You have heard me reference before a book that some of our men read together last year called A Resilient Life. The author of that book is a man named Gordon MacDonald who lives outside of Loudon, New Hampshire with his wife Gail. One of the stories that MacDonald tells in the book is about the land around their home. He says that when they bought the property forty years ago, much of their lot, which now includes a lovely meadow with beautiful flowers and a garden in the corner, was an overgrown field full of rocks. MacDonald says that over the first two years that they owned the property, they worked the land, cutting back the overgrowth so that the grass could grow and ridding the fields of rocks. Some of the rocks were easily seen on the surface and others were well hidden below and thus required extra attention. In short, over a long period of time, the MacDonald’s had to cultivate the land. They had to work, plow, and farm the property so that soil more conducive to growth could be established. (A Resilient Life, Gordon MacDonald, Thomas Nelson, 2004, pg. 120)
This morning, we end our three week look at Paul’s words to the early believers in the church of Colossae in Chapter 3 by focusing on the last two words of the text. As we do so, we are again using Eugene Peterson’s translation known as The Message. In Peterson’s version, Paul challenges the believers there with two final words. He says, “cultivate thankfulness”.
What a wonderful way for us to hear Paul’s words – that we are to cultivate thankfulness. In other words, we cannot assume that thankfulness or gratitude will simply appear on its own in our lives. Instead, we must be prepared to do the hard work of plowing, farming and tending our souls just like we tend, work and plow land. This hard work allows our own lives to become soil that is more conducive for gratitude to take root. In saying this, I think there are some other things that we are also saying in these two words that are equally worthy of our reflection on this Sunday before Thanksgiving.
First, cultivating thankfulness is a way of admitting that gratitude is often hard work. I say this because I think we have convinced ourselves that we are naturally grateful people. In other words, if there is something truly worthy of our gratitude then we will easily see it and express our appreciation to God or to others. Now, to be fair there are some among us who live this way. There are some for whom gratitude is like breathing. Yet, I would argue that this is not necessarily the case for most of us. Instead, for many of us, we really do have to work at being grateful.
Virtually every Thanksgiving I am reminded of the words of the Christian writer John Killinger and his comments on the story of Jesus and the 10 lepers in Luke’s gospel where all 10 are healed but only 1 returns to express gratitude. Killinger says that this gospel story puts the number of truly grateful people at about 1 in 10. Now there is nothing scientific in this assessment but Killinger makes a point. Gratitude is not the natural disposition of most of us. (A Devotional Guide to the Gospels, John Killinger, Word Press, 1984, pg. 95)
Again, that is why I like the word that Peterson chooses – cultivate. Just as most fields are not naturally conducive to growth without some work, our lives are not often naturally conducive to gratitude.
Think about it this way. When your children or grandchildren were small and they received or experienced something special, how often did you have to prompt them to say thank you to the giver of the gift. Or, when we have been the beneficiary of a gift, how often have we needed a little reminder to say thank you, to send a note or make a call expressing gratitude. Thankfulness is not automatic. Thankfulness takes work. Gratitude must be cultivated.
Second, cultivating thankfulness is a way of recognizing that we are called to see things that can be easy to overlook. Being thankful is the discipline of seeing the good things in life in the midst of the mundane or the evil. Gratitude happens when we train our eyes to see what is clearly there but can easily be missed. Every day of life there are good things that take place and blessings to receive. And, every day there are terrible things that take place and hard moments to live through. It is easy for the bad things and hard times to dominate and thus for the good to get pushed to the side. When we cultivate gratitude, we don’t allow the rocks in the field to dominate our vision or to crowd out the view of the flowers that are growing on the same property.
Back in late June, we discovered that three baby raccoons were regularly visiting a tree in our yard. Half to the time, we didn’t even know they were there because once they climbed the trunk and got up into the foliage they were almost impossible to see. Unless we happened to catch them walking down the driveway, which we did a time or two, we were oblivious to their presence. Life is this way. There is a whole lot happening that we don’t see. Developing mature, spiritual eyes happens when we have the ability to see the good and the gifts of God that are always present but that can be so hard to recognize and thus be aware of and attentive to on a daily basis.
Third, cultivating thankfulness is way of embracing the possibility that our lives and our outlook on life can be transformed through the discipline of daily gratitude. The idea of cultivating is the belief that through hard work, tender loving care, time and patience that a piece of property can be transformed from unusable to fertile from lifeless to full of growth, from rocky terrain to lush grass.
I believe with all of my being that cultivating thankfulness can do the same for us as God’s children. It takes hard work. It requires patience. It will not happen over night. It means developing the capacity to see the good in the midst of the bad and making space in daily prayers, journaling or as a concrete act to express gratitude. It calls us to see the activities and the blessings of God on a daily basis even in a world that constantly tries to crowd out God’s goodness and activity. But, if we can do the hard work, it can be transformative. Or, said another way, it can be life changing.
Think about what we are going to do this Thursday. On Thursday, we are going to take an ordinary day and in it we are going to choose to stop and count our blessings. With intentionality, we are going to make gratitude the order of the day. For one day, we are going to choose to see the blessings. There will still be evil. There will still be hurts. There will still be a virus. There will still be a lot wrong with the world. But, for a day, we will choose gratitude and in doing so, it will literally change the tone and the tenor of the day. What if, what if, we cultivated this way of living, being and seeing each and every day? How different our lives could be. How different our lives would be. Amen.