Oct 08 - Gratitude

Gratitude

October 8, 2017

1 Thessalonians 5:18

 

October 8, 2017

Thanksgiving Sunday

 

The reality is that humans by and large take for granted the things that make them happy.  Being actively grateful will make us more aware of what is good and right and wonderful about God, about others, about ourselves. 

 

However, when I thought about the ability to practice gratitude and thankfulness and appreciation on a daily basis, I questioned whether this is possible when things are really tough.

 

CAN I BE THANKFUL WHEN LIFE IS REALLY TOUGH?

 

What if I was born into the third world, possibly growing up in a war zone, or in a refugee camp – a tent city - with no electricity, very limited health care – and no opportunities for education because of the poverty?

 

What if I’m still struggling to overcome the negative and self-limiting thoughts that resulted from being raised in an abusive home?

 

What if I am struggling with clinical depression? 

What if I received a bad diagnosis? 

What if I am dealing with constant pain? 

What if my child dies or I lose someone close to me?

What if I lose all of my possessions?

 

Is it even possible to practice thankfulness in and through those situations? 

 

The apostle Paul seemed to think it is.  He often wrote about having an attitude of gratitude in and through all possible situations in life.

 

Give thanks in all circumstances because this is the will of God….                                              1 Thessalonians 5:18

 

Always give thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of Jesus…                          Ephesians 5:20

 

Whatever you do or say … give thanks to God the Father through Jesus. …                                        Colossians 3:17

 

Give thanks in all circumstances … for everything … whatever the situation, and most importantly, ALWAYS, that is, at all times, whenever you speak or do anything. 

 

That’s quite a statement.  Paul also writes that whenever we pray, our prayers should be filled with thanksgiving. 

 

Be alert and filled with thanksgiving in your prayers…    

                                                                        Colossians 4:2

 

In every circumstance pray and petition God with thanksgiving…                                             Philippians 4:6

 

Here it is again.  In every circumstance our prayers are to be full of expressions of gratitude.

 

Is Paul perhaps being a bit optimistic or idealistic?  Some of the people he’s writing to are not having the easiest of times.  Does Paul even know what it means to express thankfulness all the time, for everything and in every circumstance?  He can’t really be serious, or can he?

 

I think Paul was dead serious.  He wrote his comments about thankfulness when he was going through very tough times.  One of the passages we just read was written when Paul was imprisoned and in danger of execution.

 

Paul gives us some hint of what his life was like when he wrote to the church in Corinth.  It was a pretty messed up church and some people who attended it were saying that Paul, the founder of the church, didn’t have it right.  They actually said things like the following:

 

  • Paul.  First he promises to visit us, then he doesn’t come.  He’s unreliable. 

  • And look at him.  He cuts an unimpressive figure.  He can barely see. 

  • He likes to speak but he’s anything but eloquent. 

  • And He also likes to throw around his apostolic authority in his letters, but does nothing of consequence when he does visit. 

  • In fact, he is likely not on the same level with other apostles who actually were with Jesus when he was alive, and shouldn’t use this title for himself. 

  • Besides, we have greater knowledge of spiritual things than he. 

 

And on and on it went.

 

Paul was being attacked in the very church he founded by people who thought of themselves as more profound, eloquent, theologically astute, better looking and more authoritative than Paul.  As part of his defense, Paul speaks of the kind of things that happened to him:

 

You seem to gladly put up with fools, thinking you are smart.  They enslave you, take advantage of you (or: exploit you), assert control over you (or: violate you), act arrogantly (or: lord it over you), and insult you deeply (lit. hit you across the face).  …

 

Paul goes on to compare himself to these people:

 

I worked much harder, was in jail more often, beaten countless times, often to the point of death.  Five times I received from the Jews the thirty-nine lashes.  Three times I was beaten with rods.  Once I was stoned.  Three times I was shipwrecked – (one of those times) I floated a night and a day in the sea.  I journeyed often and was in danger from rivers, robbers, my own countrymen, and non-Jews.  I was in danger in the cities, in the wilderness, and on the seas.  And I was in danger even from false Christians.                                            2 Corinthians 11:23-26

 

I have endured hard labour and hardships, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst – often having no food at all while freezing and without shelter.  Apart from all these things there is the daily pressure I face and my anxiety for all the churches.  2 Corinthians 11: 27-28

 

You tell me, if he had an easy life.  Not at all!  And yet, he always retained an attitude of gratitude.

 

In the introductory comments to this particular letter to the Corinthians, Paul praises and thanks God for the comfort that he has received even though he faced great suffering, total exhaustion and potential execution in the Roman province of Asia. 

