By Rev. Dr. Ron Barnes, LSW
This post is adapted from a sermon that our executive director, Ron Barnes, presented at the Shaler Etna Ministrium Ecumenical Thanksgiving Eve Service at Elfenwild Presbyterian Church last year.
Bible Reading: Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. ~James 1:2-6
A Grateful Heart is a loving heart. A heart often becomes grateful because it has experience in being ungrateful. It has become a grateful heart because it has realized there is much to be grateful for despite life’s trials and difficult times. A heart becomes grateful when it experiences the significance of the Love of Christ. A person develops a deeper appreciation for the life he or she has been given, even amidst difficulty. According to H.U. Westermayer, “The Pilgrims made seven times more graves than huts. No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving.”
Gratefulness is a very powerful energy in a person and adds an immeasurable quality to one’s life. Out of a grateful heart comes a deeper and ever growing awareness of the importance of appreciating everyday life. An Estonian Proverb says, “Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.” And, G.K. Chesterton writes, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
A grateful heart is usually a heart that has been tested. Despite all the challenges a person has experienced, he or she has realized that living gratefully and appreciatively is the high road to travel. It is as G.K. Chesterton maintains, “The highest form of thought.” And, the good Lord knows, we all need a healthy thought world.
Ask someone who has had an organ transplant, who has survived a traumatic accident, who has dealt with tragic loss, who fights chronic pain or chronic illness about having a grateful heart. The challenge of living appreciatively or depreciatively is ever-present. It is present for all of us but it is more obvious when there are ongoing struggles. Adrian van Kaam in his book with Susan Muto “The Power of Appreciative Living” writes: “One quickly discovers amidst the very difficult challenges that arise in life that living depreciatively saps our power to function effectively in the everyday events of life. We feel overwhelmed by problems, the victim of a mean world instead of a willing participant in its better aspects. This narrow vision can even produce a kind of impotence in the realm of the spirit, an inability to tap the resources of joy and energy hidden in everydayness.” He goes on to further state, “Many outstanding representatives of the medical, neurological, psycho-therapeutic, social, educational, and clinical sciences have studied the conditions, dynamics, and effects of positive thinking on people.” There is an inner healing power of expressing praise and appreciation in our lives.
In my training as a pastor at seminary, I was taught the content of a pastoral prayer. If you observe its structure, a pastoral prayer will usually begin with praise and thanksgiving as core elements as well as confession and intercession. It will usually end with more praise for our God. Thinking positive thoughts alone are not enough. We are talking about the integration of a life behavior and an attitude based on our religious and spiritual belief system. Grace isn’t a little prayer you chant before receiving a meal. It’s a way to live,” says Jacqueline Winspear. Our own beloved Mr. Rodgers, who was also a Presbyterian minister, said: “I believe that appreciation is a holy thing—that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does all the time. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.”
So what keeps us from having a grateful heart? A lack of an appreciative mind and heart is the obvious answer. But, what is creating an ungrateful spirit within us? Well there may be a myriad of things happening in our lives that make it hard to have a grateful heart. Maybe you feel justified to have an angry heart, a bitter heart, a sad heart or a lonely heart. These feelings come and go within all of us at times. However, these are conditions of the heart that are not healthy for us to maintain for any length of time. These heart conditions are threatening to our spirit, our mental health, our physical health and to our soul which is our deepest sense of self. For instance, regarding the angry heart, which is often the condition of many hearts, Henri Nouwen writes, “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back- in many ways it is a feast for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
There are very difficult problems in this world. How are we to have a grateful heart when facing intense problems like drug abuse, physical abuse, a conflicted marriage, a rebellious teenager, an obnoxious boss, and ongoing physical stressors? I wrestle with this scripture and this issue as much as or more than you. I have previously felt very entitled to my anger, and my righteous bitterness, and the intense sadness I experienced over a horrible tragedy in my family. I have pondered retaliation towards several friends who cut off our friendship without reason and rather enjoyed my creative schemes. I did not go through with them as much as I would have liked to. The Christian faith calls us to take the high road even when the low road is closer and more convenient. I personally know all about the various negative heart conditions for which we are all capable of rationalizing our need. James challenges all of us about this issue. This scripture in James is a hard one for most of us to understand. It confronts our natural man, our humanness, our human condition as many scriptures tend to do. James never suggested to his readers that Christianity would be an easy way. In the Barclay Commentary on this scripture Hort writes, “The Christian must expect to be jostled by trials on the Christian way. All kinds of experiences will come to us. There will be the test of sorrows and the disappointments which seek to take our faith away. There will be the test of seduction which seek to lure us from the right way. There will be the tests of dangers, the sacrifices, and the unpopularity which the Christian way must so often involve. But they are not meant to make us fall; they are meant to make us soar. They are not meant to defeat us; they are meant to be defeated. They are not meant to make us weaker; they are meant to make us stronger. Therefore we should not bemoan them; we should rejoice in them. The Christian is like the athlete. The heavier the course of training he/she undergoes, the more he is glad, because he knows that it is fitting him all the better for victorious effort.”
OK, I am not attempting to give you a Knute Rockne motivational speech in the locker room at half time of a football game. Or, maybe I am because I believe these words are truth. The topic however, is much broader, it is much more significant, it is about how we are to live our lives and it is not about one football game ( as important as that is in this particular Steeler season).
The truth is we need this scripture and in reality we need grateful hearts. “You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance,” suggests Kahlil Gibran. Also consider the words of Terri Guillments, “Fearing to lose what you have is not the same as appreciation. You have to take a step beyond that.”
Rev. Eugene Peterson tells this story: Johnny Bergman was a young man in my congregation. He and his wife were enthusiastic participants, but then the weeds of worldly care choked their young faith. They acquired children; they became suddenly wealthy and their lives filled up with boats and cars, house building and social engagements. They were in worship less and less frequently and then not at all. After a two-year absence, on a bright winter Epiphany Sunday, Johnny was there again. Surprised to see him, I said, “Johnny! What brought you to worship today?” He said, “I woke this morning feeling so good, so blessed, so alive—so created—I just had to say thank you, and this is the only place I could think of to say it adequately. I wanted to say it to Jesus.”
Grateful hearts enable us to develop a spiritual perspective. A grateful heart helps to nurture our spiritual nature which moves us beyond our human nature and human condition. If our heart is not grateful it is difficult to be a loving heart which we are called by God to have towards our self and others. “Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone,” according to G.B. Stern. And, once again, I am going to quote The Reverend Mr. Rodgers who said, “At the center of the Universe is a loving heart [God’s Heart] that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Anything that we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds. Life is for service.”
God’s love is indeed a healing love. When one is healed it may not necessarily mean cured but His love enables us to transcend the worldly understanding of pain and suffering and own a spiritual perspective and understanding of healing and grace. Having a spiritual understanding of God’s grace can only lead us to having a grateful heart. May each of us continue to live our lives with our spiritual antennae in full reception made of God’s grace and love.
Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, – a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if Thy blessings had spare days,
But such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise.