Drew Williams, Pastoral Intern
Have you ever met someone who was naturally grateful? Like, someone who just naturally demonstrated thankfulness for the things in their life? I’m not just talking about being bubbly and upbeat. It’s more than just being positive…they’re actually GRATEFUL.
Do you know someone like that? Maybe YOU’RE like that. I know I’m NOT like that.
People like that are usually inspiring because they seem more content. More resilient. Less swayed by bad things that happen to them. Less likely to have their whole week thrown off by an unexpected occurrence.
I really wish I was naturally thankful like that. But I’m not!
I mean, I know how to say “thank you,” but I’m talking about something more than just good manners. Maybe you, like me, were taught good manners when you were a kid. I learned how to say “please” and “thank you.” I learned how to compliment the chef whenever we sat down for a meal, even if my dad had just boiled water for the spaghetti. I learned quickly how thankfulness and good manners went a long way with my relationships with others, especially when my parents would hear a good report about my character from my friend’s parents.
But I was still a pretty self-focused kid. I had “opinions” on things I liked and didn’t like. I preferred to set my own schedule and got annoyed when my brother or my mom asked me to do something I hadn’t planned on. I was very tuned in to how I felt about a certain situation, but it was always extra work to try and connect with how someone ELSE felt about it. And I always worked really hard on anything I was involved in, so that I could do a good job and earn a good reward.
I know what you’re thinking: “Sounds like you haven’t changed much, Drew.”
I know, right?! And I just mentioned all the times when life was NORMAL and going the way I wanted. I’m not even talking about when something bad happened! As soon as something bad happens in my life, one of my first thoughts is about how I don’t like what is happening, and how I feel sad about the outcome, and how I am experiencing a sense of Loss. Focusing on myself comes so easily! And it’s always easier to focus on the negative.
Do you ever feel that way?
That’s why I honestly don’t always like the traditions that surround Thanksgiving. You know what I’m talking about: where everyone has to pause during dinner and say the things they’re thankful for from the last year.
It’s awkward. It’s unnatural. Sometimes it feels forced, like we’re trying to come up with things to say, or ways to talk about our own accomplishments, or passive-aggressive jabs at the political or religious views of someone else in the family.
Ugh, I’m getting anxious just thinking about it.
Then you add in a year like THIS?!
This. Year. Where there has been so much unexpected change and loss.
Some of us have lost jobs. Some of us have lost connection with our friends or our family. Some of us have lost loved ones who have died. Some of us have lost any sense of purpose under the DAILY barrage of stressful news, social unrest, political unheaval, health concerns, school closures, church changes, and uncertainty that has become the only constant in a year of changes.
And now, as most of the areas around us are experiencing growing numbers of COVID-19 cases along with increasing restrictions on our daily lives and activities, it’s easy to want to throw in the towel and say, “That’s it! Thanksgiving is cancelled! I don’t want to give thanks this year. Not this year. It’s too hard for me. I’ve lost too much this year.”
If you’ve felt that way, even a little, you might not like today’s Scripture passage. I know I didn’t when I first read it.
But even though I’m not sure I feel like giving thanks very much this year, God keeps drawing me back to this part of the Bible. Maybe he’s trying to speak to you, too.
Let’s listen to what God might be trying to say to us as we hear Psalm 100.
If you’ve been following along with our email devotional this month, you’d know that Pastor Chris and Mary Taylor have shown us this Psalm caps off a series of Psalms known as “kingly” Psalms, because of their focus on God as king. And if your Bible is like mine, it gives this Psalm a subtitle that says “A psalm for giving grateful praise.”
That’s probably why I thought it would be a good passage for us to look into for the weekend before Thanksgiving.
And so I did the research. I was ready for us to dive into the poetic structure of this Psalm. We could look into the original historical context to see how this Psalm was a prophetic call for inclusion of worshippers beyond the people of Israel. We could investigate each of the 7 commands listed in this Psalm to see how they teach us to respond to God with a worshipful heart of thanksgiving.
But I kept coming up against this blockage in my heart: I don’t want to give thanks.
It’s too hard right now. I can’t muster it up.
So I was stuck. How can I help teach on giving thanks when I don’t want to? How can I help others cultivate a practice of gratitude when I’m not feeling grateful?
My wife had the answer. Well, technically, Jesus had the answer, and he used Megan to speak to my heart and shepherd me this week. She reminded me of a verse that she has printed out over her desk:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Peace. I didn’t have peace. I didn’t feel gentle. I definitely had anxiety. How could I get peace?
We actually journeyed through the whole book of Philippians as a church when quarantine first started. Pastor Chris helped us follow Paul’s letter through the first set of email devotionals and even went deeper in an online Bible study over Zoom.
Apparently, I needed more practice with what Paul was talking about. Apparently, I needed to spend more time with this Scripture so that it could actually take root in my heart and bring about change. Because the first time hadn’t stuck with me. I had completely forgotten this. I had completely lost sight of this.
You see, when Paul wrote these words, he was imprisoned in Rome. Unable to leave his house, unable to see his friends or his family. Unable to travel. Unable to worship with the body of Christ. And yet he writes these words to his brothers and sisters in Christ in Philippi so that they could be encouraged to Rejoice in the Lord always.
How could Paul find the ability to rejoice? Especially when his whole life had been turned upside down and he was no longer in control of what happened to him? When he was being oppressed by those in authority over him? He tells us…
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
I didn’t have peace, but I didn’t need to muster it up. Paul didn’t. He knew that God is a good father, who gives good gifts. If Paul was lacking peace, he could ask for it from God. And that would be even better than his own sense of peace or contentment, because you and I know our own emotions are so fickle and can change so quickly, especially when the world around us is constantly changing.
But to get the peace of God? That’s the best peace. God’s peace. Trusting in God’s own sense of peace that outpaces our understanding because it’s based on the One who is eternal and faithful and not surprised by the changing nature of life. That’s the peace we need.
I didn’t need to do a bunch of things in order to get that peace. I had been going about it all wrong, all backwards. I was trying to take these promises of God and turn them into things that I do FOR God in order to get a reward FROM God.
And that’s where my problem was. If I had to do thanksgiving and joyful praise in order to get peace, I was stuck. I didn’t feel like I could be thankful or grateful because I was so focused on all the things that had been happening to me, all the things that had been taken from me. And everyone I talked to felt the same way. I looked at where I was, in the place of loss, and sadness, and anger, and I didn’t feel like I was able to get to a place of contended gratitude.
How could I ever Shout for Joy to the Lord? How could I ever enter his gates with thanksgiving when I just felt awful and didn’t have the strength to do it?
But Megan helped me see that I didn’t need to GET to that place. God had already come to me. God has already entered into our mess. God has joined us in our isolation, in our feeling of disconnection, in our feeling of loss. We don’t need to muster up our way to God because God has already come all the way to us.
I didn’t need to come up with joy and thanksgiving in order to make my way to God’s presence in the end. I could start at the end. I had been reading Psalm 100 top-to-bottom, but God’s presence drawing near to us meant that I could read it backwards.
Here’s what I mean: Let’s start with verse 5
V5 For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.
This is our starting point. The Lord is good. That doesn’t change. His love endures forever. It doesn’t run out, or have a bad day, or come and go based on his mood. When everything else in life changes from day to day, God’s love endures.
His faithfulness continues through ALL generations. He’s not just faithful to me. He’s going to be faithful to my kids. And my grandkids. Just like he’s been faithful to all the generations before me. All of a sudden, my sight is broadened to be about more than just me, just my small perspective.
This is what enables verse 4:
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
Because the Lord is good, we can enter into his presence. Not just the outer gates, but the inner courts, the deeper sense of intimacy. We can trust his goodness. We can be near him because of his love.
We can be thankful because God is faithful.
How do we know this? Because of verse 3:
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
This is the central statement of Psalm 100. It’s the literal center. To “know” that the Lord is God is not merely talking about mental assent. It’s not just affirming a statement or agreeing to the way something is worded. The original Hebrew carries with it the connotation of a whole-life affirmation that comes from complete devotion to God and worship of Him. It’s saying “have your whole life pointed towards the truth that the Lord is God. We can trust him because he made us, and CLAIMED us as his own.”
We can be thankful because God is faithful.
That enables us to participate in the first two verses:
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Notice that it doesn’t say “smirk with joy” or “make a small squeal for joy.” No, those are much too polite. Too restrained. The Lord is GOD. He made us, we are his. He claimed us. Therefore SHOUT for joy! Lose your mind in excitement. As if you’re meeting your favorite celebrity and the whole crowd is shouting and excited and giddy and oh-my-gosh-they-just-looked-at-me-and-I-just-died!
