The Foundation of the Spiritual Life

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 18, 2012

Psalm 100; Colossians 3:15b-16

We are approaching one of America’s biggest and most important holidays of the year; bigger and more important, perhaps, than either Christmas or Easter.  I think I heard once that more people travel to be with family or friends at Thanksgiving than they do at Christmas or any other time of the year.  Now, if this is the case, why is it the case?  What would it be about Thanksgiving that would make it America’s biggest and most important holiday of the year?  Would the Thanksgiving Day parades make it so?  I don’t think so.  Or the Thanksgiving day football games?  There are football games other days of the year, so probably not.  Or the big meal when we all stuff ourselves like grandma stuffs the turkey?  We can have a big meal and stuff ourselves on other days and not just on Thanksgiving.  Could it be that Thanksgiving is so important because it is considered to be THE big family day of the year?  That may have a lot to do with it.  But could it be that none of these reasons really make Thanksgiving the biggest and most important (speaking overall for Americans) holiday of the year?

I am optimistic enough to think that the reason goes deeper than the reasons I have noted above.  Perhaps Thanksgiving is such an important day of the year because at the core or the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday lies a basic, foundational spiritual principle that is crucial to being both human and religious in nature.  And that foundational principle is gratitude that expresses itself in the act of thanksgiving.  Hold that thought for a moment, as I will come back to it later.

Yet, thanksgiving or gratitude may be one of the things most lacking in everyday, contemporary society.  Could it be that a spirit of gratitude actually is counter-cultural to what we are taught and according to the way we are influenced by the media?  The way of the world is dissatisfaction.  What I mean by that is, we are conditioned to be dissatisfied with what we have.  We need a bigger house, a more expensive automobile, more expensive designer clothes, the top of the line electronic gadgets, and so on.  And in saying that I do not intend to point a finger at anyone.  We are all in this boat together.  The lure of advertising is to make us dissatisfied with what we already have by persuading us to have something bigger and better.  And so, instead of being grateful for what we already have, we long for, covet, lust over what we do not have.  Consequently, we forget to be thankful and grateful for the blessings that already grace our lives.

Howard Rice, retired Chaplain of San Francisco Theological Seminary, writes in his book, The Pastor as Spiritual Guide, “Cultivation of graceful gratitude may be the single most needed discipline for many people today.  Too easily, we take our blessings for granted and even complain about what we do not have,” Rice says (Rice, 54).  And someone has said that the truly wealthy person is the one who is happy with what he or she already has.

It has been three years since I went to Nicaragua with the medical mission team, but one of the things I remember about many of the people of Nicaragua was how happy they were, and how grateful and satisfied with their lives they were, in spite of the fact that they might have been living in houses with dirt floors, no electricity, or no running water.  Such can serve to give you a new perspective on the contrast to much of everyday American life where gratitude often is lacking.

But as hinted above, gratitude, or thanksgiving, is foundational for the spiritual life.  We have read one of the loveliest of the psalms, a hymn of praise that was used by the ancient Jews in temple worship, in which the psalmist says, “Enter the Temple gates with thanksgiving. . . Give thanks to God and praise him.”  And then in the New Testament letter to the Colossians, the writer exhorts, “Be thankful. . . sing to God with thanksgiving in  your hearts.”  In other words, the psalmist realized that the proper way to enter the place of worship is in a spirit of thanksgiving, or gratitude.  And the author of Colossians realized that being thankful is foundational for the Christian life.  As Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor was quoted in a past issue of the Christian Century magazine, “Gratitude is where the spiritual life begins.”2  If one has an inclination toward a life of spirituality, or spiritual growth, or spiritual maturity, then it appears that cultivating an attitude of gratitude is the bedrock of the life of faith.  Or to use another metaphor, gratitude, it seems, is the starting gate for the spiritual journey.  As put by Robin Meyers, “Gratitude, not belief, should be the first religious impulse.”3  So when it comes to religion or spirituality, we do well to not begin with religious dogma, or creeds, or beliefs, but rather, with the elemental attribute of gratitude.

And there is another thing: a life filled with gratitude is, perhaps, the happiest life of all.  Or as writer Anne Lamott puts it, “Gratitude, not understanding, is the secret to joy and equanimity.”4  Could it be that when one adopts gratitude as the bedrock of life, then joy is the structure, or at least the framing of the structure, of the life that evolves and grows?

Mark, our psychologist friend who has a private practice in Nashville, tells of Joe, a patient of his who used to reside in one of the area’s nursing homes.  Mark went to visit Joe once a week.  Joe’s positive attitude and sense of gratitude Mark found to be a true inspiration.  Diagnosed with terminal cancer, Joe was told by his medical doctors that he didn’t have long to live.  But the doleful news didn’t put a damper on Joe’s positive attitude or sense of gratitude.

“How are you doing today?” our friend Mark would ask upon entering Joe’s room.

“I’m doing great!” Joe would always reply.  “Life is so good.  They are so good to me here at this nursing home.  I have so many friends here who care for me.  And I really appreciate you coming to see me every week.”  What an attitude Joe had.  And what gratitude permeated his life.  Joe couldn’t control his illness or prognosis, but he could control his positive attitude and sense of gratitude, which impacted his quality of life.  Indeed, it would appear that what Anne Lamott says is true: That gratitude is the secret to both joy and equanimity, or a calm, serene life.

As I said in the beginning, I suspect that at least one of the reasons that the Thanksgiving holiday is such an important holiday for us is the fact that at the core or heart of the Thanksgiving holiday is the human need and spiritual importance of expressing gratitude or thanksgiving to the Creator’s God (as the founding fathers put it), or the Source of Life, or just to Life itself.  There is innate in the human soul the archetypal need or impulse to express gratitude or thanksgiving to the Source of all life.  The ancient Hebrew psalmists realized this, as evidenced by the many beautiful psalms of thanksgiving.  And the Thanksgiving holiday provides us with not only the religious opportunity to express gratitude or thanksgiving, but the cultural excuse to do it as well.  As John M. Buchanan, editor of the Christian Century magazine puts it in the current issue, “I cherish Thanksgiving because it is the cultural institutionalization of the practice of gratitude. . . Mostly it remains a quiet day to remind us of simple but important truths: the goodness of the earth, the delight of good food, the gift of family and friends, and the essential human practice of gratitude.”5

But the secret to the joyful, serene, satisfied life, I think, is not to limit our sense of gratitude to one day or one week of the year.  But rather, to work to make gratitude a perennial outlook and daily way of life.  In other words, to make gratitude the foundation of our spiritual lives.  Amen.

1Howard Rice, The Pastor as Spiritual Guide, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998.

2Garrison Keillor, Christian Century, March 22, 2003.

3Robin Meyers, The Virtue in the Vice.  Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 2004. P. 12.

4Anne Lamott, Plan B.  p. 295.

5John M. Buchanan, Christian Century, November 14, 2012.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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