Joey Adams – the old Vaudeville Comedian -told the classic joke about the woman who was at the beach with her little boy. They were standing too close to the water when a great big wave crashed on shore and swept her little boy out to sea. The woman prayed – “Oh God, please…please… please… please have mercy on me and bring back my beautiful little boy to me. I promise that I will be eternally grateful to you. I’ll go to church every Sunday. I’ll never cheat on my taxes again. I’ll be nice to my mother-in-law. I’ll stop smoking and drinking and carousing… anything… I’ll do anything… God, just my little boy back. Just then another wave crashed on the shore, and there he was, her little boy, all safe and sound. And the woman looked up to God and said, “But he was wearing a hat… where’s his hat?” (Jerry Newcombe)
Ingratitude… ungrateful… even the words sound harsh, ugly, don’t they? But it’s more than that. Paul writing to the Romans said that God’s presence and power in the universe are obvious for anyone with eyes to see, and that this should elicit from us a response of thanks (Romans 1:20-21). But it doesn’t. We are not awed by sunrises. We’re not impressed with our opposable thumbs. We aren’t amazed by the abundance and variety of God’s bounty that’s on display in the produce section of the market where we shop. Ingratitude… ungrateful… Paul argued that this is the root of all sin, the first crack in the dam that caused it to fail and flood the world with misery, sadness, and shame.
When my kids were young, and we were invited over to somebody’s house for dinner, Mary Lynn and I would always have to sit them down first, especially my son, and explain to them that we were going to be somebody’s guests for the evening, and that meant that we weren’t in charge. We were going to have to play by somebody else’s rules. We were going to be polite, respectful, and grateful. We were going to do what we were told. We were going to sit still at the dinner table, eat whatever was put in front of us, and say “please” and “thank-you” for everything, even Brussel Sprouts if it came to that. It was always necessary for us to say this because my kids thought they were in charge when they were young. They were accustomed to operating as the little gods of their own universes, always finagling to get their way, trying to arrange everything and everybody to suit their own preferences. Stopping at nothing to get their way. My kids were miserable human beings when they were little. They couldn’t help it. They got it from their mother… and from me. You see, this is the human condition. And where this train jumped the tracks, Biblically, was in a Garden long ago and far away where our primal parents refused to honor God or give Him thanks. Now, we’re all infected with that virus.
Humanity was placed in a perfect world of beauty, harmony, and abundance and they were told to enjoy it, but on the terms of the One who made it and put them there. Everything they would ever need to thrive and be happy was right there in that garden at their fingertips, given to them as a gift, but they couldn’t hang onto it because they weren’t in charge of it. Humanity wouldn’t honor God, or give God thanks, and without God at the center of things, holding it together, it all began to fly apart. The story of the rest of the Bible is the story of how God slowly but surely started putting everything back together again. The New Testament book of Ephesians begins with Paul telling the church that God’s eternal purpose is to “unite all things in heaven and on earth” (1:10). Putting everything back together again, this is what Jesus Christ came to do Paul said. In Christ, God stepped into a fragmented and fragmenting world, into a world that was coming apart at its seams, and He began to pull it back together again.
Now, this saving work of God in Christ requiresa proper response from us. We need to recognize that there only one God, andit’s not us. And the firstand best evidence that it’s actually happening in us is the thanks that startscoming from us.“Always and for everything giving thanksin the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father” – that’s what Ephesians 5:20 says is supposedto be characteristic of our lives as God’s people. “Always”and “for everything” thankful. That’s how Paul told us that we show God thatwe have acknowledged His presence, power, and provision. So, how are we doing?
