On Quakers and the Cost of Gratitude

“You know, you’re just our pastor.” I’ve heard that more than once from members of my congregation, trying to put me in my place. Always spoken with a twinkle in their eyes, of course.

Though really, it’s less about sending me a humbling message and more something they are telling themselves as a form of self-elevation. And rightly so.

When people tell me I’m just their pastor, they’re not saying I’m unimportant. I do matter. But this is taken for granted in Christianity, that a pastor matters to the spiritual experience of a community. A pastor needs to be cared for, of course.

But in my experience, people don’t need to be told that their pastor is a gift to them. People need to know that they are gifts to one another. People who are often overlooked as “gifts” need to be told and treated like they are gifts.

I think gratitude is a pervasive theme in Quaker spirituality. That might seem unremarkable, since most religious traditions might be said to have a fundamental emphasis on gratitude. What makes Friends (Quakers) unique?

Gratitude, to me, is the virtue that enables a person to recognize and receive the goodness that others possess in a way that transforms us. It is about awareness but also openness and receptivity and willed dependence.

Ample studies have shown that gratitude can increase personal happiness and health. But there’s more at stake than this. Gratitude is important because it is essential to love. The more grateful we are, the more we are able to participate constructively, helpfully, and respectfully in the lives of others. And the more we welcome their participation in our lives.

I see gratitude in many elements of Quaker spirituality. Some of this is based on personal experience. Some of this is based on idealism: what I see the Quaker tradition could be if its people were a little less flawed. We are all flawed yes, but that’s no excuse to not work toward being less flawed.

I see gratitude in some of our communal practices. Open worship allows participants in worship to have the opportunity to speak out and listen to one another, typically after and followed by lengthy periods of silence. A fitting response to what is spoken is gratitude: to recognize the spoken words as a gift, whether it warms your heart or makes your blood boil.

Corporate discernment encourages open-hearted listening, challenging the temptation I might feel to enter a decision-making process or a conflict with my mind made up, ready to defend a side. Clearness committees invite the gentle prompting and nudging of others to discover what next steps I ought to take on a particular matter. Both practices require receptivity to the gifts of others—their wisdom, their vision, their voice.

The Quaker concerns for peace and justice reflect gratitude. Peace is more than a surface-level calmness or lack of conflict that exists because people are avoiding thorny subjects or insulating themselves from such conversations.

Peace is about a reality where both parties are heard, valued, and allowed to contribute. Peace does not typically give equal weight to two “sides” of an issue but gives preferential treatment to the bullied, not the bullies, since the bullies are the ones most thwarting the possibility of peace and thus the ones who most need to listen, withdraw, or make more sacrificial compromises.

My congregation is continually trying to practice justice and notice those who are being left out. We’re not perfect at it, and sometime obstacles like self-absorption, fear, or even busyness prevent us from seeing others.

But we strive to live without a sense of entitlement. We don’t believe God has “blessed us” if that means God has given us some sort of preferential treatment. Gratitude and justice are intertwined. Saying “thank you for these things” should frequently be followed by “John can’t say ‘thank you for these things’ because forces beyond his control are actively opposed to him having these things, even though he has just as much right to them as I do; so what am I going to do about it?”

Quakers—and again, this may be my projection of an ideal that does not show up as much as I would like—are concerned with authenticity. We say that others’ voices are gifts and should not be stifled, patronizingly corrected, or received primarily as threats, but welcomed.

It’s tempting to control the conversation and silence voices that feel threatening, too confrontational, too potentially devastating to the image we have of ourselves. Gratitude calls us to release control, and let others be themselves. That’s not to say we let others hurt themselves, if being themselves is self-destructive. But it does mean we let others challenge us and make us uncomfortable. Discomfort is not inherently evil and may even be a sign that something really good is taking place.

Quakers use light as a multifaceted metaphor. “Light” speaks to the presence of Christ or the Spirit in all, in you. It reminds us that others are gifts to be taken seriously, not written off. It means discrimination is inappropriate. It means that incarceration that does not actually help but that emotionally and economically handicaps people permanently (or that functions as a form of racial segregation) is inappropriate. It means killing another human is inappropriate, because other people are sacred, no matter how much crud has accumulated in their souls over time to conceal or dim this light.

Gratitude should connect us to others. If it isolates us, I think we’re doing it wrong. Gratitude recognizes that who we are, what we have, is a gift from “otherness”…from what is not us.

Gratitude should not end with “thanks God.” It should end with generosity, with justice for others. It should lead us to share what we have because what we have comes only partially from personal initiative and ingenuity and primarily from the gifts of others or from historical accident.

Gratitude should lead us to advocate for social policies that tear down what systematically gives some in our world less for which to be grateful. The worst thing I could do as a relatively privileged person is to tell someone with very little, “well God loves you, so be grateful for that.” Bullshit. Not good enough. Not helpful enough to be “true.” Easy, lazy love. So not love at all, really, because it requires nothing of me.

I’m not speaking of something impossible—of giving equal attention to every person on earth who suffers, of anxiously trying to solve every problem, of so exhausting myself in the service of others that I physically and emotionally break down, of feeling guilty about every good thing I have. I’m talking about paying a little more attention to the people around me. Of opening myself up just a little more.

I suppose it is like a circle—justice and generosity can lead back to gratitude. Because the more we give and the more we participate in the need-meeting, dignifying, caring, liberating work of justice, the more gifts—people—we encounter. The more otherness that can transform us. The more the gaps in our thinking can be filled in. The more our problematic ways of seeing and thinking can be corrected. The more our fears of what we don’t understand can recede.

I feel compelled by Thanksgiving not only to “count my blessings” but to adjust my posture toward others. To open my hands, mind, and heart. To listen to what others are saying. To admit my limitations and affirm others’ ability to assist me. To thank God for the actual and potential gifts to me that others are and can be.

And to receive gifts with joy but also concern. To, yes, say “thank you for this food” before a meal, but to also, at least for a moment if nothing more, ask “is the person who cooked this being taken care of? Are the people who contributed to the journey of this food, from ground and beast to my plate and mouth, being taken care of?” Gratitude is about thankfulness but also about awareness.

It is a difficult place to live—between thankful contentment with my cozy reality and a disquieting concern for the un-cozy realities of many others. But I think it’s the place God calls me, as a Christ-centered Quaker, to live.

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