Giving Thanks in All Things

I Thessalonians 5:12-19

 We live in a time of technological wonders, yet few people seem happy. More cool gadgets don’t make us happy or fulfilled. I heard a comedian tell this story a few years ago:

I was on an airplane, and there was the internet – high-speed internet – on the aircraft. That’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane, and they go, “Open up your laptops. You can go on the internet.”

And it’s fast, and I’m watching you tube clips – it’s amazing – I’m in an airplane!

And then it breaks down. And they apologize, “The internet’s not working.” The guy next to me goes, “This is bullshit.”

Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago. Read more:

Gratitude can slip away so quickly. Most of us don’t lose our thankfulness in 10 seconds on an airplane, but I know that my sense of gratitude comes and goes.    I wonder if ingratitude is a trait from our hunter-gatherer brain, which is so busy looking for the next meal that it forgets the blessing of the last one. Our consumer-oriented society is busy stimulating our old hunter-gatherer brains with more and more prey to chase (with cars or jet skis) and varieties of berries to pick (for which we may need bigger kitchens and more food processing gadgets.)  So we are constantly conditioned to be anxious about what we don’t have rather than grateful for what we do have.

 Ingratitude isn’t just about material things. We often take each other for granted, forgetting our teachers and mentors, the little things our spouse may do, and all the people who work hard behind the scenes without credit.

There is a story in the Bible where Jesus healed ten lepers, but only one came back to thank him. You would think all ten would be deeply grateful, but gratitude slips away. I had life-saving surgery years ago when my intestine perforated. I would have died if not for several things; Jeanne taking me to the emergency room, a skilled surgeon who had to sew me back together from the inside out, and a nurse who saved my life in the middle of the night, as my blood pressure dropped and fever rose, she put my IV bags in the freezer. She ran ice water through my veins to keep me alive. (That is why I am one cool customer!)  I remember the morning after I came home from the hospital, looking like a concentration camp survivor but grateful to be home. I slowly crept to the mailbox, out of breath from this minor exertion, and I stood at the end of the driveway, thankful for the sun on my face, and said to God, I’m so glad I’m alive. May I never lose this sense of gratitude I feel right now and take things for granted.

But I do. I often forget as I worry about the future, feel underappreciated, or grouse about politics. I forget that every minute I’m alive is all a gift because I used all my nine lives on five operating tables. I should never have any reason to complain. If I were a surgeon, I think I would slap some of my former patients, saying, “You have a new heart, don’t eat that. Why aren’t you doing your exercises?”  We just forget all the work and generosity of others that have made us who we are. When I get depressed, I stop myself and remember lumbering out to the mailbox with the sun on my face.

I learned that gratitude is not something we feel; it is a practice that improves life. As the Apostle Paul said, “In all things, I give thanks.”  Not just in good times when all is going well but especially in hard times. One of the worst parts of my time of illness was having a colostomy bag for about nine months. You can be grateful that I will not tell you any of those stories. You can just take my word that it is a terrible nuisance. Sometimes I hated that thing. Whenever I had a bad experience with it, I would stop and say that I would be dead without this. That kept me from feeling sorry for myself (at least most of the time.)

Some of you may be thinking, “Wait a minute, pastor. Gratitude is fine, but what about times when I’m genuinely suffering and miserable? Isn’t counting my blessings just ignoring my grief and pain? Sometimes I just want to have a good cry or unload my burdens with a friend. Is that being ungrateful?

Of course not. Difficult emotions are a part of life. It is natural to feel awful, sometimes for days and weeks, when we go through loss and hardship. You are human and can’t pretend to be happy when you are not. I think that at least once a day, we need to stop and give thanks and be grateful for what we know is good, no matter how bad we are feeling.   It is not an instant cure, but it makes a difference. Being grateful for a moment reminds us that we have resources, some things are beautiful, and people we love. We are more durable; we find more courage, and it is easier to trust and hope when we take some time to be grateful. Remembering these things helps us re-member, to pull ourselves together.

Gratitude needs to be a part of any kind of recovery. I saw first-hand how gratitude kept people sober. I usually knew who would not make it through our transitional housing program where I worked in New York. It was the whiners and complainers. When things got tough and didn’t go their way, which is a part of life, they drank or relapsed. And they returned to all the old people, places, and things that got them in trouble. I remember a woman who went through the most demanding therapy program and survived foot surgery without pain meds because that was her addiction. After a year of recovery, she had to return to serve a six-month prison sentence in Arkansas for an old charge from when her then-boyfriend blew up their trailer with a failed meth lab, destroying everything she owned. When she returned to our program, I asked how she got through it. She said, “I get up every morning and think of everything I am thankful for. I thank God I am alive and not in prison, that I have a roof over my head, that I am sober, and I have numbers in my phone that I can call if I need help. I don’t leave my room until I have written my “gratitudes” in my journal.”

Don’t just take my word for it. Here are three things you can do that have been tested in clinical studies to improve well-being.

  • Keep a “Gratitude Journal.”  Writing down 3 to 5 things every day for which you are grateful increases happiness and even recovery from physical illness. Don’t just think about it; write it down. It is more real when we put it in writing. This is like a daily exercise in remembering why we are here.
  • Thank someone else every day. Shawn Achor, a Harvard researcher who wrote The Happiness Advantage, found that people increased their happiness by writing one email every day praising and thanking someone else in their social network. This makes sense for a simple reasons. Sadness is isolating, because we pull in. Thanking people re-connects us, and we are likely to be happier with renewed bonds with others.
  • This is something Jeanne and I have done for more than 5 years. At breakfast we tell each other one thing we appreciate about each other. It can be a small thing like running and errand, or just for listening about how hard things were at the end of a long day. It turns out this simple practice increases happiness in relationships. I understand why. I have to do something every day worth appreciating. And I have to pay attention to Jeanne because I can’t come to breakfast and say “I got nothing today.”

I remember singing this song growing up in church, “Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your many blessings see what God has done.” I thought it was so dumb. Turns out I was wrong, it is actually very wise.   Our best scientific research has finally figured out what religion has known for centuries. It turns out we have a need to say, “Our God in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”  Meister Eckart, a mystical theologian in the 15th century said, “I our only prayer was to say thanks, it would be enough.”

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