October 7, 2018: The Way of Gratitude by Rev. Beth Hayward (Joe;l 2: 21-27)

For the past month or so I’ve been practicing yoga every day; more like Monday to Friday. Honestly, I practice yoga four days a week, with my daughter. We meet in the living room at 6:15 in the morning with our mats and usually a cat; he really needs his own mat. We do 20 to 30 minutes of practice, ending on our backs in the savasana position, where we take five deep breaths and in our minds name a gratitude for self, other and world.

I don’t like yoga. I really don’t like it. I hate how much the moves hurt and how perfect our virtual teacher seems as she twists and bends in ways I honestly did not think were possible. But mostly I hate the breathing, the return to your breath, the pay attention to your breathing. I resist the idea that the spin in my head can actually be silenced. I am not a natural yogi.

One day this week I was disrupting the yoga practice so much with my negative back talk to Adrienne, our virtual yoga teacher, that my daughter turned to me, mid downward dog, looked me in the eye and said:  “Mommy, we’re going to stop and go right to the gratitudes.” I felt badly about my poor yoga attitude but it also struck me, just how wise my kid is. Let’s go right to gratitude, let’s just stop trying so hard, stop resisting as the case may be, and start with gratitude.

It’s been scientifically shown that practicing gratitude leads to a more joyful life. I think maybe it leads to a more calm life too. We tend to think that the response to something good in life is gratitude but in fact it works the other way. Start with gratitude and then you’ll feel joy. It makes sense, really, if you’re waiting for something good to happen, something worthy of your gratitude, you’re likely to spend a whole lot of time just waiting.

You know how Dr. Seuss describes the waiting place when he writes that:

Everyone is just waiting…

Waiting for a pot to boil, or a Better Break

Or a string of pearls. O a pair of pants

Or a wig with curls, or Another Chance

Everyone is just waiting.

No! That’s not for you!

If the wisdom of Dr. Seusss prevails we’d all stop waiting for something good to happen and start saying thank you for what already is.

I’m going to bring Joel into this now, this obscure little book of prophesy. We don’t really know where or when this took place but here it is tucked away in the scriptures offering this absurd word of hope to a people who had long forgotten how to say thank you. Things have been so bad for these folks, locusts destroying the crops and the seeds for next year’s planting. It’s been bad for a very long time and into that reality Joel comes and says hey, things are about to change, time to rejoice. The “entire nation teeters on the edge of utter annihilation,” they haven’t heard God’s voice for a generation and here comes a prophet saying over and over again rejoice, be joyful.

I wonder if Joel knew what we know now maybe he could have started more realistically telling them to say thank you instead of rejoice. Maybe had they practiced saying thanks while the locusts were ravaging their crops things might have felt differently? Gratitude is so very hard because life isn’t easy. How do you maintain a posture of thanks when there is something every single day that makes you want to throw up your hands in resignation or fall to your knees in defeat? Late priest and theologian Henri Nouwen talked about how easy it is

To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives… but to be grateful for all our lives—the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections—that requires hard spiritual work.[1]

He insisted that, “we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment.” I can imagine the Israelites were not feeling inclined to say thanks for the locusts by the time we catch up with them. It’s certainly no help if our gratitude becomes a form of denial, a silencing of the aching, broken bits, of our lives. Maybe we fear that gratitude can become hollow, can run the risk of looking like denial.

Maybe gratitude seems a little bit absurd or even completely counter cultural in a world where fear and a sense of scarcity are rampant, in lives where we bear real wounds. Where do we find gratitude in the painful drama that has played out over this Supreme Court judge appointment south of the border? How do we find gratitude when a boys-will-be-boys mentality continues to win the day? Where is the gratitude to be found when temperatures continue to rise as our sense of helplessness to do something about it plummets?

There is so much in this world that challenges an orientation to gratitude. But on this Thanksgiving Day, I wonder if maybe you need to hear a word for your soul? I wonder if you need to start a bit closer to the heart of things? I wonder if gratitude in a hurting world pales in comparison to finding it in your life? Maybe the weight of the burdens in your life, are enough of a starting place this day, let alone the world’s tragic story? Every one of us has a story of tragedy that we just can’t shake. Maybe this Thanksgiving you need to give voice to the thousand reasons you can’t dare to be grateful.

Maybe, before you can get to gratitude you need to have a great big cry, like when Jesus arrived at the home of his dear ailing friend Lazarus three days too late and everyone turned to him and said where were you when we needed you? Faced with an impossible situation Jesus’ first reaction was to stand there and weep. Maybe gratitude, if it’s going to be anything more than a Hallmark card, needs to be big enough to hold our tears; so that it’s not denial at all, but a posture of holding the full scope of life and seeing it as gift. It’s opening your eyes to the glimmers of light through the cracks, attuning your ears to the a sweet melody that rises up from the ruins, opening your senses to the smell of fallen leaves and their promise to nurture the earth for spring flowers. Gratitude isn’t denial of the bad; it’s daring to see the good.

The love of your life dies and a neighbour brings you a casserole – thanks.

Your health fails and a friend sits with you as you await the results – thanks.

You come through a surgery that has left you maimed but alive – thanks.

You lose your job and the morning breaks with sunshine pouring through your window – thanks.

Truth is, you’ve felt the silence that Joel’s people knew all those years when the locusts ate their hope and their dreams. Faith is only as good to you as its capacity to not deny the tragedy and the heartbreak, to not silence the shame and the guilt. The story of this place will let your tears land and your wailing find its voice AND will keep bringing you back to gratitude in spite of your best efforts to shut such foolishness down. It’s easy for us to pick up the story at the moment when Joel declares that it’s finally time to rejoice but they’ve just spent a generation with flying grasshoppers picking the goodness of their life away, one nibble at a time. If we’re honest we’ll admit that we show up here because our experience of the absence of God has led us here in search of God’s presence.

Look at the primary symbol of our faith, look behind me at that cross, with Jesus body on it, the utter tragedy of it. “The cross is a symbol of defeat before it is a symbol of victory.”[2] These walls and the community that gathers here are meant to create a container large enough to hold both the Good Friday cross and the Easter cross. Here we practice saying thank you no matter the state of the cross at this moment. We need thanksgiving, not to lift up some sort of unattainable ideal of what a perfect family holiday should look like but to point us to the way of gratitude even when our hearts break. If we want to be a people who rejoice then we’ve got to begin by tapping deep into gratitude, whether we’re feeling it or not.

A wise thinker says the way of gratitude is through silence. Not hollow silence, not silence used to cut off the conversation but deep abiding silence. “Before the gospel is word,” says Fred Buechner, “it is silence.”  It’s the silence of your life and of mine. “It is life with the sound turned off so that for a moment or two you can experiences it not in terms of the words you make it bearable by but for the unutterable mystery that it is.”[3] And I know we’re not so good at silence, it says far too much. What if we turned off our heads off for a moment? Turn off the stories of not enough, not good enough, never going to happen, boys will be boys, just turn it all off long enough because you’re going to find that when you stop filling in the blanks, when you stop covering up the silence with your usual answers, a voice will stir a memory or a longing or an intuition that you have been starving for without even knowing it. And when that happens the only thing you can say is thanks! And that’s a good enough place to begin.  Amen

[1] https://thevalueofsparrows.com/2012/07/05/silence-on-words-and-silence-by-henri-nouwen/

[2] Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.  Harper One, New York, 1977.

[3] Ibid p 23