Psalm 136:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; Ephesians 1:15-16

In the series “Grateful”

      There’s a story about two friends who met on the street one day.  One looked forlorn, almost on the verge of tears. His friend asked, “What has the world done to you, my old friend?” 

The sad fellow said, “Let me tell you: three weeks ago, my uncle died and left me forty thousand dollars.”

“That’s a lot of money,” the friend replied.

“But you see, two weeks ago, a cousin I never even knew died, and left me eighty-five thousand dollars, free and clear.”

“Sounds to me that you’ve been very blessed.”

“You don’t understand!” he interrupted. “Last week my great-aunt passed away. I inherited almost a quarter of a million from her.”

Now the man’s friend was really confused. “Then, why do you look so glum?”

“This week—nothing!”

We can often come to the point where we expect to get certain blessings that God never promised us, and when they do not come, it is easy to get bitter, rather than being grateful.[1]

We continue our series on gratitude we’re calling “Grateful.”  Along the way, we’ve heard some of the benefits of gratitude to our physical, mental and spiritual health. We’ve learned that gratitude is important in forming our kids and in strengthening our relationships.  We’ve heard how we’re made for gratitude and that in all things we can give God thanks.  Along the way we’ve had some opportunities to practice gratitude.  Today we consider how to cultivate gratitude in our lives.

We are using the image of cultivating gratitude, because gratitude is a value that can grow in our lives.  As residents of northwest Ohio, we’re familiar with cultivation in terms of farming or gardening.  Cultivation refers to tilling the soil, planting the seeds, and taking other steps in order to produce a harvest.  In the same way, we need to tend our souls and minds and practice disciplines that will produce a harvest of gratitude in our lives. 

A Templeton Foundation study in 2012 surveyed 2,000 Americans regarding gratitude.  They found that 44% of men say they regularly express thanks – which means that 56% of men don’t.  It was better for women:  52% of women regularly express gratitude, meaning 48% of women don’t. Yet nearly 100% of respondents said that gratitude is an important value. Templeton concluded that Americans think gratitude is an important value; they’re just not very good at expressing it.  They called it a gratitude gap.  Do you have a gratitude gap in your life?

The discipline of gratitude has important impacts on our lives.  A study by the University of California-San Diego with 186 heart failure patients asked a group of them to write three things for which they were grateful each day for eight weeks. They found the patients were less depressed, less fatigued, slept better and had improved markers for cardiac health, leading the study authors to conclude that gratitude journaling is an easy way to improve cardiac health.

Joel Wang and Joshua Brown at Indiana University looked at the effect of gratitude on college students receiving mental health services for depression and anxiety. A control group received counseling, while the study group received counseling and was asked to write a thank you letter to one person each week for three weeks.  Those who wrote thank yous reported significantly better mental health four weeks and again 12 weeks after writing. They wrote that gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions. 

As the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is only with gratitude that life becomes rich![2] (Thank you to Dave Bearden for calling this quote to my attention.) 

The psalmist calls us to be grateful: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 136:1) The psalm continues by remembering God’s character and God’s action in the history of Israel, and the psalmist recognizes that God loves us with an unconditional and neverending love.

Jesus recognized the same truth. When he fed the 5,000 from five loaves and two fishes, the gospel of Matthew tells us he looked up to heaven, gave thanks and broke the loaves. He modeled the posture of gratitude.

So how can we grow in gratitude?  Let’s think about some keys to cultivating gratitude in our lives.

Slow down. The speed of life today is an obstacle to gratitude. Living so fast means we miss things, especially little things.  Slow down so you can notice the things in life that are blessings and the people who bless you.  Express your thanks.  Reflect on what God has done and is doing in your life. Give God thanks.

Another key is to stop the comparisons. We can tend toward comparing our lives to others, and then think, “If only I had what they have, then I’d be happy and grateful.” But that prevents us from being grateful for what God has given us.  What if we could learn simply to appreciate what we already have?

Notice and give thanks for the things we tend to take for granted. Bonhoeffer, who I mentioned earlier, wrote in his classic about life in Christian community, Life Together:  “We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts.[3]  Every day, you and I enjoy and take advantage of many small gifts in life. I wonder if we could learn to see them as gifts and give thanks.  A few years ago Forest Hill South Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina produced a humorous little video for Christmas that has since gone viral. The video’s tagline says: “May you be grateful for all the gifts around you.”  Let’s watch.  (Roll video[4]) Think back through your morning thus far.  How many little gifts did you experience that you could give thanks for?  Learning to give thanks for the small and ordinary gifts will help us grow in gratitude.

Along the way, we have offered some ideas to practice gratitude.  Today we want to share some additional ideas, because practicing gratitude can change our way of thinking.  Research shows that we can rewire our brains through what we do. Our intentional actions develop new neural pathways in our brains that help us to think, feel and act differently in the future.

We’ve suggested recording three to five things each day for which you’re thankful in a gratitude journal.  We’ve written names of saints, listed blessings, or recorded challenges through which God is leading us on leaves and put them on the bulletin board by the Kitchen as an act of gratitude. 

Writing a thank you to someone who is important in your life is another way to practice gratitude. We heard about the impact of those written expression of gratitude on heart and mental health. Do you think they would have an impact on the person receiving the thank you?  I encourage you to look up SoulPancake’s video “The Science of Happiness” online. They asked people to write a thank you letter to someone important to them. Then they told them to call the person on the phone and read them the letter. The video shows the reactions of both the reader and the recipient:  Both people’s lives were touched.  In almost all of his New Testament letters, the Apostle Paul opened with words of gratitude for his fellow believers and friends, as we heard in our Ephesians text today.

We might set aside time each day to express our gratitude to God.  In ancient Israel, daily thanksgiving was so important that Levites were appointed to stand in the Temple every morning and evening to thank God (1 Chron 23:30). Later, we read about a man named Daniel who knelt in prayer to thank God three times a day (Daniel 6:10).  Some families have the practice of saying grace at meals, while others talk about reasons to be thankful before bedtime and praying together.  Sometimes, at the end of trying day, it might be enough simply to thank God that the day is over.  Thirteenth century Christian author and mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” A simple “thank you” prayed before the God of Heaven captures a sense of humility, dependence and trust of a grateful heart.

In addition, thank God publicly and corporately. When we join with other believers, we can encourage each other with our stories of God’s faithfulness and goodness. This helps us see blessings in our lives that we might otherwise overlook. King David knew this. He wrote in Psalm 35:18, “I will give you thanks in the great assembly; among throngs of people.”  When Jesus thanked God for hearing his prayer to raise Lazarus, he prayed it for the benefit of those around him (John 11:41-42).  When we gather for worship, we come together to express our thanks to God for the blessings of our lives and for the joy of relationship with Christ.

Today, you are invited to take the leaf in your Messenger and write down the name of someone important in your life. This could be a mentor, friend, parent, spouse or anyone through whom God has blessed you.  As you write it and hang it on the bulletin board, lift up a prayer of thanks to God for that person and pray for God’s blessing in their lives. 

Gratitude is an important value in life. It is also an attitude that shapes us and leads us. Giving thanks in a variety of ways helps to shape our minds and hearts, and it moves what we say is important into action. 

[1] Accessed 11/16/2019.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Simon and Schuster, 1997), 52.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (SCM Press, 2012), 17

[4] “Christmas Presents,” Forest Hill South Park Church, Accessed 11/13/2019.

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