A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 20, 2016
Psalm 100 ESV; 2 Corinthians 9:8-12 GNT
You may have heard or possibly even remember singing the old gospel hymn titled “Count Your Blessings.” The hymn counsels that during times of trouble, discouragement, burdens, bouts of envy over others’ successes, and times of conflict to focus upon your blessings rather than bemoaning the negative things in your life. And the refrain goes,
“Count your blessings, Name them one by one; Count your many blessings, See what God hath done.”
Well, our first response might be that such is a bit simplistic or a shallow perspective upon life. Life is not always that simple and clear-cut so that you can just turn off all those negative things that you are dealing with and put on a happy face as you count your blessings. And to be honest with you, I had completely forgotten about that gospel hymn; I hadn’t thought about it for years.
But then, in preparing today’s Thanksgiving sermon, that “Count Your Blessings” hymn jumped from the back recesses of my mind after reading an article that someone sent me that was published last December in the Denver Post.1 The article is titled “For the new year, focus on what is positive in your life,” and it was written by Neil Rosenthal, a licensed marriage and family therapist and published author. Rosenthal begins his article with the contention that putting more effort into being grateful holds the possibility of being life-transformative.
Rosenthal reminds us that if we focus our attentions on all the bad things in our lives, we will end up feeling lousy all the time. That is sort of elementary, isn’t it? Conversely, only when we focus our attentions on what is good in our lives will we feel better. What Rosenthal suggests is keeping a running list or a personal journal of sorts of all the positive experiences, people, and events in your life that you can be grateful for. Did you meet a new friend? Did you accomplish something good? Were you able to exercise a skill, talent or creativity that recharged your battery? Did you bless someone else’s life by being kind or generous? Were you proud of yourself for successfully facing a challenge or adversity? Did someone show love to you? Did you in some way experience personal growth? Have you set an exciting goal for your life for the future? Can you anticipate something exciting in the days or weeks ahead, such as travel, a new class, or beginning a new hobby? Any and all of these examples could easily become reasons for gratitude and thanksgiving.
And so, drawing on the thought of the Apostle Paul, a spirit of gratitude or thanksgiving is a natural response to the graces evident in our lives. It is somewhat of a law of nature: instances of grace and blessing lead to our response of gratitude and thanksgiving. Or, we might look upon it as a case of cause and effect – grace and blessings naturally result in gratitude and thanksgiving. And so, if we take time to consider or catalog the many instances of grace or blessing occurring in our lives (as suggested above), the outcome of gratitude and thanksgiving are the almost-certain byproducts.
Paul also seems to indicate in this second letter to the Corinthians that the spirit and practice of generosity and a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving can be contagious and have positive, rippling effects in the community. Generosity begets more generosity, resulting in thanksgiving; and thanksgiving and gratitude tend to multiply like yeast rolls rise and expand, sharing their wonderful aroma and flavor with all concerned. Gratitude and thanksgiving have a way of reproducing themselves.
We all know how one negative personality can adversely affect the whole group, whether it be at a family gathering, a church committee or board meeting, or throughout an entire congregation. Conversely, one positive personality who is always gracious and thankful and smiling can bring a positive atmosphere wherever they go. I may have mentioned some years ago a former church member and music director in one of the churches I served. Lou was always smiling and always positive and always joyful and always complimentary. In that particular church sanctuary, the choir was to the right of the pulpit. It didn’t matter when I turned to look at the choir. Lou was always sitting on the front row of the choir, and he was always smiling. So any time I needed some affirmation in the course of a sermon, I would turn and look at Lou who would be smiling at me. And both Lou and his wife, Louise, had a gracious spirit and regularly said “Thank you.” “Thank you for the sermon today.” Or, “Thank you for the visit.” And their gracious, thankful spirit was contagious.
Now, I have to admit that I am one who doesn’t say “thank you” nearly often enough. Maybe you feel the same way about yourself. Why do you suppose that is? I surmise that one reason may be that we just take it for granted that others know we are grateful, so we don’t have to verbalize it. I am especially guilty with loved ones, as I don’t always say “thank you” when they do something nice for me. I guess I just take it for granted that they know I am grateful. But do they? But how might our lives, our families, our circle of friends, our community of faith be different if we all were more intentional about actually verbalizing and demonstrating our gratitude and thanks?
And just as things that happen in our lives worthy of gratitude and thanksgiving are many and varied, so are the opportunities for us to say a word of thanks to others: Thank you for that dish you brought to Wednesday night potluck. Thank you for the good job you did in planning that program. Thank you for that phone call or visit or “Thinking of You” card when I really needed it. Thank you for sharing your music, or singing, or other talent. Thank you for your help on that project or for the good job you did in leading that meeting. The possibilities are endless.
And there is one more thing having to do with practical considerations involving gratitude: Expressing gratitude and thanks to others is a way of building bridges that can help connect our divided world. Writer Alan Epstein suggests, “Thank someone for something. Go out of your way today to acknowledge the generosity of a person you know. It doesn’t matter if you have known this man or woman your entire life, or have just met him or her and don’t know if you will ever see the person again. Thanking him for a service rendered, or a favor given, or for help of some kind will enlarge your personal community to include yet another person.
“Do you patronize a business establishment that always provides you with excellent service?” he asks. “Thank the proprietor, or tell an employee how much you appreciate the way you are treated every time you walk in. . .
“Thanking someone for a service rendered builds community, as well as friendship. It makes even the most insignificant encounters, like a stranger holding the door for you at the deli, all the more meaningful. It’s a way for two people who will probably never know each other’s names to connect, even for a moment.”2
And so, the bottom line is, it seems that “counting our blessings” as that old gospel hymn says and cultivating a spirit of gratitude and being more intentional about showing our thanks to others hold the possibilities of transforming our own lives, transforming the world by multiplying the spirit of thanksgiving, and of building bridges of connection with others. Gratitude and thanksgiving are, indeed, good for the soul, good for the community, and good for the world at large. May it be so with each of us this Thanksgiving week and always. Amen.
1Neil Rosenthal, The Denver Post. Thursday, December 31, 2015.
2Alan Epstein, How to Have More Love in Your Life. Quoted in Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life, pp. 490-491.