Are you finding it a bit of a challenge to feel grateful right now? If so, you’re not alone. Daily the headlines remind us that things are continuing to worsen in our nation—the virus is spreading, the economy is struggling, people are losing their jobs across all industries, there may be a tsunami of evictions soon sweeping our country—and that’s just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg, not to mention the unthinkable loss of life, the impact on families, the fear and uncertainty we all feel.
And it’s not only the world “out there” that’s got us down. We may be carrying real concerns in our hearts for loved ones who are struggling in our own families—or maybe we’re struggling ourselves, with illness, with injury, addiction, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and more. It can be hard to imagine when and how things will all get better, when we can relax a bit and let go of the continual alarm, the constant stress.
I’m sorry to start our message today in such a discouraging way, but this precise emotional point is where many of us find ourselves just now. This is the reality of the day, what the time and climate is asking of us. And speaking the truth about that—and supporting one another as we walk through it—is an important and healthy first step toward hope and healing.
Speaking the truth about our pain and struggle is an important part of living openly and authentically through a time of trial. Speaking truth opens our minds and hearts to what we’re truly carrying, and it opens us up to each other, where we can feel supported and understood. And on a bigger and deeper and more important scale, being open, being honest about what we’re going through takes away our pretending and our tendency to “put on a happy face” about everything and it lets us be real, vulnerable, and yes, sometimes upset and at our wit’s end, before God. God loves and cares tenderly for us in our vulnerability and need. God is not drawn closer by our posturing and pretending to be strong. God knows the truth about us in our heart of hearts and will minister to us there when we are real about our struggles. Over time that builds our trust in our divine source of life and love and light, strengthening our relationship. It doesn’t happen overnight but little by little, circumstance by circumstance, as we take our truth to God and trust it to God’s care.
And there’s another big opportunity in a time of crisis like we’re experiencing now. Yes, our emotional reactions—especially at first—are to be overwrought, to believe everything is bad, to pull away and hole up and try to distract ourselves with other things. But when we look at a situation and name it “bad,” scanning the horizon for a time when things will hopefully be better, we miss the very important fact that God is here too, right now, walking through this messy time with us. And that is something to be grateful for.
Gratitude is a funny thing because it is not only a kind of living prayer that connects us to the hopefulness of God but it is a very real and practical energy that can change everything—our outlook, our actions, even our circumstances—almost instantly. When we in the middle of a difficult day, looking at what’s wrong with our circumstances and our world, a simple shift toward gratitude changes what we see in our experience and soon things start looking up. With a little gratitude, God gets invited back into our hearts and minds. Things begin to change.
I’ve told this story before, but God taught me very specifically about the power of gratitude many years ago. In the middle of the night before a big presentation I’d been working on for days, I suddenly woke up sick. As soon as I realized it—at 2am—a sense of panic began to rise within me. I prayed, “Oh no, God, I can’t be sick!” Not much of a prayer, but I prayed it over and over. “Oh no, God, I can’t be sick!”
Suddenly, in my fluttering and frightened mind, I heard two calm and gentle words: “Thank me.”
“Thank you?” I thought, “How do I thank you? I’m sick!” But I heard nothing else. So I took a deep breath. I tried to look for anything—anything—I could be grateful for. “Well, thank you It’s still the middle of the night and I don’t have to get up yet,” I prayed. “Thank you that it’s quiet.” And then the grateful thoughts started coming more easily. “Thank you that you’re here with me. Thank you that you created me and know my body and what I need. Thank you for loving me and caring for me.” I felt myself begin to relax, my breathing slowed. The last thing I remember that night was looking out the window and seeing a star and thanking God for it, and then I drifted off to sleep. When I woke up in the morning, I was fine—not sick at all, not even tired from the interruption in the middle of the night. And God had taught me about the life-changing power of gratitude—as an energy, as a way to change my circumstances by giving God room to work.
We each have the capacity to be grateful, no matter what we are going through in our lives. We may have to scour our circumstance with a magnifying glass, but once we start to be open to it, the things we are truly grateful for make themselves known. We can start small—thank you for this breath. Thank you for this breeze and work our way up, thanking God for his peace and presence, thanking God that we don’t have to know the whole story, that God knows what’s best, thanking God that he loves us and opens the path for us in the perfect way.
I think God inspired this subject for our message at least in part because I needed a bit of an attitude adjustment myself this week. Often when gratitude is missing in our outlook it has something to do with us over-focusing on the things that aren’t working the way we want them to in our lives. We’re tired of living with so much discomfort. We want things to change. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. It’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too sunny, it’s too rainy. All those thoughts focus on lack in one way or another, what we don’t have. We resist what’s here instead of accepting it and allowing God to show up in it.
