Posted by: Mark Nielsen | November 28, 2008

Thankfulness, Children, Rumi, & Poetry (Part 1)

“From the mouths of babes you have ordained praise…” (Psalm 8:2)

Not to mention from the mouth of Rumi, a 13th century Afghani/Persian poet (who was also a Sufi Muslim scholar, a Jesus-loving mystic, a whirling dervish, and a stand-up comedian). But we’ll get back to Jalal al-Din Rumi a bit later, …like tomorrow, in Part 2.

…which leads us back to Thanksgiving:

Without meaning to, I started an extended-family Thanksgiving tradition a few years back: the simple but potentially powerful experience of a group of kids and adults stating what they are thankful for, while gathered around a meal. Last night, my six-year-old son put us all to shame with his genuineness and unique perspective.

As we mostly named concrete things, like our families, our health, or various possessions, my son said he was thankful for three things: the four seasons, the fall leaves, and green apples. We were all struck dumb for a moment, after which Brez– my often flip but genuinely nice brother in law– captured the mood in the room perfectly, saying, “Wow. That’s deep.” We all intuitively realized Graham had gotten it right. He was thankful for gifts God has given all of us, not just specific things God gave to him.

In a narcissistic, materialistic culture like ours, I’ve noticed it’s getting easier every year to express gratitude, yet without the sense of grace, or the divine directionality in which that thankfulness should logically flow. As pop culture continues its inevitable march, Thanksgiving becomes T-Day, which then becomes Turkey Day, after which Shopping Season begins. We are distracted from the Giver by the gifts themselves, and distracted from our True Selves (our “inner child”?) by the pain or pleasure of daily life.

We may feel genuinely grateful (or not). We may even pray to God to express our thanks. But that’s not the same as “living it”. Instead, a steadily-felt inner peace and gratitude for all of life’s gifts, and even life’s burdens (and what they teach us), flows from simple practice: real acts of giving, and consistent openness to childlike wonderment. Both are born of a deep love of humanity and all the creation, and of trust in God’s goodness. This attitude of gratitude is even born of non-attachment to the temporary things for which we give thanks. Jesus, the same guy who said “he who would save his life should be ready to lose it”, also said “Let the children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven is made of such as these.”

Cultivating that sense of wonder, and our ability to act while letting go of our need to control the outcome, can and should be improved by the careful observation of the works of God’s hand. This is where we start moving toward the realm of the poets.

Some would call this kind of careful observation of the inner and outer world meditation. Unfortunately, meditation is a word (and a practice) that got a bad rap among conservative Christians in prior generations, once they saw that Buddhists and other non-Christian traditions had similar monkish tendencies. But churches of various traditions are now reclaiming some of that sacred ground, especially in the emergent church movement, and humbly admitting that we all have something to learn from each other.

Thus, thankfulness and deeper faith are not the objects of this kind of loving action or careful observation. They are the result. A child’s or poet’s sense of grace, the soil in which both true gratitude and sincere charity take root, is paradoxically both the easiest and most difficult of spiritual disciplines: so easy a child can do it, yet so hard that even the Dalai Lamas and Desmond Tutus of the world rightly acknowledge they will never get it completely right.

Therefore, for a reminder of Providence, of The Source, God sometimes breaks in through the innocence of a child (like Graham’s stunning statements last night). Either that, or through some wise adult, one humble enough not to attempt any one-upsmanship of other pray-ers, or obligatory checking off of some list, or rationalization of a privelege he or she might secretly feel guilty about (…ahem, that last one would be me, regarding the lake cottage in the country which I listed last night at dinner, and to which I’m bound in about an hour. I’m too attached  to the place, but at least I can admit it. Plus it gives me breathing room — a simpler, more natural space in which to cultivate that meditative, childlike, poetic appreciation… which is how I justify it, but on the other hand perhaps my ability to hold it loosely is why God still gives me the opportunity to go there.)

So as I go off to Wisconsin, to ruminate (har har) on the poet Rumi and how he managed to keep the same grateful and generous attitude as my softhearted six-year old, I will leave you with a teaser of tomorrow’s blog post. Below are the opening lines of Rumi’s poem My Worst Habit, in which he is both kind and honest, even to himself, and in which he aspires to loving all four seasons (like Graham), but admits that winter is the hardest to be thankful for:

My worst habit is I get so tired of winter

I become a torture to those I’m with.


If you’re not here, nothing grows.

I lack clarity, my words

tangle and knot up.


How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.

How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.


  1. Well, it’s several years later now. And the temporary blessings that I was thankful for when I first wrote this are about half gone by now. But my son, my God, and my attitude of gratitude remain. As do the four seasons, fall leaves, and my boy’s love of Granny Smith apples. As does my love of Rumi. As does my own belovedness and beauty, despite a few more scars now. “Strength in the things that remain…”

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