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The Spiritual Practice of Gratitude

 Phil 4:4-8. 

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Today marks the beginning of a series centered around spiritual disciplines.  They are practises that help us grow in spiritual and emotional maturity.  I’ve chosen 4 spiritual practises that relate to the Thanksgiving season.  Over the course of 4 weeks, we will examine gratitude, generosity, stewardship and hospitality.  As we look deeply at these Christian practises, we will see how our faith in some way connects to real life in ways that are intentional and genuine.  

I used to be uncomfortable with the whole idea of a spiritual discipline or a spiritual practice because I didn’t have a good understanding of theology.  I’m one of those people, who learns first coming to an understanding and then I get why I should act in a particular way.  Some of you also are like that.  I thought that if I was saved by faith because of God’s grace then I would just do the things of Jesus automatically.  And that made me frustrated that somehow I might have to work for my salvation.  But spiritual practises are not about working for my salvation but being intentional about growing spiritually.  And to grow spiritually, there are good and helpful things that I can do to help me.  And because these are spiritual practices… the Holy Spirit is definitely involved.  

Today we are examining gratitude.  

I used to think that gratitude was sort of an unrealistic Pollyanna outlook that glossed over the real pain and suffering of emotions and feelings.  And I struggled to understand that gratitude was not necessarily a feeling or an emotion but an attitude that I could choose.  Now, gratitude certainly produces feelings and good ones.  But gratitude does not overlook grief, sadness, pain, suffering, tragedy or other negative emotions and experiences.  Gratitude is a posture I take within such difficult emotions and experiences.  

I had an interesting experience around this: I was teaching in a recovery ministry in the heart of Bridgeport CT.  I was teaching 32 men who were recovering from severe addictions.  I was reading through the curriculum and the author highlighted the difference between feelings and attitudes.  And I had an aha moment.  Feelings I have, attitudes, I choose and even cultivate.  That insight launched a period of growth for me as I began to realize the negative attitude and outlook I was bringing to my life, my family and my ministry.  

At the same time, Dan and I were holding a marriage class and book study on Seven Principles for making Marriage Work by John Gottman.  Gottman was writing about negative sentiment override and how a negative view could override anything good in our lives.  That began the process of intentionally choosing to see differently.

We have a default groove in our brains based on how we have experienced life.  Our brains become hard-wired to see in a negative way.  And every experience, or thought or observation falls right into that groove and we continue to see and experience the world according to that hard-wiring.  

And we live in a culture that values the critic who criticizes everything from policy to people.  I think our whole culture is in negative sentiment override and all that we hear seems to be negative.  It’s no wonder we develop such negative outlooks.  But our brains can be literally re-wired or retrained by being intentional about choosing to see differently.

I train each week with a trainer who helps me maintain and develop my muscles.  Over our lives, we loose muscle mass and our metabolism goes down.  We can lose up to a half pound a year of muscle mass as we age.  When I first started training, I was pretty weak.  I could barely lift a ten pound dumbbell over my head.  And the exercises seemed uncomfortable as I tried to learn the patterns.  Over time, my brain re-wired itself to recognize and be able to do those exercises without even thinking.  And my muscles could support higher weights.  I can press two 40 pound dumbbells —eighty pounds now.  I can leg press 600 pounds.  This happened because of intentional practises within which my body and brain were re-wired and strengthened.  

The apostle Paul says that we are to renew our minds.  Intentional practises of gratitude help us renew our minds and exercise our gratitude muscle.  The more that muscle is used the better it works and the more natural the practice begins to feel.  

In our passage today, we notice that Paul asks the church to rejoice in the Lord always.  

Notice that he did not say rejoice because you are hurting, or rejoice because you are suffering, or rejoice because all kinds of bad things happened.  NO… He says rejoice in the Lord.  Translation: find you joy in the Lord.  God is not calling his people to be happy about suffering or having awful things happen.  That’s a Pollyanna sort of outlook that glosses over the difficult and tragic things that happen to people in this world.  In the Letter to the Philippians Paul was writing from a prison cell… or at best a house within which he was under house arrest.  His movements were restricted until his trial would come before the magistrates.  His rejoicing was not in his imprisonment but his rejoicing was in the Lord.  

