WE HAD gathered in the front pews in a cold church — this rabble of primary-aged kids and their even younger cousins, now looking up at me expectantly. We hadn’t planned any activities for them, just opened the doors of the church one afternoon and . . . there they all were.
It was a warm place to go when they got bored with playing in the streets of our big Sunderland housing estate. Most had never set foot in a church before, except for the occasional christening. We puzzled over how we could begin to connect with them, and whether there was any natural way to help them connect with God.
It soon became obvious where to start. Bible stories got a lukewarm reception, and games were entertained for a few minutes, but when it came to prayer, all of them had something to say: “Thank you.”
The children whom we have got to know in the few months since then have taught me a great deal about gratitude. They laugh at my silly southern accent, and think that my car is seriously uncool, but they are still kind enough to share with me their lives, their dramas, and their dreams.
Each week, we spend a bit of time in prayer, often asking for healing for sick friends and family, and remembering those who have died. For children so young, they have experienced an unusual amount of collective bereavement, and exploring grief seems to be an important part of our time with them.
And yet no matter what the difficulties, each week they also come up with all sorts of things to thank God for. Together, we thank God for the big things — the people who put food on their tables and roofs over their heads. And then we thank God for little things, such as that bag of crisps that someone had really enjoyed a few minutes ago. It always comes more naturally than our “Sorry” and “Please” prayers: children seem to have an instinct for thanks.
I have been challenged about what my own prayer-life would look like if I were to spot opportunities for gratitude in the way in which they do. I have wondered how often I might pray if I made sure to give thanks for an especially tasty snack: that would surely be numerous times a day. A discipline of thankfulness has great potential to break in to my sometimes grumpy, too often cynical outlook. Much as I find the cheesy phrase grating, an “attitude of gratitude” is exactly what I need.
For those who are keen on such approaches as mindfulness, a “gratitude journal” might already be a familiar concept. The idea is that you spend a few minutes, nightly or several times a week, writing down events, people, and things for which you are grateful.
I found that it feels a bit forced at first, stating the obvious: of course I am grateful for my friends, my partner, my home. The challenge, however, is to get specific, remembering perhaps something that a loved one has done for me this week of which I am particularly glad. Or, silly as it might feel, I might consider whether there is some item of furniture that has made my day much more comfortable. Thanking God for the squashiness of my sofa and the power of my shower brings a dose of reality to an otherwise generic sentiment.
Psychological research suggests that making a habit of gratitude has real benefits for our well-being — including lower stress, better sleep, and a more positive outlook for the future. And when, as Christians, our gratitude is directed towards our real source of life and our sustainer, there are deep spiritual benefits to the practice, too.
It might be more helpful to think of it, as some do, as a “blessings journal”, a simple way to notice more of the gifts, large and small, that God pours out into our everyday lives. In my experience, concentrating on all that I am given makes me a more natural giver: I have begun to discover a greater inclination to generosity.
On top of that, I have found a greater resilience when things go wrong; and I am much quicker to spot the connection between my prayers and God’s answers — if only because I am looking harder for them.
Another way of giving gratitude a go is through resources such as Christian Aid’s Count Your Blessings project during Lent (www.christianaid.org.uk/lent-easter/lent-calendar). It takes us on a journey around the everyday blessings that we often forget to be thankful for, and gives an opportunity for that gratitude to overflow into prayer, giving, and action, to help our global neighbours experience life to the full.
By setting aside a little spare change at a time, the difference can add up: before you know it, you could have raised £30, enough to get fishing gear for a family who have fled violence; or £50, which could provide them with emergency shelter and hygiene supplies.
It does not take much to connect the dots between the good that we have, and the good that we can do with it. But it does start with noticing; with making time to find the hope among the fear, the love among the division, the light among the dark. It starts with making a habit of thankfulness. And, if you struggle to get going, try asking some children. They will soon show you how it is done.
Claire Jones works in three parishes in Sunderland as part of the Church of England’s ministry-experience scheme in the north-east.