Please click here to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this sermon.
Many of you know my wife and I welcomed a teenager into our home two years ago. They are a person of color and identity as gender non-binary. They asked rather provocatively why we still celebrate Thanksgiving, when we know that the story of the encounter between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans is a story of genocide! They asked this with a ‘tude in the presence of our twin 7-year-olds. I attempted to redirect the teen-induced mistrust of all adults who have come before into the sentiment that it is always good to express gratitude.
Many of us have taught or are teaching our kids—and were taught when we were children—to say thank you. As adults we may have realized that expressing gratitude is about more than just being polite.
Gratitude is—or can be—a path to more spiritual depth. The world’s religions all teach that practicing gratitude can make our human life better.
Before the pandemic and the ever-increasing rancor between parties with very different views of reality, there used to be a lot of attention paid to the practice of gratitude by New Age thought, by the mind-body connection literature, and by the positive mind movement. It was easy to find gratitude journals, gratefulness rocks, and all sorts of trinkets meant to remind us to be glad for what we have. Has all that disappeared in these truth-telling times?
Can we find things to be grateful for anymore? Or has any sense of “contentment” long gone, “ruined” by the truths we now know—truths that have lifted the veil of long-told, unlikely stories… of peace, harmony, and good will?
It was common to find self-help publications that claimed such things as “expressing gratitude 15 minutes every day can significantly reduce stress.” If I calculated correctly, that would be one hour and 45 minutes a week saying thank you. The cynic in me says, “What if we were to spend at least that much time eliminating what’s causing the stress in the first place? Global warming, genocide, hatred, greed, white supremacy, and so forth?”
Okay, okay… lighten up!
So, gratefulness may not be the all-purpose cure-all for every ill. Yet all of us could use more moments, maybe two hours of contentment every week on the regular.
So, let’s take a look at the practice of gratitude. There are experts who say it has to be based on real emotion. For an emotion to be real, it must be honest, authentic, meaning you have to feel it.
It is like teaching a child to say thank you without communicating your own sense of gratitude.
If you do that, what a child will learn is that expressing gratefulness is just a tool to get what they want. They won’t learn how to express a positive emotion.
Being taught to say thank you, just because it is the polite thing to do, means we learn to use gratitude like it is a tip we can exchange for service. I think some folks use gratitude that way with God. If I say thank you enough, I’ll secure more blessings—or at least less trouble!
Of course, we all have those times when we just aren’t “feeling it.” There’s nothing joyful to celebrate. We are overwhelmed by pain, tragedy, or disappointment. The emotions we feel are sadness or anger, and we can’t even pretend we feel gratitude. The God I believe in accepts and loves us no matter what.
Sometimes it happens in the times that are just awful that a person who likely means well comes along trying to advise us or point out for us what we can be grateful for. Perhaps they are hoping to balance our sorrow with a little happiness. “Your mother lived a long life,” or “You are blessed to still have other children,” or “Your farmland will be more fertile in the future after all the floods.” They mean well and perhaps they are trying to change our frame or how we are thinking about what is, or what has happened to us.
We’ve all experienced that person who tries to cheer us up by offering something we can feel grateful for. Perhaps they know or have experienced how healing gratitude can be.
Yet, gratitude is not an all-purpose cure-all and there are times when it is just inappropriate.
My father died suddenly when I was a senior in high school. My family and I were very active in our church. I remember one of our Sunday School teachers coming by our house to express his condolences soon after the awful thing happened. While he was there, he told us that our church family should/could feel grateful as another child’s father also had a heart attack that very same weekend, but he didn’t die.
I didn’t feel comforted. What I did feel was more alone in my pain.
Perhaps, we can learn to just be present with each other when things are awful and there is not yet anything to be grateful for.
Sometimes overwhelming emotional pain lasts a long time. Gratitude can be a part of journey towards healing, restoring, building a spiritual depth that can take in the heartache and re-establish an equilibrium in the world (in our world) after a loss. Life stretching endlessly on without any thankfulness at all is a suffering beyond what the human heart can stand.
I was watching some television show the other day, and a mother was talking about herself learning to practice what she was preaching to her children. This woman talked about how she had tried really hard to teach her children gratefulness, insisting that they say “thank you” all the time. But she rarely showed them her gratitude.
So, after some self-reflective time, she started almost forcing herself to be exuberant whenever she encountered her children. When they came home from school, when they came in from the yard, if they went in the utility room and came back into the kitchen. She greeted them with joy, with a light in her eyes. Yippee, I am happy you are in my life! (Maybe the first 1000 times she pretended to have a yippee in her voice). But eventually she really felt that joy and everything changed because it was infectious!
If we all expressed with joyful exuberance our thank-you-for-being-in-my-life message to each other more often and did it out there in the wider world more often, perhaps just that practice alone would go a long way for increasing both the worth and dignity that others feel—reducing stress, increasing self-esteem and all other good things. Perhaps it would result in more authentic feelings that we really do not only need each other, but want each other, welcome each other, and are grateful for each other.
It is essential for our well-being to feel valued, loved, appreciated.
It brings us good feelings. There’s something great about good feelings when we really feel them!
So, let’s practice, at home or in this building. Say, wow I am happy to see you, I am grateful for you.
I am thankful for you today and every day.
Gratitude is not an all-purpose cure-all, but it is an emotion that we sometimes are too afraid to express. Practice, this week of all weeks. Say thank you.