Rev. George Miller
11/10/15 - Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
“Finding Gratitude During Difficult Times”
Good evening. I’m Rev. George Miller, and I’m the pastor of Emmanuel United Church of Christ. It is an honor to be here today.
I give thanks for the opportunity to speak with you, to share some thoughts on the topic of gratitude, and to also hear from you.
Years ago, I read a book which stated that there are basically 2 kinds of prayers:“Help, help, help” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
With that in mind, before we get to the “thank yous”, I’d like to start with “Help.”
As a pastor, I’ve noticed something unique about American people. Americans are raised to believe that it’s important to be strong, to be in control at all times, and to not openly share our emotions when it comes to facing hard times.
To be afraid is a sign of weakness. To be sad is a flaw to be fixed. The expression of honest anger is to be avoided at all costs.
Those who are Christians may feel that if something bad happens to them, and they are afraid, it means they don’t have faith.
To be sad means that somehow your trust in God or Jesus is lacking.
To feel and express anger means you are not following the teachings of Christ.
However, fear, sadness, and anger are not only natural human emotions, but they are Biblical as well.
For example, Psalm 22. It is a song lifted up to God by one who is suffering greatly.
In Psalm 22, the Psalmist states “My God, my God- why have you forsaken me? Why are you far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”
“O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but find no rest…”
“…I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax, its melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.”
These are the words of someone who feels abandoned by God; someone so distressed they can’t do anything during the day or sleep at night.
They feel weak, broken and in the dust of death. They are sad, scared and mad.
Psalm 22 is what Jesus said as he hung, nailed and suffering on the cross. Psalm 22 is an example of a prayer that cries out “help, help, help.”
I wonder how many people here have felt like their body is out of whack and their heart is melting like wax?
I wonder how many people here today have had worries that have kept them up all night, and almost comatose during the day?
I wonder how many people have felt mad about their current situation. Mad at their doctor; mad at their bodies; even mad at God.
If so, I want to say that these feelings are natural, and they are OK to have.
Because I believe that it’s not until we can be honest about our fears, sadness and anger that we can move into a place of genuine and life-giving gratitude.
“Help, help, help” is one kind of prayer; “thank you, thank you, thank you” is another.
Now it is my understanding that most everyone here today is living with the reality of a terminal, chronic illness.
It’s not easy, is it?
When someone lives with a chronic condition, it seems as if there is a loss of control and certain things are taken away.
When you live with a chronic illness, time takes on new meaning. First, there is the reality and blunt awareness that you are going to die.
We are all going to die, that’s a fact. But when you’re diagnosed with a chronic illness, that fact takes on new meaning. It’s real. You cannot run away from it or hide from the truth.
Time also warps, have you noticed that? Things begin to revolve around doctor appointments and visits to the lab for blood-work and x-rays.
There is the essence of hurry up and wait. Get to the doctor office 15 minutes early, and then wait 1-3 hours to be seen.
What else takes on new meaning? Sense of self. The body changes. Our abilities change: what we can do and should not do.
Living with a chronic illness can affect our enthusiasm for life and sense of joy. We become so focused on our mortality that the things that use to make us happy, like a birthday or a holiday can bring melancholy, and sad things seem even sadder.
So what do we do? How do we live the days, months, year we have left?
One way to find gratitude during difficult times is to be honest with how we feel. To not be afraid to admit we are sad when we’re sad, afraid when we are afraid, and mad when we are mad.
It is ok to cry out to God “Help, help, help.”
Because guess what- in my opinion doing so allows us to move into a place of peace and acceptance with our situation, and to a place of gratitude, and the ability to find a way to say “thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Today we are going to talk a bit about ways to experience gratitude -the ability to live an honest life that includes thanksgiving and happiness even in the face of difficult times.
Why? Because expressing gratitude can be very healing. Expressing gratitude is a way of making the things we feel: sadness, anger, and fear that much smaller.
Gratitude is a form of resilience, in which we are able to survive and thrive in ways we never thought possible.
Now, no one has all the answers on how to live with gratitude. The most I can do is to share 5 things I have learned over the years. We’ve already discussed the first one- being honest about our emotions.
The 2nd thing I can share is an expression that has been around for thousands of years.
It is called “Dayenu.” It is a Jewish word that means “enough” Dayenu is a word that comes from a place of magnificent and humble thanksgiving.
Dayenu is a song thanking God for all the things God had done. It’s a way of saying that even if God had done only one of these things, it would’ve been enough to make us satisfied.
For example, if the only thing God had done was create the world, it would have been enough- Dayenu.
If God had only brought the Israelites out of Egypt, it would have been enough- Dayenu.
If God had only split the Red Sea, it would have been enough- Dayenu.
Dayenu is about counting your blessings and staying grounded, even if it seems as though your life and the world is falling apart.
Let’s do an exercise of gratitude with me. I’ll say a sentence, and after I say the word “enough” I invite you to say “Dayenu.”
If God had only given me life, it would have been enough- Dayenu.
If God had only given me the sun in the morning and the moon at night, it would have been enough- Dayenu.
If God had only given me a beautiful place like Sebring to live, it would have been enough- Dayenu.
Ok; now this one is hard- only respond if you really, really mean it:
If this was my last day on earth, I could die knowing that I have experienced, lived, loved and learned enough.