 

And he points out that he is filled with hope that God will continue to rescue him and that his current escape from death would result in thanksgiving among many believers.  (2 Cor 1:3-11)

 

A few years ago I listened to a lecture by a woman by the name of Katia Sol, who 10 years ago, in the winter of 2007 had moved to a new city in order to start doctoral studies.  It was very cold, tons of snow on the ground. 

 

She had a one year old son, was in a relationship that was falling apart, and was struggling with deep depression.  She struggled every day to just get out of bed and she tried to find something to hold on to when life seemed completely overwhelming. 

 

She started out by trying to find just one thing that she could be thankful for on any given day, be it her son, or the morning coffee … just one thing!  And as she did, life began to become just a little bit more bearable.

 

Her first thought in the morning would be, “wow, another day, what a blessing.”  It became a daily practice, the most humble and positive prayer she called it.  And for her it became an affirmation of life itself. 

 

She would get a coffee at a coffee shop and say to herself, “wow, I’m so grateful for the smile of the person on the counter.”  And over time, thankfulness became a central part of her life.

 

So today, even if she finds herself in a very difficult season in her life, she knows that if she is rooted in gratitude, she can carry on, she can make it through. 

 

She also said that the daily practice of thanksgiving gave her an opportunity to reclaim the hard moments.  So when something is wrong, she can find something that’s good even in that situation. 

 

Can we be thankful when life is REALLY tough?  I think we can learn to be.  But it takes practice.  It takes some presence of mind.  It takes a decision made once or, better yet, many times a day.

 

ARE THERE BENEFITS TO PRACTICING THANKFULNESS?

 

The answer to this question is an unequivocal Yes.  An attitude of gratitude turns our focus from what is wrong to what is right.  It gives us a new lens on life. 

 

Studies have shown that it is actually possible to change the way that neurons fire in the brain by being appreciative, by dwelling in gratitude.  As our brain rewires itself, there is a noticeable shift from being negative and judgmental to being positive and accepting.

 

Various studies, whether done at the University of Zürich, the University of Miami, or the University of California, have found a direct correlation between the attitude of thankfulness and better health and happiness.  People who are consistently thankful, who are committed to thankfulness, sleep better, are healthier, have more energy, are more optimistic, feel better, and on and on.

 

Relationally, thankfulness makes a huge difference.  The Gottman Institute can predict a successful marriage with a 90% certainty by looking at how couples interact.  In relationships where there are 5 or more positive encounters for every negative encounter there is almost a guarantee that these relationships will flourish.

 

And so Dr. Gottman recommends, with regard to how to apply the research practically, that couples need to decide to express gratitude and appreciation 5 or more times for every negative interaction that comes up if they want to have a marriage that lasts. 

 

When we have a grateful heart, it connects us to ourselves.  When we are grateful to and for others, it connects us to them.  When we are grateful in and for all things, it connects us with God. 

 

I know that when I consciously have an attitude of gratitude, when I make it a practice to thank God, not just on Thanksgiving, not just at mealtimes, not just when something good happens, but specifically when I first get up in the morning and when I go to bed at night, and better yet, consistently throughout the day … something happens to me. 

 

I am at my most loving, most thoughtful, most patient, most forgiving, most giving, most positive, most happy, most content.  I don’t take the day or anything good for granted.  And maybe you’ve experienced the same. 

 

So if we know all of the positive things that happen to us if and when we are grateful, why is it that we do not practice it?  If gratitude leads directly to joy, why are we slow to make appreciation a daily habit?

 

WHY AM I SLOW TO MAKE GRATITUDE A DAILY HABIT?

 

Why don’t we express gratitude in our work place?  For the work we have … for our co-workers … for the challenges we face? 

 

Why don’t we express gratitude to our spouse and kids when we get home from work? 

 

Why aren’t we thankful for the person who serves us at the store, at the bank, at the coffee shop? 

 

Why aren’t we thankful for the measure of health we have? 

 

In my case, it’s fairly easy to focus on health issues.  Those of you who know me, know that I sometimes complain about insomnia, diabetes, back pain, and a host of other issues, many of which are associated with a reduction in life expectancy.  When I dwell on these things, it is possible that I become somewhat melancholy (Melan-colly Megamind). 

 

But when I see the kind of obstacles others face, whether lacking limbs, dealing with cancer at a young age, facing the limitations of progeria, it puts all of my issues into perspective.

 

Just this week I listened on YouTube to a TED talk by a young man with Progeria, Sam Berns, given in early December 2013.  This was just a few months after he’d turned 17 [Oct 23]).  He spoke about the reasons why he was happy, positive, thankful and in the process of pursuing his dreams, despite the momentous obstacles that he is faced with. 

