Developing the habit of gratitude ( A sermon from Ephesians 5:15-20)

Maybe you heard about this monastery where all the brothers took a disciplined vow of total silence. They were not ever to speak a word; their silence was their call to listen only to God. There was, however, one exception. Once every five years, they were allowed to speak two words to the Abbot who was the head of the order. A new monk arrived at the monastery to begin his service. After five years, he went into the Abbot’s office to speak his two words. He said, “Food bad!” He then got up from his chair and left. Five years later, he returned to speak again.  This time, his words were, “Bed hard!” And after still another five years, he returned for a third time. On his third visit he said, “Want out!”  “I’m not surprised,” said the Abbot. “All you’ve done since you’ve been here is complain.”

When we complain and grumble our words feed a growing spirit of ingratitude in our hearts that is indicative of our failure to see and discern God at work for our good in whatever situation or circumstance we may find ourselves. I doubt if a spiritual life is even possible without some measure of gratitude.

In our text, Paul or someone writing in the Pauline tradition, connects gratitude, giving thanks, to the filling of the Spirit. But the filling of the Spirit is not something that just comes upon us after we ask or pray for it. The biblical writer draws a contrast with intoxication. One doesn’t become intoxicated after one drink. It’s after several drinks. Choices are made that lead to intoxication. Choices that, in some instances, become habitual and addictive. When one is intoxicated one is under the control of the alcohol. When one is filled with the Spirit one is under the control of the Spirit. One comes under the control of the Spirit, however, not simply by asking for it, though asking is important. But it is also important to make the right choices – choices that become habitual. Gratitude is a blessing, both to the one who is grateful and to those who experience it in others, but it is a blessing that requires our diligent attention and effort. We make choices and develop patterns of thinking and reacting and relating that either nurture a life of gratitude or a life of complaining and grumbling.

Diana Butler Bass says that her first job out of graduate school was teaching theology and church history at a small Christian college in Santa Barbara, California. The college community, she says, expected a certain kind of conformity in regard to doctrine and personal piety that discomforted her. For four years she struggled not only with conflicting expectations of who they wanted her to be and who she was, but also with a hostile tenure committee. After a lengthy process of evaluation the president called her in his office. He said, “I’m going to have to let you go.” When she asked why, he assured her that it wasn’t her teaching and he thought she was an excellent teacher, but he said, “You just don’t fit here.” He went on to say, “This wouldn’t be a good place for you. One day you will thank me for this.” “Thank him?,” she thought. She wanted to throttle him. In less than two months, she would be without a job and a paycheck, with few prospects for work in a weak academic job market.

A week or so later she was telling a friend about this exchange and she said, “Can you believe the nerve of him saying that I would thank him for letting me go?” She expected her friend to rush to her defense. Instead he said, “You know, he’s right.” He said, “Years ago I lost a job. It was painful, and I was angry. It didn’t seem like a favor. But eventually it was the event that made me understand I was an alcoholic. And that led me to get sober. Eventually, I understood that it was what I needed for my life to change. Not that it was easy.” She retorted, “But I’m not an alcoholic.” He said, “I get that, but we all need to look at ourselves more honestly. To figure out who we are and where we are really heading. To correct course. Sometimes that only happens in circumstances like this. One day, I bet you will thank him.” He told Diana that he wasn’t able to thank the one who fired him right away, but eventually he could thank him, later in life, after he learned gratitude.

Diana said to him, “You learned gratitude. Isn’t gratitude just a feeling? How do you learn that?” He asked her to name one thing she was grateful for. He told her to do that every day, and to write it down in a journal. Diana decided to follow her friend’s advice. She wrote down one blessing each day, no matter what, even though some days it wasn’t easy.

Diana says that as the months passed she noticed that the balance began to shift. Sometimes she wrote down two or three blessings. There were days of outright surprise and joy, appreciation for simple pleasures, for the kindness of others, for the richness of life. This was no magic bullet, of course, but over a three year period of developing this habitual practice of giving thanks her perspective shifted. She learned to look at life differently, in ways that formed her into a more forgiving and hopeful person. She says that she learned two really important things. One, she discovered that when she intentionally looked for things to be grateful for she found them. Two, she also discovered that gratitude expands as you practice it – that gratitude begets more gratitude. The lesson for us is to be intentional about practicing and expressing gratitude.

Gratitude takes practice. I think this is what the biblical writer is getting at when he talks about singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs from the heart. He is calling on us to develop some sort of practice or discipline that cultivates the grace of gratitude. It may be singing or composing music, or writing poetry, or keeping a journal, or simply doing something you love or enjoy, and expressing thanks for getting to do it.

Sometimes we have experiences that help us to nurture this habit. That help shift our perspective. Not long after I came here as pastor I attended a Kentucky Council of Churches event in Owensboro, Kentucky hosted by Third Baptist Church. The main meeting, the center of attention was focused on our worship service Saturday night. A guest speaker we all looked forward to hearing was on the program. It was a day of heavy thunderstorms, all afternoon into the evening the tornado siren had been going off. In fact, it had sounded so many times that people were simply ignoring it. I was in Wendy’s eating dinner and the siren went off. I guess that was about the fourth time. Nobody budged. So I didn’t either. Later that evening at Third Baptist we were well into the program when the siren went off again. We continued with our program for about five minutes, the siren continuing to sound. Then the pastor of the church who had went out when the siren started, came in and said that we needed to move downstairs. I remember walking next to a lady on the way out of the sanctuary who said, “I think we should stay right here.” I guess about five minutes later, after we had all moved downstairs to wait, suddenly the building shook, the lights went out, and dust filled the air. The dust was so thick we had to get out of the building. Outside, some cars had been moved around, a couple were upside down. That ended our meeting. The next day I went by the church on my way out of town. I knew the pastor. He showed me the sanctuary, where we had been just before the tornado touched down. It was a direct hit on the sanctuary. Ruble everywhere. Overtop where I had been seated there was a massive hole in the sealing, and debris was piled up fifteen feet high. There had been a huge pillar in the back of the sanctuary where I had been seated. That pillar was completely gone. Had we remained in the sanctuary five more minutes I would not be here today, and I suspect most of us in that sanctuary would not be here today. All of us in that sanctuary had a brush with death. As I drove home the next day that experience had a profound effect on my shift in perspective – in the way I viewed life. I was grateful to be alive.

