read Philippians 4 for some context.
We are in this season of thanksgiving, a time which we set apart as a culture to remember and to give thanks for all the many blessings we have in our life. It is a wonderful time for many. A time for family, for friends, a time to sit and reflect on our lives. That’s not always the case, though. Sometimes this is a particularly difficult time for people. Persons who are lonely, folks who are caring for loved ones, people who are grieving. One of the added challenges is that we are told by our culture, during this season in particular, be happy, be grateful, be content.
But the thing is, and I can’t speak for you, but I know in my life, I just can’t will myself in or out of a particular way of being, a way of feeling or a season of my life. It just doesn’t work that way. I can keep showing up during that time. I can keep doing the spiritual work. I can keep on being present for worship and attentive in my life of prayer, I can be with my community, but I have to do all those things and then release the outcome over to God.
As a mentor of mine always says- we gotta do the work and stay out of the results. In other words, keep showing up, keep on keeping on even if your inner life feels a little bit off, even if you are carrying that extra weight, and I don’t mean that thanksgiving weight,
even if you don’t feel grateful in this very moment, keep on keeping on and release those feelings of having to fix yourself, release those things prayerfully to God and let God do what God does best- save us when we can’t save ourselves.
I know this is an odd way to begin a sermon about gratitude and thanksgiving, but I think it’s important for us as a community of faith to say sometimes we don’t feel grateful, sometimes we don’t see things in our life that we can be grateful for. There might even be people in our midst who are struggling this very moment to see the light shining through the darkness, even if they believe it in their heart of hearts, they are struggling to see it in their lives. And that is Ok. It is ok.
We all experience that in our lives, sometimes these seasons are short, sometimes they are long, but the one thing we believe is that God is in it all, at work in it all through Jesus our Lord, redeeming all things. That’s why we are people of the resurrection. Because we believe that Jesus, in his resurrection, proclaims that these things which happen to us , no matter how lonely and dark and twisted they might seem in the moment, they will not have the last word. Man. That is so amazingly hopeful. What a way to live in this world. To live this truth, this counter cultural truth in our world. What a blessing and what a challenge.
So having opened the sermon with all this I want to talk a little bit more about gratitude and why it is so hard to preach about in our churches, and why it is in fact a spiritual practice, a spiritual discipline that we need to put into action in our lives.
It is tricky because gratitude is something that we experience genuinely and naturally as a response to what happens in our life. It isn’t always something that we can just manufacture.
Let me give you an example from my life as a parent to two young children.
Often I will get home after a long day of work and parenting and I will start to cook dinner. The girls will be in the other room watching a show and I’ll just be cooking away. I put together a simply but absolutely delicious meal and call the girls in from the other room. I’ll make their plate and we will all sit down as a family to pray and then, the girls will just start digging in.
Usually I will say something like, girls, “what do we say?”
To which they will look somewhat confused or baffled and say , “Please?”
I’ll say, “No girls, the other one.”
“oh, yeah- thank you.”
All this is to say something that is very obvious but needs to be pointed out, thanksgiving, gratitude, is a strange thing because it is something that has to be genuinely experienced but at the same time is something that we can cultivate or grow in.
That’s why parents teach their children to say thank you. It is something that we can learn and cultivate but almost paradoxically it is something that we just have to experience on this deep and profound level and then express.
That’s where the reading from Philippians enters in for today. The reading for this Sunday is taken from the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. The tradition goes that Paul was writing this letter to the church when he was imprisoned by the Romans for spreading the good news of God’s all inclusive and unconditional love in Jesus Christ.
I share this to say that Paul is someone who knew what it was like to be kicked around. He lived quite a life, a difficult life after his conversation he suffered a great deal for the sake of the gospel. But, sometimes when you read his writings you might think that his life was all honkey-dorey.
I mean listen to these words that he pens here:
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus.
Do those words sound like words of someone in prison? Do they sound like the words of someone who is being persecuted for preaching that God is love? Do they sound like the words of someone who is living with the boot of the empire on their neck?
