by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
Deut 26 1-11: Gratitude. Recognition of where you got things
Luke 4: facing the parts of yourself that call you away from who you really are
After my now ex-husband left me, I fell into pieces (as one does when their life falls apart swiftly without warning). However, I was a few days away from my approval interview (the final step in the candidacy process in the ELCA) and a month away from finishing my internship. I would soon be searching for a call and was anticipating becoming an ordained minister, the culmination of around 15 years of work, wandering, struggling and waiting. Years ago, while in my second year of seminary, my father died and that falling apart led me to leave the candidacy process and seminary altogether. I could not, I would not, let that happen again.
I immediately began therapy (honestly because I knew I needed to be able to tell my committee this) and decided one of the things I would do was begin a daily gratitude practice. I don’t know where I got the idea from, but something about trying to appreciate life while I actually wanted to hide from it seemed like a good idea. I was right.
I would get up every morning and give thanks for three things. Some days I would give thanks for things like chairs and carpet because that was all I could manage. Some days I was able to be more reflective and give thanks for my supportive family, my job, food on the table, or health insurance. I am to this day convinced that this practice was instrumental in keeping me from falling apart.
Practicing gratitude is getting some press right now and depending on where you are standing it may seem like an excellent thing, a tired thing, or an annoying thing (I am one who frequently finds trends, even useful trends, to be unreasonably irritating). The thing is, gratitude as a practice can be sustaining and can lead to transformation.
Gratitude is sometimes framed as a thing to do instead of feeling angry or sad, grieved or hurt. I would say it is a practice that should happen alongside feeling one’s feelings and, over time, may help in getting through or even transforming the pain of life. In fact, research shows that gratitude helps ease the pain of depression.
I wonder if God knew this when God told us (when God tells us) to offer up thanksgiving. Is this an act of a God who really lives for praise? Or the act of a God who knows that showing gratitude is good for us? (maybe both?)
It sounds so awful for God to tell people wandering in the wilderness (whether literal or metaphorical) to give thanks, especially as this is so often interpreted as some kind of scarcity Olympics where we are told “at least be thankful you aren’t starving!” However, there is an abundance of psychological research that tells us that practicing gratitude can change our perception of what we have from scarcity to abundance. And this is not only importance for us as individuals, it’s important for us as communities.
Think of what happens to people in perceived scarcity. People in a scarcity mindset are less likely to share, more likely to dig their heels in, less welcoming to outsiders. Scarcity encourages all kinds of behaviors that are against the ways in which Christ asks us to live. According to a 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, white people perceive black people differently when resources are scarce. Not only does scarcity cause us to close ourselves to outsiders, it causes white people to be, well, more racist.
It may be trendy, it may be annoying, but it is also a really good thing to practice gratitude. As this reading encourages, not only does God command us to practice gratitude on our own, but in community *and* with outsiders. What if we engaged our people in a gratitude practice and then invited our neighbors to a celebration of our abundance – even the foreigner in our midst (who God says we are to invite)
This Sunday, you can encourage your people to engage in a practice of gratitude, for Lent and beyond and maybe, just maybe, that might make life easier for you too ;-)
It’s hard to come up with something new to say about this Gospel, but my favorite take on it is the idea of Jesus being tempted by himself in the desert – by those voices inside of him that were calling him to use his God powers for earthly goods instead of for the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was tempted by the adversary trying to get him off track of who he was called to be. What are our people tempted by? We have a tendency to focus on calling out people for being tempted by wealth and power, but I focus more on how we are tempted to listen to the voices of shame and doubt in our heads. The voices that tell us that we can’t, that we aren’t worthy, that we shouldn’t even bother. Those voices are the same voices that tempt us towards wealth, towards power, towards keeping other people from what we have and keeping others down (so we can prove we are enough!).
Get some sleep, pastor. We have to keep on going.