Teaching thanks: A lesson for the rest of Christianity
Gratitude is an attribute we don’t seem to have been born with. Most babies don’t thank, they just demand — as loudly as possible, and with no shame. Thankfulness is learned, and it only seems to come with time. Little kids have to be prodded to say thanks — and even when they begin to say it unprompted, it seems they do so mainly to keep the flow of goodies coming.
LGBTQ+ Christians don’t tend to take for granted — as do so many straights — that God loves us. We usually appreciate that love precisely because we haven’t always taken it as our due. Many of the most grateful, joyful people I have ever seen in church are LGBTQ+. We’re always the most thankful for what we once thought we couldn’t have and longed to deserve.
Homophobia in the church — like all self-righteousness — is born of egotism. Many straight Christians want to believe they deserve salvation. The desire for “credit” (for merit) is so strong that literally one minute they’re assuring us they know salvation is a gift, and the next they’re back to bragging how sure they are of theirs and that we can’t have it. In the churches most likely to welcome us, on the other hand, the message we often get is that God owes everyone salvation. But God “owes” nothing to anybody.
Thankful for God
Thanksgiving is perhaps best understood as a celebration of who God is. That God blesses us with more wonderful gifts than we can even comprehend not because of who we are, but because of who God is. “Praise and worship” in church can feel icky and unctuous. It seems like we’re buttering God up. It reminds us of when we were kids and every time we received a present our parents would prod us with, “Now, what do you say?”
I’ve come to think of worship more as appreciation. We can be happy that God has been good to us without having to feel demeaned. Nobody else deserves it either, so we don’t need to feel like worthless little worms. Our value is infinite because God says it is. No one can take that away from us.
Sometimes a simple “I love you,” bubbling up from the heart, is better than all the tambourines and shout-outs and Power-Point hymn lyrics in Creation. Now, worship is best in whatever form works best for you. When I walk into a church and see an overhead projector, I cringe. And some people find formal liturgy stifling. For me, nothing resonates more deeply, nor are any prayers of mine as heartfelt as those of the Rosary.
Thankfulness, from a Christian point of view, does not really diminish anybody. Every time we say “I love you” to God, God says “I love you” right back. God blesses us because God loves us. Genuine worship is an endless back-and-forth exchange of I-love-you’s that worships God because it honors who God is: God is love. Genuine Christian faith always honors love of every kind; it never degrades some forms of love as inferior or worthless.
Understanding God’s love
LGBTQ+ Christians, over time, usually grow to understand this because we must grapple with what love means — and with who God is — in ways that many other Christians may go their whole lives without ever having to do.
As I grew older, I had to learn who my parents were as people — as individual human beings. This has sometimes been a disappointing process, but it has often been a rewarding one. My mother didn’t get to undergo this change very much, as she suffered from Alzheimer’s dementia for most of the last decade of her life. But as my father struggled to accept me for who I really am, I had to do the same for him — and in the end, it was a precious gift from God to both of us.
Getting to know who God is can be disappointing to us, in some ways, because we must shed our childish expectations of God and learn to see God’s love for us not as a crutch but as a challenge. God’s love is always a challenge for us to grow. “You’re more than you think you are,” God tells us, again and again, in a thousand different ways. “You can love Me more than you think you can, and you can love others — who are also more than you have imagined — more than you think you can. Even if it hurts.”
Sure, some Christians seem to resent that God might love others as much as God does them. Something is broken in their understanding of God. They can never know true gratitude for all God has given them until they come to realize God doesn’t owe it to them. I used to envy them their easy assurance of salvation and self-worth. Now I understand that even in the hardships I have faced, God has given me yet another gift.
Those who do not continue to grow in their understanding of love, and in their ability to appreciate God’s blessings to all (not just to them), want to go on forever using God as a crutch. They prattle on and on about Heaven and Hell, not realizing what they’re really talking about. In the life to come, they will be left without crutches, without handy illusions and without excuses. Meeting God face-to-face as the sum total of all they have allowed themselves to become during life in this world, they will no longer be able to use God’s love as a crutch, but will be expected to relate to God — and to everyone else — with a mature love they never developed. That even we often believe a lifetime of alienation from love — of running from it in terror — might somehow better equip straight Christians for Heaven, is worse than sad.
Expressing our gratitude to God
God’s purpose in creating us was not that we remain spiritual children forever, but that we grow up in faith. Those who approach the afterlife like three-year-olds — expecting a warm plate of chocolate chip cookies for following a set of simple-minded do-or-don’t rules that bear the imprint of human invention, and fearing a paddling if they fail — can teach others nothing of value about God. They are like the Pharisee in the parable of Jesus, who stands before God loudly thanking God because he is not a sinner. They will go away empty, while the miserable sinner who approaches God with downcast eyes, beating his breast because he knows he is a sinner, will find a warm welcome in Heaven.
But I don’t think the point of Jesus’ story was that we should stand before God endlessly beating our breasts. Jesus wanted us to trust God — to approach God with the understanding that we don’t need to beat our breasts because God loves us. Had Jesus merely intended us to spend all our time lamenting our sinfulness, He would not have devoted His whole life on this earth to gathering us in and demonstrating God’s love for us. He would not have willingly embraced a Cross of splintery wood and gone the distance to Golgotha to show us that God loves us all the way through to the end. And He would not have risen that first Easter morning to blaze a trail for us to eternal life.
How do we thank God for bestowing such an abundance of riches on us? We can do it with tambourines, with Rosaries or in a hundred other different ways — and by all means we should say “Thank You.” But we do it best when we give and accept love. We worship best by simply saying, “I love you.” Instead of “Begone, you lowly worm,” we will get an endless “I love you” echoing back to us in return. It may seem like an endless hall of mirrors, echoing on an on forever, but it never ends because it is eternal — and it leads us to the very Face of God.
Love never fails, Scripture tells us.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child… Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:8a NIV and 1 Corinthians 11-13 NIV)
Straight Christians, truth be told, have a lot to learn about thanks. And we can teach them much about being thankful — if they will only learn. We can best teach this lesson by simply trusting in love. We can help lead them through the hall of mirrors, in which their self-congratulatory narcissism often traps them, and to the Face of God beyond.
This is a mission not entrusted to everybody. That God has seen fit to entrust it to us, may we come to recognize not as the curse it’s so often portrayed as being, but as one of the greatest blessings of all.
Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.
A self-described “Libertarian Episcopalian lesbian,” freelance writer and the author of Good Clowns, a young adult novel published in 2018, Lori Heine published a blog called Born on 9-11 and was a frequent contributor to the website Liberty Unbound. A native of Phoenix, Ariz., she graduated from Grand Canyon University in 1988 and spent much of her life in the insurance industry before turning full-time to writing as a freelancer, blogger and author.