Life Changing Gratitude
Psalms 136 and 147
January 13, 2019
We’re spending a couple of weeks here at the beginning of the year considering how we want to live in 2019.
Unlike typical New Year’s resolutions to exercise more, eat less or maybe parachute from a plane, I want us to look at how to live better … how to orient ourselves to be more alive, to live more fully.
This seems all the more critical in that a national study by Blue Cross was released last Wednesday showing a 33% increase in diagnoses of depression over a three-year period.
All age groups showed a significant increase with teens the most affected, with a 63% increase in depression.
Just adding more stuff or activities to our life will not solve our problem, especially as busyness and the breakdown of community are the two leading factors cited for this increase.
We’re a society that already has lots of stuff, and we’re already a people who are busy checking off bucket lists,
but most of us are somehow missing the full joy of life.
Days come and go in a blur, and then one day it all comes to an end, and there will be no “do overs”.
This life – all that it is and all that isn’t – is our one and only chance for living.
The thing is, we have to be deliberate in our attitudes and practices if we are to fully embrace whatever precious days we have left.
What got me thinking about this was author Brendon Buchard talking about three questions people often raise as they approach their end of life: “Did I live?” “Did I love?” “Did I matter?”
Today we to turn to the spiritual practice of gratitude.
I say spiritual practice both because gratitude does not always come automatically and because gratitude opens us to blessings that we otherwise leave unopened in their gift boxes.
Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever is the most repeated verse in the Bible.
Kathy opened today’s service with Psalm 136, which is an antiphonal worship piece where the leader says, Give thanks to the Lord for He “this or that”, to which worshipers respond by saying His love endures forever.
Its intent is both to worship God – to show gratitude to the Source of our blessings, not just the blessings themselves – and to develop gratitude muscles by actually giving thanks.
We’ve had some discussion groups based on the books and videos of John Ortberg.
He writes, “Gratitude is the ability to experience life as a gift. It opens us up to wonder, delight, and humility. It makes our hearts generous. It liberates us from the prison of self-preoccupation.
“… Gratitude is the gift God gives us that enables us to be blessed by all His other gifts, the way our taste buds enable us to enjoy the gift of food. Without gratitude our lives degenerate into envy, dissatisfaction, and complaints, taking what we have for granted and always wanting more.”
So, gratitude is a way of orienting our spirits to experience life as a gift, while the alternative is being chronically discontent.
Maybe you know someone who has all the good stuff of the world, but who is habitually complaining and dissatisfied, or maybe you’ve been in that place yourself.
Research shows that reorienting our response to everyday life from dissatisfaction to gratitude has profound effects on everything from our blood pressure, to our sleeping patterns, to reduced pain, to our happiness, to enhancing our friendships … even on our life expectancy.
Over time, practicing gratitude – even if it doesn’t come naturally to us – rewires our brains so that we become
more naturally grateful, resilient and generous.
But it takes real practice.
First, I learn to express gratitude for imperfect gifts.
I just read about a young man up in Vacaville who bought a winning Lotto ticket at his local grocery store.
When he took it to the Lotto office to get his payout, he thought it was $10,000, but officials noticed that he hadn’t fully scraped away the number covering so it was actually $10-million.
If I won that, you bet I’d be grateful.
But that’s unlikely, so I want to develop practices that open me to the everyday gifts of life that otherwise would go unnoticed.
This is one reason that Paul writes 1Thessalonians 5:18, Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Yes, Paul was planting churches that would give rise to the worldwide Christian movement, an enormous achievement – but those churches also bickered, were sometimes split by competing evangelists, and required days of hard and sometimes dangerous travel for him to reach.
On top of that, Paul would be arrested, beaten, chased out of towns.
So, Paul while he had unprecedented success, none of it was smooth sailing, and all his ministries were imperfect.
Yet he wrote, Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus while leading an imperfect ministry.
But easier said than done.
I vividly remember thirty-some years ago being stuck in traffic at the 57 and 22 Freeways interchange down in Orange County.
I remember it because I was pounding on my stirring wheel and shouting through my windshield at some stupid drivers who had illegally driven on the safety lane and were now trying to force themselves between those of us who had followed the rules.
But that wasn’t so unusual for me.
I often fumed at drivers, was annoyed by my salespeople, clenched my jaw as my wife gained weight, and ranted at the high cost of heating our jacuzzi.
I was ticked off at something most of the time in part because I was conditioned to be cynical and to see the flaw in everything and everyone.
Back on the freeway, most of us stayed right on each other’s bumpers in a brave game of dare to block the unwelcome drivers from merging into our lane.
Of course, all of this was happening at about 4 mph.
But this particular time something happened because of the Denis Waitley self-improvement tape I was listening to.
As I was pounding on my stirring wheel, Dr. Waitley’s voice was saying something like, “Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.”
Where were my love, grace, and gratitude?
Here I was in a company car that I drove for free, heading home from a job that dozens of people had interviewed for, about to have dinner with a woman who loved me enough to marry me despite my glaring flaws – and yet no one would describe me as a happy or grateful person.
Appreciating imperfect gifts begins by stepping back and seeing the bigger picture.
If all we see is the imperfection, if we don’t think we can be happy until everything is just right, then we are handing over our irreplaceable days to disappointment and dissatisfaction.
