with a multitude of experiences, diverse hearts and minds, and infinite possibilities, a canvas we are free to paint our heart`s desire on in glorious color to share. All we need to do is have faith in God to guide us to the tools we need to make the best of who we were made to be, and the Loving Spirit of Christ flowing through our hearts to as many others as we can along the way.
People have asked me when they hear the radical nature of some of my beliefs, “So why, if you do not believe God sits and requires and demands worship, if you do not fear a literal Hell, if you do not think that God is going to punish those who do not believe , why do you even remain a Christian, why not just be a humanist who admires the philosophy of Jesus?” And there are a lot of answers to that. First and foremost, I feel Jesus’ example of love is among the highest that humankind could emulate, but the one that always comes to my mind first is, “I cannot deny my thanks to God without Whom nothing would even be.” Even in my lowest moments, when things are not going exactly as I wish they would, my mind finds healing in gravitating to and focusing on all of the wonderful things in life that I am grateful to God for.
I recall a quote from my Mother that I always mention when someone wants to discuss prayer with me: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is only three simple words, ‘Thank You God,” then that is more than sufficient.” Now, I accept that for some, that would not be sufficient, but I need to clarify the way in which I as a liberal Christian define the term “prayer” in this instance.
Prayer to some is a petition to God to do miraculous things. While I can personally attest to miracles and answered prayers in my own life and in the lives of those I have surrounded in prayer when they were in a time of need, I feel it is safe, experientially, to say that type of prayer works. Especially when it is combined with faith and a sense of personal action and awareness. There is also the form of prayer in which I feel God enables us to individually find the answers that we already had inside through loving reflection and using the intellect and intuition I feel that we are all created with. But those are not the only forms which “prayer” takes for me personally. It takes on a whole new meaning when I think about the subject of gratitude, and that is why I try to make my life a form of prayer of gratitude to God in action. Let me express what I mean by that.
When I pray to God I choose to do it via actions, not words or phrases. But in striving to follow the Great Commandment of Jesus, which I feel to be to express our love and gratitude for God by practicing the Golden Rule of Jesus, to love one another as we have been loved by God. To me, trying to embody the love that was evident in Jesus, to treat one another with love and respect, to see the similarities in each other as children of God rather than others, it is one big act of gratitude. When I take the time to offer an act of unsolicited kindness, to stand up to injustice and help those who feel oppressed, when I make my best attempt offer hope, compassion and encouragement to someone in need, even something as small as a smile, a hug, or an “I care,” it is to me a “Thank You,” to God, not an expectation for blessings or an escape from some divine “punishment” for not following the rules. It is passing on and giving back to others and sharing with others the joys God has brought me. It is not just the spiritual fulfillment, abundant life and sense of harmony or the truth I find in the radical spiritual and ethical teachings of Jesus that compel me to follow. But also a sense of sheer thanks for the beauty, sacredness, and joy in the world God Created for all of us. Since I see God in all of life and all of humanity, it is natural for me to choose showing love to all of God’s children to show my love for God.
I am not, by any means, saying that it is in any way an inadequate display of faith to merely say prayers of gratitude, or even to express one’s gratitude to God through a sense of joy or awareness in life. I am just saying that, for me, the things I am thankful for have so much more meaning when I am able to share my blessings with others. When I can put the gratitude I am feeling into actions, and show it, and see another feel the same sense of joy, I feel as if I have a place, a purpose, a deeper sense of meaning in the grand scheme of things. I don’t feel that this display is something God “requires” to know we are grateful. It’s a gratuitous display, and it feels good to know I have made someone else feel good. I think that is the way that God intended it. My thanks to our Loving God is part of why I volunteer to share my faith and unique perspective here for those who may be seeking hope as I was once, it is both my way of giving thanks and wanting to pass on God’s Love to those who are seeking it. May God help you, today, to see how much we all truly have to be grateful for.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.