Part 6: Boundless Thanks!
1 Thessalonians 5:18
Pastor Morris Brown
A pastor went to visit a church member who was having some problems with her vision.
“It’s been tough,” she said, “I can’t read the newspaper anymore without a magnifying glass. When I watch TV the screen is really blurry. I even have trouble recognizing my grandchildren when they come to visit me.”
“Wow,” the pastor replied, “That must be tough!”
“Yeah,” the woman said, “But to tell you the truth. In the midst of all this trouble with my eyes there’s still one thing I’m thankful for.”
“What’s that?” the pastor asked.
The woman smiled and said, “I can still drive!”
Now, I don’t know if that woman should keep driving! What I do know, however, is she should keep engaging in what I call the practice of “boundless thanks.” What is “boundless thanks”? It’s the ability to do what Paul is talking about in this morning’s scripture. In the verse we read, Paul is writing to Christians that are experiencing persecution for their faith, and he says, “Give thanks in ALL circumstances! For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Now, when you first hear this you, you might be like me. I thought to myself, “Paul, you gotta be nuts!” I mean, if you’d have said, “Give thanks in good circumstances, in good times, when things are going well!” I’d have said, “Absolutely!” That sounds like a very logical, rational, reasonable thing to do. I always try to give thanks for the good things that happen in my life: for my family, for good health, for sunny days, and for every round of golf I get to play.
But, you didn’t say that. You didn’t say, “Give thanks in GOOD circumstances of your life.” You said, “Give thanks in ALL circumstances!” And that’s harder. I mean Paul is asking us to give thanks for things like: cancer, being laid off from our job, a divorce, the death of a loved one, and so many of the other tragedies that happen in life? If that’s what Paul’s asking, well he can forget it! That’s absolutely ludicrous!
Well, if we look at what Paul says closely, we discover that’s not what Paul means at all. Paul doesn’t say we should give thanks FOR all circumstances. What Paul says is that we should give thanks IN all circumstances. In other words, we must find a way to give thanks whatever the circumstances of our life may be!
So, can we be a person who is able to engage in the practice of “boundless thanks”? Can we be people who are able to be grateful whatever the circumstances of our life? I believe we can! But to do it I think we have to apply several biblical techniques. I’d like to share some of those techniques with you this morning.
First, to be a person who engages in the practice of “boundless thanks” we must CHOOSE OUR FOCUS. You see, whatever the circumstances of our lives, we always have the freedom to choose what we’ll focus on. We can choose to focus on what’s bad, what’s negative, what’s wrong with our situation. Or we can choose to focus on what’s good, what’s positive, what’s right with our situation.
A number of years ago, in his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnigie put this way of thinking in a poem. It said, “Two men looked out through prison bars. One man saw mud, but the other man saw stars!” Of course, Paul put it even more beautifully in Philippians 4:8, which he wrote from a Roman prison. There he said, “Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, lovely, or admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about, ponder, focus on such things.” What we choose to focus on makes a difference!
Most of us are keenly aware of the horrific tragedy that took place two weeks ago at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A mentally ill man shot and killed 26 innocent people and wounded 24 others. I can’t imagine the horror these folks went through. What was interesting to me however, was the message Reverend Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of the church whose 14-year old daughter was killed, shared with his congregation and community last Sunday. After expressing his anger and heartache over the tragic event and the loss he had personally incurred, he said,
“We have all encountered overwhelming darkness in the last few days. But, we must not forget we have the freedom to choose. We can choose to focus on the darkness. Or we can choose to focus on the light. We can choose to focus on death. Or we can choose to focus on life. I say we choose light. I say we choose life.”
Now, hopefully none of us will ever have to face such a horrendous tragedy. But, many of us may be facing difficult circumstances in our lives right now. And if we want to engage the practice of “boundless thanks” in the midst of these circumstances, we must choose our focus. We must choose to focus on light and life.
This leads to a second technique that can help us to engage in the practice of “boundless thanks,” which is to COUNT OUR BLESSINGS. You see, as we choose to focus on what is good, positive, life-giving even in the worst of circumstances we’ll discover we really do have some blessings – and we need to name them.
One way to do it that is to play a game called “The ABC’s of Thanksgiving!” It’s a game Pam and I played with our kids on long trips before the days of DVD’s players in the car. My oldest son would take the first letter “A” and say something like, “I’m thankful for APPLES because apples are good to eat.” Then my younger son would take the letter “B” and say something like, “I’m thankful for my BIKE because my bike is fun to ride.” Then, I would take the letter “C” and say something like, “I’m a thankful CAROLINA fan because the Carolina’s football season is just about over and their basketball season is about to begin!” You get the idea, right? By the time we’d get to the end of the alphabet would have named at least 26 things to be thankful for, whatever was going on in our lives.
Let me give you another example. Some of you are aware of the fact that my wife, Pam, teaches blind and visually-impaired children for Guilford County Schools. Although her kids face many challenges because of their limited vision, they’re all incredible kids. Anyway, a couple of weeks ago the teacher in one of her student’s classes was doing an exercise in “thankfulness.” She asked each kid to take a piece of paper and write down some things they are thankful for. Here’s what Pam’s student, who has some vision but very limited vision, wrote on his paper, “What am I thankful for? I am thankful for my eyes. Although I can’t use them to see things that are far away, they help me see things that are close up. And what they help me see is absolutely incredible!”