 

What made the talk poignant is knowing that Sam died 38 days after he gave this talk [Jan 10, 2014].  And when I think about Sam’s life and attitude, it helps to put things back into perspective for me.  If someone facing those kind of obstacles is positive and thankful, why is it that I’m not?

 

So maybe we’re not thankful because we are busy or preoccupied.  Gratitude is just another spiritual discipline I am being asked to squeeze into my already too busy daily schedule.  If it’s just another thing I am supposed to feel guilty about if I don’t do … who needs it?

 

Maybe we are not thankful because we take for granted the people in our lives.  We assume that they should know if we are grateful to them or for them.  You know, I told you 20 years ago you’re a good cook –there’s no need to repeat myself, but I’ll let you know if things change

 

Maybe we’re not thankful because we are focused on our problems

 

Maybe we’re not thankful because we compare ourselves to those who have it better than us, for one reason or another. 

 

Maybe we’re not thankful because we think that our success is due to our own doing, not God’s.  Why should I thank him for my accomplishments?

 

Maybe we’re not thankful because we are focused on success, competition, winning, getting ahead.

 

Maybe we’re not thankful because we are selfish.  We’re just focused on ourselves and what we can get out of life.  

 

Maybe we’re not thankful because we think that gratitude is something inside of us that we don’t have to express verbally.  That’s simply not true.  There is a difference between feeling thankful for something or someone and actually expressing thankfulness.  

 

If you’re not practicing daily thankfulness, I hope that this sermon is just a reminder of something you likely already know.  Thankfulness is an amazing opportunity for renewal, joy and contentment. 

 

I hope it reminds you that thankfulness is a joy, not a duty or a chore.

 

So maybe you’re here and life is peachy keen.  Everything comes up smelling roses.  Or maybe you’re here and life is hard and difficult.

 

The apostle Paul said that he has learned the secret of being content regardless of what life is like.  And I think that secret is an ongoing thankful heart. 

 

Paul seems to think that, given the human condition, suffering of one sort or another is inevitable.  He describes himself and others in 2 Corinthians as clay pots, a picture of human frailty and physical weakness.

 

But we carry this treasure (of God’s light) in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power comes from God and not from us.  We are pressed down from every side, yet we still find room; we are confused, yet we are not in despair; we are persecuted but not forsaken; we are struck down but not destroyed.  Always we carry in our bodies (the suffering of) Jesus in his death, so that our bodies will also manifest his life.

                                                            2 Corinthians4:7-10

 

We are all cracked or broken to one degree or another – although we’re often loathe to admit it.  We like to keep up the image of having it all together.  But the reality is different, and deep down we know differently. 

 

The issue is not that we’re completely whole.  The issue is how we view our cracked-ness or our brokenness.  Do we feel that we are useless?  That we are only good enough to be discarded on the rubbish heap of life? 

 

Or do we feel that we are of worth and value, despite the fact that there are some fractures in our lives? 

 

Maybe we even get to the point of realizing that we can bring comfort and life to others, that we can be used by God, for the very reason that we aren’t perfect, that we are damaged goods, so to speak!

 

So if suffering is inevitable, if bad things happen to everyone to one degree or another, if we all have cracks, again, to one degree or another, then it should be possible to step away from the false expectation of having to have a perfect life, a life without problems, a life without suffering, and be thankful regardless.

 

While there will be many times when things are going really well, all of us will all face seasons of sorrow and pain.  We all face times when we’re wounded, weak or vulnerable. 

 

It is at these times that an attitude of gratitude will be most powerful.  It will become the link between God and us, between our weakness and His strength.  It is where our inner self is transformed so that our outer world is transformed through us.

 

Thanksgiving – celebrating a thankful heart for what we have – especially our loved ones – is an awesome practice.  But much more important is learning to live a life of DAILY thankfulness and gratitude. 

 

WHAT EXPECTATIONS DO I NEED TO PUT ASIDE FOR ME TO BECOME THANKFUL FOR MY LIFE, FOR OTHERS, FOR GOD’S LOVE?

 

WHAT IS ONE THING THAT I CAN INCORPORATE INTO MY LIFE TO INCREASE MY ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE?

 

Some people start off every day with a prayer of thanksgiving.

 

Others take a few minutes toward the end of the day to write down some of the things or people or events that they encountered that day for which they are thankful.

 

Again others make it a practice to thank other people … sincerely … for something that they did or said.  To acknowledge them.

 

Others just get into the practice of thanking God throughout their day

 

 

PRAYER: for all of us to become those who deliberately include thanksgiving in every day for each day - for the small wonders, the things of beauty, the daily blessings – especially when things are tough and we’re struggling, knowing that when we are weak … you are strong.