Last week, I finally got around to writing thank you cards for the beautiful gifts I received on my birthday. When I opened each one, I was deeply thankful if not surprised. I knew Steve would likely buy me something, but the other gifts were unexpected. During our year of COVID, when every celebration feels clouded with uncertainty and sadness, I actually felt overjoyed in being celebrated. Gratitude flowed freely in my heart that day and for weeks after.

But not so much my pen. I made lists of gifts and givers. I pulled out thank you cards purchased months ago for just such an occasion. I even created a to-do list item with a due date for when the cards would be written and sent. But at the end of each day when the thank you cards remained unwritten, I moved out the deadline one day. Then another. Then another after that.

To be fair, I didn’t grow up with a deeply entrenched thank you card obligation. I was the youngest daughter of a youngest daughter on my mom’s side, so her siblings had long since forsaken buying gifts for nieces and nephews on birthdays and holidays. On my dad’s side, a religious affiliation kept his family from celebrating birthdays or holidays, so there were no gifts–and thus no thank yous to write–there either. 

In fact, my high school graduation was the first occasion I remember being told to write thank yous. And after that, I mostly just did it on my own. And still do.

Except that it takes discipline and intention. Especially when I hardly receive any thank yous myself anymore despite numerous gifts I send throughout the year. I’ve all but given up forcing our boys to write thank you notes and instead write the note myself and make them sign it (I know!). And our digital age makes thank you notes seem so quaint and parochial anyway.

None of that changes the importance of a punctual and earnestly written thank you note, though. And at least on one count, I got it right.

Lately I’ve begun to wonder if my gratitude in general might benefit from the same intention and discipline as writing thank you notes requires of me. Several times throughout any given day, people help me, food nourishes me, a word or a sentence encourages and inspires me, God hears me or comforts me or pricks my conscience when I’m faltering. In those moments, I feel something well up deep inside of me, something fulfilling and satisfying, something important and bigger than me. If I take a minute, even a few seconds, to acknowledge it and identify it, I recognize it as gratitude, warming my heart and enlarging my spirit. If I take a few seconds more, I might say something to the person I’m with, especially if the gratitude is directed toward them. 

But without intention, without discipline, without a habit to take the next step, often my gratitude ends there. What would it look like to take gratitude at least one step further? What if I could learn how to feel and express gratitude in a way that brings glory to God throughout my day?

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll write about four ways that developing a discipline of gratitude can help us grow spiritually.