Thanksgiving Day (B) – November 24, 2012

Gratitude is the secret

Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Matthew 6:25-33

Worry may be the signature human condition, and its attendant anxiety the characteristic mark of our time. Current estimates reveal well over 12 percent of the American population suffer from some form of debilitating anxiety. Considering the current economic crisis, perhaps we might wonder why more don’t suffer from it.

After all, too many people – intelligent, skillful people – are out of work, money and viable options to care for themselves and their families. “Lack” is a dominant word in our culture and is cause for tremendous and justifiable worry. College, once an expectation, is becoming an impossible dream of America’s youth. But they can’t find jobs either. And then there is the despair that accompanies these concerns, which taxes the budget even more because it gives rise to medical problems – problems that increase anxiety exponentially due to the current state of our healthcare system.

In today’s gospel, Jesus admonishes us not to worry about our life. How does that help? Doesn’t reading these words heap guilt on we who are worried for worrying? Aren’t Jesus’ words the romantic musings of a young idealist, insensitive to the poor, the unemployed and especially to the worrywarts? At first glance, his advice does not seem very practical or doable.

Or does it?

Protestant theologian Paul Tillich characterized the most predominant modern anxiety as spiritual; that is, we suffer from emptiness or meaninglessness. If Tillich is the diagnostician, then perhaps the Jesuit theologian Anthony de Mello, following Jesus’ advice, offers the cure. De Mello said, “You sanctify whatever you are grateful for.” In other words, instead of nursing our worries, change the focus. Look elsewhere, beyond self-absorption. Cultivate a grateful heart.

The ease of this cure is what makes it seem unrealistic. Do you remember the Old Testament story of Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, found in Second Kings? He sought out the prophet Elisha to heal him of his leprosy but when Elisha instructed Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times, Naaman became angry. The cure was too easy! When at last Naaman followed Elisha’s instructions, his flesh was restored to that of a young man.

Or take the example of Dennis, who was down on his luck. First, he was injured, and then he got sick and had to cancel a long-awaited trip. Feeling anxious over the poor state of his body compounded his illness and annoyed his family members. Dennis, consumed in his black cloud, almost canceled his weekly ministry at the local retirement home but instead he forced himself to go. He felt awful when he began reaching out to the first broken-down senior who approached him. And then, by the end of that first encounter, Dennis felt refreshed. Filled with gratitude, his symptoms vanished during his time of ministry.

Gratitude does not come easily, especially when we are caught in the grip of anxiety. Nor does gratitude come in a sudden conversion. It comes through a slow turning away from worry by intentionally stopping to find something, anything, for which to thank God. In the midst of worry, it can be a real stretch. Jesus understood this. Take something simple and common, Jesus says, for which to give thanks: a bird, a flower, a blade of grass. Anything will do: a breath of air, a dog’s loyalty, a glass of water. It is the small step of moving out of self to notice something or someone beyond the self that matters.

This small step leads to huge results. It leads to finally getting what Jesus is trying to tell us: everything is God’s, and God is eagerly waiting to give us more and more – if only we would allow it. Jesus wants us to notice what is in front of us, to believe that God is present and to be thankful. Change the subject, Jesus admonishes. There is a lot of stuff in life we are powerless to change, but changing the subject is always in our power.

Another way to think about this is to imagine two buckets. Bucket one contains those things over which we have control; the other, bucket two, contains things we cannot control. Now imagine yourself confronted with an intractable problem, some elements of which are in bucket one, some in bucket two. Where are you going to spend your time?

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded on the premise that alcoholics are powerless over alcohol – bucket two – but that there are steps that can be taken, such as making a personal inventory – bucket one. By changing the subject from the self lost in the big picture to the small picture just in front of, yet beyond the self, results happen.

Of course, the contents of the buckets are not static; things heretofore outside your control may move under your influence. Still, bucket one is the place to focus, and it is here efforts may bring results, alleviating worry. In addition, sheer activity in bucket one, regardless of results, is a great worry quencher, because you can’t worry when you’re busy. Depressed? Get off your duff and do something, the dictum goes. Jesus adds, notice what is in front of you.

Consider the story of David Scholer, the late New Testament professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He suffered from asthma, diabetes, arthritis and was diagnosed with incurable colorectal cancer in 2002, which subsequently spread to both lungs. Yet in spite of all of this, he survived beyond the expectations of his doctors, maintained a global ministry through electronic and paper correspondence, and remained one of the most popular professors on campus.

Although Scholer’s body did not heal, nor did he expect it to, his illness taught him to be thankful for his family and friends, the people he met along the way, the energy to do the things he enjoyed, and most of all for being alive. Scholer knew his disease was bucket two. Gratitude for people and for being alive was bucket one. By focusing on bucket one, Scholer’s tears were transformed into “shouts of joy,” as we read in Psalm 126 today.

The Serenity Prayer, penned by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, sums up the bucket theory:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

By adopting gratitude, we can discover God’s abundance. It’s a funny thing, but gratitude takes math out of the equation. When gratitude replaces anxiety, even when we find we have less than we had during our worry days, gratitude reveals that we have far more than we need.

Look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies of the field. Jesus wasn’t being idealistic; he was being practical. Medical science has shown that by not worrying, we can add to our life span. We don’t have to worry about our lives day to day – what we are going to eat or drink or wear? Nor do we have to worry about our children’s needs. All we have to do is say thank you, knowing that what needs to happen will, and the rest is not all that important. Gratitude is the secret.

