The turkey is defrosting. The house smells of pies baking. Preparations for the annual Thanksgiving Day are underway. One preparation is still undone – a list of the things for which I am thankful. Steeped in the mythic stories of the Mayflower and the big spread shared by indigenous Americans and their English guests, we will focus on the feast and the harvest time. Certainly, we will give thanks for family and friends. Maybe we are grateful for health – and if we are honest – wealth. The list is long, and I’m glad I only must do this once a year! But then I read scripture.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-19)
Paul’s commands seem a little unattainable, don’t they? Rejoice always? Pray without ceasing? Give thanks in all circumstances? I’m not sure I have the capacity, the will, or the spiritual fortitude to meet such high expectations – especially without repeating myself. But then, maybe that is Paul’s point. Notice the last five words of the passage above – Do not quench the Spirit. Maybe all the joy, prayer, and gratitude are not ours to produce or manufacture. Maybe it is a gift of the Spirit.
Paul tells us in Romans that “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26) Maybe working ourselves into “an attitude of gratitude” is not the goal. Maybe gratitude (and joy, and prayer itself) are a gift of the Spirit simply longing to be expressed and experienced.
James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, points to several ways that we might be engaged in prayer without even knowing it. One of them is “You are aware that you are grateful.” He goes on to explain: “You’re moved to say thanks about something wonderful, and your gratitude feels directed somewhere, to something, someone. Your gratitude feels as if it needs a place to go. Or you might look at a beautiful sight—a flower in bloom, snow on your porch, a bird that flies by—and say, “I’m so grateful to see that.” This is reflexive gratitude, and the natural desire to express it can be the beginning of prayer. (Martin, James. Learning to Pray (p. 40). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)
Gratitude as a gift of the Spirit is grace apprehended. It is noticing the way in which God’s grace has given us everything. We can’t take a breath that is not a gift from a God who sustains us with oxygen. The struggle is that we become so surrounded by the grace we stop noticing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison, says it this way:
“In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.”
Thanksgiving Day for the Christian is like all other days, in some sense. We don’t begin with the material gifts and the mountain of food. We don’t begin with family and friends. We begin with Jesus Christ and the knowledge that we have been made beloved children of God in and through him. N.T. Wright reflects:
“When we learn to read the story of Jesus and see it as the story of the love of God, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves--that insight produces, again and again, a sense of astonished gratitude which is very near the heart of authentic Christian experience.”
Astonished gratitude. Yes. Astonishment rises from our hearts by the power of the Spirit. If we will but notice, we will find joy, peace, and love – along with all the gratitude we can hold. Gratitude comes from God. It reminds me of a wonderful quote from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh: “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”
May God flood your heart with gratitude this Thanksgiving Day and every day. May you have the eyes to see it, ears to hear it, and the joy that comes from noticing all God has done.
Tim Olson – Lead Pastor