“A Collective Way of Gratitude: The Way of Gratitude” (3 of 4)
Psalm 84 (VU 800) & 2 Timothy 4; 6-8, 16-18 ~ Northwood UC ~ October 16, 2022
How many have ever done your family tree? How many have researched your ancestry by purchasing one of those kits? It’s interesting to see the generations of family and the larger whole which we are part of, isn’t it? If you have ever sat down with me to plan the funeral of your loved one, you may remember that I typically map out a genogram. And we pay attention to familial connections because much of the richness of life is lived within the larger context of our community. We lift up the legacy of the person whose life we celebrate; however, what gave that life its most profound meaning is how they were connected to the larger group. Can a life be lived in solitary isolation? Well…yes, of course it can. But the depth and richness of life is found in the ways our lives intersect with others. How we are connected with family; how we are connected with the community; how we connect with the world…how we are a child of God.
In the past few weeks, we have been focusing gratitude from internal dimensions. We commenced exploring gratitude as a whole on Thanksgiving Sunday and shifting, last week, to the personal dimension of gratitude that researchers call ‘Dispositional Gratitude.’ This morning, we shift to a communal consideration with ‘Collective Gratitude’. This dimension of gratitude is defined as this positive emotional state shared within the group as they are collectively thankful for the good things that happen. And our theological conversation partner is the writer of Second Timothy. In the tradition of Paul, the writer is supporting the work of the small house-churches, working underground, as the living extension of the body of Christ. His living body alive through the way of his followers in the world.
And in this letter, like our family tree that we were just considering, we are given a window into the unfolding of the tree of Jesus life’, extending through his followers. The writer is coming towards the end of his life. He has been a faithful leader, a pillar of support among the churches. He is now in Roman prison, and his execution is all but certain. Yet, what he has offered, is bigger than his life alone. For his life will continue through his young protégé Timothy in the unfolding of the Way of Christ. You probably noticed how I have been intentional in using “the Way” in our weeks focusing on gratitude. “The Way of Thanksgiving”, “The Dispositional Way of Gratitude”, “The Collective Way of Gratitude”. “The Way”, many will recall, was the early identity that followers of Jesus named themselves. They were “followers of the Way.” So, this letter is to the young Timothy who was about to engage in his personal ministry, and to the many ‘Timothys’ who would continue their ministries of loving justice into the centuries and millennia later. Indeed, this letter continues through the ages to us today as words of encouragement, and a reminder of the legacy in which we are connected …the glorious way of Christ’s loving justice in action.
In addition to the communal nature of Jesus’ people as being referred to as: “the Way”, it is also lifted up in many of the references in the reading. The writer considers his life to have been “poured out as a libation.” Now there is a word not used frequently today, but it is one that we all know in other forms. If you were to invite your friends to the pub for ‘libations’, most will look at you in confusion. Yet, if you were to invite friends to the pub to enjoy your favourite beverage, that would be more easily understood. Libations were communal offerings of thanksgiving to God. And as we discussed on the first week, worship and gratitude are inextricably linked. Worship is about gathering in thanksgiving. And so, the writer views his life as being poured out as a communal drink offering / a libation to God. His life was lived in worship / thanksgiving in service of God’s love flowing into the world. He gratefully poured out his life into the cups of others who didn’t have. He gratefully poured out his life to those living in darkness that they might drink in light. He gratefully poured out his life those in fear that they might live in safety. His life was lived in worship of this God who gave him life, and light, and hope. And that life flowed through him and was offered back into the world. And as the end of his days were coming, he gave thanks.
The second dimension of communal gratitude, in a spiritual sense, is found in those references to athleticism: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Fighting…racing…keeping. These, on the surface, might seem to be individual activities. One runner is going for the best time over all the others. One fighter is seeking to be victorious over the others being fought. But to anyone who competes as a runner or a fighter, they would quickly correct our thinking that it is done in isolation. They would teach us that fighters train with friends to prepare for a match. Runners train with a club to be at their best for the big race. And when victory (or sometimes defeat) comes, they arrive at it together. We don’t do these things alone! We fight the good fight, we finish the race with the support and aid of others. And we could NEVER “keep the faith” alone. Just think of the many, many leaders who were involved in helping the early church come alive. We think of Paul, of course, but Paul did not work alone! Paul was part of a communal group who were united in gratitude / in worship of the living God they knew in Christ.
The early collective community united in gratitude / worship with Timothy. Reading through the epistles we come across a gratitude collective who united in this common sense of worship allowing the living Christ to become alive. But the communally shared sense of gratitude / worship grew and grew and grew. Starting with Paul, and (of course) Timothy. We might think of Barnabas accompanying Paul on his first journey. And over time the collective grew…Mark and Silas. And lest we ever think that the work of the church was ‘men’s work’, we remember Paul’s collective included women like…Lydia, Priscia / Priscilla, and Junia to name a few. Jesus’ way of loving justice could never have thrived if it was not for the sense of collective gratitude / worship expressed since the beginning. They came together in worship / gratitude and together they became the living body of Christ. And as the writer looks towards the end of his life, sitting in prison awaiting his execution, he can confidently see this good work continuing well past his death. I think that is the power we see alive in family trees; it is the power we see in groups that continue the legacy given them. It is fight that continues to be fought; it is race that continues to be run…and in gratitude / worship there is the knowledge that all will be well.
It is interesting to note how Organizational Psychologists studying collective gratitude are touting it as an essential element to ensure positive organizational outcomes. They note this as something that can remedy toxic workplace settings, destructive attitudes. They suggest that it can even counter the negative emotions of anger, greed and envy that are ever-present in today’s highly competitive work environments. Founding a community in gratitude ~ collective gratitude ~ is one that shifts counterproductive work settings undermining behaviour and encouraging moral detachment. We have probably all been part of toxic work settings and we know how harmful they can be. This, of course, extends to all groups we are part of. When a family is grounded in collective gratitude…or a community group…or a church…we are empowered to “fight the good fight, to finish the race, to keep the faith.” Gratitude / worship that grounds the community allows it to flourish and thrive.
Gratitude, of course, comes from the Latin word ‘gratia’ which means ‘grace, graciousness, gratefulness.’ It implies kindness, generosity, gifts and the beauty of giving and receiving. And when we ponder deeply the gifts that we have to share, when think of the others whom we might bless with our gifts, and the joy that might be found by such an offering the presence of wonder and joy reverberates through the community and out into the world.
So, if you might ponder the communities which you are part of, perhaps you might ponder how you bless them by the gift offerings that you bear. What are the gifts that God has placed inside you to offer the collective? What are the blessings that you might share? How might you live in this way of gratitude/ worship with all that you are?