Communities of Gratitude and Generosity
Posted by Inagrace Dietterich
(This is second in a series of talks on the theme “The subversive act of missional worship” given by Debra Dean Murphy at the Convocation in Chicago earlier this year).
Much of popular culture (and pop theology) would have us believe that gratitude and generosity are personal attributes that can make us happier, healthier individuals. While not discounting the “therapeutic” value of such habits, we must go deeper into an exploration of worship’s capacity to engender gratitude and generosity communally—to make these virtues constitutive of our way of living God’s mission in the world.
A Vision of God’s Kingdom. The biblical view of worship is intimately related to the realization of God’s reign on earth. As expressed in Hebrews: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28). Read More…
The Table of Abundance. The discussion of the Eucharist: at a table of plenty Christ welcomes us and feeds us. And since we have freely received, therefore we may freely give. Read More…
Why We Often Fail as Communities of Gratitude and Generosity. We could likely come up with a long list of reasons why generosity and gratitude don’t seem to define our common life. Read More…
Where There’s Hope. First, where our failure is evident, grace is always more evident. And we do not trust that enough. Read More…
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
We often associate gratitude and generosity with Christian stewardship. How does linking these practices (attitudes/behaviors) with worship stimulate new insights? More Questions…
A Vision of God’s Kingdom
The biblical view of worship is intimately related to the realization of God’s reign on earth. As expressed in Hebrews: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28). The church’s worship bears witness to “a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” a different arrangement of social relationships. God’s mission of shalom—of reconciliation and healing—creates a different body politic, an alternative vision of human community and of the wielding of power.
And because this kingdom cannot be shaken we give thanks. Thus worship—acceptable worship—flows out of gratitude. And gratitude flows out of worship. Worship and gratitude, gratitude and worship, this mutually informing endless circle of praise and thanksgiving. This is the biblical view of worship. This is missional worship: we are a people whose common life is characterized by gratitude and generosity. But as soon as I say that, as soon as you hear that, we must also admit that being a people of gratitude and generosity is not how the Church is perceived in our culture. Gratitude and generosity are typically not the first things that come to mind when people outside of the Church think about Christianity. You probably know the statistics: something like 85% of millennials (those born after 1980) associate Christianity not with gratitude and generosity but with hypocrisy and judgmentalism.
So we do not seem to be known by the wider culture as a people of gratitude and generosity. Even we who serve the church, maybe especially those of us who serve the church, don’t seem to see or experience much gratitude and generosity either. And so the obvious question: why is that? In response, I think we should not discount the communities, the people and places of Christian witness who have gotten this right—who, in fact, have made gratitude and generosity their way of life. I hope you know some communities like that: traditional churches, perhaps, or intentional communities that live lives of gratitude and generosity in rich, creative, and compelling ways. And I hope that even if your own worshiping community, like my own, struggles to get this right, that there are, by the grace of God, glimpses, small gestures of gratitude and generosity even in places like our own. Cynicism and despair should not overtake us and win the day.
As we struggle with the troubling truth that gratitude and generosity do not seem to be normative for Christians (they seem to be exceptions rather than the rule), it is easy to be cynical and discouraged. But we are a people of hope not of despair, we are called to trust not in our own power but in the reconciling work of God in Christ to bring life out of dry bones, to help us learn (or relearn) the ways of the Kingdom, the ways of God’s mission in the world. While we could probably generate quite a list of reasons why gratitude and generosity do not seem to define the Church’s common life, I suggest that one way to get at this, one way to frame this troubling reality is to see it as a failure of imagination (that word again): our failure to picture, portray, receive, and practice the alternative vision of God’s shalom that worship invites us into.
In an earlier post, we considered Eucharist as an imaginative act: an embodied, enacted pattern (paradigm) of abundance and goodness. As we eat the bread and drink the cup, week after week, season after season, year after year, our character is shaped: gratitude and generosity become constitutive of who we are as God’s witnesses in the world. Except when they don’t. Except when we fail to live into and out of this new reality, this embodied, enacted pattern/paradigm of abundance and goodness.
