Sunday August 16, 2015

“Thanks For Everything”

I once read a letter from a missionary in the Congo. She wrote:

When I was in the Congo recently, I preached in a church-on-stilts in a fishing village. Villagers had set up camp along the Congo River, where they could fish and make some semblance of a living. Fishing means surviving for most of the members of this community. After I preached my sermon, which was translated into Lingala, the local language, I returned to my seat and watched as members of the church danced forward with their offerings. I was overcome by their joy in doing so. I’m serious when I say that they danced! They were thrilled, delighted, overjoyed that they had something to give. This was the highlight of the worship experience.

Just when I thought it was over, the marvelous African beat continued and the people kept dancing. They were invited to give another offering. Another offering? This would never fly in our churches at home! This time people brought forward their gifts for me, the preacher. What? Me? An offering for me? I could hardly believe it. Their tradition is to offer gifts of gratitude for the one who has shared the word of God. It was overwhelming to me. Never had this happened to me in all my travels and visits to preach the gospel. Wow!

Despite my incredulity, I graciously accepted the three fish that were brought forward. And the long branch of plantains, the oranges, the money. I felt strange accepting this offering, I’ll admit. But I know that to honor the giver, you honor the gift. (Amy Gopp, Ecumenical Stewardship Center, Amy is the director of Week of Compassion, a ministry of relief and development through the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).)

I am not saying that we don’t do this, I think we do, but our swiveling and swaying is not visible to the naked eye.

Gratitude is a condition that is not always visible. Culturally, people like me, have been trained to not wave the banner of success, or shout out the call of joy.

If we allow ourselves these emotions it is required that they be subdued, that we not draw unreasonable attention to ourselves. All this is fine. It’s fine because to mandate exuberance without a grateful heart is just as ridiculous as feeling gratitude and not expressing it.

It sounds so cheesy and yet, it’s true. Gratitude is a habit.

Without gratitude it is tempting to assign every goodness in life to our own hard work or our own charming personalities. That’s not gratitude. That is nothing more than self-congratulation. When we work at gratitude, it is easy to think it is contrived. At first it may well be. But as time goes on, a gratitude exercise shifts your entire way of thinking. Did you know that what you do can change what you think?

One author talks about a ‘forced’ habit of telling others what it is about them that makes her feel gratitude. She said, “at first it made my skin crawl. It was way outside my comfort zone.” But that’s the point isn’t it?

When life gets hectic and you begin to feel overwhelmed, take a moment to focus on the people and things you are grateful for in life. When you are grateful, other things will fall by the wayside. For example, you probably won’t be able to feel jealous and grateful at the same time. You might even be thankful for someone else’s success or their contribution to you. Being thankful gives you perspective on you situation and brings you to the present moment.
Focusing on good things also helps you see beyond the troubles of the day.

But I want to tell you that it was St. Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus that lead me to think about gratitude. And if you are trying to get more gratitude in your life, it is important to be specific, to thank someone. And for us, ultimately, that someone who we tell might be the barista at the coffee shop for their sunny disposition, or someone who holds the door, or complements your work; but keep in mind that who we are really speaking to is God; God is the source of all blessings.

Slightly more recent than St. Paul, a man named Ignatius developed spiritual exercises, the cornerstone of which was called the Examine. It’s a prayer meant to be prayed once or twice per day. In this Ignatius gives us a model for daily gratitude. In practice, the Examen can become so natural that we find ourselves being aware of God’s movements throughout the course of the day. And Ignatius would likely ask his followers to respond to those graced movements with gratitude, not just a once a year, but each day. God gives us good things and when we give thanks for them we give thanks to God.

Not all of us are comfortable with what can be called ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ ecstasy. But here in St. Paul’s advice we are confronted with it. The Spirit’s outward and visible expression in peoples lives, as alarming as it is to some of us, is not the point. The text is hoping for the transformation that occurs when our ‘hearts sing God’s praises for all things.’ This kind of internal work, that looks a whole lot like gratitude, happens on God’s terms and makes us useful in God’s kingdom.

The practical take away of the Spirit’s presence (is there another kind?) is the goal of shaping our attitudes. Psychologists, Psychiatrists, and Sociologists, have earned a lot of PhD’s and been awarded a lot of grant money determining what St. Paul already knows: We shape our attitudes by what we bring to it, how we receive it, and how we are in the habit of responding to it. (Marshall, Paul V. Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3, p. 352.)

The days are indeed evil. And by that I mean that the world is often going its own way and not the way of Christ. Asking anyone to ‘give thanks in all things,’ is a nearly impossible task – unless we remember that the continuing effort to do so is not an ‘ought’ but is ‘as you are able.’ I simply want to suggest that one reason the world is the way it is, is that there are many great things in life for which no thanks to God is offered. Our faith, our discipleship, is worse off because of this omission. (ibid, p. 354)

That’s really what all the excitement is about, here at the table Christ sets for us, here where we receive the bread of life. It’s about remembering, and giving thanks.

“Sing and make melody–make music–to the Lord in your hearts, always giving thanks…for everything, always giving thanks, giving thanks for everything,” in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.