This spring I began a Lenten practice of writing 40 letters of gratitude to people who impacted my life. I stopped about halfway through. This sermon explains what happened and how I found gratitude again.
Transcript of 4/28/19 sermon at Rockville United Church, Rockville, Maryland
Hi. How are you today? Fine? Good? Okay? Fine. I’m fine. How are you? The polite conversation. We do it all the time. But for me “Fine” was a mask I wore for most of my life.
I learned this early on. I am the youngest of 4 kids and I was a bit of a mystery to my mom. My mother's grandparents all emigrated from Finland so she was raised in a community of
very stoic and outwardly unexpressive people. I was very sensitive and emotional. I cried easily and was, perhaps, a bit overly dramatic. I heard, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Count your blessings. Other people have it worse than you. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. You need to be grateful for everything you have.”
The way my young brain made sense of my mother’s advice was to start pretending I was fine. I was supposed to be fine. Be grateful and my hurt was supposed to magically disappear.
A lot of what my mom said was true. Other people did have it worse than I did. I had abundant blessings. I have blessings, other people have it worse, I’m supposed to put on my big girl panties and just move on. “Fine” became the answer to most of my mom’s questions. How was school today? Fine. I didn’t say I was bullied and cried at recess. How the party? Fine. Your date? Fine. If I said it was fine or okay then she wouldn’t ask me any more questions and I wouldn’t have to admit I wasn’t fine.
As I grew up and learned more about my faith that just complicated my understanding of gratitude. After all, if I truly was a Christian I would give thanks in all circumstances, not be anxious about anything, and make a joyful noise unto the Lord. By the time I was a young adult “fine” was my cover for chronic anxiety and depression. I’m supposed to be fine. I’m smart, I’m strong, I’m talented. I’m fine.
Until I wasn’t. I got married when I was 28 and there were problems from the start. I gained 50 pounds by stress eating the first year I was married but I was fine. Everything was fine. Until my first husband’s affair made it abundantly clear it wasn’t. It was then I started therapy and I found the missing puzzle piece. I would talk to my therapist about what was going on, then interrupt myself and say, “but I know I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself.” My wonderful and very patient therapist would say each time: “You’re not feeling sorry. You’re feeling. And it’s okay to feel.”
This was a new concept for me. It’s okay to feel? I now had a new tool: feel my feelings!
It’s not just me. Minimizing or ignoring feelings is really common in our society. We don’t want to sit with our own pain and we certainly don’t want to sit with someone else’s pain. In preparation for today’s sermon I posted on Facebook and asked people what minimizing phrases they’ve heard. Here are some of the responses. Raise your hand if any of these have been said to you:
• God wouldn’t give you more than you can handle
• It’s not that bad
• It’s God’s will
• What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
• It could have been worse
• Turn it over to God
• You’re just too sensitive
• Suck it up, Cupcake
Now do you remember ever saying one of those phrases to someone else?
It’s difficult to sit in pain, to sit with pain, whether it’s ours or someone else’s. I learned through therapy and then when I studied pastoral counseling that the best way to deal with difficult things is to feel whatever you’re feeling first.
And the Bible supports feeling the pain. We read parts of the 22nd Psalm. Many of you know the 23rd Psalm by heart. The part in the middle: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
The 23 Psalm says God is with you as you walk through the dark valley, not that you take a short cut or get a lift around it. Walk through. Experience the pain.
Yet the psalmists always turn the corner. They experience the pain at the same time as being assured of God’s goodness. “You who fear the Lord, praise him!” from the 22nd Psalm. My cup runneth over from the 23rd Psalm.
And that is how we come back to gratitude. There’s been a lot of research on gratitude. Research shows gratitude improves physical and psychological health, strengthens resilience, and improves self-esteem. Gratitude feels good. The most important point is this: Gratitude research doesn’t say you have to be grateful for everything in your life, just that you find something for which to be grateful. Even searching for things for which to be grateful (and not finding any) has some benefit.