The Table of Abundance
The discussion of the Eucharist: at a table of plenty Christ welcomes us and feeds us. And since we have freely received, therefore we may freely give. From the table we are sent out to welcome and feed others: In the Eucharist we hand over “the first fruits of our labor and we receive back the first fruits of the resurrection [of abundant life in Christ]. What reason is there not to be generous?” (Samuel Wells, God’s Companions, 211). God is generous. How can we not be generous? God gives without conditions and without demands. Why can’t we? God delights in giving. Why can’t we? “God gives,” as Miroslav Volf has put it, “so [that] we can become joyful givers and not just self-absorbed receivers.”
The Table of Abundance stands in judgment against all forms of stinginess and deprivation, of paucity and lack: there is more than enough. As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we receive, as Augustine said, the mystery of ourselves: our identity as the body of Christ—taken, blessed, broken, and shared with a suffering world. The Table of Abundance makes us friends with God who desires our fellowship, who delights in communing with us. Friendship with God finds its expression in friendship with one another, and friends practice gratitude for the gift of the other; friends are generous with each other.
As an avenue into reflecting on this idea of the Eucharist shaping us to be a people of gratitude and generosity, I want to draw our attention to a classic film: Babette’s Feast. Based on a short story by Isak Dineson, the film tells the tale of an austere Danish Christian sect that carefully shuns the sensual delights of this world. Babette, a star chef and a refugee from counterrevolutionary violence in Paris, comes to live among the dwindling congregation (who knows nothing about her past). After winning 10,000 francs in the French lottery, Babette decides to spend it all on a sumptuous banquet on the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of the founder’s birth. The congregation, afraid of the sin of sensual luxury, decides to eat the meal but not to take any pleasure in it and to avoid all mention of the food during the dinner. They cannot help but be overcome by the meal, however, and gradually their frigid facades melt, while old hostilities are repaired and old loves rekindled. Babette’s total gift is a gesture like that of Christ’s self-emptying and Christ’s call to the share gratefully at the table of abundance. The congregation gradually accepts Babette’s gift, a gift which shows that God’s grace is not finite but lavishly spread over all of creation. They are invited to a meal that, in its celebration of God’s creation and redemption, offers a glimpse of a new world in which sins are forgiven and all that divides us is healed.
This thoroughly Eucharistic film shows the contrast between the competing narratives of scarcity and abundance, between fear and joy. The feast itself near the end of the movie imagines a different sort of polis, an alternative ordering of human relationships: this transformed community “encounters fulfillment [and abundance] in its most bodily practice: eating and drinking which, paradoxically, is much more than eating and drinking” (Mendez-Montoya). It’s an experience of grace, isn’t it? Which every Eucharist is. God’s gracious and grace-filled ways with us call forth gratitude. God’s generosity toward us stirs in us a desire to be generous with each other: to forgive, to reconcile, to care for, tend to, to love without condition. In the story, Babette first receives the gift of hospitality through the generosity of the sisters who take her in, and she – in turn – in gratitude, offers her own gift to others. She—like Christ in the Eucharist—is both guest and host. Also like Christ, her kenotic gift does not leave her empty: she is nurtured herself in the giving of it. She is complete. In the story, the sisters don’t realize that Babette has spent her entire lottery winnings on the food; they think she’s going to take the money and go back to Paris. But Babette herself, as an artist, as a giver, is complete—she is spent (literally) but she is full. And like Babette, the body gathered at the table of abundance imitates Christ in its own acts of generosity when gratitude for the gifts of God overflows outward to neighbor, stranger, enemy, friend.
Why We Often Fail as Communities of Gratitude and Generosity
We could likely come up with a long list of reasons why generosity and gratitude don’t seem to define our common life. For example, our churches are consumed with inner turmoil (endless arguments about pension funds or crumbling facilities); we are consumed with bureaucracy and with self-preservation (saving the institution); we have presumed scarcity rather than abundance (have to protect our resources, our assets, etc.). I’m sure that you could name others.