Isn’t that amazing? I mean, here’s a kid whose vision is very limited, who faces all kinds of challenges because of his limited vision. And yet, he has found a way to count his blessings! To engage in the practice of “boundless thanks” we must do what Pam’s student does, what the old hymn says, we must “count our blessings, name them one by one!”
This leads to the third technique that can help us engage in the practice of “boundless thanks”, which is to spend time with someone whose life is more CHALLENGING THAN OURS. For when we spend time with someone whose life is more challenging than ours, it can make us thankful in the midst of our own.
A few years ago a friend of mine began a new tradition. Every Thanksgiving Day he gets up early in the morning and goes to the homeless shelter in the town where he lives. There, he helps prepare and serve Thanksgiving dinner to several hundred people who don’t have anywhere else to go celebrate the holiday. I once asked him how he got started with this tradition.
“Well,” he said, “One year I was going through a very difficult time in my life. As Thanksgiving approached I was finding it very hard to feel very thankful for anything. I was talking about this with my counselor one day and she challenged me to do something. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, she challenged me to find a way to spend time with someone who was facing a circumstance in life that was more difficult than mine. So, I decided to take her challenge. I went to the homeless shelter and volunteered to help prepare, serve and share a thanksgiving meal with folks there. As I spend time with these folks and listened to their stories, I learned about the circumstances and struggles they faced in there lives. And as I did I began to be thankful for my own. Spending time with folks whose lives are more difficult than mine helps me give thanks, even though my life wasn’t a perfect as I thought it should be.”
There’s an old proverb that says, “I complained that I had no shoes. Then I met a man who had no feet.” Sometimes we forget about how much we have in contrast to other people. We forget that compared to many people our world, our country, and even in our community most of us in this room are really incredibly blessed. So, if we want to improve our ability to engage in the practice of “boundless thanks” we might want to find one way to spend some of our time with someone who’s circumstances are more challenging than our own.
Like my friend, we might spend some time to share a with folks at Greensboro Urban Ministry. We might visit someone in a nursing home. We might have coffee with a friend who’s struggling. Whatever we do, we’ll discover taking time to engage a person who’s situation is more challenging than ours, really can make us more thankful in the midst of our own circumstances - whatever the circumstance of our life may be!
A fourth technique that can help us engage in the practice of “boundless thanks” is to find CONCRETE WAYS to express thanks – even when we don’t feel thankful. For you see, when we find ways to express our thanks even when we don’t feel thankful – it can help us be thankful whatever our circumstances.
I once read that Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, did this. It is said that every so often he’d get down, feeling like he had nothing to be thankful for. When this happened, he’d make a list of people who had contributed to his work. Then he’d write them a note to express his personal thanks. Someone once asked Einstein why he did this. He said, “I’ve found that when I express my thanks to those on whom my life has been built, it makes me a more thankful person.” Einstein is right! Finding concrete ways to express our thanks can literally help us be thankful -whatever the circumstance of our lives.
So, how do we do it? Like Einstein, we might write a note of thanks to a friend whose been supportive this year. We might take a co-worker whose been especially helpful at work to lunch. We might want to buy a Starbucks gift to thank a teacher whose invested his or her time to help our child grow and learn this year. If we haven’t already done it, we might want to financially support our church through Boundless initiative as an expression of thanks to God for the blessings we’ve received. There are a million ways to do it, but finding a concrete way to express thanks can help us be thankful whatever the circumstances of our lives.
There’s one final technique that can help us practice “boundless thanks” in our lives. And that’s to engage in a spiritual discipline like CENTERING PRAYER. Centering prayer is not the practice of talking to God, but the practice of simply sitting silently in God’s presence, inviting God to shape us and mold us.
Why is this important? Because sometimes the circumstances of our lives are so dark, so difficult, it is impossible for us to choose a positive focus, count our blessings, spend time with folks whose circumstances are more challenging than ours, or express our thanks to others in concrete ways on our own. We need help! We’re like the little boys who were walking through a field one day when an enraged bull spotted them. The boys tried to out run him, but it became evident they could not. So, one boy turned to the other and said, “You need to pray!”
The second boy said, “The only prayer I know is the one my daddy says at dinner.” “Fine,” his friend said, “You better offer it cause this bull is getting close!”
So, folding his hands and bowing his head, the little boy said, “Dear Lord, help us be thankful for what we’re about to receive!”
The point of the story is this! There are times when things are so difficult we need God’s help to be thankful in some way. Through the practice of disciplines like centering prayer, God gives us that help. As we open ourselves up to God’s presence the Spirit begins to move deeply in our hearts, opening our minds to the light within dark situations and helping us begin to see the blessings in our lives. Which gives us the strength we need to express thanks to others.
If you’ve never tried centering prayer there are books and websites with information on how to begin. Or better yet, you might want to join Robin Britt, who leads a centering prayer experience each Wednesday evening in the chapel of our church. Either way, it’s a practice that can improve our ability to be thankful!
So listen, our lives may not be perfect. We may be facing some incredibly big challenges. But, if we’ll choose to focus on something positive, if we’ll count our blessings, if we’ll spend time with folks whose lives are more challenging than ours. If we’ll find concrete ways to express our thanks to others. And, if we’ll practice the art of centering prayer, Paul says it can help us give thanks in all circumstances of our lives – which is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus! And why is this God’s will for us? Because scientific studies show that thankful people are happier, healthier people - people who are more whole. Happy Thanksgiving!