This morning’s sermon begins just before the 27 minute mark.
Robin Craig, a member of this Presbytery who was ordained out of Forest Hill Church, recently reignited my practice of gratitude with a little exercise she’s been doing on Facebook called “5 Great Things About Today.”
Some of you may have seen this practice either on Robin’s or my Facebook page, and some of you may have even continued the practice on your own pages. Angela Boland, one of our worship leaders this morning, has joined in the fun and continues to inspire and delight Facebook readers with her lists.
Scientists, psychotherapists, clergy, and heck, even Oprah (!) have been telling us for a long time that listing things we are grateful for can move us out a place of helplessness, hopelessness and depression to a place of optimism and improved health. This practice can be done at any time of the day, although doing it right before bed often sets the stage for a good night’s sleep. We can list five things or three things, or maybe even just one thing, but research has shown that meditating in some way on our blessings is good for body and soul.
I’ve been faithfully writing down 5 Great Things About Today for a few weeks now, sometimes very publicly on Facebook and sometimes in the privacy of my own journal.
Truth be told, it’s not a new practice for me. My bookshelves are filled with books about gratitude written by psychologists who have done serious research on its benefits. I took part in a Presbytery workshop this spring featuring Diana Butler Bass and her new book, “Grateful.” I’ve written love letters and hymns of thanksgiving to God in my journal for years. But like many of us, I can easily slide into unhealthy habits, one small step at a time, until I am no longer living in a place of gratitude and thanksgiving.
You’ve probably all heard the story of how to cook a frog. If you drop a frog in boiling water it will leap out immediately because the shock to its system is so obvious. But if you turn the heat up ever so slowly the frog becomes accustomed to the gradually increasing temperatures until it’s too late–and the frog is cooked! When I first saw Robin’s posts a few weeks ago I realized I was becoming that frog– gradually taking on too much stress and grief, both from the negative news that bombards us on a daily basis and from the suffering of loved ones near and far.
My spirit was feeling increasingly heavy and I was beginning to feel like I was all alone in a very sad universe. Thankfully, Robin’s post was the wake-up call I needed to hit the reset button and come back to my love affair with God, to that connection that is never truly lost, even in the midst of great challenges and sorrows.
How are you doing? Are you feeling overwhelmed by an endless stream of negative news on the TV, radio, and internet? Is some personal heartache weighing you down? Are feelings of helplessness or hopelessness coloring your view of the future? After talking with a number of you recently, and just noticing how saturated I’ve felt with bad news, I thought this might be a good time to reflect together on the topic of gratitude. It’s so easy to become those frogs, slowly cooking in a pot of negativity, fear, and sorrow, and so easy to feel as if we are cut off from our loving God.
Let me be perfectly clear, however, that I am not proposing we simply slap a “happy face” sticker on deeply problematic situations. Gratitude is not a cheap trick that denies the reality of suffering or grief. Nor is it a substitute for good medical care. If you or a loved one are concerned about depression, please don’t hesitate to speak with your healthcare provider. Depression can be a soul-sucking, even a life-threatening medical condition at times, and there is no shame in seeking medical assistance to help our brains work in a healthier way.
Let me also be clear that the news is big business and negative news sells. If you find yourself being pulled into reading one horror story after another online or compulsively watching TV even though it agitates and discourages you, you’ve just experienced the seduction of negative news. Neuroscientists tell us that our brains respond more readily to negative stories than to positive ones–there’s something about the drama and excitement that hooks us and we’ve been hard-wired since ancient times to vigilantly look for danger in order to protect ourselves against it. Media sources–and their advertisers– know this very well and count on it to boost their ratings and sell products. So don’t judge yourself harshly if you suddenly find yourself feasting on the media’s daily serving of gloom and doom.
Now I’m not advocating that we all go live in a bubble somewhere or that we become freakishly, inauthentically cheerful. (You know those people who get on your last nerve because they’re over-the-top cheerful and you’re pretty sure they’re swimming in the shallow end of the spiritual pool of life? Yeah, I’m not thinking we need to be that way…) What I am encouraging us to do is to look for balance and resilience in the midst of the very struggles we face. Neuroscience studies have shown improvements in mood, performance, relationships and even sleep when subjects focused on thoughts and feelings about the things for which they were grateful.
