Rev. Ellen Jennings
~Psalm 100; 1 Timothy 6:6-12, 17-19~
I know some of you read my Pastor’s Page regularly, others once in a while, and a few not so much! So, in the interest of everyone having the same information, I’ll begin by repeating part of Friday’s missive:
This week, depending which way you turn, it looks like autumn or winter. One tree may still be full of scarlet, orange and yellow leaves, while another is almost empty. That’s a pretty good analogy for how I’m feeling today: grateful for so much love, grace and beauty in my life, struggling with the challenges and spaces where God is (or seems to be) absent.
Yesterday afternoon my son was taken by ambulance from his high school to the ER. He has a chronic health condition, so it wasn’t a complete surprise. However, the school administrator got confused and erroneously told me the medics had used a defibrillator! So, I drove the twenty minutes to Holy Cross fearing the worst. The good news is: they did NOT use a defibrillator, and my son was stable (thank God!) when I arrived. The bad news is: he’s unable to stand upright due to autonomic (blood pressure and heart rate) issues, and that’s not only scary it’s unacceptable (did you hear that God?).
So, though I rarely write about myself or my family (which is, generally, a good pastoral boundary), this morning I ask for your prayers. Tate could really use some bright autumn color in his life. He’s done with the empty branches. And so am I.
Three days later, Tate’s still unable to remain upright for long, and we remain uncertain about his prognosis (though we’ve been on this chronic illness journey for over three years). It’s hard. It’s scary. And some days it makes me doubt… any number of things. Yet this sermon isn’t just about me—or my family. Because each of us has stories of times when life looked bleak or hopeless or uncertain or unsafe. We are, very definitely, not alone in this. And, to be honest, there’s some comfort in that.
But what about the gratitude I mentioned? Where and how does it fit in? Is it even possible to feel grateful amidst the reality of human pain and suffering? Or, as I wrote on Friday:
How do we focus on the good amidst the not-so-good (or downright bad)? How can we see all the beauty around us when, admittedly, there’s ample ugliness as well? How do we remember to thank God for our many blessings when it’s also true that we each face any number of challenges just being human, as my father would say, “on this mortal coil?”
The answer, for me, is because we must—because gratitude is the antidote to the garbage of life. Without gratitude, or the recognition that we are surrounded by blessings all the time, it would be so easy to grow cynical, jaded, and self-absorbed. “Why me?!” would become the rallying cry for all the pain and sorrow we suffer. Even if, “why me?!” never crosses our minds each time we wake up in the morning, alive, the sun shining, the birds singing.
I’m no Pollyanna. I mean, I see the garbage. I’m well aware of the state of our nation, I understand the depths of human depravity, I experience the difficulties of interpersonal relationships, and I have more than one child with a disability. Yet I also know we have choice, or “free will” if you prefer. And it’s an essential component of our human being. As Holocaust Survivor, psychologist and author, Viktor Frankl, wrote:
Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
In other words, we don’t get to choose the circumstances, we don’t get to choose what life throws at us, we don’t get to choose what other human beings do to us, but we do get to choose how we respond. And that’s both a privilege and a blessing.
It’s also a challenge. Because, when it comes to responding, there are any number of options. We can choose defeat, despair, denial, defensiveness; we can even choose death. We can wallow. We can self-medicate. We can wail. We can blame others. We can cry out to the world how unfair it all is (and let’s agree, right here and now: life is unfair) or we can do what Twelve Step Groups across the globe recommend: adopt an “attitude of gratitude.”
I recently read on the website, Promises, that addicts often harbor the belief: I’m different from everyone else. And, I think we’re all addicts in this way. I think there’s a part of each of us that believes we’re different from others and life has been unfair to us in some unique way—which gives us license to continue whatever self (or other) destructive and/or maladaptive behaviors we’ve developed in response to this belief.
But the truth is: we’re not unique. At least not in this. We’re each human, we’re each fallible, we’re each beautiful, we’re each broken. What the Twelve Step Programs teach is that “our lives are not determined by what happens to us, but by how we react to what happens, not by what life brings to us, but by the attitudes we bring to life.” Which is what Viktor Frankl learned in the camps of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Dachau—and what we can learn from our own trials by fire. For, in Frankl’s words: “What is to give light must endure burning.”
What is to give light must endure burning… Resurrection theology from a Jewish death camp survivor! And, eternally true. Seventy years later and an ocean away, Glennon Doyle, author of Love Warrior, writes it this way: “First the pain, then the rising.”
And gratitude is how we rise! Because, again, gratitude is the best antidote to garbage. If we’re able to see the blessings amidst the banes of our existence, then we can grow beyond our own limited and often self-centered horizons and discover how much we have to be thankful for— thus learning both to experience and to express thanks. For both are important. As Dr. Robert Emmons, father of the “science of gratitude” writes: To reap the rewards of gratitude (and there are many—from strengthened immune systems to stronger relationships), we need to do more than feel grateful. “The word, ‘thanksgiving,’ means giving of thanks. It is an action word. Gratitude requires action.”
So, as we approach this Thanksgiving, how can we best express our gratitude? Specifically, how can we express it in the context of a situation that causes us pain? Does your father have Alzheimers? Do you struggle with anxiety? Does your child have a learning disability? Are you miserable at work? Do you self- medicate with drugs, alcohol or food? I’m quite certain we can each come up with some significant distress in our lives. And it’s on that which I’m asking you to focus. Again, I’m not suggesting we engage in denial. Rather, I’m encouraging us to look at whatever our situation is and find something within it for which to be grateful. Something within it for which to give thanks.
You were each given a leaf when you came in. And there are little pencils in the pews if you don’t have one. Robert Emmons defines gratitude as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life.” So, I invite you to think about a difficult situation in your life and reflect on the following: For what in your own challenging scenario can you give thanks? Is there some aspect for which you can cultivate a sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation?
When you’ve identified it, please write it on your leaf. You’re then welcome to come forward and place it on one of these Thanksgiving wreaths. My hope is that each of us will continue this practice by identifying three blessings in every difficult situation we encounter this Thanksgiving week. Then keep going… I promise it will enrich our lives.
We’ll close in prayer:
Loving and faithful God, we do not pretend to understand why life throws us curve balls. But we do know they continue to catch us off guard, often making us stagger and hesitate when hit. Sometimes it’s mere inconvenience, other times it’s true pain and despair, always, it’s difficult to understand. Help us to remember that in every challenging situation, there are blessings to be found. We know this doesn’t erase our pain, but it does offer us a larger view. For we are surely blessed, and there are endless opportunities to be grateful. Amen.