We get to shout for joy because the Lord is GOD. He is good. We can worship and serve him with gladness, no matter the situation of our life, because his love endures forever. That’s the constant we can hold on to in the midst of all this change.
We can be thankful because God is faithful.
I had forgotten this because I had been too focused on my small situation, my small perspective. I had forgotten that “the Lord is near.” (Phil 4:5)
That reminds me of the time when my daughter was only a few months old. She had just started being able to roll over onto her belly, but she wasn’t even crawling yet. One day, she was playing on her little mat that had animals and noisemakers, and colors. She loved that thing, and she was so proud when she could kick the one rattle with her feet. Then she turned over onto her belly. At first, she was okay, but pretty soon, she started to get a little distressed. She couldn’t turn back over. All she could see was the little bit of mat in front of her face. She couldn’t see me. She couldn’t see the rest of the room. She started to cry. Everything had changed. She had lost her sense of where she was. She had lost her surroundings. And she felt alone.
Then I called out, “Emmy, you’re okay. I’m here.”
She stopped. She tilted her head. She listened. “You’re okay.” She whimpered, but she waited for me to come to her and help her get turned back over.
Until I spoke up, she felt alone, and scared, and as if everything she knew had been taken from her. But when she heard my voice, she realized she wasn’t alone. She paused and listened for me to know I was near.
That’s what I needed this week. I needed to listen for God’s voice to know that he is near. I needed to trust that my small perspective is not all there is. I can trust God’s faithfulness to be the source for my thankfulness.
But I also don’t want to remain like this: fickle and uncertain and prone to mood swings that disable my ability to be thankful.
How do we grow in resiliency? How do we become people who are more naturally grateful?
Paul gives us a clue:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Paul says to fill our mind with thoughts about the good we experience in life.
Simply, we practice. We practice gratitude. We practice saying thank you for the good things we do see. And there have been many scientific studies that show that gratitude actually lowers stress, improves our sleep, improves our relationships with others, and strengthens our immune system.
No wonder God tells us to give thanks and shout for joy! Not only is God worthy of our praise, but it also is good for our health!
So how can you grow in a habit of gratitude? What is God calling you to do as a way to practice thankfulness?
One of the things that Megan and I have been doing recently is sharing some things we’re grateful for at night before we fall asleep. We simply ask each other, “what are you grateful to God for from today? What are grateful to ME for from today?”
That’s it. Gratitude to God and gratitude to a person in your life. It’s great because it’s an opportunity to reflect on the day and share how God was working, or share some verbal love to each other. And then we just pray, “Thank you God” for all the things we mentioned. Sometimes it takes 2 minutes. Sometimes, we share longer. It’s been a simple, but beautiful way for us to end the day during this season of tumultuous change.
In fact, you don’t even need to wait until the end of the day. Maybe God’s calling you to make it a practice to be thankful for things throughout the day. Maybe he’s calling you to practice right now.
What is something you’re thankful for right now? Literally say it out loud, “God, I’m grateful to you for _____”
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Literally, say it out loud! “God, I’m grateful to you for ______”
For some of you, that was an easy way to start a habit of thanksgiving. But maybe others of you are still feeling disconnected. I get that. Maybe you’re still thinking, “I don’t know what to be thankful for. All this loss is still really hard.”
I understand. I really do. Perhaps the best next step for you is to pray and ask God to help you feel how near he is. Ask him for peace. His peace, that transcends our understanding.
Regardless of where you are in your journey, God is inviting you to trust more deeply in his faithfulness. He’s inviting you to grow in gratitude. Not just for the holiday of Thanksgiving, but also for all of life.
Because God is good, we can shout for joy. Because his love endures and never runs out, we get to worship and serve him with gladness. It doesn’t have to depend on the other factors in life. And no matter what we’ve been facing this year, we get to be thankful because the Lord is faithful.
2020 can’t take that from us. Because nothing can take us from the presence of God. It doesn’t matter how far we’re separated from each other, or how much we’ve lost, or how stressful our week has been. It doesn’t matter how frustrated we are, or how scared we are. Those things can’t change the fact that God made us and claimed us as his own. We are his. And he is near.
We can be thankful for that good news!