First, as I said earlier, the failure of imagination seems to be at work here. We don’t seem to have eyes to see that we have already been given everything we need. The table has been prepared, we are invited, we are fed and transformed. We have failed to cultivate that capacity to imagine—and thus to practice—this alternative way of seeing and being in the world. This may be the case because we consider the Lord’s Supper a private meal “for me,” rather than a foretaste of the heavenly banquet at which we all feast in gratitude and sharing. And sometimes the very ways in which we commune at the Lord’s Table—the logistics, if you will, of the meals stifle our imagination. For example, small, individual pieces of bread, tiny shot glasses of grape juice are not conducive to shaping us in practices of radical sharing and conviviality. So, the failure of imagination is a reason for our inability to make gratitude and generosity our default way of living and being in the world.
Second, we assume that generosity and gratitude (and any virtue or fruit of the Spirit for that matter) must be cultivated and practiced by our own power, in our own strength, through our own cleverness or ingenuity. We are such workaholic overachievers we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we have to make it happen. Thus we assume that gratitude and generosity are our own accomplishments, that we are responsible for cultivating gratitude and generosity among the people in our congregations. So if we just design the right liturgy, the right worship experience, by God, our people will be grateful and generous. It is true, as we have been saying, that worship is the place where we are shaped to be a people of gratitude and generosity, but not because we have engineered the liturgy in such a way as to make that happen. We don’t have to do liturgy right in order to make something happen—Jesus is already there! Our sole task is habitually to make ourselves present, as the worshiping body, to the one who is just there. Christian worship is predicated on the understanding that there is nothing left to achieve, God’s kingdom (“the kingdom that is unshakable”) has already been inaugurated and obtained—we are participants in a drama not of our own making.
Third, we forget that habits must be cultivated over the long haul. If worship is therapy for our addictions and pathologies, it takes time to get well. We can have a little patience. We should not be complacent, but, remember, patience is not an achievement, but another fruit of the Spirit. I’ll say another word about taking the long view in just a minute. Also, we forget that the church will always be subject to pettiness and small-mindedness (the opposites of gratitude and generosity) since it is comprised of people who, well, since it is comprised of people.
Where There’s Hope
First, where our failure is evident, grace is always more evident. And we do not trust that enough. God’s grace is sufficient; it is only by God’s own grace and power in our lives that any of this comes to fruition. Rather than a human achievement, we are formed to be a missional people, able to be a sign, servant, and foretaste of God’s mission to heal and reconcile and make new, only by God’s grace. It is grace. All grace. All the way down.
Second, we are called to have confidence in the truth that God will do God’s transforming work in our lives as we make ourselves available to that work. Being receptive and attentive, we cooperate with God, yet we don’t co-opt the work of God. We are to make ourselves available, to show up and open up (even when we don’t feel like it).
Third, in taking the long view: that the formation we undergo as the body of Christ is work for a lifetime; it happens in fits and starts, there are disappointments and there are small victories—mostly small victories—for which we give thanks. With that in mind, I want to close with a familiar prayer written by Oscar Romero:
It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- We often associate gratitude and generosity with Christian stewardship. How does linking these practices (attitudes/behaviors) with worship stimulate new insights?
- How would you describe the relationship between “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” and worship?
- What can be learned from the story of Babette’s Feast about gratitude and generosity?
- As you think about the life and ministry of your congregation, where do you see the practice of gratitude and generosity?
- Where do you see the failure of imagination?
- Identify some concrete ways through which could gratitude and generosity be cultivated more fully through the worship of your congregation.
- Meditate upon the prayer of Oscar Romero. How does it realistically express the challenge or worship? How does it stimulate liberation and hope?
Debra Dean Murphy is Assistant Professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Debra brings wisdom and passion around the dynamic intersection of Christian formation and the church as a worshipping community. While she continues to write on this subject, her foundational work is, Teaching that Transforms: Worship as the Heart of Christian Education. Debra currently chairs the Board of Ekklesia Project, and has her own blog, Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.