Pressed Down and Running Over

We all know how good it feels to be grateful. Someone has done something thoughtful for us, or we’ve reached a big goal, had a big moment, or felt a sweeping sense of beauty and awe come over us. Something deep inside whispers or says or shouts, “Thanks!” There is usually a smile on our faces. Our hearts lift.

But earlier this week I read an interesting neuroscience research article that said that feeling grateful is not just good for the person experiencing it; it’s also good for the world. The title was, “Giving thanks may make your brain more altruistic,” and the research explored how people’s brains change—and how that makes them care more about the world around them—when they feel grateful. The researchers found a link between gratitude and generosity and discovered that as people feel more gratitude, they become more generous. Gratitude, of course, is being appreciative of something we have received. The definition of generous is, “liberal in giving, openhanded,” or “characterized by a noble or kindly spirit.” Gratitude is focused on what I’m feel for something I’ve received. In contrast, the energy of being generous is more expansive, flowing outward, as I share with you and others and the greater world.

So it sounds like paying attention to our gratitude level—and doing what we can to increase it–could impact not only on our daily experiences, making us, for example, happier and more aware of the good in our lives, but it could also increase the very real positive impact we have on the world around us. We Quakers call that being part of the ocean of light.

Gratitude has been a popular research topic for scientists for the last couple of decades, with the advent of positive psychology and the whole self-help industry. But this study wanted to explore something unique, taking a look at how people’s brains light up when they give and when they get. Researchers also studied whether grateful people tend to give in an altruistic way, meaning, for the greater good. So Christina Kearns, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon, set up a project in which people in a brain scanner watched as a computer deposited money into their own bank accounts (that was the ”getting”) or donated it to a food bank instead (that’s the “giving”). The people who had been identified as being more grateful (this was done with a questionnaire prior to the experiment) showed that the reward centers in their brains lit up more dramatically when they saw the charity receive the donation. It made them feel good to see the food bank do well—better than they would feel if the money came to them instead.

The kernel of that idea is fascinating and hopeful, because we Friends have long believed that you can “do well while doing good” in this world. From our earliest times we made the effort to bring our faith into all we did, letting it be our compass, leading us to advocate for social justice, helping us set up and follow ethical business practices, caring about the equitable treatment for all, without regard to any of our outward physical, societal, or cultural differences. We care about the world around us and want our faithful actions to make things better somehow. We are all children of God. There is “that of God” in each and all of us.

So research that spotlights a simple path opening our hearts to our greater world seems like a good thing, doesn’t it? And it all starts with just being more grateful—and that may be easier than we think. It’s as simple as noticing; focusing our attention on the good we find around us. We can say “thank you” to God throughout the day for anything and everything. We can use gratitude journaling to boost our awareness of things we’re thankful for—researchers found it can be as simple as making a list of things we’re grateful for once a day. We begin to teach our minds to look for the good instead of the bad, and our bodies and spirits lift with the physiological changes that feeling peace, feeling joy, remembering God brings.

Of course, feeling grateful isn’t a one-time thing like a light-switch; it’s something we have to keep nurturing over time. We help ourselves see that way. Living gratefully is a way of attending, being open to, and taking in the blessings in our lives. That doesn’t mean the challenges and hurts and obstacles aren’t there—we will always have those in this life. But it means we can make a choice about what to believe about the situation. If we keep watching for God to show up—no matter how difficult it might be—our hearts will stay open and we will stay in touch with hope. Sooner or later, we’ll see what God is unfolding there.

Our Old Testament reading for today is from the book of Lamentations, a book of five major lament poems that express grief about the destruction of the temple some 600 years before the birth of Christ. A lament is a powerful expression of grief, usually conveying great regret or mourning. And right here in the middle of all this heartbreak, we find this bright, hopeful truth:

 “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end: they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.”

