As I mentioned last week, we are spending a little bit of time walking through some specific practices that will help us grow and deepen as a community. This comes on the heels of our conversations about membership and belonging and being the body of Christ. For these messages, I will be using the four practices that are identified in Christine Pohl’s excellent new book, Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us. This week’s focus: Gratitude as the cornerstone of a healthy community.
Every now and then a person rises to a certain level of prominence and seems to be more or less “destined” for a certain vocation. Other family members join in the pursuit, and before you know it, there’s a dynasty. And when that happens, people want to know how that family got into that position, and so the authors get busy. Waltz on over to Amazon.com and you can see Alfred I Du Pont: The Man and His Family, or The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family, or The Fords of Dearborn. Each of these books is written to tell you how a particular family came to prominence in their fields, and to give you insight into the ways that various family members contributed to – or detracted from – the enterprise.
The Bible has that, too. I Chronicles is basically a story – an inspired story, and an authoritative one, but a story nevertheless – about how David and his family went from the business of sheepherding to becoming the celebrated royal line of Israel. I Chronicles talks about how it is that this young man established his throne: his military decisions, his economic policies, the decision to build a capital, and the worship practices he instituted. David was making cabinet-level appointments. Joab was the secretary of the Army. Shallum was the chief gate-keeper – Homeland Security, if you will. Jehoshaphat was David’s chief of staff. One of the key decisions that David – a musician himself – made was to appoint a songleader named Asaph as worship leader. You heard a song – really, a psalm – that was written by Asaph a moment ago. Here are the verses that precede that psalm:
He appointed certain of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the Lord, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel. Asaph was the chief, and second to him Zechariah, Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, Obed-edom, and Jeiel, with harps and lyres; Asaph was to sound the cymbals, and the priests Benaiah and Jahaziel were to blow trumpets regularly, before the ark of the covenant of God.
Asaph’s job was to regularly call Israel to the practice of gratitude. We discover later in I Chronicles that Asaph remained on the job for more than four decades, writing psalms, leading worship, and every day calling people to give thanks to God.
Why, when setting up his empire, did David think it was so important to keep Asaph on the payroll? Because gratitude is the bedrock of community. When a people chooses to be grateful, and decides to embrace life as a gift, then that community is shaped and molded in specific ways. David – and the God whom he loved and served – knew that. And so Asaph and his colleagues, day in and day out, led the people of Israel in giving thanks.
Thousands of years later, the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was establishing a series of communities in Germany that would provide a glimpse of truth in the time of Hitler. When he laid down the rules for this community, he said this about being thankful:
Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we enter into that common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients…Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things…We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts…If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed…then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow…
We long for the experience of community. We want to know and be known. We desire friends and connections. We want to be a part of something larger than ourselves…and therefore, our first word ought to be one of gratitude and joy. Look at where we have been placed! Look at what we have to start with!
Now I understand – believe me, I understand! – that there are some days when we look around at the community we’ve been given and we sense that all is right with the world! There is an alleluia waiting to be shouted! I do not deserve this, I think, but it is a gift!
And, of course, there are days when we see challenges in the community and my friend in Christ is being a royal pain in the rear end. My instinct may still be to think that I don’t deserve this, but my inflection might be different… however, my first word can still be one of gratitude, because I have so much to work with!
Last week, we mentioned that we’d be taking an in depth look at four spiritual practices that sustain communities for the long haul. This morning, we want to consider the practice of gratitude.
In the life of community, some of that “remembering” is prior to our own experience. We, who were born at some point in the last century, are called to remember that God is a covenant keeper and a promise maker. We, who were not even born yet, can remember that God brought our ancestors through the desert and the sea. These memories, in which I am included, will give to me a sense of gratitude.
And there are, of course, many memories that are within our experience. Today, for instance, is a day of deep memory for me and for many of you. My daughter has come home after six months of traveling abroad. Our friends Kelly and Jason are getting married. How can we look at them this day and NOT remember times of shared joy? How can I look at them and NOT think of walking the dog or riding the boat or going on a mission trip together? And because we’re an honest community, we remember, too, times of pain and brokenness and failure – but even as we think about those deeply painful times, we affirm that God makes a way!
In our life together as a community, the first part of gratitude is remembering where we’ve been, who we are, and whose we are.
As we seek to be a community that practices gratitude, there are enemies in our midst. There are attitudes and behaviors that are as grave a threat to gratitude as kryptonite is to Superman.
One of these barriers to gratitude is the thought that we are all autonomous. The Greek roots of that word mean “self” and “law”. To say that we act in autonomy is to say that we each decide what is right, what is important, and what is worthy. One way of understanding how autonomy is an enemy of gratitude is to consider the number of people who believe that somehow they are “self-made” – that is, they didn’t come from anywhere, they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and that they alone determine their fate. The eminent theologian Bart Simpson championed this view when, as his family sat down for a meal and he was asked to say the blessing, he said, “Dear God, we paid for all this food ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” Bart is so convinced that he alone is responsible for his place in life that there is no room for the presence of God or the community.
