In her new book “Grateful,” Diana Butler Bass traces her evolution from being a self-described ungrateful person to discovering the power of gratitude to change her own life and then, after research, a new awareness that as a Christian and citizen, gratitude could change the world.
I offer this review because I’m intrigued by her insights as possible antidotes to some of our more intractable stewardship leadership challenges. Specifically, how do we inspire people, most of whom have more than they need, to be generous?
Center for Stewardship Leaders
A new frame?
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Review by Catherine Malotky
Dr. Bass advocates for gratitude as a formative and productive discipline for living. For those of us who work at self-development, this could be yet another invitation on a long list of practices that might help us be more loving, grounded, calm, and open, all in service of the Gospel. Who doesn’t want to be a good example?
However, I’m coming away from her book with two ideas that bear repeating, not just for me personally, but for us as stewardship leaders, too.
The first is rooted in history. Dr. Bass unpacks a concept of gratitude (and generosity), the Western version, most clearly practiced in the structure of the Roman Empire. She attaches the phrase quid pro quo to this understanding because there was an expectation that the generosity of the emperor was to be returned. The structural expectation of the emperor’s generosity was clear, but so was the expectation of tribute back up to the emperor (and each step in the hierarchy in between) from those lower on the social ladder. Think more broadly than the current concerns about the concept of quid pro quo that has taken residence recently in our political conversation, though it is certainly an illustration of what Dr. Bass is pointing to, whether you believe it happened or not.
Does this feel familiar to you? If you are the beneficiary of someone’s generosity, do you feel an obligation to “return the favor” even if it’s just in the form of effusive thanks? If you are the benefactor, do you recognize an expectation in yourself that your beneficiary should be particularly attentive to you for your graciousness?
Unfortunately, this makes generosity transactional, consumeristic. Dr. Bass proposes that our faith invites us into a different way of being together. She suggests we think pro bono, a system where everyone is on par with everyone else, and we each share from our abundance, peer to peer.
Her recall of the story of the Magi, who lived out the kind of reversal represented in pro bono, seems apt in this season of Epiphany. The normal expectation was that the peasant would bring gifts to the monarch, not the other way around. She highlights the metaphor of the table (where all are welcome) rather than transaction (where we carefully keep the score even).
The other applicable idea is the importance of public/communal gratitude. One of the challenges of modern, middle class, privileged life is that we can so easily lose track of the tailwinds that help us in ways we may not even register. Our neurological predispositions lead us to pay more attention to the headwinds that create friction in our lives. This was biologically helpful to the survival of our ancestors, but it dampens our ability to be grateful for the “blessings” we receive daily, often in very small but persistent ways.
If we exclude or downsize in our conversation and consciousness the beauty of the generosity that surrounds us, it’s not a far stretch to see that it will be harder to be generous and grateful in our daily lives.
What is that beauty? The miracle of breathing comes to mind, along with the flow of the seasons, the joy of being together with loved ones, the bond of sharing stories of faith in community, and the wonder of gathering for a simple meal of remembrance and hope in worship.
All of these things are quite miraculous when you stop and think about it (God’s largess!). How might we, as ones charged with stewarding the development of stewards among us, help our congregations learn to celebrate these simple, profound, and life-giving miracles—together? How might we model an awareness of and gratitude for our many tailwinds? How might that change the tenor and vibrance of our faith communities?
About the Author
Catherine Malotky is Grant and Project Manager for the Center for Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary.
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