The Heart of Gratitude

First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Calif.
Readings for Thanksgiving:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know the Lord is God! It is he that made us and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! For the Lord is good: his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let all know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)

Today’s scripture is a remarkable outburst of gratitude and joy. It is an appropriate passage for the Thanksgiving holiday, a time set aside to be grateful for the many blessings in our lives. A harvest festival is celebrated by many cultures as a way to give thanks for the bounties of the earth and our life. A time set aside for “Thanksgiving” reminds us of the importance of giving thanks for what we have been given.

Sometimes a simple thanksgiving ritual allows us to express things we otherwise may be reluctant to say. Perhaps the FCCB members noticed in last week’s Carillon the thanksgiving shared by parents and their junior and senior high students in last Sunday’s parent/youth meeting. Some words of thanksgiving were:

  • Thankful for increasing privileges and independence (that was a teen, not a parent, speaking);
  • thankful for having a personal chauffeur;
  • thankful for having parents reason rather than dictate;
  • thankful for times when parents can be light and silly;
  • thankful for a teenager’s wise and candid observations about life;
  • thankful to see a youth come into their own power.

You might make it a point to share with somebody something you appreciate about them. Give thanks. It’s a wonderful gift.

Let me say it again: giving thanks for people in our lives and for the many blessings of our lives is very important. It is good for our relationships. It is good for our soul. I don’t mean to slight this kind of thanksgiving at all. But when we read this passage from the letter to the Philippian church, Paul clearly refers to a radical shift of gratitude, a type of thanksgiving that has nothing to do with recollecting our blessings. “Rejoice in the Lord, always,” says Paul. A way of giving thanks: in the Lord and always.

Always. A friend of ours has cancer. It is malignant. He is given three to 18 months to live. He is not yet 50 and has a wife and two sons. Rejoice always?

We don’t hear Paul say, “for health and strength and daily food, we give you thanks, O Lord.” Paul makes no reference to the blessings we often speak of when we offer thanks — no mention of friends and family here. Usually we give thanks for something: I am thankful for good health, an education, a loving family, good friends, an autumn maple tree flaming red. We have been taught from childhood to “count our blessings,” to be grateful for what we have.

In contrast, Paul invites us to be grateful. Simply be grateful. It doesn’t mean we don’t rejoice in the blessings we can count, but that our sense of gratitude is not dependent upon these things.

“Rejoice in the Lord always.” With these words Paul helps us live into a different understanding of what gratitude is, of who God is and who we are.

If we give thanks only when we have scored the goal, received a raise, received a healthy grandchild, then we are in danger of turning God into a Santa Claus divinity. We give thanks to a God who bestows gifts. We receive a present: “Thanks, God!” Something goes wrong: “Why, God?” Our gratitude becomes conditional. We get, then give thanks.

Paul invites us to see God in a different way.

A friend of mine grew up on a farm in Montana. Every year, Santa would come for a visit. Every Christmas Eve, the younger children would huddle by the window and strain their eyes to the night sky to see if they could spot the sleigh and magical flying reindeer. They never saw the reindeer, but they always saw Santa, tromping through the snow from the barn with a sack full of presents. Every year Santa would burst through the door with a resounding “Ho! Ho! Ho!” The children would be in awe. Wow! Santa has come again!

“Mom, look! It’s Santa!” “Dad, look! Where’s Dad? Dad misses Santa every year! Mom, where did Dad go?” And every year, Mother would say, “He is in the barn, holding the reindeer for Santa.”

At a certain age, young Lance began to notice an uncommon likeness between Santa and his dad. But when he understood their shared identity, it was no great loss. After all, Santa only came once a year. His dad was with him every day.

This is what Paul communicates to us. God is not the one who comes occasionally, bearing gifts. Rather, God is the One who is with us at all times. “The Lord is near at hand,” says Paul. It is God’s very Presence, not merely God’s blessings, for which we give thanks. “God is here! Rejoice! Give thanks!” You have God with you every day, in all things. To be awake to the presence of God brings rejoicing and gratitude. It is of this gratitude that Paul speaks. “In the Lord and always.”

In this way, the invitation Paul extends is not so strange. God is no longer seen as the bearer of good gifts as a reward for good behavior, but as everywhere present. We are changed, for we no longer are merely happy for what we have, which is a precarious happiness. We notice within us a sense of an abiding joy that strengthens us in times of hardship and allows us to fully celebrate when times are bountiful. And our sense of gratitude changes, from being thankful for to simply being thankful. In this understanding, gratitude has nothing to do with things going right. It is about changing the object of gratitude from God’s blessing to God’s very presence.

Janet tells me often of the grammar lessons her English teacher father used to hold at the supper table. Frequently she and her sisters were asked to parse sentences spoken during dinner to reinforce their knowledge of the grammatical structure. She recalled an occasion when she was even asked to parse grace. “We thank you, God, for supper. Amen.” Pause. “Janet, parse that sentence.”

We = subject; thank = predicate; you, God = direct obj.; for = prep.; supper = ind. obj.

It occurs to me that Paul is teaching us a new theological grammar, wherein God is both the object and the indirect object. Thus the sentence that lies at the heart of gratitude would be: We thank you, God, for God.

That is enough. It is good to be thankful for. But that is not all. There is another way to be thankful — thankful for the presence of God. And with this sense of gratitude that exists without a why, without a reason, comes a strange sense of peace. Paul says it is a peace that passes understanding. A peace that goes beyond what we have. A calm that we cannot contrive. A stillness that we cannot shackle to our hearts. Perhaps it is the peace to which Jesus referred when he said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (Jn 14:27)

The peace that passes understanding depends upon nothing but trusting in the presence of God. Even when God appears to be absent, even when anxiety fills our hearts and peace is flung to the remote horizon, to live as if God is near is to give thanks. Perhaps living into this truth makes room for this truth.

The Lord is near at hand. Always. Rejoice. Always. In the Lord. Always. Give thanks. Always.