Brother David Steindl-Rast says, “Everything is gratuitous, everything is gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is the measure of our gratefulness.” Sometimes an experience, a sudden brush with death, a new lease on life after a long battle with a life threatening illness like cancer, can open our eyes and jar us awake to the gratuity of life. Developing the habit of gratitude calls us to see life more generously, graciously, and forgivingly. It involves being mindful of the value of life and being able to assess experiences and relationships in the proper perspective.

Robert Fulghum wrote about the time, just out of college, when he worked at a resort in northern California. The job was a combination of night desk clerk in the lodge and helping out with the horse-wrangling at the stables. The owner was Italian-Swiss with European notions about conditions of employment. Fulghum regarded the owner as a fascist who wanted peasant employees, and the owner considered Fulghum a good example of how democracy could be carried too far.

One week the employees had been served the same thing for lunch every single day. Two wieners, a mound of sauerkraut, and stale rolls. And the cost of the meals was deducted from their check. Well, Fulghum was outraged. One night he unloaded on the night auditor, Sigmund Wollman. Fulghum went on and on about how he was tired of it.  Fulghum says to Sigmund Wollman: “I am sick and tired of this crap and insulted and nobody is going to make me eat wieners and sauerkraut for a whole week and make me pay for it, and who does he think he is anyhow, and how can life be sustained on wieners and sauerkraut, and this is un-American, and I don’t like wieners and sauerkraut enough to eat it one day for God’s sake, and the whole hotel stinks anyhow, and the horses are all nags and the guests are all idiots and I’m packing my bags and heading for Montana where they never even heard of wieners and sauerkraut and wouldn’t feed that stuff to pigs.”

Fulghum raved on for twenty minutes or so. As Fulghum pitched his fit, Sigmund Wollman sat quietly on his stool,  watching him with sorrowful eyes. Wollman had good reason to be sorrowful. He was a three year survivor of Auschwitz. A German Jew. He liked his night job, liked being alone, gave him space and quiet. In the death camp he dreamed of such a time.

He let Fulghum wind down and then he said: “Fulghum, you think you know everything, but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire—then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy. Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems. You will live longer. And will not annoy people like me so much.” And then in a gesture that combined dismissal and blessing he waved Fulghum off to bed. “Good night,” Fulghum. Fulghum says that Wollman simultaneously kicked his butt and opened a window in his mind. And you know sisters and brothers, that’s really the key to developing the habit of gratitude, or for that matter, any kind of spiritual growth – opening a window in the mind. A window that let’s new light in, new grace, new perspective, new understanding in.

This is all part of living wisely. The biblical writer says, “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people do, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” There is plenty of injustice, corruption, and evil in the world. But that’s no excuse for not being grateful. If we, God’s sons and daughters, are to become what we already are, if we are to live into our identity and calling as God’s children, then we must do whatever it takes to nurture a spirit of gratitude in our lives.

Maya Angelou put it this way: “If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present . . . gratefully.    

There is a wonderful story about a monk who was away from the monastery in a desolate place where a hungry tiger took notice of him walking along the path. The monk spotted the tiger in the distance and could tell he was in danger so he began to run. He found himself at the edge of a cliff with the tiger not far behind. He could see a rope dangling from the side that someone had used to shimmy down the side, so he leaped over the edge and latched hold of the rope just as the tiger’s ferocious claws whipped past his face. As he started to make his way down, he soon discovered that the rope only went about half way and at the bottom lay a quarry with large, jagged rocks. As he hung there suspended between the tiger above and the sharp rocks below he observed two mice about ten feet above him nibbling at the rope. Just then as he turned to his side he spotted directly in front of him the largest, most beautiful strawberry he had ever seen. He plucked it, turned it around slowly in his hand admiring it, he lifted it gently to his nose taking in the aroma, then he lifted it bit into it, savoring its sweet taste. He remarked to himself, “Undoubtedly this is the best strawberry I have ever tasted.” And he gave thanks to God for that special blessing.

How many of us would be able to enjoy and be grateful for the strawberry? Maybe that’s what being filled with the Sprit looks like. The wisest thing we can do is live joyfully and gratefully in the here and now.  

Good God, help us to forget and forgive the past. And not to worry and be anxious over what’s ahead. Help us to open a window in our mind and heart, so the Spirit can shape our perspective. Give us grace to see the grace in life, to see all life as a gift, and to be grateful in this present moment. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.


Popular posts from this blog

Fruits of Joy (a sermon from Luke 3:7-18)

Toxic Christianity in The Shawshank Redemption

The mythology of the demonic in individuals, institutions, and societies (Key text: Mark 1:12-15, 21-28)