Did it really matter that some other driver was trying to make the best of his daily commute by squeezing in front of me?
Did it really matter all that much that my jacuzzi was expensive to run?
Certainly not when I considered the junker car I’d had to drive a few years earlier or the tiny apartment I’d lived in with little or no furniture that was unbearably hot in the summer or the fact that my wife would be dead within ten years.
My job, home, and relationships weren’t my birthrights, but I was feeling entitled rather than humbled.
Feeling entitled, I saw my rise from lower income to middle class all about my hard work, rather than my work building alongside some incredible breaks and opportunities that few people get.
Dr. Robert Emmons of UC Davis has spent his career studying gratitude – how to cultivate it and its effect on our lives.
He writes, “Seeing with grateful eyes requires that we see the web of interconnection in which we alternate between being givers and receivers. The humble person says that life is a gift to be grateful for, not a right to be claimed.”
The practice of appreciating the imperfect
doesn’t mean painting a smile over your problems,
but it begins by appreciating what is right in a given situation as well as the grace that brought that blessing to you.
One grateful heart “exercise” I learned near that time is to practice revealing something in every imperfect situation to be grateful for.
When your mate makes dinner but dries out the roast, be grateful that you have something to eat.
When you have to drive a rusted junker of a car, be grateful that you’re not depending on public transportation.
When you look in the mirror and see a body that has more wrinkles and lumps than you’d like — be grateful for being alive.
When I started doing these exercises, they felt superficial and contrived, but over time I began to see the world differently.
I invite you to try this for several weeks.
Second, we find gratitude in the midst of hardships.
Training our spirits to find the blessings that live side-by-side with hardships is a daily practice.
Philippians 4:4 Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in Him!
I remember visiting Betty Higgins when I first came here, and she was telling me about how blessed she felt.
But as I looked around at her modest house, at Chilo in his wheelchair and having difficulties speaking after his accident and coma, at her daughter Louise who was in chronic pain and slowly losing her ability to care for herself I suspected that she was just trying to put a happy face onto a depressing life.
She told me about her husband, the one great love in her life, who died young and that she’d never so much as dated in the many decades since.
Everything from the bullet coming through her bedroom window to the near-fatal auto crash with her new car seemed like bad news to me.
And Betty was sitting there with her feet elevated because her ankles were swollen and painful … so, frankly, I didn’t believe her talk about feeling blessed.
But over the years I learned that Betty was authentic, that what she saw was a secure home, the closeness she’d developed with Chilo through years of caring for him, and how Louise had married a wonderful man who loved her despite her disabilities.
She told me, “Yes, my legs hurt, but I can walk.”
Betty faced a lifetime of trials, yet gratitude had become such a habit that she delighted in a life that was both blessed and a struggle.
And, as many of you know, years later when she died at age 97, crippled and with limited cognition, she was gracious, content and grateful for her old movies and visits from all of us.
Psychologists have learned that grateful people experience what they call a low “threshold of gratitude”.
Just like a sound has to reach a certain decibel level before we hear it, goodness has to reach a certain experiential level before we perceive it.
Some people may be hard of hearing and need more decibels to hear a sound, and some people are hard of thanking and deaf to goodness right in front of them.
For them, it takes a big gift for them to feel grateful.
But people with a low threshold of gratitude are sensitive to blessings found in the midst of imperfect or difficult circumstances.
Some people may be born with this, some of us have to develop it, but here’s the thing: deceptively simple exercises, if done regularly, reorient our minds.
Notice that the fourth Thursday in November is called Thanksgiving, not Thanksfeeling.
Psalm 147:7 says, Sing to the Lord with grateful praise;
In other words, express your gratitude.
Sing it, speak it, write it – be demonstrative and be specific.
You won’t develop a grateful spirit by just kind of thinking about it.
If I were to ask you to rate your overall sense of gratitude on a scale of 1 to 10, and then ask you to take a couple of minutes to either write a list of things you’re grateful for or to turn to someone and speak such a list, then if you are like others who’ve done this exercise, when you next rated your level of gratitude, you’d likely improve by two or three points.
By the way, Amie Gordon, a professor at UC San Francisco, reports that married couples feel more loved and appreciated when thanked for specific things they did.
For example, instead of making generalized statements like “You’re wonderful, I love you”, people feel more appreciated if they hear, “I appreciate that you noticed I was tired tonight and did the dishes for me.”
It’s the same with God.
Rather than saying, “Thank you, God. I am so blessed”, your sense of blessing and your closeness with God grow as you are specific.
So, before getting out of bed each morning say, “Thank you, God, that I am alive again today. Thank you for my night’s rest. Thank you for the warm home I have.”
I woke up Friday morning with a headache and feeling overwhelmed by how much I had to do that day.
So, I laid in bed feeling my breath and thanking God that I could breathe, and then for our furnace that was keeping the room warm, and then for our dogs … and my attitudes began to change and worries lessened.
And before going to bed, take time to review your day and then lift up in prayer gratitude for specific things.
My experience, as well as a number of psychological studies, have shown that about six weeks of keeping a gratitude journal or a couple of months of specific prayer brings measurable change to our attitudes, health, and vitality.
In 2019, let’s begin by opening wide to experiencing all it has to offer and all the blessings – large and small – that come from God.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good” …
(all): His love endures forever.