“Don’t Worry, Be Thankful”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
18 November, 2018
Do you know what the most frequently repeated exhortation or instruction in the Bible is? It’s “Do not fear/fear not”—and its variations, “Do not be afraid”, and “Don’t worry.” Some Biblical scholars suggest that it’s clearly stated 365 times—once for every day of the year. Others say it’s even more often than that, which means that we’re furnished with more than daily reminders to focus our attention and energy on things other than our fears or worries. And that’s helpful, because our human minds seem to have this uncanny ability to drag us back to the troubled waters of worry and fear as a sort of habit. Why do we keep going there, Jesus asks? “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27)
Our Old Testament passage attests to the power of fear to overwhelm. In Joel 2:21-22, we hear the prophet command even the soil and the animals not to fear, but instead to “be glad and rejoice.” And then that same instruction is given to children of Zion, to God’s faithful believers: “O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God,” because vindication and restoration is on its way. God knows well what the people have been through, the prophet assures them, and is coming to save and restore them. They’d just suffered a punishing defeat, and had felt abandoned by God—though the prophet makes it clear that their experience of abandonment was due in no small part to their own willful turning away and distancing themselves from God’s design and desires for them. Still, Joel affirms, God intends to heal their land and their community, with the divine promise: “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other.”
Be glad and rejoice. When do we rejoice? What most typically makes us glad? I daresay those feelings are always tied to gratitude—if you’re rejoicing over something, chances are, you’re enthusiastically giving thanks. When you’re glad about something, you’re simultaneously grateful for that reality.
When do we notrejoice, and when are we notglad? Typically, when we’re going through difficult moments, when life hurts. When we suffer. When we feel abandoned, or lost, disappointed, defeated, or mistreated somehow. And it’s because we don’t like the experience of suffering that our minds will engage endlessly (or as endlessly as we’ll allow them to) in the useless project of worrying. We’re so conditioned to think that the only way to solve a problem is to get busy and dosomething, that our minds will just get to “work”’ manufacturing thoughts, even if the thoughts are rarely helpful.
How many times have you consciously thought to yourself, as you’ve felt wrapped up in a blanket of anxious worry, “This isn’t going to solve anything, all these fearful and worrisome thoughts!”—and then noticed how your mind goes right back to stitching away at the worry anyways?
What can we do about that—especially when the Bible is so clear that the twin siblings, fear and worry, represent one of the most powerful wedges between us and God? Between the experience we’re having in life and the peace we long for?
According to Scripture, time and time again, we’re advised to give thanks. Gratitude opens the path to a deeper connection with God, with others, with the world—even with our own souls. The best way to inoculate against, or destroy the infection of fear and worry is to cultivate the habit of thanks-giving. Practice recognizing and then counteracting each fearful or anxious thought with a thought of thanks-giving or gratitude, maybe two or three. The surest way to a life of peace and joy is by habituating ourselves to give thanks constantly, regardless of our circumstances. But it takes discipline, attentiveness to our thoughts, and willingness to practice thinking in new ways.
In one of the sessions of our recent Adult C.E. courses entitled, “Embracing an Adult Faith”, one of the suggestions offered as a transformational spiritual practice was the use of “gratitude bowls.” The woman who described it said she keeps two bowls on her desk at work—one is filled with small stones. It could be beads, or slips of paper, whatever. But across the day, each time her eyes fall on one of the bowls, she deliberately thinks of something she’s grateful for in that moment, and she offers up a silent “thank you” as she transfers one of the stones to the other bowl. She does not allow herself to get up from her desk until each of the stones has been moved, one by one, to the other bowl. It’s a powerful way to re-train the mind, especially if you’re someone who’s noticed that you’re not as happy as you’d like to be. Think of the happiest people you know—are they not also among the most grateful people you know? Those who have cultivated the habit of gratitude rarely complain about what they lack—because their attention is so focused on the abundance they’re constantly giving thanks for.
Now, I need to say this, because I don’t want to diminish the experience of those who find today’s sermon and biblical advice more easily said than done: There are some for whom gratitude and thanksgiving can feel particularly elusive. Survivors of abuse, or individuals still trapped in abusive relationships, for example. Anyone suffering from significant depression or anxiety. There are times and circumstances when finding the capacity to give thanks is almost impossible because of the trauma of what’s happened or what’s going on in one’s personal life at the moment. And that’s why it’s important to remember that as Christians, we are members of a mystical body—we are connected to one another by the Spirit that binds us together, even when we cannot seem to access or feel that Spirit personally. The healthy parts of the body must tend to the hurting parts, starting by praying on behalf of them and for them, so that the whole body might be nurtured back to health and wholeness, so that everyone can know the joy of gratitude and thanksgiving.
On Thanksgiving Sunday, I like to invite the congregation to share realities you’re grateful for in your life. And this morning, I also want to ask you to share some of your own gratitude practices: do you have exercises that you do to help you to minimize fear or worry, and replace those things with the power of thanks and joy? Please share! [Collective time of sharing our gratitude and practices…]