Touchstones of Thanksgiving and Gratitude
INTRODUCTION - God’s Blessings; Jo Jacobson
When I listen to the opening words of our first reading tonight - “The Lord your God is brining you into a good land, a land with flowing streams... of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing...” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9) - I come to a reality and a question. The reality: God is blessing us all the time! The question: What it the good land that you’ve been brought into by the Lord, where you lack nothing?
As I think back on blessings in 2017 in my own life, I could point to many things. But I want to give you one example. About two years ago, a long-term member of St. Ambrose suffered a debilitating stroke. This woman was a teacher and principal in Boulder Valley schools for many years, then retired and led various choirs around Boulder. She played the piano in the lobby of Boulder Community Hospital and was one of our main pianists at St. Ambrose for many years. I believe she knows thousands of hymns and songs from memory, and she plays beautifully. Over the months that Jo was going through recovery at the Balfour Memory facility, I would visit Jo and ask her if she was playing the piano at all. Once in a while, she would say, “I played for 20 minutes or so yesterday.” Eventually she got well enough to return home, and the weekly meetings with Jo and her husband, Charlie, occurred at St. Ambrose. One day during the summer I invited her to play the piano in the sanctuary, and she seemed eager to do so. I kept opening our hymnbook to various familiar hymns and saying, “Can you play this?” Jo was having trouble reading some of the notes. Then I thought to myself, “What am I doing? She can probably play most of the hymns in this hymnal from memory!” So Charlie and I just started suggesting old hymns and classic American tunes, and Jo started playing them - just like that. The song “The Rose” has gained a special place among those who worship at our early service. This happened long before I came to St. Ambrose. I suddenly thought of “The Rose”, the words of which are glued inside the back cover of our hymnals. “What about ‘The Rose’,” I asked? Jo started playing it, and Charlie and I began singing along. “Jo,” I asked, “would you be willing to come up at the end of worship this Sunday, and play this?” Her reply, “Yes, I would!” And that is what happened. I told the congregation during the announcements that we had a special treat in store. Would they remain after the closing hymn? We never got to the scheduled closing hymn that day. Jo was so excited to play that she came up to the piano bench a bit early. She played another song from memory while we finished up Communion. I went over and talked to Jo and the scheduled pianist that day. Would Jo allow Rosi to play the closing hymn? Rosi said, “Peter, why doesn’t Jo just play ‘The Rose” right now?” I knew Rosi was right. So Jo played “The Rose”, we sang all the verses, and there were not very many dry eyes among us. In my slow-mindedness, I said, “We will now have the closing hymn.” And Rosi said, “I think we just had the closing hymn,” and I said, “Your’e right! We did!” The service ended with all sorts of people greeting Jo around the piano.
God brought every one of us into a good land that day - a land where we lacked nothing.
Tonight we share in our annual Thanksgiving celebration, and I want to say a few things to you about thanksgiving and gratitude.
GRATITUDE - We must pause...
When I think of the practice of gratitude, there is clearly an element of pausing long enough to acknowledge the blessing that has happened. We don’t always see it right in the moment, but if we are paying attention, God will bring it to mind - in the very same way that Samaritan leper did when he was on his way to show himself to the priests, an examination that the Levitical law required to determine if he was clean. Jesus said to those ten lepers, in effect, “Go comply with the law. God and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they were heading there, they were made clean. One of them, when he saw what had happened - when he saw that he was healed - paused, and then turned back, praised God with a loud voice, laid down at Jesus’ feet, and thanked him.
To be a person of gratitude, you must pause long enough to look back on your life and see what God has done, whether it was three hours ago or a week ago or over the past year, and acknowledge what has happened. Yes, a huge part of prayer is to try to be present in the moment. But the practice of gratitude involves giving thanks for things that have already happened. This kind of prayer impacts our very health. (More on that in a moment.) And it is an expression of our faith in God. Jesus says to the man, after he returns to give thanks, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 7:19)
GIVING THANKS IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES
If giving thanks for the good things that happen to you is the middle school or high school work of faith, then giving thanks for everything that happens to you is perhaps the undergraduate or graduate level work. I believe Paul means what he says when he writes to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (! Thessalonians 5:16-18)
Give thanks for the family member or co-worker who regularly pushes your buttons? Yes. Give thanks for the opportunity that God is giving you to learn new things about yourself.
Give thanks for how our culture is so enamored with violence and greed and destructive forms of power? Yes, for it gives us opportunities to share the counter-cultural gospel of Jesus Christ, as we learn to get up and speak out for the values that we believe in. Give thanks for some scary health news or the loss of a loved one? Well, we might have to dig a little deeper here. Am I being given a wake-up call from God to think about how to live each day with intention and purpose? Am I getting another opportunity to be thankful for the role this person had in my life, and for the precious gift of being loved and having had the opportunity to love?
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN GIVING AND THANKSGIVING
Next, in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds us that there is a connection between opportunities for giving and opportunities for giving thanks. Paul says that as the Corinthians give generously to support the faithful who are in need in Jerusalem, their giving “will produce thanksgiving to God through us.” (2 Corinthians 9:11) In other words, the giver gives and the recipient gives thanks, and a whole cycle of giving and gratitude is put in motion. Sometimes we are the giver. Sometimes we are the recipient. And through it all, God is being given the glory and praise and thanksgiving, as we remember that it is God through whom all blessings flow.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN GRATITUDE AND HEALTH
Here’s another thought for you on gratitude. I have recently finished reading The Little Book of Hygge - spelled hygge and pronounced hooga. It is a Danish word meaning something like the feeling that is created when there is coziness, connection between family members or friends, good food and drink, warmth, and good conversation. Think about the feeling you get when you are sitting around the fireplace with the people who are most important to you, playing a board game or talking easily, drinking good coffee or tea or hot chocolate, and no one is rushed... and all is right with the world. The author of this book, Meik Wiking, is the CEO of something called the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, and he writes this:
“... evidence-based studies show that practicing gratitude has an impact on happiness. According to Robert A. Emmons, a professor of psychology at University of California, Davis, and one of the world’s leading experts on gratitude, people who feel grateful are not only happier than those who do not but [are] also more helpful and forgiving and less materialistic... People who wrote the gratitude journals reported feeling more positive emotions like alertness and enthusiasm, reported better sleep and fewer symptoms of disease, and were more mindful of situations where they could be helpful.” (The Little Book of Hygge, pp. 215-216)
So... whenever you pause to give thanks... you being here tonight, in fact, and giving thanks... these things are good for your health! But probably you already knew that.
So, are you ready to continue the life-giving, health-improving, living-from-faith practice of gratitude? If so, I have a suggested homework assignment for you for 2018. Here it is: Once a week, write a personal card or letter of appreciation/thanks/gratitude to someone. Not an email, not a text - a card or a letter. In this card, take time to pause and thank someone for a specific thing that they did or words of encouragement that they offered you, and tell them what it meant to you.
Do this once a week - every week next year. Or you can start now and continue for a year, as part of your faith practice. See what happens. My hunch is this: A year from now you will have grown in faith. A year from now you will feel closer to God. You will be a happier person. You will have found a way to be resilient and a positive force of light and love and healing, even when all kinds of terrible and awful things keep happening in the world.
Thank you so much for being here tonight. Let us now continue our worship of God, as we offer thanks and praise for all the ways that God has blessed us. Yes, indeed - the Lord our God has brought us into a good land... a land where we lack nothing.