I had a love/hate relationship with gratitude when I was younger because I didn’t understand it. I thought gratitude was supposed to eliminate the hard feelings and when it didn’t being told I should be grateful was just annoying. I didn’t yet understand I had to acknowledge and feel the hard feelings, which I can do alongside feeling grateful. Intentionally creating gratitude in your life is a wonderful practice that lets you continue to experience the psychological and physiological benefits of gratitude. Some people write in gratitude journals. I tried it but didn’t have the patience for it so I started speaking my gratitude out loud. My husband, Ben, and I have a nightly practice where we speak our gratitude to each other for things that happened that day. Now I love gratitude.
So when I decided to write 40 letters of gratitude as a Lenten practice I was excited. I enthusiastically wrote a list of way more than 40 people I wanted to thank. I started blogging about my experience. I wrote about how a simple act of inviting me to join the bell choir at my former church opened up a whole world for me when I was getting divorced. I blogged about a co-worker’s compassion on the day my niece died unexpectedly. And blogged about the circle of care and protection my parent’s neighbors provided them as my parents aged. I noticed many of the people I wanted to thank had been there for me as I was going through difficult times. I noticed that sometimes the smallest gestures had huge ripples of impact in my life. I reached out to people I hadn’t been in touch with for a while. I received remembrances and appreciation in return. I was energized and totally enriched by my experience. I was on a gratitude high. When I first volunteered to preach today these ripples of impact and our interconnected lives were what I wanted to talk about.
Then life, as it so often does, got in the way. I was about halfway through my 40 letters when my 93 year old father ended up in the hospital. He lives in Texas with my oldest sister. I flew to Austin to help. I didn’t have time for letters, nor blogging, nor even talking to my husband. It was crazy and chaotic and I was there for a month. My dad has stabilized and he’s able to remain at my sister’s house with aides at least for now. And I was able to leave.
When I got home from Texas, I felt there was a more important point I needed to make today. 1 Thessalonians says to give thanks IN all circumstances – not FOR all circumstances. The gratitude research agrees. It doesn’t say we have to be grateful for everything in our life, just that we should find something for which to be grateful. My dad’s dementia is getting worse. So I can be grateful I was able to see my dad and help my sister and not try to express gratitude that he has dementia.
But when I left there on Good Friday I couldn’t find any gratitude. When I was saying goodbye to my dad to leave for the airport, my dad didn’t know who I was. I didn’t give him a hug because he was looking at me as if I was a stranger and I didn’t want to freak him out. So I hugged my sister and left with my brother-in-law. It was a quiet ride to the airport. I didn’t want to talk. I couldn’t talk because I knew I’d cry and didn’t want to start crying. I couldn’t find gratitude. I couldn’t be grateful I had been able to come and help since that just reminded me of what just happened. So I looked for something else. And I found it. I found gratitude in the wildflowers in the highway median.
Finding something for which to be grateful didn’t make the sadness go away. The gratitude existed alongside my intense grief. But by connecting to gratitude I was also connecting to the greater world, creating a perspective for my pain. I was connecting to the divine. To awe. And wonder. And mystery. Not using gratitude as a bypass for my pain but an accompaniment to it.
Gratitude is a bridge to God. And the bridge can go up instantly once you find something for which to be grateful. And that’s the key. My mother was right but not complete. Yes, don’t get lost in the sadness. So don’t feel the sorrow so completely you only see sorrow. Someone does always have it worse but that doesn’t mean you’re not in pain. Count your blessings but give yourselves grace if the only blessing you can find in the moment is a patch of Texas bluebonnets as you speed by on the highway.
Gratitude doesn’t take away your pain but finding something for which to be grateful connects you to the greater world and lets you find the place where you can rest in God’s love.
So how are you? Fine? Maybe we should stop asking the question unless we’re prepared for the real answer. So … Good morning. It’s nice to see you. And I’m grateful for you. For whom are you grateful?
By Joni Miller, Ph.D. ©2019