I Thessalonians 5:16-18
Last Sunday afternoon, I read and put up your “Thank You” cards. I was moved by the gratitude in them, really, deeply touched by the gratitude alive in our congregation. If you haven’t read them yet, I think it will be a day-changer when you do. It won’t take long to read them all – on the bulletin board in the Russell Wing. If you haven’t had a chance to write a card, you can do it all month and we will add cards as we receive them.
Then Monday came, and I began to be obsessed with details for our fundraiser. I am not really in charge of it, but I can still contribute my anxiety! On Wednesday, I met with the team who is doing the heavy lifting for this event, and what did I take away? More joy and peace than I went in with! Carl, Cecile, Mitch, Josh, Peg – and Peg won’t even be able to be there, yet she is throwing in so much energy and joy! She has made key neighbor connections and has taught us a lot about how to do this work! Mitch is a friend Josh met through Taborspace, who most of you probably don’t know – yet. He will be our auctioneer at the event, so you will get to know him! He has done this kind of thing many times and has been full of energy, encouragement and enthusiasm! He has already made a difference for us. Josh has been putting together posters, tickets, flyers, getting donations and he is ready and waiting to be front and center on Saturday night to welcome everyone into the celebration of this congregation’s 125th birthday, our shared sacred space! Carl has taken the software by the horns and wrestled it into usefulness, not to mention chairing the meetings, preparing agendas to keep us on track, finding donations, telling his friends, and so much more! Cecile has walked the shops of Belmont and Hawthorne, and anywhere she went, actually, oozing commitment to the good things Taborspace is doing and asking, “won’t you help?”
Yesterday, volunteers gathered to wrap up baskets, learn the software, laugh and encourage each other – Parish House Partners, Taborspace staff, neighbors, and of course our faithful team!
Marsha and Gary met with me yesterday morning to start a new Finance Team. Good questions, wonderful commitment, and soon we will be ready for this season of budgeting and making our pledge commitments.
I went home and my email contained an encouragement, from the National Council of Nonprofits: These past weeks have been tough. Wildfires coming on the heels of hurricanes, followed by more gun violence, more revelations of sexual harassment, and continuing evidence that an overall lack of civility and respect threaten to dominate our national dialogue forever. Nonprofit leaders may also be worrying about donor fatigue as a result of so many urgent needs, or concerned that passion for the mission is compromised by a scarcity mentality. That’s why we urge everyone to pause to celebrate ALL THE GOOD that nonprofits are doing…. Let’s all pause – ahead of the busy “giving season” – to look around us, thank our colleagues, recognize their hard work, and just feel grateful: Grateful that we work in a mission-oriented environment, grateful that so many people care enough to do the hard work needed to change the world, and grateful for those who share our vision and support our work. [Nonprofit Knowledge Matters | What are we grateful for? The role of nonprofits, newsletter 11/8/17] So well said! And a true encouragement.
Then I sat down to write a sermon about gratitude. And just writing this sermon shifted my mood. I began to remember. Moments of laughter and joy bubbled up from within. I was filled with gratitude for every one of you! You have filled my life with love and purpose. From the day I came with fear and trembling to the session to tell you that my husband was leaving me, fully expecting that I would be asked to look for another job, you wrapped me in your arms. I was broken, but your broken one. You let me know that. That was 15 years ago, but still it colors the emotions of my heart. So many things for which to be grateful!
Gratitude changes us.
Gratitude changes the world.
In fact, gratitude may be one of the most overlooked tools that we all have the ability to access every day. Cultivating gratitude doesn’t cost any money and it certainly doesn’t take much time, but the benefits are enormous. We know this from science. A quick internet search brought up seven scientific studies which showed how gratitude changes us. 1) Gratitude opens the door to more relationships. 2) Gratitude improves physical health. 3) Gratitude improves psychological health. 4) Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression. 5) Grateful people sleep better. 6) Gratitude improves self-esteem. 7) Gratitude increases mental strength. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
I must say that I experienced this phenomenon in writing this sermon. Just thinking about gratitude led me to be grateful, which improved my mood and gave me energy.
But this is bigger and wider than science. There is much of the Holy Presence in this. The gratitude I am talking about today comes from awareness of God’s presence and God’s goodness. Jesus-shaped gratitude. Knowing in our bones that all we have and are is a gift of the Holy Breath, the one who gives us life.
