Something odd happened this morning. Odd in a good way. I had prepared a group activity for my usual Wednesday morning group called, “Building Hope.” It turned into more than a simple activity for my patients. It actually went far deeper than I would have ever guessed. The exercise is a simple activity in which I had a tree without leaves painted on a poster board. I handed out apple cutouts and ask the patients to write down whatever they feel grateful for. We had a good conversation about gratitude and how it shifts one’s focus to positive things even while it doesn’t change the negatives. Then we stuck the apples on the tree.
Next, I handed out leaf cutouts and asked them to write on the leaves anything they wanted to let go off, let fall off like the autumn leaves. We talked about these things as we stuck them on the ground around the bottom of the tree. And then the hard part of the discussion. What keeps you from letting go? What prevents you from feeling grateful for what you do have and are able to do? They named a few things like illness, envy, frustration, and habit.
This little exercise made me think about the ancient Israelites and the early Christians in Philippi. My patients weren’t exactly creating idols or rejoicing in the Lord, but the underlying issues are rather similar. Gratitude came easy for them. They could name many things they were grateful for from the beautiful fall weather to family and friends who love them. Recognizing what they needed to let go of was also easy. They did not hesitate to write down guilt, anger, shame, illness. But, ultimately, they could not see gratitude as a way of letting go. It’s hard. Sometimes too hard is what they said.
I think of those Israelites who had so much to be grateful for, so much to rejoice in. But they had forgotten the parting of the sea, the manna from heaven, the water from stone, and the smoky lightning and thunder that accompanied Moses giving them the ten commandments. They could only see the wilderness around them and they were desperate for a god they could see and touch.
I suspect that those folks in Philippi were having trouble remembering all that God had done for them as well. They were probably only seeing the arguments over how to live as a proper follower of Jesus, the persecution of believers, and the difficulty of going a new way. Otherwise, why would the advice have been to rejoice in the Lord always? I’d bet there was some yearning for a god they could see and touch, too.
And, honestly, I’m right there with them. I want answers to the evils of ISIS, global warming, ebola, and war. There are days when I can only see wilderness for miles. It’s lonely and scary. I’m not about to build a golden calf to help me let go and make room for gratitude and joy, but I will admit that I’ve worshipped lesser gods with flimsy altars. They sneak in without needing much of an invitation. They take over quickly with their illusions of satisfying the deep hunger and the ever-present yearning for a peace that will last.
These little gods that create the illusion of happiness are a poor substitute for the God who saves and truly does offer peace and joy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s all about gratitude. If the Israelites had focused on all that God had blessed them with and given thanks right there in the middle of the wilderness instead of seeing only their fears, they would have had no need of a golden calf. If the Philippians had remembered all that Jesus had done for them instead of focusing on whatever issue was dividing them, they would not have needed a reminder to rejoice in the Lord. If I remember God’s deep and abiding love for me, then I have no need of the little gods that populate my life. Like my patients realized this morning, gratitude doesn’t change the bad stuff, but it helps to make us less afraid to let go enough to make room for change in us.
I’m still thinking about this need to remember and be grateful in an active kind of way. There would be so much more room for joy and gentleness if worry didn’t take up so much room. These things won’t fix the problems in the world immediately, but what if everyone followed the advice given to the Philippians so long ago?
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
RCL – Year A – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 12, 2014
Exodus 32:1-14 with Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or
Isaiah 25:1-9 with Psalm 23