What does it mean to rejoice in the Lord?  There are some clues.

In verse 5 and 6 Paul says, The Lord is near, don’t be anxious about anything.  Time and time again in the Bible we are reminded that the Lord is near, that the Lord will not leave us or abandon us.  Even the name of Jesus, Emmanuel means that God is with us.  We rejoice because we are not alone, God is with us even in the darkest moments of our lives.  And we rejoice or find joy in the fact that the Lord is near.   I am grateful that God is near even if I can’t feel God’s nearness in the moment.  

Second, Paul says, let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people.  

This is a posture toward human beings that recognizes their value and worth and we intentionally choose to see them as beloved children of God.  Then our enemy is somehow changed in our own eyes from a beast to a person God loves.  And the brain draws a new groove as we learn to see differently.  

Third, Paul tells the readers of his letter to bring their requests to God in prayers and petitions.  By bringing our anxieties and requests and petitions to God, we invite the one who can help us and who can act on our behalf.  By bringing our anxieties and requests to God, we can begin to let go of our fears and anxieties.  There are things we can do to help ourselves and at times we are out of control.  My guess is that being a minority people in the Roman Empire—persecuted for their faith, imprisoned, much was out of their immediate control.  But Paul invites his readers to bring their troubles to God and refocus on the one who could actually help them.  

Fourth, Paul tells the church to give thanks along with their petitions.

So in the midst of trouble and in the midst of living in an unfriendly empire, in the midst of being misunderstood by friends, family and neighbors, Paul reminds the church to give thanks along with their petitions.  That is so interesting.  

Indeed we are real about the challenges of life as we bring our struggles to God.  But then give thanks or express gratitude to God.  Then the peace of Christ that is beyond our understanding comes.

You see it’s not normal to offer thanksgiving in the midst of struggle.  But something happens when we look for things to be grateful for.  

Now, I want to be really careful here because I don’t want you to process this scripture as somehow discounting feelings—no rather, I think that in our prayers and petitions, we pour out our suffering and pain and sadness… sort of emptying the feelings inside. 

We can picture God welcoming us in all of our pain, sadness, suffering as we are held by one who is fully love.  It’s the picture of a little child running to their parent when they skinned a knee.  The parent picks him up, cradles the child in her arms and holds him tight.  The pain is noticed, seen, and we are cared for in the presence of God.  

And it is a bit easier to offer thanksgiving when we have been in the loving presence of God.  So that’s the picture I want you to take away with you today.  

Finally, Paul reminds the church to focus it’s thoughts on what is true, what is pure, what is holy, what is just, what is lovely and worthy of praise.  

He says to practice these things… practice seeing with gratitude—practice seeing the good in the world.  Why would Paul say this to the church?  It is precisely because when life is hard, when we face challenge and difficulty, that we get further dragged down into the muck when we only see the difficulty of life.  

Paul intentionally asks the church to look for the good and express gratitude.  

My spiritual director gave me some practises to help me with my gratitude issues.  He asked me to journal or at least consider each day two things.  What today were you least grateful for, and what today were you most grateful for.  These questions were to take place at the end of each day before I went to sleep.  Then I could sleep with bread as he called it.  I could sleep knowing God was good and that God was with me and that God would meet my need.  I learned to notice places and patterns of ingratitude while I was learning to see and notice what I could be grateful for.  And the negative mind began to change.  

Over time as we reflect on what we are grateful for, our brains will begin to change to be rewired to see the good everyday.  As we become more grateful, and as we express gratitude to God and others our entire outlook on life will change.  

I have a little video to close with that gives some of the brain science around gratitude as well as some journals ideas that you can put into practice to cultivate gratitude and a positive outlook.  



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