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"What IS this?" Practicing Gratitude

When you and your babies are hungry and thirsty, it’s kind of hard to care much about abstract things, isn't it? I can picture the people of Israel out in the desert, after their dramatic escape from Pharaoh and lives of slavery in Egypt. They are tired and out of sorts. Their feet hurt from walking in the hot sand, and their eyes and lips are scratchy and dry from sun and wind. They haven’t had a good meal or a peaceful night’s sleep since they left Egypt, always on the move, packing and unpacking their meager possessions over and over again. Their babies cry a lot, and parents are walking with whiny toddlers in their arms. This Moses who looked like such a promising leader back in Egypt now seems kind of bossy. Maybe he can’t be trusted? Maybe he’s got ulterior motives? The known routine of their lives in Egypt, while ruled by oppression and injustice, was at least familiar. They had a roof over their heads, water to drink, and food to eat, at least.

So the Israelites grumble to God. I don’t blame them, not one bit. And when God answers their grumbling by sending them manna to eat, I wonder: Couldn’t God at least make it something familiar like bread or goat meat? Why this white, flaky stuff that rots when it sits too long in the sun? And it comes with rules, too! You have to gather it at the right time and remember to gather extra before the Sabbath. Seriously? As if the people don’t have enough to worry about already.

In Hebrew, the word “manna” sounds like “What is this?” I’m pretty sure that when the people first look at God’s miracle of manna, the “what’s this?” that they utter is one that is tinged with doubt and disappointment. I imagine that they look at it with the same wrinkled noses and worried tone that my young children used when confronted for the first time with a blob of corn pudding on their plates, or that my European relatives used when first served bright red, wiggly Jello salad: “What is this ….?!?” they moaned.

Unfortunately, we human beings don’t have to be stumbling around in the desert in order to utter a disgruntled, “What’s this?” in response to God’s generous ways. Our American culture teaches us that we are masters of our own fate. We feel that we earn what we deserve. When I work hard, I expect a reward: a vacation, a nice dinner out, a new dress. I tend to see these things as something due to me, rather than as a blessing bestowed on me by my loving God—a blessing for which I owe gratitude to God. If our culture teaches us to expect a 5-course dinner from our five-star lives, then we’re going to utter an exasperated “what’s this?” when God serves us some sticky white manna flakes, instead.

In his teaching, Jesus is always trying to get us away from our economy of fear and scarcity, reward and punishment, tit for tat, debt and debtor. Jesus shows us the opposite of our American “merit economy,” based on an abundance of possessions. He offers us life abundant, rather than an abundance of things: He puts the first at the end of the line; he puts forgiveness above rule-following; he tells stories in which all of the workers receive a sufficient wage, no matter how long they work. He tells us that the prayers of the repentant sinner are valued over the prayers of a haughty saint. Jesus spends his time surprising us, reversing the order that we build around our lives.

G.K. Chesterton defines gratitude as “happiness doubled by wonder.” An awe-filled “what is this?” inspired by gratitude sees the tiny white manna flakes as the amazing gift of God’s love that they are. It gathers them in wonderment, and marvels as they melt in the sun. Gratitude raises its voice to join St. Francis of Assisi in his Canticle to the Sun: “Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us and who produces varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.” His 21st-century namesake, Pope Francis, writes that "by learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism." The ability to see beauty and to feel gratitude are both qualities that can be learned in childhood, and consciously practiced by families. What about "taking on" a practice of gratitude as a family for Lent?

This month’s challenge: With your children, wonder about the beautiful things for which you are grateful. Some families find it helpful for each person to take turns naming something for which he or she is grateful each evening at supper or as part of bedtime prayers. Take a photo of the beauty of creation as reflected in art, music, gardens, food … anything for which you are grateful. Post your image to Instagram with the hashtag #imaginingwholeness. Have your children think of a second hashtag, if they'd like. (If you don’t use Instagram, just email it to me at I will collect the images submitted each month and publish them together on this website. If enough people respond, we will have a composite image that will, I hope, help us all to see our world in a new way, and, perhaps, find new ways of relating with the creation and the Creator!

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