Gratitude: Reflected in 3 Movements

First movement

On the 22nd of December 2008, Al and I arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 with an astonishing number of bags; many more than two people could reasonably manage. In those days, we were frequent transatlantic travellers, visiting our young family who until the previous year had been living in College Park, Maryland and now in Phoenix, Arizona. This time, however, we were embarking on a journey of a different kind, one of those great life journeys, the destination of which remains unknowable at the time of departure. Until our granddaughter Claire’s birth in 2005 it would have been inconceivable to either of us that we should ever leave London. Yet, after 35 years we were nevertheless, leaving.

In our different ways, Al and I both represent a particular kind of migration experience. London represented a particular time earlier in our lives when we risked making new beginnings. Now, at a later point in life, when according to conventional expectations we should have been comfortably drifting towards the enjoyment of the fruits of years of hard work and effort, we were throwing the pieces of our lives up into the air with no sense of how or where the pieces might land in a reconfigured life.

In a highly mobile society, our experience is not in any way an uncommon one. Countless others have similar stories of uprooting and transplanting to tell. Millions of these stories are infinitely more traumatic than ours. At the start of our 2017 annual stewardship campaign I share my experience because the theme and title of our campaign is Tender Competence.

Second movement

Tender Competence is a phrase I associate with St Benedict when he instructs his monks in the art of right relationship with one another and tender care of the structures supporting their common life. Tender competence, in the form of hospitality becomes charity. Charity-Caritas is one of the objective actions of love. Benedict’s experience was that when a community practiced tender competence in all aspects of life then charity would flow out through the gates and into the needy world beyond. Essential to Benedict’s thought is the adage charity begins at home. For if we cannot practice tender competence in the ordinary places, in the everyday mundane experiences among the familiar faces that people our lives, then we fool ourselves. Charity without engagement that roots it in time and place; without relational involvement fails to awaken in our fearful and barricaded hearts, the fruits of gratitude.

In 2008, our coming to America was a decision shot with the perils of uncertainty and unpredictability. Our same-gendered relationship enjoyed all the legal recognitions and civil rights afforded all married persons in the UK. Despite Al being a US citizen, in 2008 no such rights and recognitions were accorded us under Federal immigration law. This meant for me that the only way to come to America was as a student on an 18-month study visa. What was to happen after 18 months – neither of us knew?

What we did know was that our desire to be an active part of our young family’s life meant that coming to America was more than an 18-month experiment. For us leaving London was a decision upon which there was no going back. So began an 18-month period in our lives when we ate, drank and breathed the corrosions of uncertainty amidst the anxieties of waiting; waiting for the yet to become known to emerge into focus.

My relating this brief overview of my experience in the context of the start of our 2017 annual stewardship campaign is an attempt to embody that which I invited all of us to consider in this Thursday’s weekly E-News Epistle.

I invited us to use this short three-week campaign as an opportunity for taking a spiritual inventory of the role of gratitude, generosity, and service play in our lives. I offered three suggestions to assist our inventory process:

  • Recall a past experience when you took a risk to be generous. Remember how risky it felt. After taking the leap, how did this leave you feeling? Conversely, if you were afraid to leap, how did you feel?
  • Or, remember a time when you really felt up against it- in the sense that you knew you were totally dependent on God’s generosity for your hope or desire. Looking back how did a sense of reliance on God bear fruit for you?
  • Another approach – recall the consistent generosity that God has shown towards you throughout the ups and downs of your life. As you ponder, can you locate a deep source for gratitude? That no matter how often you have feared or doubted that you would be all right, that things would be OK, with hindsight you can see that God was caring for you, has always been, and therefore will continue to care for you.

First movement returns

In sharing my story of coming to America I want to give an example of the operation of gratitude, at least in my own experience. 2008-2012 represented a period during which my sanity was preserved in the face of the enormous uncertainty by the discovery of an that at the heart of stress lies and invitation. The invitation was to accept my experience of being utterly dependent upon God’s sustaining generosity. It’s only when the illusions of self-sufficiency fall away that the full power of God’s tender competence breaks into our barricaded hearts. It was at this point that I was reminded that God’s generosity towards me had always sustained me again and again throughout the ups and downs of the whole of my life, and would do so now.