Thursday is the day on the national calendar when we as citizens are asked to pause and ponder once again the grace that God has shed on our country by remembering the story of the Pilgrims, and to give thanks. Every Sunday on the church calendar is the day when we as Christians are asked to pause and ponder once again the grace that God has provided for us by coming to the Lord’s Table to break bread and pour a cup in remembrance of what was done for us on Calvary’s cross, and to give thanks. Thanks-giving is all about pausing and pondering. It’s all about being mindful. It’s all about being aware of what it is that God has done for us. If the failure to honor God as God, and the refusal to give God thanks is where all of our trouble as human beings began, as Paul told the Romans it was, then it’s got to be the decision to honor God as God, and to start giving God the thanks that He deserves that aligns us with the work He is doing in Jesus Christ to put things in our lives and our world back together again.
Somebody who has helped me become more intentional and consistent about giving thanks is Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, who has focused his long ministry on teaching people gratefulness as a spiritual discipline. I got to be spend a little time with him a few years ago at Thanksgiving Square up in Dallas, and although brief, it was absolutely transformative for me spiritually. Brother David’s keenest insight about the spiritual practice of gratitude is his observation that gratitude and thanksgiving are two different things. Gratitude is inward. Thanksgiving is outward. Gratitude is awareness. Thanksgiving is response. Gratitude is something we feel. Thanksgiving is something we do. Try to remember the last time you saw something truly spectacular in nature, something that caught you by surprise and took your breath away. What did you feel in that moment? Well, those feelings are gratitude Brother David says, and they are the deep well out of which thanksgiving arises. Brother David says that the key to being grateful is wonder. We’ve got to be surprised – surprised by joy, surprised by beauty, surprised by majesty. Spiritually, we can’t be sleepwalking through life. In the same way that alarms clocks jolt us awake in the morning, so we need something to jolt us awake spiritually, something to shake us from our lethargy into awareness. For me its Cardinals.
I didn’t see redbirds growing up in Southern California, and so their presence in the trees and on the fences of the North Texas world I’ve lived in for the past 20 years fascinates and delights me. Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, whenever I see the red flash of a Cardinal I stop to watch. Cardinals prompt wonder and awe in me, and so after spending some time with Brother David, I decided to use Cardinals as my gratitude trigger. Now, whenever a Cardinal flashes through my field of vision and startles me into awareness, I take it as a “tug” from God, as a reminder that God is there thinking of me, and that I should be thinking of Him. And from that inner awareness triggered by wonder and surprise at the beauty of a Cardinal, I become outwardly and deliberately thankful.
When we are surprised by beauty, our hearts prompt us to say “thank-you.” The awareness of gratitude becomes the expression of thanksgiving. The spiritual discipline of gratefulness needs both wonder and words. One of my best friends is an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi. When I am with Hanan I watch him practice the spiritual discipline of blessing. It’s said that an observant Jew will bless God 100 times every day for the things that God gives to and does for them – the food they eat, the way their bodies work, their identity and heritage as the Chosen People. 100 times every day my friend Hanan stops what he is doing and offers a formal blessing to God.Now, assuming that you sleep eight hours a night, offering 100 blessings each day during your waking hours works out to be a blessing every nine minutes. Try it. Six times an hour, every hour from now until you go to bed tonight, try to consciously think of God and thank Him for something that He is doing for you or has given to you in that moment. Talk about living a God-focused life! By praying 100 blessings each day, one blessing every 9 minutes or so, my friend is constantly aware of God’s presence, he is fully conscious of God’s provision, and he is always and for everything thankful to God, and Biblically, that sounds to me like the essence of the spiritual life.
Thursdayis Thanksgiving, our National Day for pausing and pondering as citizens. It is the day each year when we are encouraged to be mindful of the Creator God’s goodness to us by giving us this land so graced by His bounty. And every Sunday is the Lord’s Day, our spiritual day for pausing and pondering as Christians. It is the day each week when we are encouraged to be mindful of the Redeemer God’s goodness to us by blessing us with every spiritual blessing in Jesus Christ. And it is our task to figure out how we can make this pausing and pondering, this mindfulness of God’s goodness to us, more than just something that we do one day a year, or one day a week, but rather becomes the spiritual rhythm of every moment of every day so that “always and for everything we are giving thanks to God our Father in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” DBS +