 

— barbara baumgarten is a visual artist and author. David Catron is a linguist and writer. Currently, barbara and David are partners in mission with the Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil (IEAB).

Thanksgiving Day (B) – November 26, 2009

(RCL) Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Matthew 6:25-33

Before it was a noun, “thanksgiving” was a verb. The difference matters.

A desert father once said:

“If you have a chest full of oranges, and leave it for a long time,
the fruit will rot inside of it.
It is the same with the thoughts in our heart.
If we do not carry them out by physical action,
after a while they will spoil and turn bad.”

Living thankfully is not essentially about feeling thankful, or even being thankful. To live thankfully is to act differently day by day because we are compelled by the Spirit to participate in the generous life of God-with-us, constantly practicing thanks-giving.

Thanksgiving is well established as a cultural institution in our country. We know it as a day to observe, a milestone in the year, the inauguration of the “holiday season,” we are told – a “high holy day” for retailers, a bellwether of our national economic health.

It is a time for families and wider communities to gather; a day for starting to write up our “holiday” shopping lists; for watching football; for eating, eating, and eating. And for many, it is a time when attention is given to those who live in deep need throughout the year.

“Have a good Thanksgiving,” we say to one another beforehand. And afterward, we ask, “How was your Thanksgiving?” assuming the word to be a noun.

But as a verb, as a spiritual practice, what is thanksgiving all about?

Giving thanks is actually central to the practice of Christianity.

It is a golden thread, woven through and uniting all we do as Christians.

At Thanksgiving, we celebrate the gift of the harvest. We do so actively. As Charles Winters put it in his wonderful prayer, which is offered by many just before the Great Thanksgiving in celebrations of the Eucharist:

“We make, O Lord, our glorious exchanges.
What you have given us, we now offer you,
that in turn, we may receive yourself.”

To harvest is itself an act of faith, of confidence in God’s continuing providence. When it has been a good year, it is evident that God is providing for us in abundance. But the very act of cutting down the stalk and gathering in the crop from the field, leaves the field barren. To harvest is an active response to all that God has given us, without which what has been given will rot and be ruined – of no benefit to anyone. In harvesting, we give thanks by stepping forward to collect what God has provided and using it to provide for our needs and those of others, trusting that in the cycle of nature, more will be provided in the next growing season.

There is an ancient, Biblical tradition in harvesting, of farmers not reaping all the way to the edges of a field so as to leave some for the poor and for strangers. Part of the joy of the harvest is found in encouraging the gleaning of that part of the crop by others. So, the practice of giving thanks at harvest time is connected with participating in the generosity of God, who provides the harvest.

The harvest is only possible when we join with God in the dance of abundance. We are thus acting as stewards of God’s bounty – taking charge, taking responsibility for that which we do not own, for another’s property (God’s property, strictly speaking). In so doing, we find ourselves giving thanks by sharing generously of the gifts we ourselves have received. That is the Christian practice of stewardship.

It is a common practice at Thanksgiving for congregations and other community groups to gather food for food shelves, or assist at soup kitchens, perhaps offering Thanksgiving dinner to those who are hungry or alone at this special time. It’s an admirable tradition. For some, unfortunately, this is motivated by a sense of guilt, that we have so much and are feasting so excessively – maybe if we remember those who have less than us, it will salve our consciences to some extent.

But as a Christian spiritual practice, we understand this work of feeding others to be a natural consequence of participating in the dance of abundance with God. Compassion and acts of charity flow naturally as a way of giving thanks to God; for in that action, we receive so very much. The blessing flows both ways in that exchange.

Practicing compassion and seeking to give ourselves away is a form of prayer. It is an activity that lies at the heart of all spiritual traditions, and therefore naturally catches the imagination of our neighbors in every community.

Thanksgiving, then, is not primarily about “feeling” thankful. In many homes, before the turkey is carved, people take turns sharing what they “feel thankful for” that year. This is a nice custom. But as practicing Christians, we are called to move beyond “feeling” thankful; we are called to give thanks by taking very specific spiritual actions:

We practice hospitality.
We practice generosity.
We practice stewardship.
We practice compassion.

Giving thanks is a verb, a spiritual practice that runs like a golden thread through all we do and all we are as Christians.

Perhaps it helps to set one day aside in the year when we have the attention of everyone around the nation, to rehearse the importance of being thankful. But we are even more effective as evangelists when we use Thanksgiving to act thankfully, with God, the God of abundance, who in this harvest festival, as in every day, rejoices to invite us to join in returning the gifts we have received, to God’s honor and glory and purpose.

Let us pray:

Generous God of love,
we gather in community
to praise and thank you
for the harvest of our orchards and vineyards.
Out of the sharp cold of winter,
through blossom and fruiting,
has come the plentiful harvest of today.
From winter trees, pruned and leafless,
has emerged a rich crop upon every branch,
swollen by the warmth of spring and summer.
Your boundless generosity, O God,
is like the overflowing of baskets and bins.
Here is variety and volume beyond measure,
like your immense love.

May we be moved to give back to you
a portion of what you have gifted us,
from the richness of your community
and the wealth of your creation,
for the sake of the gospel
and to your glory,
our Life-Giver and Sustainer.

Amen.

 

— Steve Kelsey is missioner of the Greater Hartford Regional Ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. Over the years he has been privileged to minister primarily with smaller, more remote congregations in New England, Alaska, New York, and Northern Michigan.