Do you have any kind of gratitude practice in your life? Some people make it a point, just before they drift off to sleep at night, to name three things that happened during the day they feel thankful for. Others keep a running gratitude list or they may just simply do their best to be as gracious as they can in individual moments as they happen—thanking others for their help, feeling uplifted by beauty, enjoying the opportunities they are given to breathe and laugh, touch and be touched. Thanking God all through the day.
Researchers tell us that grateful people live longer, they live happier, and they are less likely to experience some of the more pervasive chronic health problems in our society today—like heart failure, anxiety, and depression. Practicing gratitude regularly boosts our immune systems and improves our mental outlook, helping us shift away from negative thoughts and beliefs toward a glass-half-full, or maybe even overflowing, perspective.
And there’s a good reason for that. People who intentionally choose to focus their thoughts on what they have to be grateful for discover that very quickly their awareness of their blessings expands, the goodness multiplies, the beauty spreads. It’s not a trick or an optical illusion; it’s simply that when we have the eyes to see it, the goodness of God will shine out to us from literally everything we encounter.
When we don’t feel grateful—and maybe feel its opposite, regretting or resenting what we’re going through—it’s not because we’re negative people or there’s something wrong with us. Chances are we are caught up in emotions triggered by the situation, worrying about it, resisting it, maybe feeling angry about it. It’s hard to see the good God has for us in a situation when we’re doing everything we can to make it go away. In that case our first step is to settle down and reach out to God. God will help us see the good that God has for us in whatever’s going on—even if it’s difficult—if we will just remember to ask.
A few years ago I read the book Hardwiring Happiness by Dr. Rick Hanson. Hanson is a psychologist who has spent his career researching how people can experience and sustain a lasting sense of well-being in their lives. He noticed early on that many people miss out on much of the happiness right around them simply because they don’t notice it. Their minds are focusing on other things; they are preoccupied with worries and plans and past hurts, and really good moments just slip right through their fingers unnoticed because they are paying attention to the lack and upset in their lives and in the world. In Hanson’s book he urges us to slow down, to notice what’s really going on right here, within and around us. To pay attention to what we see and touch, feel and hear in our living experience of the here-and-now. And when we notice something good, he suggest we take a few seconds to really enjoy it, whatever it is. He said that savoring the blessing in that way—even if for only a few seconds, makes the good experience more memorable. It sticks with us as a bright spot in an otherwise busy day. At night, when we list our three things, we’ll remember it. And soon we’ll find we’re having more and more of those memorable moments; they stay with us and begin to change our thinking. As we notice the goodness of God right here with us, right now, gratitude begins to blossom in our lives.
Our Old Testament reading today is a well-known verse from Psalm 34 that encourages us to trust the goodness of God that is always with us:
“Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”
When we intentionally stop and notice something good, really taking it in, we notice how it lifts our spirits and cheers our hearts. It might be something as simple as a lovely flower, or as joyful as a child’s laugh. Maybe a neighbor dog comes for a visit, or someone smiles at us in the checkout line. A little moment of goodness–kindness shared, beauty witnessed, life celebrated—reminds us that God’s light is all around us. That’s an idea worth tasting, enjoying, savoring. It’s worth a quick acknowledgement, a thank-you sent God’s way. And of course the psalmist’s word taste here is no accident: he’s reminding us not to miss the fact that God’s goodness is immediately present. We can taste something only right now. You can’t taste something you ate for lunch yesterday or taste in advance a treat you’re planning to make for dessert tonight. Tasting, like seeing, touching, smelling, and hearing, can happen only right now, this moment we’re living. Experience how good God is, the psalmist is suggesting, right where you are, right now. This is not a small or simple thing; this tiny idea is the key to living a life full of the awareness of God’s love.
We all have many things that compete for our attention in this loud and busy world. There are unlimited shows to watch, countless headlines to worry about, social media feeds that bring bad and worsening news from all corners of the planet. We may be involved with clubs and classes, friends and organizations; some of us are still working and juggling multiple responsibilities. There’s a lot to do and seemingly a finite amount of time in which to do it. So slowing down and paying enough attention to notice a thousand tiny blessings in our day may feel impossible or at least unwieldy; the crush of time and the weight of worry is just too great.
And while that kind of pressure is one reason we can miss noticing the infinite goodness God pours into our lives, the bigger culprit is familiarity. We rarely see with fresh eyes the things, people, and places we are most familiar with. When we look at them through old eyes, we can miss what a great blessing they are to us every day. We are often creatures of habit; we follow a familiar routine, see the same people, know what to expect from our surroundings, day after day. We’re mostly comfortable with that. There is comfort and ease in sameness. When we change our patterns, places, or people, we may grieve a bit, feeling like we’re letting go of something we love.
That’s how I felt last week when I said goodbye to Gloria and Olive and Mabel and made my way to the airport. I was stepping out of my comfort zone and leaving behind, for the weekend, my sweet and familiar patterns of place and pets and home. Maybe I was trading security for anxiety—after all, there were a lot of unknowns ahead. Would the flights be on time? Would the metal in my arm set off the security systems? Would people be friendly or grumpy—or worse? Would I be able to find my connecting flight in Atlanta in the limited time I had? There was much uncertainty and I hoped for the best; I wasn’t too worried or anxious, and I reminded myself that God was traveling with me, whatever the outcome. I could trust that. And I did.
