“More Than the Power of Positive Thinking”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
4 October, 2020
Sermon 4 in Holy Habit of Gladness and Generosity Series
Psalm 42
(Philippians 4:1-9)

How are you doing these days?  I mean, how are you really doing?

John Wesley, one of the theological fathers of Methodism, used to counsel his congregations to greet each other with the words, “How goes it with your soul?”  And then to give an honest answer.

Culturally, that’s not what we’re taught to do.  Culturally, we learn that people often don’t really want to (or maybe they simply can’t bear to) hear about it if we’re suffering, especially if the suffering is prolonged.  They’re busy with their own suffering, and working to maintain an upbeat appearance.  We generally don’t know how to handle it if someone says more than once or twice that they’re feeling tired, run-down, or demoralized.  Even worse if someone admits to feeling scorned.  We’re supposed to “suck it up”, “have a stiff upper lip”, “keep our chin up”, be tougher than whatever’s besetting us.

And sometimes, this is the message people hear from the church.  That the power of positive thinking is what’s going to help us overcome our challenges – as if it’s as simple as mind over matter, working a little harder, being a little more determined.  Envisioning ourselves in a better state of being and then living as if that were the reality until it actually is—a sort of “fake it ‘til you make it” tactic.  Well, while that approach may sound hope-filled, it’s not exactly faith-filled or spiritually healthy.  In fact, it even runs counter to Biblical testimony and teaching.

Yes, I know that our introduction to the Holy Habit of Gladness and Generosity a few weeks ago opened with the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”  And the church-planting apostle goes on to list all sorts of positive things to think about when we’re in the midst of trials and tribulations.  And, we should direct our thoughts toward whatever is true, and honorable, just, and pure, whatever is pleasing and commendable.  Without question.

But Paul wasn’t suggesting that the power of positive thinking is the key to joy in life.  He demonstrated that acknowledging, naming the difficult realities of life is an important piece of recognizing the blessings.  Because otherwise, we can get to thinking that we are personally responsible for the good things we enjoy in life, as if our positive thoughts and hard work are the things that have guaranteed our success or happiness.

In his worship at the temple, Paul would almost certainly have heard the Psalm that Sylvia read for us this morning.  And, I’m confident that he would have resonated as deeply as any of us do with the Psalmist who confessed, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God,” and lamented, “When shall I come and behold the face of God?  My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’”[1] Paul, as surely as the Psalmist, as surely as you or I, was familiar with the experience of trying to do the right thing in life but still feeling like things are going all wrong.  He was no less familiar with the experience of a downcast soul than you or I periodically are, and he was equally as acquainted with the suspicion that God had forgotten him as the Psalmist was, and as you and I sometimes might be when we feel our world going to hell in a handbasket.

Which is why, in his letters, Paul didn’t pretend like everything was great.  He named the things that were vexing him, and he expressed his frustrations with the flawed, which is to say sinful, realities in this world and dynamics between human beings that resulted in misunderstanding, tension, division, mistreatment, and alienation.  Remember, he named the troubling conflict between two women in the Philippian congregation, and he urged others to help them toward reconciliation, before he reminded all of them to remember God’s constant abiding with them, individually and collectively, in the past and even now.

That two-fold process: first of acknowledging the sinful state of affairs characterizing life, followed by actively recalling what God has done in the past, helps to re-frame the situation and re-set the human understanding both for the Psalmist and for Paul.  And, for you and me.  It helps all of us to remember that our joy, our gladness, in life is directly tied to God’s generosity.

God is lavishly generous with grace, and with the abundance and variety of gifts entrusted to us in different measures.  God has generously given everything to us to manage well, despite the ways we’re prone to messing things up.  And it’s easier to see that divine generosity when we acknowledge the things that keep us in touch with our need, our vulnerability, and our inescapable sinfulness even when we have good intentions.

So, as the Psalmist chronicled his thoughts, prayers, and spiritual musings, he acknowledges his downcast soul and names the things that are troubling him.  And as he acknowledges his thirst for God, as he identifies his fear and consternation over the adversaries who taunt him, he hears another voice within welling up in response, reminding him that “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me.”[2] A voice repeating, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”[3]

If your experience of this year is anything like mine, you may have lost count of how many times you’ve felt desperately thirsty for God’s peace and reassurance that all shall be well.  You may have asked, as I have, when the will of God would not feel so obscured by the scrabbling madness and meanness of so many.  I hope you’re able to acknowledge and name the things that are troubling about life in the midst of a global pandemic.  About the ways in which our society is fraying so terribly, and some fear conclusively.  I hope you’re able to admit that the chaos of these days is exhausting and disorienting.  Because all of these observations point up our inevitable, irrevocable need for God.

I also hope that you will, as the Psalmist, and Paul, and I have in our moments of thirsty prayer, call to mind the times when you have known God was with you in the past, so that you can feel reassurance that God is with you even now.

I have a friend who went through what seemed like an impossible number of setbacks, disappointments, and griefs in her life.  As I listened to her recounting all her challenges, I asked, “How are you doing?  How is your soul faring?”  And she said, “Well, Tanya, I’m learning that when you’re in the deepest, darkest pits of hell, you just keep walking.  Keep heading for the light.”  Her counsel sounds a lot like the Psalmist’s and Paul’s.

As we continue to cultivate the Holy Habit of Gladness and Generosity, may we notice the things that challenge us.  May we name the sin and brokenness that reminds us of our need for God.  And, as we acknowledge and name these things, may we also recall and search out the ongoing instances of God’s generosity in our lives: the grace, the gifts, the light.  Because by doing so, more surely than by the limited power of positive thinking, we will rediscover the joy of our salvation.

I’d like to share with you a video prayer that does a beautiful job of acknowledging both the challenges of life today, and also the ways that God’s light pierces the darkness and gives us reason for hope and joy.

[1] Psalm 42:2-3

[2] Psalm 42:8

[3] Psalm 42:5, 11

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC