“Practicing Gratitude”

November 25, 2018


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Nov. 25, 2018

“Practicing Gratitude”
Excerpts from Psalms 107; 118; 136
Excerpts from John 11; Ephesians 1 & 5; Colossians 3; Thessalonians 5

On this first Sunday after Turkey Day, I want to talk about gratitude that goes beyond Thanksgiving. This kind of gratitude is not simply giving thanks when something good happens … this is the kind of gratitude that is able to be surrounded by bad things and still find words of hope.

You have all probably heard about why it is beneficial to cultivate an attitude of gratitude all year (these are science related realities):
• Gratitude empowers you and gives you fuel for good things in your life!
• Gratitude helps fight addiction of all kinds.
• While social media may fuel our feelings of inadequacy, gratitude puts life back in focus.
• Gratitude boosts our self-control.
• Gratitude helps us sleep better.
• Gratitude fosters a sense of community and belonging.
• Gratitude fends off depression.
• Gratitude makes you a better spouse.
• Gratitude makes you a better boss and manager.
• Gratitude increases life satisfaction. In fact, children who are taught to be grateful have better relationships, more emotional and social support, do better in school, and are less materialistic.
I’m ready to sign up! Gratitude can even have a significant positive impact on our health – from calming our heart rates to strengthening our immune systems to enhancing our mental outlook.

However, gratitude can be elusive and transitory for many of us, especially in the Western world. We have a skewed version of gratitude connected to receiving something we want or need. In other words, when something good happens, our gratitude grows. We smile and give thanks. Over time, our gratitude fades. The gift is used. The food is eaten. The friendship transitions. The moment goes by. We get sick. And we start looking for another reason to be grateful.

If this happens (and I would suggest this is a part of being a part of being human, especially in a developed country), we have mixed up gratitude with the pursuit of happiness. That is a roller coaster ride. It places happiness in the external realm. What happens to us is our focus instead of what is happening in us.

Real gratitude is not dependant on the blessings we receive or the good things that happen. This is gratitude that doesn’t waver, even in the midst of difficulties. Cecilia Fernandez-Hall wrote about being grateful in the worst three weeks of her life. Cecilia’s mom had been through two years of ovarian cancer treatments and she moved home to help her mom through recovery. Cecilia read an article about the practice of gratefulness and decided to follow a deliberate plan to develop gratitude in her life.

About the same time, her mom’s cancer spread and the family was told she had a few weeks to live. Cecilia had determined to find at least three things a day for which she was grateful. She wrote, “for the worst three weeks of my life, as I watched my mother slip from this earthly world, I noted many acts of kindness when the nurses and doctors treated my mother with compassion and respect; I appreciated the gifts of friendship as my family’s needs were attended to be others; I savored the love of family as we spent our time together and shared memories; and I counted the blessings in each moment we had with my mother until her last breath. The gratefulness that arose from my daily practice helped me find light in the darkness and joy in the sorrow.”

Instead of settling for gratitude on a specific Thursday, or as an intermittent way of feeling, we can actually develop gratitude as a distinct way of living in the everyday. This kind of gratefulness is unconditional, unlike the pursuit of happiness. To develop gratitude, we have to remind ourselves – in repeated and intentional ways – about the tremendous, mind-blowing opportunity and gift of being alive.

M.J. Ryan wrote a book, “Attitudes of Gratitude: How to Give and Receive Joy every Day of Your Life.” In it, he says, “Gratitude is like a muscle that needs to be used often. Even if a feeling of gratitude isn’t there, practice helps. Practice brings about the sentiment.” How do you practice gratitude? By deliberately looking for ways to be grateful! This is something much deeper than being grateful for what we have. This kind of gratitude develops a quality of the heart and mind. It is noticing what’s right and deliberately cultivating that recognition often and regularly. It shifts our focus to what is going well – especially during bleak times.

The wisdom we find in the Bible points to this kind of grateful living….
Psalms 107:1 “O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good!”
Psalms 118: 24 “This is the day which the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”
Psalms 136:1 “O give thanks to the Lord; for God is good: God’s mercy endures forever.”
Ephesians 5:20 “Giving thanks always for all things to God in the name of Jesus.”
Colossians 3:17 “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God.”
Thessalonians 5:18 “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God.”

Why are we reminded over and over again to give thanks? Because it is a spiritual discipline…. It takes mindfulness and practice.

I know I am not alone in thinking that our country seems on edge and ready to pounce. We are inundated with bad news. Politics polarize us. Hate speech and hate crimes are rampant. This constant barrage of mean-ness takes a toll of the cheeriest of us all. In the last two weeks, health and mental caregivers along with ministers and others who are in the caring industry have been concerned that our society is on edge. Even stable, normally healthy individuals are suffering from anxiety, depression, and hopeless feelings. Families and friends are polarized. We are truly struggling as a society to keep our emotions in check.

I would suggest that cultivating the practice of grateful living could make a difference for many of us. All of us have daily practices around money, health and wellness, relationships, communication and work. What would happen if we gave 5-10 minutes of each day to practice gratitude?

Here’s what it might look like:
• Decide on a time each day to incorporate gratitude in your life. Perhaps it is when you go to bed and you list 3-5 things for which you are grateful. Maybe it is at mealtime when you say a blessing. Pick a time and be intentional about giving thanks.
• Create opportunities to express gratitude to others. I mentioned a person I know who writes 4 thank –you notes a day. Start with 1 per day. Or send an email or write a sticky note, offering your thanks to someone for their smile, friendship, act of kindness, etc.
• Find a gratitude partner. Pick a friend to work together on developing gratitude. Hold each other accountable for acts of thankfulness each day. Check in every day by phone or text to tell one another what you did.
• Start a gratitude journal. Keep it simple and put a list, a word, a phrase or an image to express your gratitude.
• Keep it fun! When it is enjoyable, you will be more likely to keep doing it again and again.
As your minister, I would love to hear if and what you decide to do to develop a gratitude practice. I would like to encourage you and then hear how it has changed you.

So let’s end this Thanksgiving weekend doing something good for us all – by singing that song “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart!”

I have the joy, joy, joy, joy,
Down in my heart, (where?)
Down in my heart, (where?)
Down in my heart
I have the joy, joy, joy, joy,
Down in my heart, (where?)
Down in my heart to stay.
I have the love of Jesus, love of Jesus,
Down in my heart, (where?)
Down in my heart, (where?)
Down in my heart,
I have the love of Jesus, love of Jesus,
Down in my heart, (where?)
Down in my heart to stay.
I’ve got the peace that passes understanding
Down in my heart, (where?)
Down in my heart, (where?)
I’ve got the peace that passes understanding
Down in my heart, (where?)
Down in my heart to stay.

Resources Used:
Dawson, Alene. “The Key to a Happy Life? Gratitude that Goes Beyond Thanksgiving”. L.A. Times, Nov., 2017.
Fernandez-Hall, Cecilia. “Grateful… in the Worst Three Weeks of My Life”. Gratefulness.org/blog.