First Baptist Church
Sunday, November 12, 2017
For many years, James Moore was the pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston. Dr. Moore was a highly regarded speaker and so occasionally would travel to share with others his insights into the Christian life and ministry. One time while on one of these trips, he had dinner with a host couple and their young family. When it came time for dinner, the wife shared with him that they had been working on helping their children learn the important discipline of praying before meals. Likewise, she explained that it was important to them that the children speak to God on their own terms without using memorized prayers. Each night, they asked one of the children to say the blessing in a rotating fashion. And, so it was that she chose one of the boys to do so for their meal that very evening. As they bowed their heads, the little boy began his prayer. Rather than being short, brief and to the point, he began to thank God for everything – and I do mean everything. First, he covered every dish on the table by name – the roast, the mashed potatoes, the corn, etc. Then, he gave thanks for all of the people present by name. This included his parents, siblings, their guest Dr. Moore and even their dog Spot. Finally, he moved on to all of the items in the home for which they should be grateful and again went into specifics by expressing gratitude for the table, the chairs, the silverware and on and on it went.
Needless to say it was a long, drawn out, cumbersome prayer. As the little boy offered the prayer that knew no end, eyes around the table opened and closed, there was some sniggering from the boy’s siblings and everyone struggled to stay alert and composed. Yet, when it was over, Dr. Moore admitted that he was strangely moved. For this four year old had reminded him of how important counting our blessings, all of our blessings can be. In turn, Dr. Moore included this personal experience at the very beginning of one of his books. The book is called Attitude Is Your Paintbrush. And, the point Moore made was that those who develop a discipline like this little boy of recognizing and expressing our gratitude for all of life’s blessings ion a regular basis including even the simplist of things will have a far better and much healthier disposition in life. (Attitude Is Your Paintbrush: It Colors Every Situation, James W. Moore, Abingdon, 1998, pages 9-10)
This same message, I think, is lived out by the Apostle Paul in our passage for today. Our text for this morning is from the New Testament book of Philippians. This little section of the Bible, as you know, was originally a real letter from Paul to the believers who were members of the church in Philippi. Paul, at the time of this letter to the Philippians, was in prison. The Philippians, out of their love for Paul, had sent a care package to him through one of their church members named Epaphroditus. In turn, as Epaphroditus returns home, he brings this thank you note with him from Paul.
This note of gratitude, is often called Paul’s epistle or letter of joy. The reason is that in this letter, Paul expresses a profound amount of appreciation for the place of the Philippians in his life. Their friendship, their care for him and their partnership with him in the work of the early church, had brought him a lot of satisfaction. It had warmed his heart and he wanted them to know that. Remembering the Philippians’ help also allowed Paul to realize how much he had to be thankful for in general. In turn, Paul found himself rediscovering a sense of peacefulness in a most usual place. He was thankful, even while sitting in a prison cell.
Paul’s rediscovered peace through his moment of gratitude led him to also encourage the Philippians to live their own lives with a similar demeanor that was always colored by gratitude as well. Paul’s sense in these verses is very straightforward. If you are a person of gratitude, it will change your attitude and you will be at peace.
Again, Paul’s circumstances were not good in the moment of this letter. Yet, he practiced the disciple of recognizing things and people in his life for which he was grateful. The result was that his attitude changed and he was at peace even in a time in which he should have known no peace. Paul’s suggestion was that the same can happen for all of us.
Simply put, gratitude can and should change us. Last week, we said that gratitude should ultimately change how we behave. If we are truly grateful for God’s generosity, then we too will be generous people. Today, I want to offer the other said of the coin and say that gratitude should not only change our behavior but gratitude should also change our attitude. If we live grateful then our disposition will change. If we are grateful we will live at peace not because everything is right in the world. But, rather, we will live at peace with an inner sense of contentment and joy as we recognize all of life’s blessings that still remain, as they did for Paul, even in the midst of life’s challenges and difficulties.
Back a few weeks ago, as we prepared for Halloween and Trunk or Treat, we were encouraging you to bring bags of candy for the event. As I ask for candy on one occasion, I happened to mention that my personal favorite candy is Almond Joy. Over the next week, as several of you brought candy by for Trunk or Treat, you surprised me with a bag of Almond Joys on my desk. In about 5 days, I suddenly had about a six month supply. In that moment, I faced a dilemma. What was I going to do with all of those Almond Joys. After taking a bag home to share with Ann Marie and then filling ever candy dish in my office with Almond Joys, I made a decision. I would allow myself a little daily treat. Thus, for about three weeks now, I have taken a little two minute break by having one mini Almond Joy a day. It is not much, but it is just enough. It is silly. I know. But, it is amazing the difference a little moment for one tiny piece of candy can have in your day – whether you are 5 or almost 45.
I don’t want to over-simplify Paul but, I think this was his argument. Just a simply moment, each day, to be grateful, to count a blessing or two and to give thanks matters. These small daily moments to savor God’s sweetness really can change how we feel about God, ourselves and even about life.
So, how do we get to this place? I want to suggest that this same passage offers us a good initial step. We get to this place by praying daily. And, as we pray daily our job is to make sure that we offer prayers of gratitude as well as prayers that ask God for God’s help in certain ways or for certain people. Notice again what Paul says. He invites the Philippians to offer their gratitude to God in the midst of their prayers. “By prayer,” Paul says, “with supplication and thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Martin Copenhaver is President of Andover Newton Seminary outside of Boston. Copenhaver tells an important story about reaching the middle years in life where he began to have some common health problems including the development of an irregular heart beat. After being hospitalized for a few days, he went for a follow up with his family doctor. As they talked about his problems and the role that stress, lack of exercise and not eating right can play in our well being, the Doctor stopped, looked at Copenhaver and said that he had one more question. “How is your praying?” The doctor asked the pastor. “Are you trying to get in a good thirty minutes a day of uninterrupted prayer?” Copenhaver said that he had to admit that while he was a minister and while he tried, thirty minutes of prayer just didn’t always happen for him. “Well,” the doctor said, “I could give you some medicine and all of these other things are good, but, the best thing for your heart is prayer.” (This Odd and Wondrous Calling, Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver, Eerdmans, 2009, pg. 217-219)
I love Copenhaver’s vulnerability and honesty in telling that story. And, I have to agree. The best thing for our heart is prayer. No, we may not be able to achieve 30 minutes of prayer a day either. But, prayer in general and specifically prayers of thanksgiving where we daily greet the day or end the day with gratitude to God for our blessings, even the smallest of blessings, is a very good thing. I truly believe that this one little decision is among the best of things for our hearts too. For if our hearts find peace, so will our lives and so will the way that we receive our days and live them. Amen.