Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
I have a friend who calls this ‘the most beautifully named holiday of the year.’ And I think he is right, there is nothing more beautiful than gratitude. Martin Luther called gratitude “the most basic of Christian attitudes”. The ability to truly give thanks is something that we are all called to do. Eucharist, the sacrament we partake in every Sunday, means “thanksgiving”. Gratitude is an integral part of being a Christian. And it is the foundation of Joy, in fact you cannot even have joy without gratitude. And gratitude can be a true source of strength for us as we face a world that can, at times, be rather unforgiving. That being said, I am a little embarrassed to confess that this is not something I have always fully understood.
You see, I can be rather similar to those people who followed after Jesus in today’s Gospel. They ate, and their stomachs were filled, but they still felt empty, they wanted more. Just one more sign, and then I will believe, just one more miracle and I will follow you anywhere. I get that. I can be rather distrusting, always wanting a little more certainty before I invest too much of myself. It is a default mode of mine, a defense mechanism, I am always hesitant to get too excited, be too happy, fall too much in love. Any time I have a sense of wonder at the world it always comes with a reminder of my own mortality. ‘Never get too attached’ my mind says, ‘it won’t last.’ I lived like this for a long time, I put walls up around Joy, I avoided vulnerability, never let myself rejoice too much for fear of getting hurt. Of course I often felt like something was missing, like a part of me was being hollowed out, or was slowly wearing away with time, and I never really ever felt full, or satisfied. But one learns to live with it and focus on other things. And even though I knew it was not the best way to live, I didn’t really know how to change it.
Paul, on the other hand, he got it, he understood what he needed to do, and he encouraged the Philippians to do the same.
Rejoice in the Lord Always, again I say rejoice!
Paul knew better than most how hard it could be to be joyful always. He wrote these words from the confines of a prison cell and he was not at all certain if he would ever see freedom again. Yet despite the suffering he endured, and the potential execution hanging over his head, he still knew joy and urged others to rejoice as well. Paul understood, Paul knew what it meant when Jesus said “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Paul believed, had full confidence in Christ. And even in the midst of suffering he was thankful to God, thankful for Christ’s work in the world, Christ’s defeat of death. He was thankful for a God who loved us enough to be present in the world in such a truly tangible way. He was fed by that gratitude, and he was able to rejoice in God no matter what the circumstances.
So for the longest time I found it rather difficult to relate to Paul when he talked about joy. When he talked about being strong, that I understood, but joy…
Then one day I heard an interview with Dr. Brene Brown, a sociologist and researcher who’s main work was studying vulnerability. Anyway, in this interview she called “Joy the most terrifying and difficult of emotions.” Then she talked about something that she liked to call, ‘foreboding joy’. That is a reaction we have to joy, it is when we start to think about all the bad things that can happen. Joy brings with it vulnerability, and for many of us vulnerability truly is terrifying. So in order to stem any feelings of vulnerability, “we try to beat vulnerability to the punch” by preparing for something bad to happen instead.
‘ Yes!’ I thought, ‘that is me, I do that.’ But then she went on to say that some people don’t do that. Some people, when faced with joy, that oh so delicate of emotions, instead of reacting in fear, they react in gratitude. Instead of thinking of what horrible things might happen to come and take this joy away from them, they think of how grateful they are to have that moment of joy at all. They lean into Joy rather than away from it.
I used to think that if God could just make me joyful then I would be more grateful, but you see, I had it backwards. Gratitude is something that can be practiced, and not just on days like today, and not just for big things, but for everything. Gratitude is what we need for joy to take root in us. When I looked at today’s epistle, I thought to myself, ‘well look at that, it’s all right here’ “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Don’t let worries of ‘what may be’ plague you, but focus on the things you are thankful for. And learn to be thankful to God for everything.
Studies have proven the life changing ability of practicing gratitude. Researchers have determined that all it takes is writing down three things a day you are grateful for, no matter how small, before you see real changes in your outlook on life. And when you start to do this, it doesn’t take long before you start looking for things to be grateful for. It doesn’t take long for your world view to change as well. People who took part in that study showed an increase in charitableness, and happiness and became less worried about material things, they felt more satisfied with their lives as a whole.
Paul obviously knew all this, Jesus definitely understood the power of being thankful, and the saints- it is clear that so many of them just ‘got it’. But it took me reading about these studies, hearing Brene Brown speak before I was able to put things in their proper order
If being generally thankful only three times a day can be so life changing, so joy educing. Can you imagine what it would be like if we were thankful to God all the time? I can, and it is something I would truly love to see.