Each year we have a special Thanksgiving worship service. Pastor Roger gives a brief sermon and then members of our church are invited to share what they are grateful for in their own lives.
Roger begins his sermon with a reference to the California fires and the nearby mass shooting.
A Habit of the Soul
The tragedies of the past couple of weeks have stirred anxiety.
The shooting in Thousand Oaks – which by the way was the 307th mass shooting of 2018 (defined as the shooting of four or more people, excluding the gunman).
The escalating chaos of politics, including the 22% increase in hate crimes since the 2016 elections.
And, of course, the unprecedented California fires.
These tragedies jolted me into taking stock of all that is right in my life.
I am 71 years old and woke up this morning feeling pretty good. I have a lovely home and a wonderful family. I have this congregation.
Tragedy can wake us up to be thankful for what we’ve been taking for granted.
But there is a deeper level of thankfulness – a gratitude that is an orientation to life, a gratitude that can become the ongoing state of our soul.
It has been so exciting to see Janette’s grandson, Leonardo.
He’s a beautiful child. Like most babies, every time he’s carried into a new room or sees a new person, he’s like, “Wow! Look at this!”
For Leonardo, everything is new, fresh and amazing.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel famously wrote, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. …get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
When we are fully awake, we can’t help but be amazed at everything around us – we discover ourselves drenched in blessings that are flowing from God.
But over time, we increasingly take it all for granted and instead of celebrating, we settle for being amused, entertained or just getting through the day.
Those are passive states – often half-alive states.
On the other hand, gratitude is an active state charged by reverence for the Creator and rediscovering the joy of our life.
There was a cattle ranch in the town where I was raised, and even though they had extensive fencing, from time to time a bull would end up on the road.
What happened is that he’d be nibbling on tufts of grass in the field, moving from one tuft to the next, eventually ending up at some grass next to the fence.
Then, noticing a nice clump of green on the other side of the fence, he’d stumble through an old tear in the barbed wire and find himself outside on the highway.
You see, bulls don’t intend to get lost, they just nibble their way to lostness.
In the same way, our amazement and gratitude for life slowly erode.
Mike Yaconelli writes, “The death of the soul is never quick. It is a slow dying, a succession of little deaths that continues until we wake up one day on the edge of God’s voice, on the fringe of God’s belovedness, beyond the adventure of God’s claim on our lives.”
The invitation of Thanksgiving is that it can be a conscious turning point, a moment when we choose to reverse our drift to dullness and to turn toward a refreshed experience of life.
Menachem Mendel Morgensztern was a Hasidic rabbi in Poland whose teachings have endured for nearly two centuries
In one lesson he asked some learned men, “Where does God dwell?”
They laughed when they heard the question, saying, “What a thing to ask! Is it not written, ‘The whole world is full of His glory’?”
But the Rabbi had a different answer.
He replied to his own question: “God dwells wherever humans let Him in.”
Thanksgiving asks the question: Will you let God in?
Developing an attitude of gratitude is a decision, that also requires some practice and discipline … the discipline of simple exercises of recognizing and acknowledging things for which we are grateful.
A recent Harvard University study by researcher Shawn Achor found that subjects who every day wrote down three things for which they were grateful showed significantly new levels of optimism within 21 days.
That’s impressive, but even more impressive is that much of their new optimism held for the next six months.
Which isn’t surprising given an Indiana University study in which researcher Prathik Kini had subjects do similar exercises and compared their brain scans to a control group.
Brain activity was observably different immediately after doing gratitude exercises, but researchers then found that their brain scans remained different even months after the exercises ended.
Body, mind, spirit are one … and we can rewire our brains to awaken to the grace of life – to live in radical amazement – and thereby become more intimately attuned to the presence of God.
This deep gratitude goes beyond just being thankful that we were spared by the fire, or that this biopsy was better than the last.
Now we’re talking about a deep gratitude that comes from orienting our whole being toward the blessings all around us, even the miracle of each breath.
This is a spiritual practice.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes,
“To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives—the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections—that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say ‘thank you’ to all that has brought us to the present moment.
“As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.”
This kind of gratitude nurtures the soul, and it must be cultivated.
This kind of gratitude cannot be held in, it needs to be shared.
The 13th-century Dominican priest Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.”
Today, we give you the opportunity to speak that gratitude to your church family.
This is a safe space, where we can share authentically, emotionally and vulnerably.