Right where we would least expect to find it, when everything seems lost, when none of life seems to have the goodness or blessing it had before, we find a sweet—and perhaps transforming—moment of gratitude. In his commentary on this passage, Richard Foster writes,

“Even in the middle of soul-searing lament, there is doxology, praise. Does this grieving community really feel that God is loving, merciful, and faithful? Perhaps it is only after honest, heartfelt grief that we are able to sing doxology. Here, in the middle of Lamentations, is an extraordinary statement of faith, faith born of doubt, despair, and tears. Perhaps that is the best sort of faith.”

This will resonate with us if we’ve ever gone through a crisis when everything seems to go terribly wrong and nothing seems to help. Whatever the trouble is—maybe work or family or health or really anything–everything looks bleak and answers don’t seem to be coming. And then when things are at their darkest, a tiny hopeful thought can make its way from our hearts to our minds: “At least God is here with me—I am not alone.” And remembering that lifts our hearts a little. We might feel a flicker of gratitude even then and maybe we’ll stop there and say a few words to God. It is built deep within us that no matter how dark things look, when things are at their bleakest, the human spirit turns toward God and with that tiny moment of contact, hope is reborn. Now things can begin to change for the better.

I hear this often in my conversations with new hospice patients. They find themselves, perhaps unexpectedly, close to the end of their lives, uncertain about what’s coming, not knowing what to expect, grieving the idea of leaving the people, places, and experiences they love best in life. All their efforts at treatment have come up empty; the doctors gave them the devastating news that there’s nothing more to be done. Everything feels bad; there seem to be no good answers; nobody can help or change things. Now what?

You might think that under such pressure and in the face of such insurmountable problems, we humans would just give up at that point. But that’s not what most people do. Instead we turn naturally, instinctively toward God, toward meaning, toward mystery—as the “ground of our being,” theologian Paul Tillich says—for the answers. Some things are too big, too heavy, and too dark for us to sort out with our limited human knowledge. We know we need a bigger voice, a vaster wisdom, to help us see what’s true, to know and understand and feel comforted by a greater vision and presence. We know instinctively—deep down, when all else we rely on is cleared away—that God cannot and will not abandon us and God loves us, still. It is from that sacred and rarely reached place that the deepest and most lasting gratitude arises. We emerge from that grateful people. Life is seen through a new prism, transforming from dark to light. We find much—almost too much—to be grateful for, and we don’t want to miss a single moment of it. I’m glad to say that many of our hospice patients make this very journey. Life gets sweeter and sweeter, not sadder and sadder. And they are ever more grateful, the further they go.

So perhaps Richard Foster is right, that that type of gratitude—the kind that arises from the roots of lament—may be the best sort of faith. It is tested and tried and true. It holds strong when the storms of life move through.

In our New Testament reading today, the good doctor Luke quotes Jesus, who is speaking to a large crowd gathered on the hillside. He is teaching in his practical way, using everyday examples the people will recognize:

“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”

Here Jesus encourages those listening to be generous with others, because what we give out in life comes back to us in abundance. The example he uses is one everyone would know—grain or seed, pressed down into a container so it will hold as much as possible, shaken so that any air pockets are released, and the grain or seed fills in all the gaps. Jesus—like the researchers in the study—encourage that outward flow of goodness, sharing what we can with others, caring about adding goodness to our world. It’s almost a side benefit that when we give with generous hearts, so much blessing comes back to us. The researchers say that for grateful people, the greatest joy—where their brains light up the most—comes from seeing things get better in the world around them. What an image of abundance that is. And how like the workings of God’s kingdom.

When we make the effort to practice gratitude, the very nature of our giving thanks takes us beyond ourselves and connects us to God’s loving and perfect realm. Now things can begin to get better. Spending time there, we find ourselves changing, softening, letting things go, living more peacefully, aware of the thousand blessings God pours into our lives each day. From that abundance, we can give so freely—and it just feels good, whether it benefits us or not. No lack will ever come of it. As pastor Charles Stanley says, “You can never outgive God.”

And who knows, a tiny seed of goodness we offer someone else—maybe something we barely notice, like a smile or a nod of greeting—might just be the spark of hope he or she needs in the middle of a dark and scary time. We might be the one with the kind touch that turns her lament into praise and helps her remember God. That may be the best benefit of all for any of us.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end: they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.”

Amen.

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