Being told to rejoice, be thankful, have gratitude, focus your mind on what’s true, can feel like some kind of Miss Manners advice, Christian behavior modification, or politeness training.
Apologize for hitting your brother.
Tell your sister you forgive her.
Count your blessings.
Say Thank you to Grandma for the present.
Leave a generous tip.
Rejoice and give thanks to God always.
And it’s too bad. Because while things like apologies, confessions and gratitude can be coerced or disingenuous, they are also some of the most authentic and important stuff of relationships. When we genuinely apologize, or truthfully confess, or say Thank you and actually mean it, we are at our most honest, present, vulnerable and aware. We are living our humanity and interconnectedness. We are receiving the gift of this life, the gift of the other person, and the gift of our own living and breathing self.
God made the world good. Goodness is all around us, even in the midst of what’s bad, and gratitude invites us to notice. To rejoice in the good doesn't deny the evil or the brokenness, it doesn’t ignore struggle or suffering. Giving thanks acknowledge the goodness that is also, always here, because in Christ God is always here. Gratitude stills and quiets us us to pay attention with wonder and reverence, and then points that awe right to its source. And so gratitude is one of the shortcuts out of the way of fear and back to the way of God, whereas cheerfulness, platitudes and politeness are not.
When Paul writes “rejoice always!” from his prison cell, he is not giving the Philippians an attitude pep talk or a lesson in etiquette. He’s touching something really deep that can’t be captured on the front of a greeting card and can’t be crushed by chains or hardship either.
At all times, rejoice in union with God, Paul says. The Lord is here. Don’t be anxious about anything, but let God know everything that is on your heart, with both longing and thanksgiving, tell God know what you need. And God’s peace, which defeats all human logic and comprehension, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Gratitude is powerful. And it is prayer -whether we acknowledge it or not. When thanksgiving rises up within us, we are enacting our connection to God, even if we aren’t aware in the moment that’s what we’re doing, even if we are not believers in God. We are praying. To be grateful we must be present. We are constantly departing the present moment by actively regretting the past or persistently anticipating future. Gratitude overrides this. In the moment of gratefulness we are present in the very presence of God who is always here with us. And that is prayer.
The truth is, while we need reminders sometimes, and structure too, we don’t actually have to work that hard at feeling thankful. Because we’re hardwired for this. Gratitude is a basic human need, a natural human and deeply spiritual response that arises, unprompted, when we are paying attention.
And Paul gives us a way to pay attention.
Whatever is good, he says, whatever is true and just and honorable and pure, think on these things. What we look for, we will find. If we look for division and hate, injustice and pain, we will find it. It is there. We spend a lot of time and energy practicing looking for what’s wrong.
And if we look for hope and love and sacrifice and generosity we will find it. Because that’s here too. If we live open to delight and wonder, beauty and awe, that is what we will receive. Even in the midst of what is broken, redemption is breaking forth. We can practice looking for life.
Someday time will be wiped away, and we will exist in the suspended joy of being alive, of being in God’s full presence and being wholly, truly, fully alive. Gratitude lets us see the kingdom of God now. When we pause in gratitude, we live in a moment out of time. We get a sample-sized taste, a foreshadowing of God’s future, a future that comes not from the present but from the promise. Instead of a future filled with the consequences of past choices or the impossibilities of human limitations, gratefulness dips us into the future beyond time, when what remains is the eternal moment of gratitude.
We don’t come together in worship to be polite to God, we come to be reoriented again to the Kingdom of God breaking into this world. We are not here to get a lesson on saying thank you, or pressure about how grateful we should all be. We come to be awakened to what’s real – to be reminded of our belonging to God and each other because we are practicing it together and that will help us practice when we are apart.
So today, instead of any more discussing gratitude, we are going to experience it. This is not going to be a dress rehearsal for the “What are you thankful for?” conversations around the table on Thursday. (Though, it may help). We are going to practice paying attention to what is good and true and beautiful and wonderful. We are going to let ourselves be present, in this moment, with God.
Reader - you are invited to do this practice we did in worship. Set aside 10 minutes. Grab a pen and paper. You won't regret it.
A PRACTICE OF GRATITUDE
For the next few minutes, you are invited to simply be present here, and be willing to notice. Read each phrase and you're invited to write down the first things that come to mind. Don’t edit or force or direct – just let whatever wants to come spill out.
Begin with a moment of silence.
In this moment, in this place, with these people, I am thankful for…
When I think of the people I call mine, I am thankful for…
When I consider the connections I have in the world, friends, neighbors, coworkers, I am thankful for…
When I think of my body, I am thankful for…
When I reflect on my life in the past few months, I am thankful for…
When I think of things this year that have been painful or challenging, I am thankful for…
When I think of this world, I am thankful for…
When I think of God, I am thankful for…
Is there a category you wished would’ve been mentioned? Something that you felt gratitude for during this time? Take a moment now to jot down anything else you would like to express thanks for…
Now read back over your list.
Let yourself feel what you’ve written down.
Let yourself receive the gratitude.