Psalm 145:1-9, 13b-21 – I will give thanks to your, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will thank you, and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; God's greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I shall meditate. The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed, and I shall declare your greatness. They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and sing aloud of your righteousness. The Lord is graceful and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and God's compassion is over all that God created….
The Lord is faithful in all deeds. The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. The Lord is just in all ways, and kind in all doings. The Lord is near to all who call, who call in truth. The Lord fulfills the desire of all who hold God in awe; hearing their cries and saving them. The Lord watches over all who love the Lord, and all of the wicked will God turn aside to death. My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and all flesh will bless God's holy name forever and ever.
Luke 18:9-14 – Jesus told the parable of some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like the tax collector over there. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' Now the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his chest and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, the tax collector went home justified rather than the religious scholar; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Prayer: “Take our lips and speak through them, Take our eyes and see through them, Take our hearts and set them on fire. Help us to be the master of ourselves that we may be the servants of others. Amen” (St. of Chrysostom).
The host for the dinner at the Oxford University conference called on Holocaust survivor and memoirist, Elie Wiesel, to offer a prayer over the meal. Wiesel told a story. “On the streets and in the camps the [Nazi] S.S. never said ‘thank you.' They had no need for these words: they took whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it; property, life, inventories, hope…. In my camp,” Wiesel recalled, “there was a rabbi who went around urging…us to say ‘thank you' each day and ‘good Sabbath' every Friday. I remember after the liberation of the camps, the survivors who had every right to be angry were grateful for everything. The first words to reach our lips were, ‘thank you' – to the liberators and for bits of bread or meat, for a blanket and shelter, for a kind word, for everything, ‘thank you'.”
The French existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, wrote, “Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you.” My parallel aphorism is, Gratitude is what you do with what has happened to you. The choice is always our own: bitterness, despair, distrust, a religion of superstition, being a victim --or-- turning a circumstance into life and blessing, appreciation and compassion.
We begin this summer Teaching series in which six church members agreed to publicly pose central, personal questions of religion and spirituality, an intimate topic that tries to reconcile an element of faith in a rational, scientific, technological, and iconoclastic era. Each gracious and thoughtful topic invites us to struggle with institutional religion and its dogma and doctrine. Your challenge is let their questions speak to your questions and your experiences. My challenge is to reflect rather than preach, to dialogue rather than pontificate, to encourage each of us to cultivate spiritual values that are transparently Christian and authentically our own.
Oliver Rosenbloom has been active at Westminster since childhood, along with his sister Lucy and mother Jane Drobot. As a sophomore at Brown University, Oliver is involved in campus ministry programs and community service. He posed a deeply personal question about the place of gratitude in the equation of good and evil. As every thoughtful university student, his primary question was carefully modified by a sequence of contextual questions, any one of which is suitable for multiple Sunday Teachings!
Oliver came at the traditional question of theodicy that is, If God is all-powerful and wills only good, why is there suffering and evil in the world? Starting with his own core personal gratitude, Oliver speaks for a common and I suspect, usually unspoken concern: “If God plays such a direct, active role in granting me such a blessed life, then does God play a similarly active role in the lives of less fortunate people?” The fulcrum of this inquiry is the agency of God: does God cause me to be blessed and cause others to be cursed?
Reflection: consider that in the perfectly natural human quest to understand purposes and to attribute responsibility, a global religious industry created and perpetuates the view of a divinity that is all powerful, all knowing, and wills only good. This theological industry either ascribes both suffering and evil to God or leaves unresolved the issue of agency for evil while crediting God for all good things. That the question of theodicy cannot be resolved with certainty often cripples our spiritual practices and deflects our faith with its portrayal of a capricious, controlling, and unpredictable God who is more a potential fiend than a true friend. An alternative, from personal experience and Scripture we may reliably conclude that God wills only good, leaving the full responsibility for implementing the parallel action plan to humanity, collectively and individually.
Reflection: gratitude is a way of life mirrored in the bumper sticker “Live an attitude of gratitude!” Oliver is right and he speaks for a great many of us, “It seems wrong not giving thanks to God for everything.” Is not gratitude the word we use to give voice to the unspeakable awe and wonder of life and Being; the unexplainable insights, mysteries, or breathtaking moments? You give thanks because that is the place from which you live your life: a place of sincere and deep appreciation that may have no need to name a causative force. Similarly, in the face of suffering, tragedy, death, or struggle, gratitude makes it possible to transcend blame and victimization, empowering you to forge ahead, derive important lessons, and, in the best outcome, to discern and derive the blessing that can come from whatever that curse is.
Oliver observes that gratitude is portrayed as a sign of humility, but adds “I would argue that many types of gratitude actually reveal a sense of entitlement or a belief that God favors some people over others.” Reflection, can we be clear that whatever circumstances come in life are not from God and are neither an entitlement nor a punishment. In Jesus' parable, an overtly pious religious man used his gratitude to lift himself onto a pedestal of righteousness – “O God, I thank you that I'm not like other people.” You can almost hear this guy singing the chorus of Mac Davis' country song, “Oh, Lord, it's hard to be humble --- when you're perfect in every way…To know me is to love me; I must be a hell of a man. Oh, Lord, it's hard to be humble, but I'm doin' the best that I can.”
Reflection: Gratitude is a powerfully formative moral force. If you are living an attitude of gratitude, and thankfulness freely wells up within you, then it is gratitude that is the spiritual power making you keenly aware of the inequities and injustices faced by others and it will be the launch pad from which you do the right and spiritually faithful thing. Gratitude is a fine starting point to answer a university student's inquiry, an executive's ethical quandary, a diplomat's search for peace, a parent's longing to raise a kind, caring, adventuresome child; to heal the sick and wounded, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and work for justice and peace.
Gratitude is woven through a life lived in union with Christ. Without attribution of cause, I often say, Thank you God for the upwelling of thankfulness for all that is good and inspiring in my life. I am grateful to God for the fact that I feel or experience an inner sense of thankfulness. When a bad thing happens to me I am not likely to say “Thank you” at the outset, but as with my knee replacement surgery, I end up unabashedly linking gratitude and God – I simply cannot divorce God and gratitude – and I say Thanks be to God for what I have learned about myself and my pain and that of others, and about the miraculous wisdom of surgeons and the creators of artificial knees, and the caring of my family and friends. In union with Christ, what does not begin in gratitude always seems to end in thanksgiving.
Reflection, gratitude is the path to happiness. Researchers had a group of students write a series of one page thank you letters for six weeks. This focus on gratitude increased their baseline happiness by 20 percent. Try it if your gratitude quotient is low or needs a jumpstart – it can change your attitude.
In addition to writing those letters, a sample of six things you can do to make gratitude the center of your Christian life:
Thank God for your feeling or experience ot gratitude
Gratefully give back from the soul of your thankfulness, generously,
Gratefully discern and weigh any “truth” or teaching that violates the core of your soul and your True Self, that is, your place of gratitude,
Regularly re-examine everything you read in the news, or hear anywhere, or are told in church – let go of whatever may violate thankfulness for goodness of others and that of God,
Gratefully adore Mother Earth and cherish each creature in Creation, and
We most often offer prayers of gratitude at meals so try this variation: acknowledge God and the farmer who planted, the laborers who tilled, attended, and harvested, the trucker who brought it to market, the clerk who displayed the food, the checker who sped you on your way, and for the hands that prepared the meal.
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