How can gratefulness be a healing spiritual practice? As pastors and leaders working with youth, how can we teach them to use gratefulness as a healing spiritual resource?
As our youth experience difficulty, how can gratitude be a source of strength? While I do not have a perfect answer that will teach each youth to live a life of gratitude, I can share my personal experience of receiving healing through gratefulness.
At the age of nine I was diagnosed with an eye disease. A few years later as a middle school student, I lost most of sight. I could not read the print on the board in classes and I could no longer read my textbooks. In church I could not read the bulletin and in Sunday School I could no longer follow along with the printed material. Everything was changing. I responded with the normal stages of grief including denial, anger, and sadness. I was overwhelmed with depression and anxiety.
My prayer to God was, “I cannot. I cannot. I cannot.” I would cry, scream, and silently think, “God, I cannot.” As a grieving teenager who was facing the tragic reality that I was becoming blind, it was healthy and normal for me to feel those emotions. It was also healthy for me to learn healing spiritual practices so that I could move through the stages of grief and continue living a life of meaning and purpose.
Grateful for the Love of God
One of the spiritual practices that was most healing for me was the practice of gratitude. In fact, in my book, Harnessing Courage, I focus half of the book on gratitude as a source of empowerment when overcoming adversity. Was I grateful for becoming blind? Am I now thankful to be a person with a disability? Absolutely not! So why did I write about gratitude? Why do I believe in the spiritual practice of gratefulness?
While I am not grateful for the horrible transition of becoming blind, I am grateful for the loving power of God that surrounded me in such a difficult time. I am grateful for the loving presence of God that is always and everywhere. I am grateful for the people who supported me during those traumatic days and who continue to support me each day. So, grateful for the adversity? No! Grateful for the love of God that flowed through each person and event? Yes!
Learning the spiritual practice of gratefulness did not come easily or naturally. It was a slow process of learning to be thankful for God’s power and love. Learning to be grateful did not magically take all my problems away. Life was still hard and difficult. In the midst of adjusting to my situation, gratefulness empowered me to focus on what I had rather than focusing on the negative thoughts.
So what practices helped me form the spiritual discipline of gratefulness? What practices can you teach your youth to use as they live a life of gratitude regardless of the situation they face?
Grateful for the Presence of God
One practice is to write down the moments that you are thankful for as you go through your day. Take a few minutes each night to stop and reflect on the people and situations you are thankful for during that day.
Some helpful questions are:
-Where did I experience the unconditional love of God?
-Where did I notice the presence of God today?
-Where was God present even in the midst of hard moments?
Exploring these questions helps us to become aware of the grateful moments in our lives. Some days the list will be long and easy. Then other days the list will be short and difficult. The purpose is not to have a perfectly long list. Rather the goal is to be thankful for the loving presence of God.
Grateful for the Actions of Others
Another powerful practice is to say thank you to others. Now, it seems obvious to thank people when they do something helpful. But, think about how many times we do not stop to say, “Thank you.” We are too busy or too hurried to thank others. The practice of saying thank you helps us to form a healing habit of appreciation. To get in the mindset of saying thank you, we can start by having the goal of thanking others three times a day. We can thank someone who has encouraged us, helped us, supported us, or empowered us. Once we are mindfully saying thank you to three people, we can let go of the number of times and live each day striving to genuinely show appreciation.
Writing down the thankful moments and expressing our gratitude to other people are two powerful practices. Forming the spiritual practice of gratitude is an amazing source of strength that we can offer to our youth. As pastors and leaders may we each seek to empower and support our youth through the spiritual practice of gratitude.
Rev. Laura Bratton graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2010. She is a United Methodist pastor in South Carolina and founder of Ubi Global LLC. She is the author of Harnessing Courage.