Thanks be to God! Dave Rogalsky
Part of series: Lectionary Year A, Pentecost 19, October 8, 2017, Thanksgiving Sunday
Scriptures: (not lectionary) Ephesians 5:18b-20; Philippians 4:4-9; Colossians 3:12-17; Colossians 4:2; 1 Timothy 4:4-5; 1 Timothy 6:6-8
Theme: To think about thanksgiving as a spiritual discipline.
Thanksgiving, gratitude, praise, celebration, contentment, pleasure, appreciation, enjoyment – Thanksgiving Sunday! The day we set aside as a country to be thankful. As many of our songs today point out this began as a Thanksgiving harvest festival. When the crops are in and the fields prepared for the year to come, when the food is plentiful and the storehouses full, then we can relax and rest and thank God for another season of enough. But life is always a mixture of joy and sorrow. What do we do when the crops are meagre and the storehouses not full? What do we do when life is mixed and grief threatens to overwhelm joy? Today we’re looking at thanksgiving as a spiritual discipline, a tool in God’s hands to grow us.
In January 1981 I was in my final semester of my Bachelor’s degrees at Mennonite Brethren Bible College and at the University of Winnipeg where I was attending. The College had a tradition of having a series of “Deeper Life” meetings or services in January, as did many Mennonite Brethren and other churches. The beginning of the year, and time for some spiritual input to help for the year to come.
I don’t know whose idea it was but that year the College brought in Richard Foster. Though I was busy finishing two degrees in two different schools, I went along with Annemarie. Unbeknown to us, Foster had written Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth in 1978. He was about to publish Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World (1981), and had brought the manuscript along to read from in support of his presentations.
Foster is an American Quaker. His goal was to renew the spirituality of materialistic, Western Christians through a renewal of the use of ancient spiritual disciplines like meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance and celebration – twelve in total. Spiritual disciplines are practices that we can use to help us to draw near to God. They aren’t magic – doing them does not ensure God will come to our call. But spirituality isn’t without practice and work either. Spiritual disciplines are like climbing onto the operating table. We make the effort, but there is still a physician who will make the decisions about what happens there. The spiritual life is neither a legalism – you get close to God through obedience to the rules; nor is it a free-for-all – no effort necessary. Spiritual disciplines are tools to help us to draw near to God, to help us to hear, to notice, to feel, to be mindful. Foster used the image of walking down a knife-back ridge between two mountain peaks. On one side is the cliff of legalism. On the other side is the cliff of ennui, no effort, no rules. As followers of God we try to walk the rough and difficult path between those two precipices. It’s hard work, but exhilarating as we are on an adventure with God. We will fall or get too close to one edge or the other from time to time. God knows that, and is gracious, and will help us back onto the ‘straight and narrow’ path.
Foster divided his twelve disciplines into three sections: inward disciplines – ones we do alone with God, usually even in some form of secrecy; outward disciplines – ones we do that others will see; and corporate disciplines – ones we do with, and sometimes to others. The last of these is celebration. Celebration is the corporate discipline of rejoicing, of thanking, of expressing contentment. I think that along with this outward, corporate discipline, for which we have set aside this day and weekend, are the outward discipline of thanking others and God, and the inward discipline of gratitude.
You can tell this was an important theme in the New Testament. We read and used a variety of passages from what scholars call the “household rules” sections of various letters. Since the church was often called “the household of God” in New Testament times (see Ephesians 2:19, 1 Timothy 3:15, 1 Peter 4:17), people who study them isolate sections that seem to be rules for living in the household. These lists have all kinds of practical advice for how to live together, worship, tell the stories of Jesus, and so on. From how often it is mentioned, thankfulness is obviously important.
Most people would agree that in a household being grateful, saying thank you, and celebrating together are good things to be and do. With children we try to teach them to say please and thank you in order to teach them manners, to oil relationships, to grow gratitude in them. Children are naturally narcissistic, thinking first of themselves. This is normal and good developmental psychology. But we want them to grow up into generous, empathic, serving adults, so we remind them of the magic words – please and thank you. We are telling them that there is a rule of thankfulness, even when they may not feel gratitude. I mean, of course you are going to give them food. Why should they be thankful? It’s your responsibility and their need, isn’t it? But we know that saying thank you leads to feeling grateful so we insist. We are walking that razor back ridge with them, telling them that there is a practice that needs to be done. Children can quickly learn that this oil can be used to their advantage. “’Pretty please, with sugar on top’ may I have some more dessert?” “Thank you so much for this gift” wink-wink, nudge-nudge “I’d like more . . .” Gratitude has slipped from the no-rule side to the legalism. Legalism is using a good thing to try to get your own way, or to stave off a negative thing. We train children to say the words, hoping they will develop gratitude.