What is gratitude? Gratitude is simply the perception of the good. You cannot manufacture gratitude by willpower, even though a lot of people try.
I remember my mother sitting me down as a little girl, barely able to print yet, and teaching me to write thank you notes. I am glad that I had a mother who did that. At the same time, writing thank you notes became a formality and there was only duty in it and not joy. That has changed for me. Thankfully! I confess that I am still not an ardent Thank You note writer, but I have come to enjoy the process deeply. How? I sit down and think about all the good that comes to me through the person to whom I am writing. The note doesn’t even have to be about the gift, but about the way I value that person in my life. As my mind goes to these things, a smile comes to my face and to my spirit, and words come.
This is what so many of the Psalms are doing and saying. Giving pause for the spirit to recognize the presence of God in whatever one encounters. And when the presence of God is perceived in any thing – from a mosquito to an orchid, from a bacon-scented omelette to the orangest carrot you have ever seen; from desert sand to ocean sand; from grandmother trees to tumbling clouds. When the presence of God is perceived, it is good. It touches the deepest heart of our spirits. In a mysterious way, it makes us one with God.
This is how gratitude changes us. From the inside out, as we see with new eyes, and perceive the presence of good all around and through us.
Gratitude, once it has done its mysterious work in our hearts, leads to blessing. This is how gratitude changes the world.
It is deeply rooted in our faith heritage, the faith which Jesus practiced. Jesus knew what it was like to live in gratitude. Every devout Jewish person was devoted to two daily forms of prayer. One was called the Shema, from the first word in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” They prayed that every day.
Then the other form of prayer was called the 18 benedictions. The word, “benediction” is composed of two words – “bene,” good, and “diction,” words. Good words. In Hebrew, a benediction was any prayer that began with the word “bless.” To bless is to speak good to somebody else. They always wanted to speak good, to bless, to thank God, and they would do this constantly. Three times a day, the people of Jerusalem would gather at the Temple to pray the 18, but that was only part of the practice.
Every rabbi would teach his students specific ways to pray the 18 benedictions. Some summarized it, some expanded it. It is likely that the Lord’s Prayer was Jesus teaching his students how to pray the 18 benedictions the Jesus way. Hallowed means “blessed,” after all. Like the 18 benedictions, this prayer of our life as Christians begins with blessing God. As Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof.” Everything is a gift. The general principle that Jesus and his Jewish kin folk lived by was to bless God for every gift. The rabbis said, “He who enjoys anything from creation, without blessing, commits misuse.” It is a form of theft.
Every meal was an occasion to express gratitude. Food was not eaten until people stopped and remembered it was a gift. They didn’t just inhale it the way we often do now. They weren’t so much blessing the food as blessing God who gave it.
Try it at home. When you are ready to enjoy any tasty morsel, pause and engage your imagination. Imagine how the food tastes, experience its smell, look at how beautiful it is. In this frame of mind, say thank you to the one who gave it – the restaurant server, cook, the grocery store clerk, the laborers and farmers, earth mother, and finally and wholly, God. See if this visualization of gratitude doesn’t change your experience of the food.
Now imagine doing this same thing for every person or thing you encounter in a day’s time. I’ve noticed that as I nurture the practice of gratitude for trees, I use less paper, and am concerned about the well-being of my tree neighbors. What if we greet strangers with a blessing, if we wonder with God what the gift of this new encounter might hold? Would it change the way we divide ourselves. What if we recognized the humanity of the soldiers whose brains have been trained to kill? Like the Christmas truce of 1914, when many French, British and German WWI soldiers put down their guns, crawled out of the trenches and exchanged gifts, sang carols and played soccer. For a moment, they were human beings together. Could that change the world? Could we transcend our enemy orders and see the other as a gift of our Creator?
This week, maybe practice this by taking the Thank You note a step further. Write a “gratitude letter.” Think of somebody who has impacted your life for good, somebody who you have known for quite awhile: a friend, a mentor, an encourager, somebody without whom you’d be a different person. Then take your time, and write them a letter telling why you are grateful to God for them. Aim for a couple of paragraphs. Make it substantial. You might go through a few drafts of it. That’s okay. It is worth the time. Don’t worry about the words. They will come as you connect with your heart.
If we each did this, I wonder if this gratitude wouldn’t change the world – at least a little bit.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”