This month, we are thinking about staying positive. I think everybody understand that there are huge benefits to living with a positive mindset and nurturing a positive attitude. Last week, we focused on encouraging others. The more you encourage a positive attitude in others, the more you have one yourself, and God will help you do this.
This week, I’d like to talk about a personal lifestyle of gratefulness as an important part of staying positive.
Gratitude can be like medicine for healing, both physical and spiritual healing, and that’s where our scripture will take us today. Gratefulness can give you a completely different way to see life.
Paul wrote these words to the church in Philippi in northern Greece toward the end of his life; he wrote from a prison cell in Rome, when many of us would think he had no reason for positive thinking…
Philippians 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
11Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
“Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone…. I have learned to be content with whatever I have…” Not only does Paul not have much to look forward to in Rome, these probably are not the words you’d expect if you knew about Paul’s first experience in Philippi years before. He was with his friend Silas when…
The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. (Acts 16:22-24)
A couple of years ago, I did a study of the Book of Acts, which ends up being the story of Paul’s travels around the Mediterranean telling people about Jesus and starting churches. And that was often how it went: Paul is beaten and thrown in jail. What’s remarkable is that he never complains about that. He just goes on to the next destination, and eventually, he is writing, “Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”
I would say that the key words in the passage are these:
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)
I used to see that verse printed on t-shirts, usually connected to some athletic event, maybe a fund-raising marathon. I’ve also seen it used on shirts for mission teams when they know they would be headed out on a project that would be physically demanding.
But Paul has something much harder, much deeper, in mind. Forgiveness when forgiveness seems impossible. Contentedness when everything seems empty. Gratefulness when it seems like there is nothing to be grateful for. How is that possible? Why should it be possible? Because God knows we are more complete people when forgiveness, contentedness, and gratefulness happen in us in the fullest way.
About two weeks ago, a man named Moreese Bickham died in California; that name might mean nothing to you. He was 98. For thirty-seven years of his life, he was on death row in Mississippi, and was released twenty years ago (1996) when it was determined that he had been wrongly convicted. While he was in prison, he became Rev. Bickham and on his release, he was quoted as saying, “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.” [http://www.nytimes.com/1996/01/11/us/after-37-years-in-prison-inmate-tastes-freedom.html?pagewanted=all]
Not what you would expect him to say, right? We would say that his life was not a happy one, but that’s not what he would say.
Not long ago, researchers at the University of Georgia published a study on the importance of gratitude in a marriage, and I would say, in all relationships. Gratefulness has a very practical side.
After interviewing 468 married individuals on relationship satisfaction, covering everything from communication habits to finances, they found that the “most consistent significant predictor” of happy marriages was whether one’s spouse expressed gratitude. “Feeling appreciated and believing that your spouse values you directly influences how you feel about your marriage, how committed you are to it, and your belief that it will last,” (says study co-author Ted Futris).
And that goes for good times but perhaps especially bad ones—when couples experience stress and their communication devolves into what the researchers call a demand/withdraw cycle – i.e., one partner demands or criticizes; the other tries to avoid a confrontation. Gratitude can disrupt this, and act as a buffer.
“What distinguishes the marriages that last from those that don’t is not how often they argue, but how they argue and how they treat each other on a daily basis,” says Futris. (Adds lead author Allen Barton,) the study “goes to show the power of ‘thank you'” and suggests a “practical way couples can help strengthen their marriage.”
And while expressing thanks has been shown to boost one’s health, (reports the Huffington Post,) this shows how doing so can positively impact someone else, too.
What does God want from us as we travel through life? Faith! Trust. Gratefulness. When bad times come along, we go to God for help, for inner strength, for peace, for healing. And that’s what God gives. Then we forget. Gratefulness has much to do with being thankful for the past with strong hope for the future. When we are grateful, we show God that we didn’t forget.
Someone here is taking a step of faith toward healing; it might be a healing that no one else can see. Others are thinking about how God has made a difference in their lives. Today is the perfect day to take a moment and thank God. To be grateful. It’s also a perfect day to express gratefulness to the people in your life who don’t get enough thanks. Finding ways to be grateful can change your perspective on so many things.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)
Another Bible phrase that I often hear taken out of context is “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding…” I don’t know about you, but I want that peace. I really do. What is it that leads to that peace?
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication (prayerfully asking God for something) 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. (Philippians 4:6-7)
(This is is a widely used story…) I was parked in front of the mall, wiping off my car. I had just come from the car wash and was waiting for my wife to get out of work. Coming my way from across the parking lot was what society would consider a bum. From the looks of him, he had no car, no home, no clean clothes and no money.
There are times when you feel generous, and then there are other times when you just don’t want to be bothered. This was one of those “don’t want to be bothered” times. “I hope he doesn’t ask me for any money,” I thought to myself.
He came and sat on the curb in front of the bus stop, but he didn’t look like he could have enough money to even ride the bus. After a few minutes he spoke. “That’s a very pretty car,” he said. He was ragged, but he had an air of dignity around him.
I said, “Thanks,” and continued wiping off my car.
He sat there quietly as I worked. The expected plea for money never came. As the silence between us widened, something inside me said, “Ask him if he needs any help.” I was sure that he would say, “Yes.”
“Do you need any help?” I asked.
He answered in three simple words that I shall never forget. We often look for wisdom in great men and women. We expect it from those of higher learning and accomplishments. I expected nothing from this man but an outstretched, grimy hand. His answer took me completely by surprise. “Don’t we all?” he said.
I was feeling high and mighty, successful and important, above a bum in the street, until those three words shook me to the core. “Don’t we all?”
I needed help. Maybe not for bus fare or a place to sleep, but I needed help. I reached in my wallet and gave him not only enough for bus fare, but enough to get a warm meal and shelter for the day. Those three little words rang in my ear.
No matter how much you have, no matter how much you have accomplished, you still need help, too. And no matter how little you have, no matter how weighed down you are with problems, even without money or a place to sleep, you can give help. Even if it’s just a compliment, you can give that. You never know when you may see someone who appears to have it all. He may be waiting on you to give him something he desperately needs, a different perspective on life, a glimpse of something beautiful. [And that can come from your personal store of gratefulness]
Maybe that man was just a homeless stranger, or maybe he was more than that. Maybe he was a messenger sent by God to minister to a soul who was too comfortable in himself.
Whoever he was, I am grateful.
O God, we feel so hopeless sometimes, so alone, so untouchable, needing to be healed by you. And you stand by us, waiting for us to turn to you, waiting for us to believe. All along, we know that the ups and downs, the good times and bad times along the road, all these things have been leading us to you. You are the destination; you are the one we have been looking for. Within ourselves, we know you hold the key to the peace and fulfillment we know we need and only you can give. Forgive our lack of courage in turning to you. Forgive us for being so preoccupied with ourselves that we ignore you when you call. But now we open the door of our lives to you. We thank you for all the circumstances and people you’ve given us; we thank you for our church, for all the ways you’ve brought us to yourself. With faith in your living son Jesus, we each give ourselves to you. Only you can make us clean. Through your Spirit, transform us into the kind of people who are known for their faith in a loving God, people who bring your peace to a hurting world. Amen.