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A Thousand Gifts

Pastor Joyce Shutt
Pastor Emeritus, Fairfield Mennonite Church

(11/2) A little book, One Thousand Gifts helped me capture the power of gratitude. Life felt heavy after my sisters died. One entry absolutely mesmerized me, enabling me to look at life through a new set of eyes, grateful eyes. "Blue shadows on the snow." That particular phrase, that specific observation, invited me to look for my own grace notes, my own blue shadows on the snow.

Gratitude is a choice, a deliberate way of living, of looking for and teaching ourselves to not just see, but to embrace the serendipitous, overlooked moments, insights, beauty, opportunities, gifts of everyday life. Gratitude opens the door to joy, to unknown possibilities, to appreciating the seemingly insignificant, everyday things we simply assume will be there. Gratitude re-orients us, deepens our awareness of much in life. Gratitude broadens our horizons, healing us, filling us with promise and hope. Gratitude, when truly embraced, fills our inner spaces with positive energy, pushing out anger, hatred, bitterness, resentment, jealousy. Gratitude actually changes our brain chemistry!

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Thanksgiving is the least commercial, the most up-lifting of our national celebrations. Thanksgiving is relatively free from the commercialized, obligated shopping, gift giving, entertaining, decorating one-up-man-ship thatís come to characterize Christmas, for instance. Yes, there is the elaborate feasting aspect of the day, which can be a challenge for the cook, but in the end, Thanksgiving is primarily about taking time out of our busy lives to simply be together, to be grateful, to focus on what we have rather than grumbling about what we donít have.

Gratitude for our families and friends, dysfunctional and wacky as they may be. Gratitude for shelter, clothing, the basic necessities of life. Gratitude for doctors, medicine, public schools, jobs, decent roads, safe bridges. Gratitude for a hot shower, electricity, morning coffee, our car starting on a cold morning. Gratitude for our country, broken as it feels sometimes. Gratitude for just being alive.

Thanksgiving is a day to gratefully enjoy eating too much, napping, watching football together, taking a walk. putting down our grumbles and complaints and just enjoying what is. A day for celebrating a past rich in memories and experience, a present filled with family, friends and opportunity, a future that, no matter how much we try to affect its outcome, remains Godís open future.

Holidays can be difficult for many. Holidays are filled with memories, some bitter, some sweet. Holidays bring out the best and the beast in us. Holidays are rife with unrealistic expectations, sanitized, glamorized versions and expectations of family. Thatís one reason why years ago our little congregation chose to create a new tradition for ourselves. Instead of a divorced mother feeling sorry for herself because the kids were spending the day with dad, a widow being alone, families separated by distance or unresolved hurts, or folks just wanting to be part of a big do, we now hold a communal Thanksgiving dinner at the church for any and all. Since our congregation practices what we call membership by participation, we donít focus on who is in or who is out. If you are with us, you belong! Our table, Godís table, is open and welcoming. Thanksgiving dinner is a time together with all the perks, but not all the work. We pot-luck food, including the turkey and trimming, the decorations. We share special family dishes, traditions, stories, things for which we are grateful, even the clean-up. Being together, we remind ourselves that Godís extended family extends far beyond our religious, national., ethnic, racial, cultural or family ties.

A number of years ago Mennonite church workers started taking small oil lamps with them when they traveled around the world, giving these lamps to churches, mosques, synagogues, and other places of gathering and worship. They had only one request; that the recipients light the lamp and pray for peace on a daily or weekly basis, knowing they were joining thousands of others around the world.

We have one of those lamps in our sanctuary. Each Sunday morning our peace moment has become an integral part of our service and week. Folks canít wait to share the many ways each saw or participated in random acts of kindness, paying it forward moments, moments of actively practicing thanks-giving and thanks-living. For what is peace but the overflowing of gratitude, kindness, at-one-ness with others?

What if we made everyday a thanks-giving day and thanks-living day? How would that change us? How might gratitude change our broken world? Studies document that to be authentically happy and productive we have to actually practice both intentional and random acts of kindness and gratitude. Itís not enough to just think that "thank you." We need to say it out loud. Gratitude, to be gratitude, is active, not passive. For instance, just by keeping a gratitude diary and writing down at least three things a day for which we are grateful for at least four months we can actually cure or modify depression and alter our brain chemistry, thus developing a new way of experiencing the world!

Webster defines altruism as an unselfish regard for, or devotion to the welfare of others. Altruism and gratitude are integrally linked. They are the highest form of self care. Unfortunately, our society has become so polarized by focusing on individual rights and wants that we have forgotten what affects others ultimately affects us. Study after study documents that people who volunteer without regard for praise or pay-offs, people who willingly help others, who donate to good causes are less depressed, happier, physically healthier, more productive, creative, and live longer. Even those required to do community service find they feel better about themselves, are more confident, less judgmental, and experience a greater sense of peace and contentment.

Since we all live in community and are far more dependent and inter-dependent than we realize, letís use this Thanksgiving season as a time to jump start our attitude of gratitude. Letís begin by saying "thank you" to all those "invisible" people such as store clerks, first responders, road and sanitation workers, waitresses, cooks, school teachers, janitors, linemen; all those who serve us everyday. Letís take time to become aware of what they do to make our lives better. Let's share our time and talents with others whether at church, home, school, food pantries, homeless shelters or other helping agencies. Letís treat our families with decency and respect, thanking them for just being.

Thanks-giving and thanks-living means no longer taking each other for-granted! Letís turn off our cell phones, look at each other and say, "I love you! Thank you for being you! Thank you for enriching my life." After all, science has proven that when we help others and practice gratitude, our bodies release pleasure and pain relieving chemicals called endorphins. By being authentically grateful and by helping others, we help ourselves! So, letís all have a grateful Thanksgiving Day. Letís get out our pens and start a gratitude diary. Letís be intentional about developing an attitude of gratitude!

Read past sermons by Pastor Joyce Shutt