I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. I was six years old and it was Christmas with our extended family. We were in the basement living room in our first house on Marberry Lane in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. Like most adults, my memories of my childhood are scattered and rosy, probably more hazy recollections than concrete facts. But this memory is as vivid and detailed as any.
We sat there on the floor, Christmas presents scattered around the room. I was, at the time, the only child (my brother and sister came along later) and the only grandchild on my mother’s side of the family. In other words, I was the golden child, the object of endless affection and too many gifts.
It came time for me to tear through the wrapping paper and see what goodness came this Christmas. I remember this moment, over every Christmas, because of my reaction, and my mom’s reaction, to one particular gift I didn’t like. A family member bought me a board game that disappointed me.
Now, to be sure, disappointment at Christmas is expected. Six-year old kids are prone to expect one kind of gift and get another. We want a lego set and we get socks. But I expressed my disappointment by saying, out loud, “I don’t like this.”
I’ll never forget my mother’s reaction. Let’s just say she wasn’t trying to be my buddy in that moment. She was doing her job as a parent, as a mother. And she said to me, in words I will never forget, “You will never do that again. You will always be grateful and show your gratitude any time someone gives you something.” Mom also backed this principle up with action, enforcing this rule in our home.
Being thankful, for mom, was important. She made us say “thank you” to everyone, for even the smallest gifts. She didn’t tolerate entitlement.
Most of the time growing up I thought perhaps Mom was a bit too extreme on this. Do we really have to express gratitude, even for the little things? But as an adult I now consider this one of the most important gifts my mother gave to me. What Mom was teaching me, in those moments, was not to simply mouth words to get her off my back, but that a discipline of thankfulness not only acts as a courtesy to the giver, but as a guardrail on the heart of the receiver. It works its way into the heart and becomes, if we allow the Spirit to do His work, a way of life.
I’m finding that as an adult with four children I’m becoming as militant about making my kids say “Thank you” as my mother. It’s funny how these things always seem to come full circle. I do this not simply because its kind, but because gratitude is a first-order spiritual discipline. We’re told by Paul, in Romans, that rebellion and sin begin first, in the heart, with ingratitude. We sin because we think the Father is not a good enough Father, that our own vision for our lives is better than his. We think we’re a better Creator, Sustainer and Provider for ourselves than the God who made us. Ingratitude isn’t just incivility, it’s arrogance and a reflection of the corruption of sin in our hearts. But genuine gratitude is a subtle push against the darkness, a witness to the goodness of God the Father, whose gift of Christ has saved us from death. Christians, of all people, should be the most grateful people because we have the most to be grateful for. Gratitude is a reflection of the gospel work within us, a signpost of a renewed world to come.
So, of all the gifts my mother gave me, her gift of gratitude is at the top of the list. And this weekend it makes me reflect with deep joy for her faithfulness to teach this virtue to me.