They don’t sound that way at all but they are the words of a person who lived this deep and spiritual life connected and rooted in God’s grace, so much so that he was able to say rejoice, at all times, again I say rejoice.
There is a spiritual depth here which is so inspiring to us as modern believers, modern followers of Jesus. A spiritual depth which empowers and emboldens us to find ways to be ok when things aren’t OK.
Paul then goes on to say that we as people of God are to rejoice in all circumstances and to hold in our minds, whatever is true, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable. Paul says if there is anything excellent and worthy of praise, hold onto these things in your mind.
This gets to the heart of a spiritual life and a life of cultivating gratitude and thanksgiving, it is about what we notice. That’s really at the heart of the matter, what we notice in this life, where we choose to focus our attention. This makes an impact how we react, how we respond, it affects whether or not we have that genuine experience of thanksgiving in our heart.
Maybe you’ve had this experience in your life before. You woke up on the wrong side of the bed. You get out of bed and the coffee pot didn’t go off the way it was supposed to, and your walking in the dark and then all of the sudden you trip over that small step up which is always there but because you didn’t have your morning cup of coffee and you weren’t awake yet, so you missed it.
And your day goes down hill from there. It is just one thing after another. You hit every red light on your way to work so your late, your computer gets stuck in that never ending updating cycle, so you’re later getting that email to your boss which was supposed to be timestamped before noon and on and on and on. By the end of the day you are just a host mess of anger and frustration and resentment.
You went through the whole day without noticing anything good, anything that was unexpected, any signs of hope or connection or joy, and you end the day stuck up in your head, with a narrative of self-pity.
But Paul tells us here that we as Christians are supposed to shift our ways of seeing the world, we are supposed to put on the lens of Christ to see through his eyes and hear through his ears. We are called to notice the world for what it is, what it truly is, not a place of scarcity, a place to be feared or to withdraw from, but an overflowing creation of love and goodness, which God has blessed and continues to bless.
It is powerful to allow that Spirit of God, that Holy Spirit, to transform our minds and to shift our perception so that we can notice and see all the good that is bubbling up and emerging all around us all the time, even in the darkest places and the most difficult circumstances.
Paul believed this very thing when he wrote these words from a prison cell, celebrating the Philippian church and the love and the witness they were offering in their neighborhood and their city. He was celebrating even in the midst of his own personal trials, he was focusing on the excellent and the just and the commendable.
Now this practice doesn’t mean that we are called to be “Pollyannas”, for we know that Paul, and for the larger point Jesus, were not naïve about the real darkness we experience in this life. No we are called to name the pain and the suffering for what it is, name it for what it is in our life but to not let it have the last word. For we are people of the resurrection, we believe that love will always have the last word.
During this season of thanksgiving, this time where we reflect on our lives and our world, I was reminded of the words of the poet Mary Oliver who wrote:
Instructions for living a life:
- Pay Attention.
- Be astonished.
- Tell about it.
These are instructions we can carry with us into the coming week and the coming months. Pay attention to what is happening. Notice where you are feeling connected and inspired, where you are feeling depressed or stilted, notice where you feel deep pain and tremendous joy. Starts first by paying attention and noticing.
Then be astonished. Don’t ever forget that your life is a beautiful mystery to be explored, that you move about this wondrous creation, with this amazing body which is a gift, that you get to see incredible things and taste a thanksgiving dinner infused with love, be astonished at all that you see and hear and experience in this one life you are given.
And then share about it. Share the highs and the lows, share in words and in silence, share in songs that make you want to sing out loud at the top of your lungs and share through rhythmic movements of the dance you do when you know nobody is watching. Tell about it in how you share your love with others. And please for the sake of this world, this world which needs you to share, don’t be stingy with your story, the story of God’s saving love unfolding in your life, don’t be stingy with it. Share it generously. With everyone. Because everyone needs to hear it.