When I speak of gratitude for God’s generosity I speak of several interconnected and interdependent elements. I speak of the people around me who through affection respect, and generosity encouraged, supported, and facilitated unfolding processes and events that opened doors to my future. But chiefly, I speak of an experience of the cultivation within of a deep trust in God born of utter dependence. This is not the fruit of my ability to trust, but is an experience of trust being cultivated within me by the tender competence of God.

Third movement

imagesIn the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, we are invited into the pitfall of making moral judgments. Our 21st-century ears have been conditioned by the unrelenting drumbeat of anti-Semitism, the roots of which undoubtedly have been fed by a willful misinterpretation of the Gospels. Therefore, we are automatically predisposed against the self-righteousness of the Pharisee, and in so judging him commit the same error we condemn in him, i.e. that of self-righteousness.

We should remember that the Pharisees were the good guys. They aspired to live faithfully and with integrity. They shared with Jesus a progressive and compassionate understanding of Torah as a response to, rather than an imposition riding roughshod over the demands of everyday life. In his speech before the altar, the Pharisee rehearses the values he aspires to live by. He does not rob, exploit, or extort. He remains faithful to his wife and seeks an honorable accommodation with the Roman occupation that enables him to stay on the right side of the civil authority while keeping God as the focus of his ultimate allegiance.

The tax collector trades in a dirty business that often involved threats, extortion, and robbery. He is one of Rome’s debt collectors and he made a comfortable living out of his fellow citizens as an extortionate middleman.

So what is the deciding factor between each man for Jesus? It’s clearly not integrity and honesty. It’s not fidelity and fulfillment of duty. For Jesus, one man stands within a framework of comfortable self-assertion, confident in his ability to do the right thing and win God’s approval, while the other bows low, consumed by the realization of his utter helpless dependency upon the generosity of God. He is the one Jesus tells us goes home justified – made right again with God.

Utter dependence flows from the painful realization that there is nothing we can do other than to entrust ourselves to God’s tender competence. The tax collector has nothing going for him except he knows his need of God. It’s the very protections of an upright and faithful life that insulate the Pharisee from this crucial experience. He remains righteous, yet not justified.

Finale; first, second, and third movements combine

Are we not both Pharisee and tax collector? From my perspective in 2016, with the passing of time, the rawness of the time of uncertainty and vulnerability fades allowing the Pharisee in me to once again come to the fore. The Pharisee in me asks: am I not the author of my successful migration? Is not all I enjoy the fruits of my own success? After all, I am someone capable of risking, someone able to navigate complex bureaucratic systems and cultivate crucial relationships to help me at each step of the journey. In short, as Pharisee, I can see my successful migration to America and eventual arrival at St. Martin’s as the evidence of my undisputed qualities of discipline, diligent hard work, and personal social and relational skillfulness, not to forget access to the financial resources to make things happen. Viewed from here I am simply enjoying the desired reward that comes to a capable and resourceful person like me.

But is this really how things work? The tax collector in me knows that underneath my Pharisee facade there lies an experience of utter dependency on the generosity of God’s tender competence towards me. The tax collector in me knows only too well the encounter with helplessness. I was surprised by the power of love for our granddaughter. I felt compelled by that love to throw life up in the air without any idea of how this was actually going to work out. In doing so, I came to know the intensity of utter dependency on God generosity. Within all of us, the Pharisee’s self-confidence is always at war with the tax collector’s dependence upon God’s tender competence.

We face together the responsibility of rising to the challenges ahead in 2017. Speaking personally, I face into the challenges ahead with my sense of gratitude in the forefront of my awareness. I feel so privileged and thankful for having arrived at this point in my life. I feel a deep gratitude to God for calling me to be a part of this community. I am energized by the opportunity to build on our community’s past in order to prepare us for a future in which we will only grow more and more fit for the purpose God intends for us. In short, it is from my experience of gratitude that I find the energy to invest myself measured out within time, talent and treasure- in the life of the St. Martin community.

At the start of our 2017 campaign of Tender Competence, my theme is that of gratitude, which is the first impulse of the spiritual life. Over coming weeks I will speak about generosity and service as the other points in the virtuous cycle flowing from an awareness of gratitude for God’s tender competence. My charge to us all is to connect with the sources of gratitude in our own experience and at least between now and November 13th to make the cultivation of gratitude our enduring meditation. As we do this we will discover we are in for some surprising discoveries.

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