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Opinion >  Column

Faith and Values: Gratitude should come without strings attached

Paul Graves, Faith and Values columnist for the Spokesman-Review.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Paul Graves, Faith and Values columnist for the Spokesman-Review. (COLIN MULVANY)

Please excuse my “humble brag” today. It was March 1996 that I first started writing Faith & Values columns for The Spokesman-Review. Beside thanking her for the opportunity, I remember telling my editor I would be very pleased to last a year before readers stopped reading my thoughts.

Next month, I will begin my 26th year wandering the faith-and-values landscape. This longevity is both a shock to me and a source of serious gratitude. So please indulge my thoughts about “gratitude” today.

When our now 21-year-old granddaughter, Claire, was 21 months old, we were visiting her and her family in Albany, Oregon. That Sunday, we attended worship with them. Prior to the offering plate being passed, our son gave Claire and her older sister, Katie, some money they could put in as their gifts.

As the plate came to Claire, she dropped her dollar bill in and said, “Thank you.” I was actually stunned. I had never, ever, heard anyone say “thank you” as the offering plate came drifting by.

Now, I must admit that 21-month-old Claire had few words that were yet recognizable. And she frequently repeated those few words. “Thank you” was one of her phrases. She said it a lot, and not always as a “correct” response.

But don’t dismiss Claire’s wisdom. We might easily dismiss her toddler words. Let’s not miss Claire’s innocent attitude of gratitude that revealed her intuitive understanding of what God intends life to be like.

As I reflect on the wonderful experience of column-writing these 25 years, I hope my genuine gratitude for the opportunity somehow models that intuitive sense of God’s grace-infused life.

Yet, I’m aware that cultural manners are tainted by a transactional gratitude that dilutes the gratitude that can transform us.

Did you ever consider that “gratitude” and “grace” come from the same root word? Gratia in Latin and kharis in Greek. Diana Butler Bass taught me that in her 2018 book “Grateful.” Its basis has to do with “undeserved favor,” a gift with no expectation of a return gift.

To quote Bass: “Because you can neither earn nor pay back the gift, your heart fills with gratitude. And the power of that emotion transforms the way you see the world and experience life.” For 27 years, I’ve called that God’s Radical Hospitality.

She also reminded me that much of what we historically express as gratitude is based on a transactional attitude. Often, our expectation of gratitude is based not on grace, but on social manners and obligations.

When gratitude implies “I owe you something,” there is an unspoken social imbalance. The next time you express socially polite thanks to someone, I ask you to be mindful of why you’ve expressed gratitude.

Unthinkingly, our impulse may be to think we’re exchanging some kind of “goods.” A thank you completes the deal, the transaction. That can be felt as an exchange between benefactor and beneficiary.

But transformational gratitude is essentially an exchange between people who honor their mutual reliance on each other. Again Bass: “To be human is to rely on others.” That honest awareness can change everything!

Our gifts to one another need not be commodities we offer each other. Rather, the gifts we share are “just because” offerings, no strings attached. They may be as simple as a piece of pie offered to a neighbor. Or as profound as sitting at the bedside of a sick or dying friend.

Transactional gratitude is all around us, and in us, when we can exchange thanks on a more superficial basis. Transformational gratitude invites us to experience God’s grace in ever-new ways!

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, can be contacted at elderadvocates@nctv.com

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