Cultivating Gratitude

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, October 13, 2013

Philippians 4:4-9

I would challenge anyone to find a more beautiful commute to work than I have. These gorgeous autumn days greet me under a shimmering, golden canopy as I walk to church along Wellington Cres. boulevard and past the towering trees on Lanark. I usually go inward when I walk, intensely processing and mulling over the latest happenings. My neighbour jokes that he can tell it’s me from a long ways away because of my hunched over, head-drooped profile. But these days, the autumn blaze pulls me out of myself and up into its stunning beauty. I must look a little odd, because a smile begins to form, all on its accord, as the sparkling brilliance seeps inside. When I arrive at work, I feel rejuvenated, happy, grateful for the ability to stroll through God’s painted landscape every day.

The feeling of gratitude does not come easily to most of us, but when you do feel it, it brings such joy and lightness of being. Why, then, is a sense of gratitude so fleeting, so easily ensconced in worries and fears?

Part of it is due to genetics—some are naturally predisposed to carry life a little more lightly. But if we left it there, we would give into fate, into karma, even into a particular interpretation of predestination. If we believe that some are simply more grateful, more optimistic than others; if we believe that that’s simply how we have been created and predestined to be, how we live out our fate, we would lose sight of the Christian gospel of hope and transformation; of rebirth and renewal.

I believe that we are all called to cultivate a spirit of gratitude, even for those who are naturally a little more pessimistic, a little more of a worrier. We need to intentionally practice an attitude of gratitude as a spiritual discipline. The more we tend to it, weed out uncharitable thoughts, and fertilize it with inspirations of beauty and goodness, the greater will be our harvest of peace—both inner and outer.

That’s the promise of the passage from Philippians. Listen to part of it again from a modern paraphrase: “you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”[1] I’m having visions of Julie Andrews singing “My Favourite Things.” But it’s not as simple as that.

This grateful state of being doesn’t just happen—it takes years and years of wilful discipline. It may well be the foundation of all that we, as Christians, are called to be. Meister Eckhard, a German Dominican mystic living around 1300, wrote that if the only prayer we ever pray is “Thank you,” that will be enough. If I dare expand on Meister Eckhard, I would add that “Thank you” needs to expressed inwardly to God and outwardly to others.

I am a chronic complainer. My partner will readily agree with my self-assessment. I don’t like it. When I complain, I create an aura of negativity that permeates me and all of those who dare encroach on my dusty bubble—much like that of Pigpen in Charlie Brown’s comic strip.

 

Last night was a good example. We’ve had a mouse problem in our house ever since we moved in. This last year seems to have been the worst yet and I declared war. Poulin’s has become a constant companion. We’ve patched up holes in our walls, made sure all of our food, garbage and compost is inaccessible to our furry friends and set out the dreaded poison. I finally thought we had won, until last night when we saw 3 mice run across the floor, one just by my toe. Nancy would prefer to think that it’s just one little mouse making 3 appearances. My dark, pigpen cloud began to settle around me as I found myself slipping into despair. It took Nancy quite a bit of convincing for me to finally put my misery into some perspective. My life is really quite good. At least I have a house, even if it’s shared with more creatures than I would like.

Apart from last night, I really am trying to be more aware of the positives in my life and give thanks audibly to those around me. I have been surprised what a difference a simple thank you to waiters, or cashiers or bus drivers can make. As I leave them with a smile, I find that I, too, have a greater sense of contentment.

As we feast on the senses enlivened by autumn and the abundance of our thanksgiving tables, I invite you to give thanks, audibly, with your family and friends, for all of the gifts that God has given us. Some families have a tradition of inviting everyone sitting around the Thanksgiving Day table to say one thing for which they are grateful.

I also invite you to cultivate a spirit of gratitude when things aren’t going so well.

Anna endured the horrors of slavery. Upon her emancipation, she found a job working for the family of the American writer Fulton Oursler. When Fulton was a small child, he watched Anna fold her hands in prayer at the kichen table and say, “Much obliged, Lord, for my vittles’.” “What are vittles?” asked Fulton. “Food and drink,” replied Anna. “But you’ll get that whether or not you give thanks,” Fulton countered. “Yes,” Anna agreed, “but they taste better when we’re thankful.”

Anna then told little Fulton that she once heard her minister say that we always need to look for things for which we can be grateful. After that message, every day when she woke up, she’d ask herself, “What’s the first thing I can be grateful for today?” Sometimes it would simply be the aroma of freshly-perked coffee, “Much obliged, Lord, for the coffee. And much obliged, too, for the smell of it.”

Many years later, after Fulton had long left home, he heard that Anna was dying and he hurried home. When he entered her room, her bed was surrounded by friends. She lay there, with her hands folded and eyes closed, as if in prayer. Fulton wondered what she could possibly be thankful for in her last few painful moments. As if she read his mind, she opened her eyes, looked at everyone around her bed and then closed them again. “Much obliged, Lord, for such fine friends.”

Fulton was forever touched by Anna’s ability to be thankful, no matter what befell her. He realized that she had taught him how to be content.[2]

[1] Philippians 4:8-9 from The Message.