Similar to the cancer of autonomy is the curse of entitlement. So often we fail to be grateful because we see the good things in our lives as our right, not as gifts. One of the defining moments of my life came in 1995 when I sat down for breakfast in the little village of Mangochi in the African nation of Malawi. Our host began the meal with prayer, and as he prayed, he said “Lord, we thank you that we have gotten through the night. Not one of us has died. And not only that, but there is food on the table and tea in the pot for us to drink. And not only that, but there are friends here to share these gifts. Our house is still standing, our family is still alive, and we have the promise of a new day. And we thank you for all these things.” Later that morning, I commented in awe to my wife: “Did you hear him? He prayed that prayer like he meant it!” And I realized that I had been stuck in a web of entitlement thinking – because every day I get out of bed thinking that I deserve to rise happy and healthy. I take for granted the fact that nobody is going to die in their sleep on Cumberland Street, and I better have food and tea, because, like Bart Simpson – I paid for it! What a gift that host gave me, as now I can approach each day with a realization that the things I receive, I am given. I am not entitled to them – I am blessed with them.
It’s not by accident, I think, that we are able to overcome these enemies of autonomy and entitlement in the presence of community – we participate fully in each other’s lives and we name the blessings that we see. In our corporate memory, we claim that we are formed by God’s blessing and giving, not solely by our own actions.
As we move forward, it seems important to emphasize that gratitude is a practice. It’s not simply a feeling that is engendered on Thanksgiving Day, or when we cry at a wedding. It is a concrete behavior that we can seek to cultivate. Let me close by offering three simple things that you can do to grow in your ability to practice gratitude.
First, be fully aware that each day is a small resurrection. You open your eyes on the bed and you have come back from the closest experience to death that you will ever have. For five, six, or eight hours, you have been unconscious and oblivious. You have not worked, or earned, or thought, or spent. You have lain there, helpless. And God brought you out of that. As your waking energy returns, you move from that world of passivity and rest into one of doing and making and feeding and touching. Before you leave the tomb of your bed – give thanks to God for seeing you through! As you arise to face the gifts and challenges of a new day, breathe a prayer of gratitude for the consciousness you enjoy. This day is a gift. You have come through! And you will be sent to places throughout this day that are in need of that conviction. Own it before you rise.
Secondly, in addition to expressing your gratitude to God for the gift of the day, make being grateful to others a key part of your day. Look for opportunities to name for others the ways that their behavior has been a help to you. When I was in college, a friend of mine would walk down to the campus mail center every day with three small envelopes. She would stuff them into the mailboxes of classmates. After seeing her do this for a couple of months, one day I found a little envelope in Geneva College box 149. And inside was a brief note from my friend, expressing her gratitude for a comment I’d made the previous day – a comment I’d forgotten overnight. But thirty years later, I remember that thank you. Because she practiced gratitude.
And thirdly, look for ways to speak directly to people about the ways that they have been agents of God’s grace in your life. So often, we hear amazing things about the people in our community at their funerals. What if you took the time to talk to the people who matter to you before they are dead? I thought about this recently when my friend Joe entered hospice care in another state. Some friends told me that time was short. At their encouragement, I sat down and wrote Joe a three-page letter thanking him for some lessons he had taught me. And I will confess – as I wrote that letter, I found myself thinking, “Do you know what? This would have been an awesome funeral sermon. These stories could bring down the house – in the best possible Christian way, of course.” But I didn’t preach a sermon about Joe to a room full of his friends after he died. I sent him a letter. And I was told that he received that letter as a blessing and a gift. Think about the people to whom you are close, and the things that you might want to say about them at their funerals. Now, look for a way to say that to them this week, and invite them into your gratitude.
Early in his ministry, Henry Nouwen went to South America for six months. He was unsure what he should do with his life, where God wanted him to be, and what job he should take. He thought that he was there to discover a plan. In fact, he never lived in South America again – but his entire life was shaped by that experience. He wrote in his journal,
What I claim as a right, my friends . . . received as a gift; what is obvious to me was a joyful surprise to them; what I take for granted, they celebrate in thanksgiving; what for me goes by unnoticed became for them a new occasion to say thanks.
And slowly I learned. I learned what I must have forgotten somewhere in my busy, well-planned, and very “useful” life. I learned that everything that is, is freely given by the God of love. All is grace. Light and water, shelter and food, work and free time, children, parents and grandparents, birth and death — it is all given to us. Why? So that we can say gracias, thanks: thanks to God, thanks to each other, thanks to all and everyone.
As we continue to experiment with this community known as the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, may we receive the gifts of God, and the people of God, with gratitude and thanksgiving. In so doing, we will become truer reflections of the One who called and who sends us in His name. Amen.
 I Chronicles 16:4-6 NRSV
 Life Together (Harper 1954), pp. 28-29.
 The Gospel According to the Simpsons, Mark Pinsky (WJK, 2001) p. 27.
 This term is used and defined more fully by Christine Pohl in Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2012) p. 51.
 Gracias! A Latin American Journal (Maryknoll Books, 1993) p. 187.