“Giving Thanks” Colchester Federated Church, November 21, 2021, Thanksgiving Sunday & Consecration Sunday (Psalm 97)

Last year I went on an 8 Day Silent Retreat in Gloucester, Massachusetts at a Jesuit Retreat Center.  23 hours a day were spent in silence.  Each retreatant is assigned a Spiritual Director, and that’s the one person you talk to for no more than an hour each day.  Meals are taken in silence.  When someone crosses your path throughout the day there’s mostly awkward hand gestures or muted smiles.  Mass is observed daily, so we were allowed to talk then.  But because I don’t know many of the responses, that didn’t necessarily provide a verbal outlet.  My Spiritual Director was a wise and kind Roman Catholic Sister who, like me, especially connects to God in the natural world.  So each day we would talk about various topics and where God seemed to be leading.  She would end our time together by giving me a slip of paper with a different walk to try.  The invitation was to go out into God’s creation along the beautiful grounds of this retreat center and see what there was to discover outside.  

One of the walks was called a Gratitude Walk.  The written directions said, “[On] every step of our journey there is something to be grateful for; find it, acknowledge it.  The spiritual practice of gratitude changes our lives.  Expressing gratitude is a way to praise [our] Creator.  We can express appreciation to everything and everyone that we encounter, because by blessing others, we are blessed.”

The stated intention of the Gratitude Walk was to express gratitude for creation, for the teachings of earth, for all its inhabitants, and for God.  The directions were rather simple—spend the first fifteen minutes just noticing all that is around you and then gradually express gratitude for all you feel and observe in the natural world.  An example could be, “Thank you, God, for this tree.  Thank you for the lessons the tree is teaching me about rootedness and having branches wide open to the world.”  “Thank you, God, for this ant.  Thank you for the ant teaching me about the importance of community and the power of working with others in collaboration.”  And so on.  Perhaps it sounds strange.  I wasn’t so lonely and unhinged from all that silence that I was literally talking to trees and ants aloud or anything.  The point of the Gratitude Walk was to look at everything and everyone (ever being) we encounter and be grateful.  Even trees and rocks and the ocean and fish and birds have something to teach us or have qualities that we can appreciate.  What does it mean to open our hearts to that depth of gratitude for everything?

The Psalmist declares that God rules, so let the earth rejoice and let the islands celebrate.  One could argue that this spiritual practice of a Gratitude Walk is quite biblical.  How many times can we turn to the Psalms and specifically to a Psalm of Thanksgiving like Psalm 97 and read about all of creation praising God?  We are part of that creation, of course.  So when we praise God and have gratitude for God’s good creation it links us to our faith ancestors who seemed to feel the same way.  The Psalm begins, “The Lord rules!  Let the earth rejoice!  Let all the islands celebrate!”[1]  And then, “Heaven has proclaimed God’s righteousness, and all nations have seen [God’s] glory . . . God guards the lives of [God’s] faithful ones.  Rejoice in the Lord, righteous ones!  Give thanks to [God’s] holy name!”[2]  The Psalmist expresses praise of God that can’t truly be contained.  As The CEB Lectio Divina Prayer Bible states, “Beyond an individual’s praise, the words invite the participation of the whole community, of the nation, then of all nations, and then even the very elements of nature.  God’s greatness assures us also that justice will be victorious.”[3]  Everyone, everything, every being is giving thanks to God for it all.  That was the point of the Gratitude Walk, except it was the individual giving thanks to God for everyone, everything, every being with whom we share this life on earth.  To radically open a person up to that kind of gratitude that can change one’s life.

We can consider gratitude to be a spiritual practice.  Sometimes it could take the form of a walking meditation like going on a Gratitude Walk.  Or keeping a gratitude journal.  Or ending every day by thanking God for one thing we are grateful for.  Being grateful is a practice that takes discipline.  Because sometimes we look around at the world or examine our lives and we get stuck because we don’t feel happy with what we see, let alone grateful.  Life can be hard.  And telling someone, particularly someone in the depths of hardship, “Oh, well, don’t complain so much and just be grateful.”  That’s not going to go over very well.  Sometimes we are in what St. John of the Cross called “a dark night of the soul.”  Spiritually that is a painful place to be.  Though gratitude may be our way out.  If we can find one thing to be grateful for, that can serve as a lifeline.

President of Princeton Theological Seminary M. Craig Barnes wrote this great book called The Pastor as Minor Poet and reflected on gratitude from a spiritual perspective.  It’s a book written by an ordained minister for ordained ministers in some ways.  But there’s lessons in there for anyone who’s part of a faith community.  Having once served as a local church pastor Barnes shared, “Frequently I will end a service of worship in our congregation by saying something like this, ‘Every day this week you have to decide if you want to achieve your life or receive it.  If you make achieving your goal, your constant companion will be complaint, because you will never achieve enough.  If you make receiving the goal, your constant companion will be gratitude for all that God is achieving in your life.’  I’m not certain that there are such measures of our spirituality, but if there are, then gratitude is probably the best one.  It indicates that we are paying attention.”[4]

Think about that for a moment.  Gratitude indicates that we are paying attention.  Over the last several weeks we’ve heard from members of our congregation in our annual Pledge Campaign and my prayer is that there is a sense of gratitude for our church family here at Colchester Federated Church.  Later this week, we will be observing Thanksgiving.  Maybe that entails a big celebration with family, maybe it’s a small gathering of friends.  No matter how it looks, we can contemplate who or what makes us feel grateful.  This is not to say that life is perfect and without complications.  This is not to say that we aren’t continuing to struggle with this pandemic.  This is not to say that the world is a just place for everyone.  Though we are called to receive the gifts in our lives.  When we do so, our constant companion will be gratitude for all that God is achieving in our lives.  Gratitude shows that we are paying attention.  Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving later this week.  And thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Psalm 97:1, CEB.
[2] Psalm 97.
[3] Notes on Psalm 96 and 97 in The CEB Lectio Divina Prayer Bible.
[4] M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life, 96.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.