The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
I open today with the words of Diana Butler Bass, from her book, Gratitude:
“About two hours outside of Lexington, Kentucky, on a narrow country road sits a small Baptist church. It embodies the spirit of rural America as much as a church can — a white clapboard building surrounded by fields and woods, with mountains in the hazy distance. A cemetery sits on the property, too, holding saints in the peaceful earth as they away resurrection.
“I have been to all fifty states in America, including Kentucky, but I have never been to this particular church. I have seen it online, but I do not ever want to visit in person. Somewhere in that graveyard, resting among the Baptist faithful, lay the remains of the uncle who abused me when I was fourteen years old. When my mother sent me an email in January 2007 telling me he was dead, I replied, ‘Thank God.’ It was the first time that any mention of my uncle and any word of gratitude were ever combined in a sentence. Once in a while, I look at the graveyard from the safe distance of the Google cam — wanting, I think, to reassure myself that he remains in the dirt.”
In these days when violence against women and girls is in the forefront of our minds, these words resonate with women and men who have endured abuse, and it is important to note that nobody is telling you to be grateful for your abuse or abuser. “Gratitude may work miracles,” Bass writes, “but sometimes the miracle comes from just being able to feel anything but pain.” “Gratitude is no panacea against violence and injustice. Yet my soul suspected there might be a path beyond rage — a way for gratitude to enfold the pain in a greater good.”
I can only imagine that those who have survived abuse wonder where to find that path. I imagine there are times when they wish they could feel anything but pain.
Often, I experience gratitude for something good (like a new church sign) or a happy event (like a trip or a birthday). My gratitude in those cases is part of a transaction: I receive x, so I am grateful for it. But there is another type of gratitude, a more basic, elemental type of gratitude that moves beyond the transactional “if-then” sense of the experience.
Hanging onto transactional gratitude makes it difficult to be grateful when things are not going your way. Are you experiencing gratitude for the way our national political life has deteriorated into fear-mongering, partisan vitriol, and winner-take-all politics? I’m certainly not. In fact, I find it appalling. The politics of avarice and power reflect a very deep-seated sense of fear…the fear of not having enough money, enough power, enough influence. In spite of all the crap I read in the news, I am still trying to live with gratitude for the big stuff: life, faith, love.
And if we all were better at being grateful, at being thankful, at letting go of our fear of not having enough, we’d have a very different kind of political environment.
One of the refrains in the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that you heard this morning is a steady drumbeat to stop worrying…stop sweating the small stuff…let go of your fear…release your attachments to material objects and material wealth.
“Do not worry about … what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” It’s one thing to say to us, “Don’t worry about having Louis Vuitton bags or Patagonia jackets.” But if the only clothing you have is what’s on your back, it’s hard not to worry about what happens when your sweatshirt gets soaked in a rainstorm and it’s 35° outside. It’s one thing to say to us “Don’t worry about whether you’re drinking a Keystone Light or the latest seasonal microbrew from Odell’s.” Or “Don’t worry about whether you’re eating a hamburger at Good Times or a pan-seared halibut at the Kitchen in Old Town,” but it’s another thing to say that to someone who is just hoping to make it to the Mission for a hot meal. And I think what Jesus is saying is “Don’t freak out over having what you want, because through Creation and God’s people, you will get what you need.” And the way that works is through the everyday miracle of people like us sharing what we have and working for the kingdom of God here and now.
But Jesus goes even further than telling us to chill out. “Look at the birds of the air; they don’t work at all, and yet God feeds them. Aren’t you more valuable than they are? And can you add a single hour to your lifespan by working harder? And stop worrying if you look good in your new clothes. Think about the lilies of the field and the miracle of the way they grow. They don’t work at all, and even so, King Solomon clothed in all his regalia couldn’t hold a candle to the beauty of these flowers.”
I think what Jesus is talking about is toning down our striving and even our reliance the stuff we can buy, and instead turning the tables to look and really appreciate what God has done and is doing for us. I think Jesus is asking us to become aware of God’s grace: what God gives to us unconditionally as a gift. We did nothing to earn or deserve life itself. We did nothing to earn or deserve the beauty of lilies growing in a field. We did nothing to earn or deserve the taste of apple pie or the delight of a lover’s kiss or seeing a yellow aspen stand on a Colorado mountainside. But we can observe and be grateful for them.
Last week, Jake and I had the gift of leading Geri Stutheit’s memorial service, and one of the things Geri said was that “life isn’t about how much we have…it’s about how much we give.” I think that is how we emulate God…in the giving.
I said earlier that there was a more basic, elemental type of gratitude that goes beyond transactional gratitude (which is simply being thankful that we have stuff that we’ve accumulated or even the good things that happen to us). I think that deep gratitude happens when we slow down, pause, and start to notice that everything around us as a gift.
When I’m at my best, I can capture a sense of wonder and awe when I look out of our kitchen window as the sun rises over the meadow along the Spring Creek Bike Trail. I am grateful when I look up at the stars when I go to the pool at 6:00 a.m. I am grateful when I think about my sons. I am grateful when I think about how we have grown together as this local church over the years, and grateful for all those who came before us to pave the way. These are not experiences of transactional gratitude…I think they comprise a sense of spiritual awareness that beckons me to respond, whether in feeling or action. That is deep gratitude.
David Steindl-Rast, a wise Benedictine monk, writes that “Everything is a gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is a measure of our gratefulness, and gratefulness is a measure of our aliveness.” Sometimes I’m pretty good at that kind of authentic, existential, deep gratitude.
But at other times, I’m not great at seeing things as a gift, and I’m not good at being grateful for some of life’s rougher experiences. I’m not grateful for having had cancer…I’m just grateful that it’s gone! I know that we are all supposed to learn from the unearned suffering in our lives, but I’m still trying to find the big silver lining of that one.
I am deeply grateful to be alive, to have great healthcare, to experience the support and prayers of our congregation, and to be more empathic with others who have cancer…but I’m not grateful for having had cancer or for its after-effects. Like all of us, I still have some growing to do…maybe as I mature I’ll understand it differently and become grateful.
As we enter this stewardship season, I would encourage you to do a little writing…just a few notes if you wish. If you want to take out a pencil, here are some questions for you to consider in your prayers during the coming week:
As we move into this season of thanks, of gratitude, of generosity, may you be blessed, and may you be aware of all that God has done and is doing for you and with you and through you. And may we — all of us — strive first for the Kingdom of God.
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Diana Butler Bass, Gratitude. (SF: HarperOne, 2018), pp. 25-26.
 Ibid., p. 38
 Ibid., p. 39
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.