April 26, 2020: A life of gratitude
Essential Practices of Daily Living in Christian Life
A Life of Gratitude
Psalm 100 & 1 Thessalonians 5:15-18
As we continue in this pattern of isolation, I reflected on what words of encouragement and possible challenge you might need to hear. I decided that over the next few weeks I would share some essential practices for living the Christian life. These are things you can work on, practice, and do, even now! Again, I want to thank the Rev. Adam Hamilton. Some of his writings were the spark that got my creativity going!
In the letter to the Thessalonians, we hear, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing give thanks in all circumstances.” We often think of gratitude as purely a feeling, a reaction to life events. When something nice or wonderful happens, we are grateful. We remember what our mothers taught us and say thank you to God in prayer or thank the person who blessed us by writing them a note, calling them or sending an email. We understand this kind of gratitude. And, I must say, you do it all really well. I continue to receive notes, calls, and emails of thanks and I appreciate it. I know you are doing it for others as well. But if this is all there is to gratitude it makes those words from Thessalonians puzzling. Many situations do not trigger positive feelings. That makes “give thanks in every situation” challenging if not downright impossible. None of us are happy and appreciative for the coronavirus. None of us are happy when friends or beloved get sick or, even worse, die. Yet we seem to be told to rejoice always “for it is the will of God.” When we don’t rejoice in these trying times we feel guilty because we seem to have let God down. It is one of the things that causes some people to pull away from God and faith. God doesn’t seem to get what they are going through. If God understood, we would not be told to be grateful and give thanks in all circumstances.
Have you ever felt this way? I know I have.
Psychology researcher Robert Emmons writes, “It is vital to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful … being grateful is a choice, a prevailing attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives.” So, when we come to faith disciplines, we are challenged not to feel grateful in all situations but to be grateful.
Today I want us to talk about living a life of faith where we choose gratitude as our way of living life. This attitude is not connected to what is happening around us but instead an intentional mindset that we bring to each day and each moment in that day. One of the things I do each morning in my prayers is to spend a few moments in gratitude for all the blessings I experienced the day before. Focusing on gratitude is a choice. We get to choose where to put some of our mental energy. After giving thanks, I always pray, “Lord, make me grateful no matter what happens today.” To start the day with a clear focus on gratitude is important, especially when the day goes horribly wrong. When I have one of those days, that prayer reminds me to take a deep breath and be grateful, not for the challenges I am experiencing, but for how God is at work in that challenging time.
We need to realize that a recurring theme in gratitude research is that choosing to be a grateful person does not mean you become blind to the bad things in life, or the sad or angry feelings you may have about them. It does mean, however, that we choose not to let the bad things that happen in life blind us to the things for which we should be grateful. I want you to ask yourself, “Am I finding ways to remember the things for which I am grateful? Can l do this when my life takes a difficult turn?”
Scholar William Barclay wrote, “There is always something for which to give thanks; even on the darkest day there are blessings to count. We must remember that if we face the sun the shadows will fall behind us but if we turn our backs on the sun all the shadows will be in front.” I love that image. If we are feeling life is being lived in the shadows then we are not facing the sun!
That quote reminds me of a funny, touching story. Early in my ministry, while still in seminary, I served two small churches out in eastern Colorado. One of the scourges of the ranchers were sunflowers. They could get into the pastures and destroy the grass and cows did not like to eat them. The ranchers had a continual battle of mowing and spraying them alongside the roads to try and keep ahead of them. Gus, a member of the church, talked to me about what had happened that week. He had spent all morning mowing sunflowers. It is hot and dusty work. It came time to eat lunch and he stopped the tractor and got out the sandwich his wife had made for him. As he sat eating, he looked at sunflowers. Those cursed weeds were all around him. He was grumbling and then he started looking at them more closely. He noticed how each petal is approximately the same size and they are symmetrically spaced around the center. He couldn’t help himself. He began to admire their beauty and realized that if God would take that much care to create a weed, how much more God cares about him. He put his head on the windshield of the tractor and with tears thanked God for loving him. He never looked at sunflowers again in quite the same way. He had turned from the shadows and was facing the sun.
I challenge you today to face the sun by counting your blessings. Think not of what COVID-19 has taken from you, but how you are blessed even at this time. You are loved, people care about you, the grocery stores are full of food, people are there to take care of you and so much more. We should be grateful to God for so many things. I know you are grateful, but we don’t always specifically take time to say thank you. Use this time of isolation to specifically celebrate where you have seen God at work. Take just a few minutes each day to jot down things that make you thankful. Here is a brief list that I made for this sermon. I am grateful that I can see and hear and taste. I am grateful for the beauty of nature outside my window. I am grateful for family and for friends. I am grateful for love, from God and from others.
As you reflect on gratitude’s benefits it does something. It lightens the heavy feelings of life. It makes you more positive and less depressed. It causes you to lean into the day with anticipation even in times of isolation.
So today ask yourself which direction are you inclined to face. As you think about where your mind is wandering, do you find yourself in the shadows or facing the sun?
Do you need to change the direction of your life? A Christian faith is a life of gratitude. It is a habit, an action, that we must re-learn each day. When things are good it is easy to keep gratitude going. But when things are challenging, it is then we need this pattern to remind us and challenge us to continue to face the sun.
I learned this from a wise soul at the beginning of my ministry. I went to visit a woman who was suffering from a degenerative disorder that left her in bed most of the time and always in pain. She had every reason to be angry at God and at life. If it were me, I would have been swimming around in a pool of self-pity. Yet, when I would go to see her, I found her to be one of the most positive people I had met. She looked out the window where her husband kept several bird feeders filled and she would always comment on the beautiful birds that blessed her days. She talked about her husband and his care. She mentioned family and friends. One day I finally screwed up the courage to ask her why she never talked about her illness and the pain she was in. She gave me a smile and said, “I learned at the beginning of this health journey that I had a choice on what to focus. I could focus on my health. When I did that, what it did was make me angry and bitter and who wants to be around that kind of a person. Or I could choose to focus on the gifts of life. People like to be around positive people. It doesn’t mean that I am not totally aware of what is happening. But since I have a choice, I chose life!”
Christian faith is a series of choices. What we practice in our faith is how we live. Do you practice a life of gratitude? Do you remind yourself each day to face the sun? May God bless you as strive to make a joyful noise with your life each and every day.