When Peter and James and John went up the mountain with Jesus—in the story we heard from Matthew 17—they also were leaving the familiar and climbing into uncertainty. It wasn’t their normal pattern; and they didn’t know why Jesus had invited them (and why only them). They didn’t know what they would find when they reached their destination. At that point they may have been used to surprises with Jesus—they probably never knew what he would say or do as he taught and healed among the people. But on that particular day, whatever they were expecting, they were in for a shock.
At the top of the mountain, the story tells us Jesus became transfigured: his face shined like the sun, and his clothing—the dusty, natural fabric he wore as he walked from town to town—turned into robes as white as brilliant light. And just after that, Moses and Elijah appeared—what must the disciples have thought?!—as these icons of their faith stood talking with Jesus.
Peter, always the impetuous one, couldn’t simply be quiet and watch the scene unfold. You would think that for once he would be speechless, but no– he called out to Jesus, interrupting the conversation, and said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here” and he offered to build shelters for the three great leaders. In one respect here, Peter had the right idea—he was noticing the present good and calling it out. He recognized that this was truly an amazing moment of high blessing. His mistake was the same mistake many of us make: Instead of savoring deeply—as Rick Hanson suggests we do—the greatness of the good God was providing in that moment, Peter wanted to build a shelter to contain it, to find a way to capture the blessing and make it stay. He didn’t realize that the present good of this moment—the blessing God is pouring out—can’t be kept for another day, another experience, another time. The good that is given now belongs to now alone. But the good news is that as we develop the eyes and heart to notice, we discover that God’s good is a constant outpouring of God’s love in every moment and circumstance of our lives. It is ever new, never failing, always present.
The very next event in the story sends the disciples into a dead faint in the dust. God chastises Peter from the clouds, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Right after that, Jesus came over and touched them and told them to get up and not to be afraid. When they looked around, they saw only Jesus. The moment was over; things were normal again. Jesus as the Christ, the illumined One, had most likely faded back into the ordinary dust-and-sandal Jesus they had followed up the mountain not long before.
We don’t have the benefit of knowing how the men explained that high moment of revelation to themselves. How did they make sense of what they’d seen? Perhaps Jesus wanted to show them what was possible when we intentionally make choices to be close to God. It could be that allowing Peter, James, and John to witness his transformation in the presence of Wisdom would help them see that it was possible for them, too, when they turned with seeking hearts toward the love of God. Maybe Jesus hoped to teach them in a very real way what it means to be in this world but not of it—that we can have these high moments of closeness to God and then go back to our normal lives and do our best for the good of all. The lesson here may be, as Henri Nouwen put it, “The spiritual life does not remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it.”
What I found by letting go of the familiar patterns of home and place last week was that God’s blessing truly did shine out from everywhere and everyone. Fellow travelers were friendly and patient; the flights were on time (in fact they arrived early at my destinations). Even TSA workers in the security lines called me “sweetie pie” and “my love” (and they are not always known for their friendliness). And of course I had a wonderful time with my kids and spent a long afternoon and evening on a breathtakingly beautiful South Carolina beach. There was so much good. So much God. So much to enjoy and savor and say thank you for. And if I’d stayed in my comfortable, familiar world, I wouldn’t have experienced it.
While I was there I got to see my four-footed grandchildren: their dog Rocky (who is a very good boy) and their cat, named, appropriately, Cat. We took Rocky to what must be one of the best dog parks in the country—like dog heaven, really. It has a fountain and a lake with a river feeding into it, and several fields of wide-open space. Rocky was in his element, running with groups of dogs, chasing sticks, swimming, jumping, playing.
Back at their place I quickly realized that Cat, who is now 22 years old—Jordan was only 7 years old when she got him—must be nearing the end of his life. At first I felt sad for him—he doesn’t see or hear anymore, and left on his own he wanders in circles and finally simply lays down wherever he is. He seemed lonely and isolated and out of touch with the goodness around him. That’s what I thought at first–but then I noticed something. Cat’s behavior—walking in circles, seeming lost and lonely—completely transformed whenever Jordan picked him up and held him while she relaxed on the couch. As he nestled close to her, his whole appearance changed—now he radiated a perfect contentment, a beautiful peace. He seemed deeply happy and completely at ease when he was in direct contact with this one he has loved all his life. He looked like a truly happy Cat, much younger than his years.
It reminds us all how we function best, where we are most at ease and safe and loved, in close contact with the One who has loved us from before the beginning of time. God’s goodness is here now, all encompassing, blessing us in every circumstance of our lives. We can nestle in and trust that. We just need to stay close, stay connected, letting the Light show us God’s goodness and ever-present love. There is no better blessing. And this moment we’re living—right now—is always the door.
- OT Psalm 34: 8
- NT Matthew 17: 1-9