Focusing on what we don’t have—or on one thing we really want and can’t get—is a trap that robs us of our feeling of peace and well-being. Case in point: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the scripture Sherry read for us, God had literally put Adam in paradise. His every need was provided for, and God was about to make him a companion. God had only one stipulation, a tiny limit on Adam’s free-wheeling joy. “Eat from any tree in the garden,” God told him, “Just don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
How long were Adam and Eve able to live peacefully, gratefully, richly in paradise with God before they threw it all away for a single bite of forbidden fruit? The scripture doesn’t say. But what we learn is that the wily serpent knew that their one limitation, the one thing Adam and Eve lacked—being able to eat from that one special tree—would take on a life of its own and ultimately cause them to disobey the God who created and prepared all the blessing in the world just for them.
It reminds me of our basset hound Haywood, who was part of the family when we lived on a small farm in Columbus, Indiana, years ago. We had a five acre pasture east of the house, and Haywood needed a fenced-in place to run, so one summer day we walked the perimeter of the field and shored up all the places where there was a gap in the fence. Happily we let Haywood out to let his little legs run and run to his heart’s content. With five acres to explore and no doubt bunnies to chase, what did Haywood do? He put his nose to the fence and circled and circled the five acre edge until he found a hole he could wiggle through—and then he came happily to find us and announce his victory.
He had five acres to explore! With a few trees for shade and grasses to burrow in. But all Haywood could focus on—instead of enjoying the field—was the one thing he lacked: total freedom. Like Adam and Eve, Haywood was consumed with the one No in his experience and he missed all the Yeses that were his to enjoy.
Some time ago I wrote a poem called “Higher-Order Thinking” trying to envision what might have happened if Eve had been more aware of what she was really being offered in her moment of choice:
Higher Order Thinking
What if Eve, eyeing the
red lusciousness of the apple,
feeling the tightening twist of desire
and the yawning chasm of hunger
Had felt so at-One with God,
so grateful for long evening walks
and the trust that cements belonging,
that Love, the compass, kept pointing her true north.
Perhaps she could have paused,
drawing full breath into her earthy frame,
locking her wise eyes with the snaky glint of temptation,
and said coolly, “I see what you did there” and
In other words, what if Eve had been able to stay so focused on the blessings God had already given them—Oneness with God, lovely evening walks, virtually unlimited beauty and peace—that she was filled with gratitude and couldn’t have dreamed of doing anything to jeopardize that? Just like when you’ve had a good meal and you can’t eat another bite, It’s possible that if Eve was full of thanks to God, there wouldn’t have been room for her to obsess over the one thing she felt she lacked. What a change that might have made—for her, for Adam, and for all of God’s children everywhere, across all time.
That’s the power of gratitude. It is a protecting force, keeping us focused with trust and faith on God’s goodness in our lives, making it easier to look away from the temptation to demand the things we think we lack. It also helps us remember and reconnect to God—who is truly with us in every moment, leading and guiding, comforting and loving, if our hearts and minds will only be open to experiencing that.
This is Jesus’ message to the family of Lazarus as they weep around him on the way to the tomb. Lazarus has died and everyone is heartbroken. Even Jesus weeps, feeling their anguish and despair. He is honest about the reality of where they find themselves—he sheds tears too, his heart heavy and grieving for this family he loves. But this situation, as painful as it is, isn’t the end of the story. Jesus knows it can be changed.
He begins with gratitude. After Jesus convinces Mary to have them roll away the stone where the body of Lazarus is, he looks up and says, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
“I thank you that you have heard me.” That may be the simplest and most profound grateful prayer we can offer. There is such unshakable faith there. Thank you, God, that you hear me. Thank you that you care. Thank you that you are always working to bring goodness, faith, and peace into our lives.
What more do we need, to weather any circumstance, to adjust our outlook, and to let our hearts be calmed and opened to the working and moving of God in the here-and-now?
Thank you, God, that you hear us. Thank you that you are with us—even and especially now. That you have a good plan for your children the whole world over. And thank you that you are continually helping us, your sometimes distracted and doubtful children, to trust you, to share our faith, to be grateful for your living presence with us—in this time and in every day and moment of our lives.
Gratitude. It’s our God-given superpower. It can change everything. Let’s try it this week and see.
- OT Genesis 2: 8-17
- NT John 11: 38-44