Colossians 3:15-17; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; Philippians 4:10-14
Last night at the fundraiser, I told the story of an experience I had last week. On my day off, I began to receive emails from our building volunteers, with photos attached, of water coming into the building and of a window frame rotting. Then I came to church and sloshed through the carpet in the lobby. My mind went back to last year’s winter and the overwhelming feeling of new leaks springing everywhere. And I began to be afraid. I had visions of the wall collapsing and taking my office and me with it.
And there was the first trigger for fear – not living in the moment. Fear is almost always caused by looking back to a past trauma, or looking forward to an unwanted future. Fear rarely comes to us when we are living in the present moment. My encounter with fear included both trying to avoid trauma experienced in the past and imagining an unwanted future.
And, I also remember a times when I stayed in the moment during a time of trauma. Years ago, when my son was three and my daughters were babies, we had a terrible car accident. I was driving our Jeep Wagoneer, pulling our trailer home to a couple of days in Bishop, California. The end of our journey was in sight, when there was a sudden explosion, the car jerked left, and I was suddenly enveloped in dust and turbulence, not knowing which way was up. I remember the quirky phrase that came to my mind: “Hang on! It’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” Some kind of super-human strength must have been there, because I broke the steering wheel with my holding on – one of those old steel ones from the 70’s, none of these plastic things we have today! Later, the insurance adjuster returning from viewing the remains of our vehicle and trailer was overheard saying, “God must surely love those people!”
The reason I tell you this story is that I don’t remember being afraid. I held on, because it was what I needed to do in that moment. I just did what I had to do. And in the moment, that was enough.
I was raised in a family where this was a value. People used to protest at my Mom’s traveling by herself in her RV. “What if something happens?” they would say. She said, “Not if, but when. Something WILL happen and when it does, I’ll deal with it.” She refused to be limited by fear of the unknown. And when the unknown happened, she would then make the best decisions she could to deal with it.
She trusted herself. She trusted God’s presence. And that was enough.
We are talking about gratitude – all month. And this is the core of gratitude. Gratitude comes from awareness of God’s presence and God’s goodness. Gratitude, this kind of gratitude, comes from a whole new world view, based on God’s presence in, with and under all things. This gratitude is what draws us together on Sundays. Here we say thank you to God. Here is our moment of remembering who and whose we are. Here and now, we live in the moment of God’s presence in our lives. We come on Sunday morning because we are drawn to a community and a place where we know God’s presence in a way we may not know it throughout the week. We remember when we gather to say, Thank You.
Remember last Sunday we said that gratitude is the perception of the good. When we perceive the good presence of God always and everywhere, there is gratitude, confidence in God, and that, no matter what happens, we are in the hands of One who is goodness and love.
One kind of gratitude, which we talked about last week, is the gratitude for the benefits we receive. Just being thankful for what we receive is probably enough of a discipline to spend a lifetime developing. But the gratitude we are talking about today is bigger, wider, deeper.
Paul puts it well in Philippians 4, “I have learned to be content.” When it comes to being grateful, even in the face of fear, we may be talking about something which is closer to contentment. Paul says that he knows how to live in plenty and he knows how to live in want, and to be content in either case, satisfied and at peace. This is because he knows that God is all the strength he needs for any situation.
It is interesting to note that the opposite of gratitude in the Hebrew Scriptures is grumbling. Grumbling is the outward sound of discontent.
Have you ever heard of a church person grumbling? I know someone who, when they hear about someone finding fault with others behind their back, they call it “acting like a church person.” What an indictment of the reputation of the church! We can be lured away from God by grumbling quicker than almost anything else. Why? Because it comes from a position of entitlement. If I believe I am owed something, I will not be thankful for it because I think I’m entitled to it.
For instance, if you just give me a car for no reason at all, I’ll be overwhelmed with gratitude. I’ll say, “Thank you! I can’t believe how good you are to me.” But if I pay the fair market value for the car, when you hand me the keys, I might say, “Thank you,” but I won’t say, “What an incredible gift! I’m overwhelmed,” because I bought it. I’m owed it.
Entitlement is one of the weaknesses of the human race. We believe our gifts rightfully belong to us. We have earned them, we have paid the transaction fee for what we have. And if we can pay the transaction fee then we have a right to the purchase. And if I don’t get something I want, other people must be messing up. They owe me, and they ought to pay me. This has led to a proliferation of lawsuits: when we don’t get something we really want, we sue somebody.
This is not the life of gratitude. This is not the way Jesus has shown us the way to live in this world. It is all gift, amazing, wild, impossible gift!
Life in the Kingdom of God, flows with gratitude for life itself, for the presence of God among us. And we know that we can indeed do all things through and with God who breathes in us. Gratitude is the byproduct of a spiritual reality. As we train ourselves to live in this reality, our job is to place our minds in the presence of God. And that is enough. The secret of contentment, rather than grumbling.
A rabbi once said, “One is obligated to say a benediction over evil as well as a benediction over good.” Why? Because evil is a good thing? Suffering is a good thing? No, of course not. Those are bad things, and God is at work to overcome and overturn them.
The rabbi said that one is obligated to say a benediction at all times because we are always in danger of being thankful only when good things come our way. And when we do that, we lose sight of the fact that living itself is a gift. By judging and being selective about gratitude, we become ungrateful people. Being transformed by God means learning to see ways in which God is at work, even in bad situations. “For I know that in all things God is at work for good.”
The rabbi said, “Only God knows for sure what will turn out to produce good.” A lot of times I’ll go through something hard, painful, bad, and I’ll wish I didn’t have to go through it. Then I’ll look back on it and say, “O God, I’m so grateful for the lessons I learned in that moment.”
The rabbis said it. Lao Tzu said it. William Martin’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese book of wisdom says the same thing: “‘Accepting what is, we find it perfect’ is not an idle phrase. Acceptance of life is the only path to wholeness” (William Martin, A Path and a Practice, chapter 22).
Native American practice pauses to say thank you when an animal gives its life for ours, or when the plants give us themselves for food by, asking permission, leaving a gift and never taking all of anything.
James the brother of Jesus wrote to Christians driven from their homes and scattered throughout Palestine because of persecution. He puts it this ways: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
In the end, it is gratitude, with its attendant qualities of humility and love, which puts us in right relationship with God and the universe. A life of gratitude will never lead us far from the heart of God.
“Touched by an Angel,” by Maya Angelou
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light,
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.