A number of years ago I found myself focussed on the negative side of life. It was probably a low-grade depression coming from a pastoral placement that wasn’t the best fit anymore. It had started well and was still going well, but it was asking of me things that were not my strength. In a session of spiritual direction I brought this up. The director wondered about seeing only the negative. “Did not God give good gifts from time to time?” Rationally I knew this to be true – God gives good gifts all the time. Immediately I thought that I would, at least temporarily, add a gratitude time to my daily spiritual practice. I entitled it “Count your blessings” from the old 19th century hymn by Johnson Oatman, Jr.:
When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
*Count your many blessings, see what God has done.
[*And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.]
Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, every doubt will fly,
And you will keep singing as the days go by.
When you look at others with their lands and gold,
Think that Christ has promised you His wealth untold;
Count your many blessings—*money cannot buy [*wealth can never buy]
Your reward in heaven, nor your home on high.
So, amid the conflict whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged, God is over all;
Count your many blessings, angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.1
For four years now I have had a regular practice of writing down things for which I am thankful. It doesn’t mean I don’t get depressed anymore, but it helps me to refocus and remember that life is always a mixture of joy and sorrow. Psychology today writes in an online article “The Benefits of Gratitude”:
Gratitude is an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has—as opposed to, for example, a consumer-driven emphasis on what one wants. Gratitude is getting a great deal of attention as a facet of positive psychology: Studies show that we can deliberately cultivate gratitude, and can increase our well-being and happiness by doing so. In addition, gratefulness—and especially expression of it to others—is associated with increased energy, optimism, and empathy.2
Gratitude leads to thankfulness which leads to celebrations together when we appreciate what God has done. Our ancestors knew this in their bones as they brought in the harvest. In spite of contrary weather, insects, disease, exhaustion, the crop came in and there was food.
There used to be a winery near Beamsville called Crown Bench. I still have a few bottles from it in my cellar. The owners were Jewish and their crest had on it a verse from . Leviticus 26:42. God said to the Jews:
42 then will I remember my covenant with Jacob; I will remember also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. Leviticus 26:42 (NRSV)
And on the wall was a plaque with Hebrew words:
14 God will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; Deuteronomy 11:14 (NRSV)
The owner explained to me that it is counter-intuitive to expect good harvests of all three of grain, wine and oil. When the grain wants rain, the wine want’s sun. When the olive wants sun, the wine wants rain. That these crops come in every year is a gift from God.
To set aside a weekend or a day and call it Thanksgiving is a spiritual discipline. We might not be feeling thankful. We may in fact be exhausted from preparation and worry. Or it might be that the people coming aren’t exactly gratitude producing. Celebrating anyway is a discipline God can use to grow gratitude in us.
It might be that gratitude wells up in us and we thank and celebrate. Or it might be that we know we should be thankful and so we begin to list the many good things in our lives and it leads to gratitude and celebration. Or it might be that we are at the celebration, looking down the table of friends and family, food and drink, conversations and eating, and then gratitude wells up in us and we thank God.
At our celebration later today we’ll pause between main course and dessert and go around the table telling each other our thanksgivings.
The story is told of a visitor to Jerusalem. Early in the morning he walked in the old city, coming to the Wailing Wall, the foundation of the ancient temple. He stood and thought and prayed. In time, he saw another man come and stand by the wall, rocking back and forth as he prayed. The visitor watched quietly until the man finished and turned. “Come with me,” said the second man, “I have a celebration.” Together they went for sweet tea and warm bread.
The visitor repeated this the next day, and so did the other man. Day after day it repeated to the astonishment of the visitor. The man from Jerusalem never described what he was celebrating so finally the visitor asked, “What are you celebrating today? You seem to have many things to celebrate.” “Just one,” said the man from Jerusalem. “I was in Auschwitz and survived. Every day is a celebration of God’s goodness to me. I could become bitter at all I lost, but instead, each day I have a celebration.”