The "Oh, Yeah" ... of Gratitude

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached July 24, 2010 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Psalm 85: "The Lord will give what is good"
Luke 11:1-13: "Everyone who asks receives"
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Canadian born singer Alanis Morrisette burst onto the American music scene in the mid 90s with her album Jagged Little Pill, that featured several hits including "You Outta Know" and "Ironic." Something you may not know, in the late 80s Morrisette landed a spot on the talent show "Star Search" using the name Alanis Nadine, her first and middle names. She lost after one round - but went on to stardom anyway, winning 7 Grammy awards for her work.

Tonight's song came from her fourth album released in 1998. She wrote the song Thank U after a trip to India and is a reflection on how we should be grateful for even the hard times in our lives, because even the bumps in the road can bear amazing gifts.

Let's try it:

How 'bout getting off these antibiotics
How 'bout stopping eating when I'm full up
How 'bout them transparent dangling carrots
How 'bout that ever elusive kudo

[Chorus] Thank you India, thank you terror
Thank you disillusionment
Thank you frailty, thank you consequence
Thank you, thank you silence

As we begin tonight, I invite you to turn to someone nearby, look them in the eye, and say, "Thank you." Thank them from the bottom of your heart - make this a real "thank you."

Now, turn to someone nearby, look them in the eye, and say, "You're welcome." Again, do this sincerely - feel it!

Which one of those were easiest for you? Saying "thank you," or "you're welcome"?

For some people, saying thank you - being able to receive something with gratitude and graciousness, is difficult. That can be for many reasons. Some of us truly believe we're not worthy to receive good things. We feel we don't deserve it. Still others don't receive well because they suddenly feel obligated to the person giving them something. They think, "great, now I owe this person something." Even if the gift is given freely with no expectation of return, they feel indebted.

For those who find it difficult to say, "You're welcome," giving is difficult. They may feel they don't have anything of value to give and if someone says thank you - then they feel even more inadequate. They think the other person is just being polite, and they really didn't appreciate the gift. Still others may feel an obligation to give. They feel like if they don't give people will think less of them or not like them.

Giving and receiving - two things that should produce joy, instead produce so much anxiety within us. Why is that? Instead of being happy that someone thought of us, or enjoy the feeling of making others happy, we give and receive with suspicion. What does this person want? What is this person trying to get from me?

Tonight, we're exploring the "Oh, Yeah" ... of Gratitude and the only way to get to that "Oh, Yeah" is to stop being suspicious of the motivations behind giving and receiving - our motivations and the motivations of others - and simply open ourselves up to how the Holy moves in, through, and around the acts of giving and receiving.

That's a hard road - one the ancient Hebrews knew all about. They knew that God gave good things. They also knew they were capable of giving each other, and God, good things. Yet, they failed in so many spectacular ways in the exercise of giving and receiving.

In tonight's Psalm, this ancient, desert dwelling bard, was preparing his heart to receive - to receive God's steadfast love and faithfulness.

"Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts."

This sentence is an exercise in both receiving and giving. The psalmist anticipates a gift - the Lord will speak peace to her people. It's also an exercise in giving. In response to that peace, people will turn their hearts to God. The giving and receiving is intertwined here - God speaks peace and we turn our hearts to the Holy.

Which happens first? It's hard to tell - when we turn our hearts to the Holy, we get the gift of peace - we receive the gift of peace when we turn our hearts to the Holy. It's a cosmic dance of giving and receiving - of exchanging gifts with the Holy. We receive holy peace and say, "thank you," and the Holy says, "You're welcome." The Holy receives our open hearts and says "thank you," and we say, "you're welcome." Righteousness and peace kiss each other, and in our gratitude we say, "Oh, Yeah."

How 'bout me not blaming you for everything
How 'bout me enjoying the moment for once
How 'bout how good it feels to finally forgive you
How 'bout grieving it all one at a time

[Chorus] Thank you India, thank you terror
Thank you disillusionment
Thank you frailty, thank you consequence
Thank you, thank you silence

The moment I let go of it was the moment
I got more than I could handle
The moment I jumped off of it
Was the moment I touched down

"The Lord will give what is good ..." the psalmist assures his listeners. God is not about giving us bad stuff - and God's gifts come from pure motives - not because God insists we give something back, or that God expects if we receive we must give. Sometimes, it's just good to say, "thank you" and leave it at that. The reverse is also true - sometimes it's just good to give - to say "You're welcome," and leave it at that.

"The Lord will give what is good ..." If that's true, where does all the bad stuff come from? Ask the ancient Hebrews and they'll tell you - everything comes from God, the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Because what we consider "bad" can often be good in disguise. The pain we feel today may be our home tomorrow. The despair we feel today will give way to celebration.

In those moments we can say, "thank you terror, thank you disillusionment, thank you frailty, thank you consequence, thank you silence."

Have you given thanks for the crappy situations in your life? Have you given thanks when things go bad? Have you given thanks in the midst of your despair? If not, you're totally missing the point of the "Oh, Yeah" ... of gratitude.

