November 24, 2019 I Corinthians 11:23-26
A group of us have been meeting on Monday evenings to study Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts. Voskamp is an author, a pig farmer’s wife in Ontario and the mother of seven children. One day a friend challenged Voskamp to write down 1,000 gifts. She accepted the challenge and over the course of a year, tried to immerse herself in the waking, dailyness of life and each day record God-given gifts. This book is what she learned about the discipline of gratitude over the course of a year.
She begins her book writing about how this total absorption with gratitude somehow slowed the pace of her days as she became more aware, more present. This spoke to a very tender spot in my heart. I’ve mentioned this from the pulpit before, how in tune I am with the very limited time we have left with our children living at home. I just want to be with them.
I want our family to do things together all the time. But our kids, increasingly, have busy and active social lives of their own. So as I reach the place where I’m trying to hoard these moments of togetherness, my kids have less and less time to give. When someone says they know a way to slow time down, I’m all ears. Within the first chapter, Voskamp had me – hook, line and sinker. I’ve begun keeping my own gift list. I’m at number 62 right now. Every day I just try to be more present and aware when joy or peace or contentment enters the room and I write these little gifts down – #9 – Winter’s first snow; #15 – Holding hands with Todd; #34 – Camaraderie around church council tables. And it’s working. Awareness is dawning. Voskamp names these gifts as all the different ways God uniquely loves us. I am feeling loved.
She writes, “I watch the hands move grace on the clock face. I’m growing older. These children are growing up. But time is not running out. This day is not a sieve, losing time. With each passing minute, each passing year, there’s this deepening awareness that I am filling, gaining time…My small son pauses between bites, wiggles his tooth with the tip of his tongue. I watch him and smile. He sees me watching and he grins. He takes that last bite of chocolate-melt cookie and with mouth still full of gooey good, he serenades soft, “I love you, Mom…and all this.” And all this. This cathedral moment, this God, this time before it bursts. All this….This moment is the house of God and I reach for the plate. I want to savor long whatever time holds.”
The premise of her book is built upon the Greek word, eucharisteo. This is a verb which translated means, “giving thanks”, “showing gratitude.” Most of us probably recognize the word Eucharist embedded here, another word for communion. How fitting, on this Thanksgiving Sunday, that we gather around the communion table in an act of thanksgiving.
Voskamp breaks this word down further. There within eucharisteo is its root, charis. Charis means “grace”. And within the word charis, is its own root, chara, meaning “joy”.
We can look at this word as a series of doorways. To enter into that inner sanctum of joy, one must first pass through grace. This make sense. In an eternal profusion of pathways, the experience of grace lights our way and users us into joy.
But there’s another layer here, a doorway to grace as well that is only entered through thanksgiving. This one offers some serious food for thought. Grace is that gift freely given. A gift that requires nothing of us, not even thanksgiving. One could even argue that grace prompts thanksgiving. We recognize a God gift, a grace, and we’re thankful. Yes, that’s true. But, when you tune to thanksgiving as a daily discipline, when gratitude beats out the rhythm of your day, you are far more likely to actually see the grace, the gift that brings you to joy.
A friend of our family once told me about going on a mountain hike with my Aunt Betsy. As the group ascended the trail, everyone’s eyes were constantly scanning the horizon, seeking out glimpses of the glory view from up on high – everyone’s eyes that is except for my Aunt Betsy’s. I think Betsy must have known that there would be time to appreciate the vast vistas once they reached their destination. So instead, she was alert to the simple beauties of the trail they walked and it was Betsy, then, who squealed with joy when she spied a clump of ripe wild strawberries for everyone to enjoy together.
When thanksgiving keeps our heart attuned to the simple beauties cast across our daily path, we are much more likely to actually see the graces of God and squeal for joy.
Voskamp writes, “To receive God’s gifts, to live exalted and joy filled, isn’t a function of straining higher, harder, doing more, carrying long the burdens of the super-Pharisees or ultra-saints. Receiving God’s gifts is a gentle, simple movement of moving lower.”
To this point in her book, her words simply resonated within me and I felt nourished. And then we reached chapter 5 which began with this quote from Saint John of Avila – “One act of thanksgiving, when things go wrong with us, is worth a thousand thanks when things are agreeable to our inclinations.” This quote signaled deeper waters ahead.
Even in chapter 1 the reader comes to understand that Voskamp writes from the perspective of one who has known deep suffering and loss in her life. She also recounts the suffering of others. At no time is she trying to gloss over the realities of life and I very much appreciate that approach. But in chapter 5, she writes about an accident in the pig barn when her young son almost has his hand sheared off by a fan blade. The hand is spared, but corrective surgery is needed for a finger. At the same time, down the road, a neighboring Mennonite family loses their thirteen-year-old son in an accident.
She writes, “What is good? What counts as grace? What is the heart of God? Do I believe in a God who rouses Himself just now and then to spill a bit of benevolence on hemorrhaging humanity? A God who breaks through the carapace of this orb only now and then, surprises us with a spared hand, a reprieve from sickness, a good job and a nice house in the burbs—and then finds Himself again too impotent to deal with all I see as suffering and evil? A God of sporadic, random, splattering goodness—that now and then splatters across a gratitude journal? Somebody tell me: What are all the other moments?”
This gratitude journal I’m keeping reflects just a tiny fraction of moments held within a day. If I believe God is present at all times and in all places and that God is good and can only be good, what then of all the other moments in a day?
We are given a life here. Our time is short, but in the time we’re gifted, we are able to take everything we’re given, the hard and the happy, the dark and the day light, the grief and the goodness, and together with God we weave this tapestry with all these different threads and we create something beautiful, something good. The day of her son’s accident in the barn, Voskamp adds to her gratitude journal, “Bandages and pain relief”, “Levi’s index finger”.
In I Corinthians 11:23-26, Paul writes, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you: that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, he took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
On the night before his crucifixion, knowing full well what was in store, Jesus took the bread and he gave thanks. Voskamp calls this the “hard eucharisteo”. The giving thanks even when we want more than anything for this cup to pass from us. And we are asked to participate in this act of agony and sacrifice. I Corinthians 10:16 – “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” Whenever and wherever we eat bread and drink the fruit of the vine, we are instructed to remember Christ’s sacrifice and to participate in that sacrifice with our own sacrifice of thanksgiving.
We may not be thankful for everything life sends our way. Certainly, I’m not thankful for the existence of Evil in all its abhorrent forms. Nor am I thankful for tragedy…grief. But we are thankful that we cannot go where God is not. We are thankful that within every blessed lived moment of this life, God is there with us. We are thankful that no matter how often we fall short, no matter how many times we have to pick ourselves up again, Christ’s sacrifice of grace is there covering us, including us. We are thankful for the wild wonder of this life we’ve been given. And the more daily we are able to ground our lives in gratitude, whenever we sit to eat or listen to music or pause to rub an aching back, the more whenever and wherever moments we grasp in thanksgiving, the more aware we will be of God in the gentle, pulsating breath of time slowed. “Be still and know I am God”. Amen.