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On Being Grateful. And Happy. And joyous.

Saint Thomas Aquinas insisted that life was ultimately about happiness.  This is an odd assertion, perhaps, for churchy-types who have been so prone to focus upon the rigors of discipleship and taking up the cross as the fundamental measure of following Christ.  To be happy?!  Such an assertion sounds suspiciously like indulgent self-centeredness.

I suspect we should pay more attention to Aquinas’ contention in this regard.  He’s not alone in such liberating summaries of the meaning of being human: the second century church father Irenaeus, for example, insisted that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  And of course before Irenaeus, the New Testament proclaims the practice of joy as a hallmark of Christian life.

Note that phrase:  the practice of joy.  To practice joy seems counter-intuitive on the one hand:  it is conventional wisdom, for example, that the more one sets out seeking happiness, the more likely one is to find misery.  And indeed, it does seem that any sort of deeply rooted joy cannot be pursued straight on.  Emily Dickinson is famed for having said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”  The pursuit of joy seems similar in this way:  it cannot be directly accomplished, and thus must be something sought at a slant.  Or another way to put it: joy cannot be manufactured.  It is a fruit and not an artifice

Yet on the other hand we humans have an indispensable role in cultivating fruit.  There are complex and multi-layered processes of cultivation and care and stewardship that makes fruit, makes joy, possible.

This duality—awareness that our joy is always gift, while simultaneously requiring on our part the hard and careful work of its cultivation—points us toward the role of gratitude and thanksgiving

These practices of recognizing, naming, the fundamental giftedness of our lives, our existence, our days—these are something like the tilling the soil of our souls so that the fruit of a deep gladness might, at the right time and by the gift of God, spring up in our lives.


The year we began our annual tradition of doing a Thanksgiving Tokens Show at the famed Ryman Auditorium, David Collier, one of the managers of the Ryman, now a friend to Tokens Show this past decade, gave me a pre-show tour.  Even though we’re in the second decade of doing Tokens Shows, I still don’t think of myself as an entertainment professional; I get giddy listening to a musician good at his craft. So especially then, wandering around my first time backstage at the Ryman, it felt to me like being a kid again in the Woolworth in my small hometown when I had enough money in my pocket to buy whatever I wanted at the candy stand.  I could hardly contain the wonder of it.

As I recollect, David said to me with all seriousness, something to this effect:  “the room likes good music and people doing good work; it’s like the spirits of all those who have played here through those many years, like they are paying attention, and they want you to do well, and they are cheering you on.”

There does, indeed, seem to be such a spirit about the place:  a deep gladness at the wonder of voices, the sweet strains of melodies, and the vibration of strings on fiddles and guitars and cellos, and the percussion from the thumping of the old stand-up bass and the striking of the strings on the Yamaha grand piano which sits on that hallowed stage. 


I get to sit stage left over by the podium, whence I do my hosting and story-telling, watching world-class musicians and some of Nashville’s finest vocalists spin their musical tales, and when the lights are low on stage, I will let my gaze wander out over the audience, following the graceful lines of that old wrap-around-balcony which hovers over the space, subtly illuminated.  My heart will jump with gratitude as I watch the faces of friends and strangers enrapt in the experience.  Though the gathering is a fundamentally different sort of experience than when old Tom Ryman had built the Union Gospel Tabernacle for the preaching of Sam Jones, the effect is nonetheless the same: a spirit of gratitude which suffuses the place, reminding us that we humans are given the possibility of tasting the glory of transcendence, and that deep gladness of having been given the sweet gift of life, even with all its struggles and pains.

The recording of the closing song of the first show we did at the Ryman in November of 2000 captures that beauty and joy. Some of it is in my memory: looking over at Keb’ Mo as he started his verse, with a big ole smile on his face, and I could tell he was genuinely happy to be there. But more of it is in the audio: the whistles and the laughter and the sort of joy that was bounding out of the singers and the chorus and the band and crowd by the time the tempo and the credits and the last downbeat had been reached.


The songs I’ve heard spun on that stage are enough to nourish the soul for another season to work and labor and love:  the song Vince Gill sang one night that he wrote about his brother, who lived on the streets for years, afflicted with addiction, who wandered into an old mission where he is welcomed to a table and a bed.  I just laughed, and tears ran down my face, when I realized that this country music super-star had intuited something about the gifted nature of existence, and the manner in which the sacraments are but token reminders of this giftedness:

It’s bread and water, man that’s all you need
Bread and water, and a place to rest your feet
If you ain’t too proud to get down on your knees
The bread and water’s free.


Or the night sweet little Lennon and Maisy, new young Music City phenomena, sang what became the sort of “Nashville” show theme song:

Sittin' here tonight,
By the fire light,
it reminds me I already have more than I should.

I don't need fame, no one to know my name,
at the end of the day,
Lord I pray, I have a life that's good.


It turns out, of course, that the psychologists and sociologists, have discovered the importance of that old hymn we sing, to “count your many blessings.”  Unfortunately, some of them are also telling us that it is, counter-intuitively, the glut of choices offered by western consumerist society that actually undercuts happiness and joy, which is to say that the more we insist on having it precisely our own way, the more unhappier we are becoming.

Our Thanksgiving show the autumn of 2013 was the start of a very hard season in my life, and I found myself grieved for a variety of reasons.  Trying to lean in to the sort of stuff I tell my students they should do—“practice gratitude!”—I tried to take some of my own medicine, and found myself with a lyric and a melody that in time I got to sing that night on that beautiful old stage:

Hungry in riches,
Bondage in greed,
Chains in our freedom,
Deep want in no need.

Oh give us hearts that are grateful,
Hearts that are free.
Hearts that are lovely,
Delighted in thee.

Stranger to neighbor,
Unknown to our friends,
Overwrought in much nothing,
Thus our hearts contend.

Oh give us hearts that are grateful,
Hearts that are free.
Hearts that are lovely,
Delighted in thee.


May the God of all good gifts, whose mercies are new every morning, grant that we all might have hearts that are free, and lovely, and delighted in the One who has given us life.

Happy Thanksgiving. And I hope you get to join us this coming Sunday night at the Mother Church.  

Doxology from the Ryman:


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