Neuroscience tells us that we actually have a neural circuit in the brain that, like a muscle, grows stronger with exercise. Gratitude moves us out of the constricting world of self-absorption and into a larger space, which in the case of believers is back into the space of an authentic relationship with God–that is sometimes happy, sometimes difficult, but always connected.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,” Paul tells us in today’s reading from I Thessalonians.
That can sound like a tall order when we’re facing illness or grief, worrying about the state of our nation and world, struggling with relationship issues, or agonizing over just about anything that gets us down. I appreciate the insight Diana Butler Bass brings to this text in her book “Grateful.” She points out that we are not called to give thanks “for” all circumstances, but “in” all circumstances.
That little preposition makes a huge difference! I don’t imagine most of us would say, “Yay! I’m so thankful for this illness or financial setback or grief or fear!” But all of us could say, “Thank you, God, that in the midst of this situation I can find reasons to give thanks, to call to mind the people and resources that surround me, and to connect with you in a way that I might never have before!”
Today’s Gospel reading, the feeding of the multitude, is the only one that makes it into all four Gospels which tells us that it had a huge impact on those four writers, that it somehow felt like a very important way to remember Jesus as they looked back on his life. In John’s Gospel it’s all about abundance–after feeding 5,000 people there are still 12 baskets of leftovers! It really got me thinking about scarcity and abundance, about how easy it is to resist gratitude because of all the bad stuff in the world. I can almost hear myself saying, “Well, thanks God for this blessing, but, you know, I have all these other problems so being thankful isn’t good enough. What I really want is ultimate control and ultimate perfection so I can’t savor all the good things in my life.”
Scarcity–it’s that state of always focusing on what’s not there, what’s wrong, and what’s likely to go wrong. And it’s the exact opposite of the feast God constantly provides, a feast taken from humble offerings and multiplied until the supply overflows beyond measure.
I’m wondering if you would be willing to join me in exercising your gratitude muscle and making it stronger. Would you be willing to take time for the next 30 days or so which is about the time it takes to make a new habit? Would you be willing to slow down and savor the many ways God is abundantly sustaining you, even in the midst of your particular, very real life challenges? Would you be willing then to write down 3-5 things for which you are grateful? You don’t have to publish it, although you can if that connects you to others who are doing the practice and creates some community and encouragement for you.
Your list doesn’t have to be all that grand and glorious. My 5 Great Things About Today have at times been very modest. Last Sunday afternoon I sat in my backyard and watched birds and insects and thought I’d died and gone to heaven. In those very peaceful moments I felt deeply connected to the creative power of God and to everything God has made. Sometimes, well actually often, I list my morning cup of coffee as a pretty great thing. I notice the feel of the cup in my hand, the taste of the brew, and the opportunity to gather my thoughts in peace as the day begins. And I’m always giving thanks for my crazy dog who alternates between lying at my feet and “protecting” me by barking at the squirrels in the trees as I sip coffee and pray. Of course, I am also mindful of huge privileges, absolutely huge blessings that allow me to live a life of comfort, peace and freedom, and I don’t in any way want to minimize those, including my relationship with Jesus Christ. But I also never want to lose sight of the little things because I know that when we are stuck in a bad place small steps can be a way to build momentum and move us in different directions.
Would you be willing to meditate on all the abundance that surrounds you–in large ways and small? This isn’t about denying your grief or fear. Neuroscientists tell us those neural pathways never go away. But what they also tell us is that we can build neural pathways that will override them. Nor is this about being passive in the face of injustice. This isn’t about swimming in the shallow end of the pool of life. It’s about doing what we need to do to be sustainable and resilient so we have the energy to respond to God’s call on our lives and keep building the Beloved Community. It’s about allowing God to feed us like those 5000 people by calling to mind all the ways in Christ he is present among us, bringing life out of death, and holding us close wherever our path may lie.
Now that’s something for which to be grateful!