“Why Christian–Gratitude as a Spiritual Practice”

November 22, 2015


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Nov. 22, 2015

“Why Christian… Gratitude as Spiritual Practice”
Philippians 4: 6-7

Three hundred and ninety-five years ago this month, the Mayflower arrived at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. As we focus on Thanksgiving, it is instructive to consider some of the many parallels between the pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving and the refugees fleeing across Europe today.

The Thanksgiving story begins in England with a small group of people studying the Bible and other religious texts. At that time most countries had a government-sponsored church that combined the coercive powers of government with the passionate fervor of religion. It was this lethal combination that later motivated the Founding Fathers to adopt the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guaranteeing religious freedom by separating these two powerful forces.

As these English believers began to express their evolving faith verbally and in written form, the government exerted increasing efforts to constrain both their speech and their worship.

In an effort to preserve their liberties while exercising their faith, the pilgrims and others set out on a dangerous journey to relocate to a land where they could pursue their aspirations for a better life. In doing so they joined the ranks of millions who throughout the centuries have become refugees, fleeing persecution, war and famine in search of a better life.

The pilgrims did not have sufficient means to pay the full cost of this migration. Therefore, they made special arrangements with their backers to work in bonded servitude until their backers were fully compensated for the cost of the migration.
As is the case with many refugees today, the journey would be by water. The pilgrims planned to use two ships — the Mayflower and the Speedwell. As is sometimes the case with seafaring refugees today, the Speedwell began to take on water and had to turn back. Some of the refugees were left behind while the remainder crowded together on the Mayflower. By the time of the first Thanksgiving a year later, nearly half of them would perish from exposure, disease and other causes. Nevertheless, a year later they came together in a feast of thanksgiving for this new land where they were free to live and worship according to their beliefs.

This week, Americans will gather around tables large and small and talk about our blessings. We may think back to the Pilgrim and Native stories we learned as children. We may pray a prayer of gratitude for the meal or mention how grateful we are for a couple of days off.

I’ve quite enjoyed the Facebook posts where people express gratitude each day of November. Just posting a message of gratitude each day of the month is simple. Yet, the cumulative effect of reading 10 or 20 people’s gratitude everyday is heartwarming.
There’s a message entitled, “Thanksgiving Daily” that talks about gratitude, and the title comes from a verse of scripture from the Book of Mormon:
“…worship God, in whatsoever place ye may be in, in spirit and in truth; and that ye live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon you.” (Alma 34:38)
Here’s the interesting thing about this verse. It doesn’t talk about being thankful or expressing gratitude. The exact phrase is “living in thanksgiving daily”. Though I think being thankful and expressing thankfulness and living in thanksgiving are related, they may not be the same.
Look at how the phrase “living in” is used in other ways. For instance, what does it mean to “live in fear”? I’m guessing it means to feel a constant panic that is anything but momentary. Living in fear lasts a long time and affects thoughts, choices, decisions, and attitude. It would affect how you think and treat others. It could almost be overwhelming…
What about applying the same definition to “thanksgiving”? Living in thanksgiving is not momentary. Living in thanksgiving lasts a long time and affects thoughts, choices, decisions, and attitude. It affects how we think and treat others. It could almost be a feeling that overwhelms other feelings.

John F. Kennedy said it this way: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

Last week, our choir sang the French National Anthem to open our worship service. It was a high point for many of us, and by the end of the song, the congregation was standing in honor of our brothers and sisters whose lives have been touched by acts of terror. All week I have recalled that moment and drawn strength from it.

In contrast, there has been a barrage of fear and suspicion this week – fear about our Islamic brothers and sisters; fear about Syrian refugees; fear concerning immigration.

I am not going to speak about the politics of these things. That is not my role. My role is one of Minister of the Gospel. And the Gospel is clear whether we like it or not. The story of Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus fleeing to Egypt to avoid almost certain death is consistent with the Biblical admonition to protect widows, children, orphans, the poor and the outcast. As Christians, we are told that the way we treat others is the way we treat God.

Philippians 4 was written to address anxious times for God’s people. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

I am completely human. I know that fear is an incredibly powerful force. It can cause us to abandon even our most core principles in the quixotic pursuit of perfect safety. And it’s true: there is a risk in loving others, especially others we don’t know who look and think and eat and speak and act differently than we do.
But God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of gratitude and of love and of self-discipline.

Gratitude and thanksgiving are not passive words; they are action verbs! Another Thanksgiving looms on the horizon. We know the drill: baste the turkey, dust the shelves, and throw open the front door for our beloved friends and family. We know how to set the table for our guests. But what about setting the table of our hearts? How do we nurture an interior landscape of thanksgiving?

How can we make our gratitude a living, breathing, palpable thing? After all, the highest thankful spirit is not the words we say, but the life we live. Gratitude is not only a virtue – it is a spiritual practice. And it is a muscle that needs to be used often.

Like the Pilgrims of yesteryear, many of the refugees today are fleeing because of the toxic brew of combining governmental coercive power with religious fervor. Many of them will cross waters on crowded ships of questionable seaworthiness. In preparation for the Thanksgiving holiday celebrations, the nation would do well to reflect on the pilgrims’ arrival in America as refugees and look for ways to reach out to assist modern-day refugees who have aspirations similar to those who celebrated the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony.

I saw a meme this week. A person was standing shirtless in the closet. Hanging in front of the other items in the closet were two shirts. One shirt simply said “fear”. The other shirt said “faith”. The choice is before us as thankful people. Will we chose fear or will we chose faith?