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With Grateful Hearts: A Thanksgiving Reflection

When I was growing up, my Dad had a habit of sharing his ideas with me: home improvement projects he was considering, potential business opportunities that intrigued him, and career ideas he encouraged me to consider. After sharing an idea, he would tap the side of his temple with his finger and say: “Always thinking.” Even as a teenager, I realized “always thinking” was an important life lesson.

“Always thinking” helped awaken me to possibilities. It helped me see things in new and different ways. Dad’s mantra led me to a practiced seeing that continues to fire my curiosity and insight. I am profoundly grateful for his enduring gift and this part of his legacy that lives on in me.

“Always thinking” is just one of a long list of gifts I have received: life, health, talent, a loving family, precious friendships, and a list too long to include. Each of us could list our own gifts and blessings. When we take the time to reflect on it, the awareness of our giftedness evokes a powerful, heartfelt response: we give thanks!

When we give thanks as disciples, we know who to thank. We recognize God as the ultimate source of all giftedness. “Always thinking” was passed on to me from my Dad, but it didn’t originate with him. God is the Creator who gifts us with the beauty that surrounds us, the life we enjoy, the talent we have, and a host of other gifts. God is the Spirit that inspires, energizes, motivates, and guides us throughout our lives. God is the Redeemer who is with us when things
go badly – as they so often do – gifting us with mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.

The more deeply we are aware of our giftedness, the more profoundly we are moved with gratitude. Every gift invites us to give thanks to God. Every gift urges us to cultivate a grateful heart.

Cultivating a grateful heart begins with recognizing that everything we have is a gift. Warren Buffett, the billionaire founder of Berkshire Hathaway, has a unique way of describing this. He sees himself as the winner of what he calls the ovarian lottery. Here’s how he describes it.

The odds against my 1930 birth taking place in the U.S. were at least 30 to 1. My being born male and white also removed huge obstacles that a majority of Americans then faced. 1

It’s easy for me – and perhaps for many of us – to be blind to the ways that we have also won what Buffett calls the ovarian lottery. Yet, for me – and for many of us – that lottery has simply been the beginning of a nearly unending litany of ways that I’ve been gifted and blessed. A grateful heart is born in our amazement at how profoundly God has gifted us. Cultivating a grateful heart invites us to engage in daily practices that flow from the awareness of our
giftedness.

One of the daily practices for cultivating a grateful heart is serving others. There are so many ways that we can devote our time, our talent, and our treasure to helping others. The faith community that I belong to has dozens of ways that volunteers can engage in various ministries. The community organizations that I work with are constantly inviting community members to engage in helping others – including tutoring in schools, mentoring job seekers, serving meals for street people, operating a shelter for the homeless (where almost half are children), and supporting those who are incarcerated and their families. Gratitude is a powerful motivator to give back. Each of us can do something; no one needs to do it all.

Buffett’s ovarian lottery opens the door to another possibility for giving back. He makes it clear that giftedness is not equally distributed. Here’s how he describes it:

I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious. 2

The daily practice of cultivating a grateful heart brings us face to face with the need to do what we can to help level the playing field of opportunity. In short, it urges us to confront inequity and address social justice issues.

Several years ago, I facilitated the strategic planning process for a community food bank. The future direction that emerged from the process focused on two key strategies. The first was to increase the food bank’s capacity so that it could meet the needs of a growing number of hungry people. The second strategy was to address the systemic causes of food insecurity in the community.

The first strategy was difficult, but the leaders of the food bank knew what it involved. It would be a tremendous challenge, but the will to achieve it and the way to do it were clear. The second strategy was far more daunting. Addressing the systemic causes of food insecurity is clearly beyond the capability of a single organization. The leaders of the food bank could play a significant role in calling attention to it and enlisting the help of others. But, they couldn’t implement the second strategy alone.

The food bank’s two strategies illustrate two ways to give back. One is to respond to immediate needs. The other is to address the systemic issues that are the root causes of those needs. As volunteers, we have a wide range of possibilities for devoting our time, talent, and treasure to serving others. Addressing immediate needs is urgent and important. Working to address systemic issues is equally urgent and far more difficult.

Gratitude is an invitation to give back that takes us to the front lines of need where we are called to devote our gifts of time, talent, and treasure to serving those in need. There, grateful hearts will move some of us to respond to immediate needs. For others, “always thinking” will lead to devoting our unique gifts and skills to addressing the root causes of injustice. No matter which way our grateful hearts move us, our efforts are both a ministry and a prayer in which we give God thanks and praise.

Questions to Ponder
Here are some questions to ponder as you reflect with a grateful heart.

– What are the gifts and blessings for which you are most grateful?
– In what ways do you give thanks to God as the source of all giftedness?
– What practices do you use to cultivate a grateful heart?
– What are some of the ways in which you are the beneficiary of what Buffett calls “the ovarian lottery?”
– As you go to the front line of need, in what ways do you find yourself called to:
• Meet immediate needs?
• Address issues of inequity and social justice?
– How is the way you give back a ministry and a prayer in which you give God thanks and
praise?