“A Dispositional Way of Being: The Way of Gratitude” (2 of 4)
Psalm 119 (VU 838 Pt 1) & Genesis 32:22-32 ~ Northwood UC ~ October 16, 2022
Last Sunday was Thanksgiving. And thanksgiving is…wonderful. We came as thankful people. Thankfully bringing food donations to complete our display around the Communion Table; thankfully anticipating special meals to be consumed; thankfully welcoming special people at table; thankfully counting our blessings. We even began our gratitude tree naming these areas of gratitude and more. Perhaps you even placed a leaf on the tree representing an area of your gratitude?
Yet today, the food donations have been distributed to the Food Bank; the turkey has been eaten and the leftovers made into soups. Thanksgiving is over, and we are left pondering if there is a place for gratitude within the everyday rhythms of life. How can we be thankful in the day in, and day out flow of life? And even more challenging is the question…can we be thankful when life gets difficult.? Do we foster gratitude when life gets tough? Do we have a place for gratitude when relationships go awry? When we are lonely? When health is threatened? When employment is uncertain? When mental health challenges take over? The truth is that gratitude was much easier to focus on last week when we had visions of turkey and all the trimmings. This week, we shift to considering gratitude in the context of the challenging moments in life. This Sunday, we are confronted with the reality that gratitude is much more difficult to hold.
This component of gratitude we are considering, this week, is what psychologists call Dispositional Gratitude. It is the tendency to notice and appreciate the positive aspects of life. And as we think about this component of gratitude, I want us to shift to the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel that Kathleen read for us. One scholar suggests that this is the most analyzed text among all of patriarchal narratives. This narrative has deep meaning that, not only informs our faith traditions’ origin, it also informs how we might live right now. The story is about finding God as we wrestle with the struggles in life. In fact, this whole section of Genesis is about God’s presence. Jacob’s wrestling is sandwiched between two grand visitations from God. Chapter 28 contains the story of Jacob’s Ladder: Jacob dreams of this ladder with angels ascending and descending. And in that dream, God promises Jacob the land from the North to the South, to the East to the West. On the other side of our text is God’s powerful call to Jacob in chapter 35. God summons Jacob to journey from Shechem and go to Bethel and settle that land. Those two texts are ‘thanksgiving texts’. They are texts of land being promised; they are stories of angels visiting; they are promises of God being present…in the land, in the angels, always.
And in the middle of those two stories, we find God as we struggle through life. Jacob finds himself all alone in the darkness of night. Have you ever felt yourself to be alone? Have you ever felt yourself to be in the a dark place? This story is a metaphor that quickly finds an application into our lives, doesn’t it? We have lived in dark times, troubled times, night times…and we have all been there. And this is where Jacob finds himself. So, what did you notice in the text?
The first thing we might notice is Jacob’s herculean resilience through his challenging time. Jacob demonstrates incredible determination because the wrestling battle goes on ALL night! Jacob is persistent; he will not give up. When he is in darkness, Jacob will not give up. When he is all alone, Jacob will not stop. Jacob continues to wrestle in the solitary darkness…he does not cease! Somehow Jacob has this inner strength that allows him to push on and continue wrestling. The unknown figure commands Jacob: ‘let me go, morning is coming.’ Yet Jacob refuses to give up amidst the solitary darkness in which he fights, saying: “I will not let go, until you bless me.”
The second observation is that Jacob changes as a result of his struggle. He is not the same on the other side. Previously, he was named Jacob, which was not a particularly flattering name. Jacob meant “trickster” or “supplanter”. The one who would seize, circumvent, or usurp. Yet after this time wrestling alone in the darkness, Jacob is given a new identity…he is named “Israel” which means God rules, God preserves, God protects. He went through this dark, lonely time and grew to have an awareness of a God who was present blessing him in the end.
The third observation pertains to God’s presence that is there for us when we find ourselves wrestling in our lonely, dark times. This text is the first instance of God being present in human form. We, of course, see this later in the person of Jesus. What, I think, this text is teaching is the presence of God in our struggles. I don’t think, to be honest, God was really putting up much of a fight. The God we read about in scripture could have easily defeated Jacob. And it would not have taken all night, either! What God does is to be present to allow Jacob to struggle and wrestle through his challenges. God does not leave him alone! In God’s presence, Jacob becomes vulnerable through his struggles. And in God’s presence, when the timing is right, Jacob will grow and be blessed. There is a tremendous teaching for us here! Our God has big shoulders. Big enough for us to get angry at; big enough for us to wrestle through our pains and disappointments. God will always be up to help you wrestle through your struggles. God is not fighting with us. God is there with us as we wrestle through them!
And as we struggle and work through the difficult times (as Jacob did) wrestling in the dark, lonely times of life. We can trust that God will not leave us alone. God will help us wrestle things through; God will give us a new identity on the other side; God will bless us, even gifting us with a new name, for the journey that lies ahead.
The question remains, how did Jacob / Israel foster such strength wrestling through the lonely dark night? As I suggested last Sunday, worship and gratitude are inextricably linked. Jacob’s faithfulness, his connection with God (even when he was wrestling), his worship of God was something that never ceased. Psychologists are teaching us that the practices of gratitude / worship can be heightened, so that they are available to give us strength when we need it most. Researchers who work in this area tell us that this is something that can be learned and fostered. And the good news is that gratitude / worship is what we do as people of faith! Coming to worship is a time to come in gratitude and thanksgiving. The challenge is living it the other 6 ½ days! Our times of private prayers and devotions should include times of gratitude and opening awareness for God’s presence.
Polly Campbell in her book Imperfect Spirituality offers some further helpful suggestions for living a life of gratitude / worship. I wonder which ones might resonate for you? She suggests that opening an awareness to gratitude is a great first step. Many have heard of gratitude journals. What researchers tell us is that they work…if we use them! (see chart). Journaling on a regular basis shifts our awareness towards the way of gratitude. If you aren’t ready for a gratitude journey, she talks about starting with one little thing. Gratitude for: the breath in our body. The place we sleep. A bite of food. Senses to take in the world. A friend to call. When you think of it, these so-called ‘little things’ are not really little at all. They are life-giving. Yet these are the very easy to overlook if we don’t pay attention. Pause and notice these things and be in gratitude / worship.
Campbell also encourages us to do one thing today that we are good at. Are you good at organizing cupboards? Well then, when everything is falling apart, organize the cupboards. Or paint, or garden, or make some soup, or bake cookies, or hug your child, or fix the faucet. Often when we are surrounded by doom and gloom, we feel incapable of coping. Darkness pushes in, and soon we figure we can’t do anything right. Take a moment to remind yourself of all that you are capable of by focusing on a talent. And, when you are done, you have another thing to be grateful for.
Lastly, moving us, a little ahead to next week, we might think of gratitude in the collective form when we reach out and help someone. You got troubles? Chances are your neighbor does too. Instead of focusing solely on your bad news, reach out to help someone cope. Take a casserole over to the woman who just got a bad diagnosis, string the Christmas lights for the neighbor recovering from surgery, let someone cut ahead of you in line. We’ve all got stress and trouble. When we reach out to another not only do you help them survive, but you will also find this to be a time of gratitude and worship. The other chart on the screen suggests that a large portion of our happiness can actually come as a result of intentional activity. The smallest portion relates to the situation we are facing. 40% of our joy comes about as a result of our intentional activity, like gratitude.
Jacob wrestled alone in the darkness of the night. And in his struggling, God was with him and he was blessed with a new name and a new day ahead. May we find ways of gratitude / worship in all times and places (even if it is oh-so-small). May we be blessed with a new name, a new hope, and the way of Christ.