Cultivating gratitude while you're sitting in the middle of life's dung heap is the key to being able to both give and receive with joy. In our book study, we're reading a book called 29 Gifts. The author, Cami Walker, suffers from Multiple Sclerosis - a nerve disease that often robs its victims of their mobility. She tells of the struggles she encountered - learning to walk again, problems with her eyesight and concentration. The disease forced her to quit a lucrative career and sent her into a spiral of depression. It was during her deep depression about the state of her life that a friend of hers suggested a new prescription: give away 29 gifts in 29 days.

Those gifts don't have to be huge - they can be as simple as opening a door for someone, helping a stranger or a friend, calling a friend you haven't connected with in awhile, anything that gets you out of yourself and shows concern for others. What counts is that you're giving intentionally - with no thought of receiving.

Cami's friend tells her: "Healing doesn't happen in a vacuum, but through our interaction with other people. By giving, you are focusing on what you have to offer others, inviting more abundance in your life. Giving of any kind is taking a positive action that begins the process of change. It will shift your energy for life."

Originally, Cami had the same reaction I did to this idea. I've got so many problems going on - who has time to give others? When we have so much on our own plates - things that need to be done, worries that need to tended to, problems that need to be solved, depression that needs our attention - who has time for anyone else?

This is also a tempting prescription to try to fake out the Holy. Whenever we hear people talk about "inviting more abundance" in your lives - we tend to start creating those ulterior motives. "Hey," we think, "if I give, I get." Even one of Cami's friends later in the book gets excited about the project because he figures he could use more money, so he'll start giving. This kind of thinking completely misses the point of giving and receiving. If our giving doesn't come from a deep place inside that does not expect anything in return, then our giving is not genuine - it has selfish motives. We can't fake God out - God knows our hearts and if giving isn't genuine, then what we receive in return will be just as fake.

But, we do receive every single time we give. We get a smile or a laugh. We get to see the utter delight and surprise we create in another human being. The moment we let go of expectation, we get more than we expect. The moment we step out and just give, is the moment we receive the gift of being able to say, "Oh, Yeah."

"The Lord will give what is good ..."

Breathe deeply.

How 'bout no longer being masochistic
How 'bout remembering your divinity
How 'bout unabashedly bawling your eyes out
How 'bout not equating death with stopping

Thank you India, Thank you providence
thank you disillusionment
Thank you nothingness, Thank you clarity
thank you, thank you silence

In 1980, sisters Vicki and Debbie Peterson formed a band with their friend Susanna Hoffs. After a few incarnations in their native Los Angeles, they emerged as The Bangles. They hit their peak in the mid-80's with such hits as Manic Monday and Walk Like an Egyptian. The song of theirs we're doing tonight is one you've probably never heard, however. It comes from their comeback CD called "Doll Revolution" that was released in 2003. The song is called "Grateful." Let's try it.

I carry you up in my arms,
Hear you sing yourself to sleep
The sky opens up over your room,
You sail into your moonlight dreams
There's so much more than we can see,
There's so much more than we can see

[Chorus] All we are and all we need is,
All we are and all we need is All we are is all we need to be,
Grateful, oh grateful,
Grateful, oh grateful

In our Jesus story, we find our guy teaching his disciples. They ask him how they should pray - and he teaches them that praying all about giving and receiving.

He said to them, "When you pray, say: "Father, hallowed be your name, Your kingdom come, Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.

Other gospel writers include the full prayer we know today, but this is Luke's stripped down version - and it's a road map for giving and receiving.

We start by giving, and anticipate receiving: "Father, hallowed by your name, Your kingdom come." We give God honor and glory - the name of the Holy is sacred, we wait to receive the gift of God's realm.

"Give us each day our daily bread." This is the only part of the prayer where we demand a gift from God - that God meet our daily needs. The next gift we ask for is also a biggie - "forgive our sins." But that receiving is followed by our commitment to give "for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us." To receive forgiveness, we must give it. There is no wiggle room here - we are forgiven because we have forgiven "everyone" who is indebted to us.

Finally, we ask for a big gift: "Do not bring us to the time of trial." We are begging God to keep us safe from strife, trouble, and temptation.

Prayer, Jesus tells his disciples, is not all about giving - instead, it's that cosmic dance with the Holy of giving and receiving. We ask to be blessed, but the Holy knows the best way to be blessed, is to be a blessing to others. The best way to be forgiven is to forgive.

Then, Jesus goes on to tell a curious story about going to a friend's house in the middle of the night to ask for food. Now, I have a rule about calling people late at night. I won't disturb people after 9 p.m., because I think it's rude to disturb people when they may be sleeping.

But, in his story, Jesus tells us to imagine that some guests have shown up unexpectedly and we need some food. So, we have to break our "after 9 p.m. rule" and go ask him for some bread. We do, indeed, disturb our neighbor and he tells us to go away.

But, we can't let our guests go hungry and the convenience store has - inconveniently - closed for the night. He's our only alternative. So we keep pounding. Finally, he gets up. He's annoyed with us, but he gives us what we want.

Some have interpreted this story to mean that we have to badger God in prayer to get the Holy to act on our behalf. Well, not really. The Greek word here translated as "persistence" has at its root the word that means "shameless." Instead of nagging God, what Jesus is telling us is that our prayers should be "shameless." We should have no shame when we go before God.

"Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find. Everyone who asks receives."

It doesn't say, however, that you receive exactly what you ask for. The contrast here is that while we may give to one another out of obligation or to get someone to go away and leave us alone - God gives to us because, as the psalmist told us: "The Lord will give what is good." What is "good" isn't always what we think it is or what we think we want. When our children ask us for food, we don't give them snakes and scorpions. We give them good gifts. So, too, "The Lord will give what is good," even if it's not what we asked for or expected. The Holy invites us to the cosmic dance of freely giving and freely receiving. And in our gratitude, we say, "Oh, Yeah."

I play this guitar, sing these songs
It changes me, instantly, Love is too simple a word
For here comes the sun in the morning,
Suddenly happiness
Comes rolling out from inside me

[Chorus] All we are and all we need is,
All we are and all we need is
All we are is all we need to be,
Grateful, oh grateful,
Grateful, oh grateful

So, let me ask you this: Without even giving it a second thought we utter the "Oh, Yeah" ... of gratitude whenever we get something our heart's desire. It just tumbles out of us: "Oh, Yeah!" But, do we say the "Oh, Yeah" ... of gratitude when we get what we need?

Does the appearance of our daily bread get an "Oh, Yeah" ... of gratitude? Does the rising sun each morning get an "Oh, Yeah" ... of gratitude? They say there are two ways to greet the day. You can either say, "Good morning, God," or "Good God, morning." Which one produces the "Oh, Yeah" ... of gratitude?

What about in our giving? It's easy to get that charged up "Oh, Yeah" when we're able to give people what they most desire. But can we also enjoy the "Oh, Yeah" of gratitude when we give people what they need? Are we excited to give people small gifts, like a smile, opening door for someone or actually forgiving them for past offenses against us? Even those mundane gifts to others should produce that ecstatic "Oh, Yeah" of gratitude.

Writer Cynthia Ozick has said, "We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude." What Jesus taught his disciples, what the psalmist sang about, was that the true "Oh, Yeah" ... of gratitude comes when we give thanks for all those things we take for granted ... the ability to walk, to talk, to breath, to sing, to dance, to love, to ability to give, and the ability to receive. As the Bangles tells us, gifts don't have to be extraordinary for us to be grateful because "all we are is all we need to be grateful." We have everything we need, right here, and right now that should elicit that "Oh, Yeah" of gratitude.

Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, writes about a Benedictine friend who is confined to a wheelchair. He says of prayer, "Often, all I can do is to ask God, 'Lord, what is it you want of me?'"

"From him," Norris writes, "I have learned that prayer is not asking for what you think you want but asking to be changed in ways you can't imagine. To be made more grateful, more able to see the good in what you have been given instead of always grieving for what might have been. People who are in the habit of praying ... know that when a prayer is answered, it is never in a way you expect."

Jubilants, if your prayers are not making you more grateful, then you're doing it wrong. If your prayers are not changing you in ways you can't imagine, you haven't learned the lesson Jesus was trying to teach his disciples. Prayer isn't about getting - prayer is about doing the divine dance of giving and receiving.

After a year of doing that cosmic dance with the divine, Cami Walker writes that she has learned "that my value as a person isn't measured by how much I accomplish. I've embraced that I am much more than the physical; the limitations multiple sclerosis imposes on my life do not stop me from living a purposeful life. I discovered that I have the power to touch other people and move them to action."

I invite you tonight to endeavor to learn that lesson for yourself. No matter your limitations, no matter your fears, no matter your excuses, your laziness or your feelings of inadequacy - you can live a purposeful life. Each one of you has the power to touch other people and move them to action. Each of us has a part in this cosmic dance and we don't know where our gifts may go or who may be called to action because of them. Remember, there's so much more going on here than we can see.

The key is to be just as grateful in our giving as we are in our receiving. If can do that then we'll be able to say thank you for even the terror in our lives, to say thank you for our frailty, for the consequence, for the disillusionment we all grapple with. We can be grateful in the midst of all of life's circumstances. No matter where you find yourself this week - in joy or sadness, in ease or challenge, in gladness or anger - I invite you to be shameless in your giving and receiving - and soon you'll be saying, "Oh, Yeah!"

I carry you up in my arms, Hear you sing yourself to sleep
The sky opens up over your room, You sail into your moonlight dreams
There's so much more than we can see, There's so much more than we can see

[Chorus] All we are and all we need is,
All we are and all we need is
All we are is all we need to be,
Grateful, oh grateful,
Grateful, oh grateful

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

Copyright by the author All Rights Reserved

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