I wonder how many people feel a sense of gratitude while saying this word?
How many, if even for just this moment, can feel a sense of calm or peace while saying this word?
If so, know that in a moment of gratitude, in a moment of calm, in a moment of peace, there is also the gift of wellness and healing.
How else to experience gratitude during difficult times? I like to look towards my favorite line from my favorite book, called “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker.
It’s about a black, southern woman who goes through some of the most atrocious things you can imagine.
During the course of the book, she begins to find healing and to experience new life.
At one point, her dear friend says to her “I think it upsets God if we walk past the color purple in a field somewhere and we don’t notice it.”
That’s deep. It upsets God if we walk past the color purple and don’t notice it.
A third aspect of gratitude involves the very things that are naturally around us- the beauty of the earth.
Here in Florida we are lucky because we get to see such beauty 7 days a week, 12 months a year, 52 weeks.
Have you ever stopped to notice how green our grass is? How blue our lakes are?
The whites, pinks and purples of the wild-flowers? The orange of the groves?
The browns, blacks and whites of the cows and steers in the pastures?
The red of a cardinal? The yellow of lemons? The coral color of the sky over Lake Jackson during sunset?
Nature, in its very essence, is a jubilant source of thanksgiving. Sometimes when I am feeling down, lost, or lonely, I like to walk around my property, and to touch, see, and to smell, what’s around me.
Ever just place the palm of your hand against a tree and sense how strong it is?
Or think of a color you’d like to see, and go for a walk or a drive, and you notice that color just seems to appear?
-Someone shout out a color you really, really like. Now let’s look around the room, and see where it appears.
How do we feel upon seeing it? Maybe a little more grounded. Perhaps a little more aware that we are indeed surrounded by “enough.” Perhaps a bit more thankful.
Fourth- how to live with gratitude when living with the chronicity of life? This is so simple, but so important: know who you are, and what you like to do- and do it!
For example, I used to be a huge “Golden Girls” fan. Back when it was on the Lifetime channel, it was on in the morning, afternoon and late night.
When I was going to seminary, when I was home sick, when I was unemployed and spent the day trying to get a job, “Golden Girls” became a form of therapy.
No matter how bad the day was or seemed, I could count on that hour of TV viewing to stop everything, lay on the couch, to laugh and to feel good.
Lately though, I’ve realized that I need to go to the ocean once a month; the east coast beaches, like Fort Pierce, where the water’s rough, I can walk along the shore, and hear the sounds of the waves upon the sand.
For me the ocean is where I can’t help but to feel grateful and happy for all that God has done.
What’s something you like to do?
Find a way to do it- it’ll make you feel good.
It also becomes a way you can take back some of the control of your life that is lost when living with a chronic illness.
I’ve talked about being honest with our emotions, finding a way to say Dayenu, noticing the colors around us and doing what we like as ways to live with gratitude.
The final thing I’d like to share is perhaps the hardest thing for many to do- creating time to rest and to do nothing.
That is so foreign to the American culture, but it is scriptural. The Old Testament talks about Sabbath- a day off.
Now a full day of doing nothing may be impossible for most people, but there’s something to be said about taking time to intentionaly do nothing.
When someone is living during a difficult time, it’s so important for the body, mind, and soul to slow down, to stop, to rest and to rejuvenate.
As a pastor I work many, many hours, 6 days a week. But I’ve learned that at least once a week I set aside time to actively, intentionally do nothing.
It’s usually Wednesday. I come home early. Turn off the cell phone. Clean the house, make a cup of tea, put on a cd, journal for a bit, and then take a nap.
Is there anything better in the world than an afternoon nap? It’s even better if you have a dog or a cat or a someone special to cuddle with.
It’s amazing how a 20 minute nap can make all the difference. How it can lower your heart rate, create a sense of peace.
A 20 minute nap clears your head, resets your mood, helps you to sort things out, and to think clearly.
A scheduled nap can also give you back a sense of control.
No matter what’s going on, where you have to go, what medical appointment you have, you can actually have some control on deciding when and where you are going to nap or do nothing.
A nap gives you something to look forward to. My Wednesdays have become a day of gratitude and joyful expectancy, because I know soon I’ll be sipping tea and catching some zzzs.
In conclusion, living with a chronic condition is not easy, and it’s not worth the energy trying to pretend it is.
It’s not worth the energy of pretending you aren’t at times feeling sad, mad or scared.
But living with a chronic condition can be an unusual gift- because you now know for sure that you are going to die, you now have the opportunity to live and to find ways to live that bring you joy and gratitude.
Living with a sense of Dayenu, of having enough, living with a sense of gratitude is something that is healing and life affirming.
When we feel gratitude, when we feel thankful, it can almost create a sense within us that we are well. Not cured, but well.
When we find ways to live with gratitude, we become more real, more whole, more alive and in love with life.
Gratitude has a way of radiating out, and touching those around us, and making them want to be around and with us more.
Gratitude makes us feel good, feel happier, feel as if some hope and control remain.
We may spend half of our life saying “help, help, help” but we can also spend half of our life saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
In closing, I have one last thing to share.
In the Gospel of Luke 17: 11-19 there is a story about 10 men living with leprosy.
Jesus enters into a village, and the ten men living with leprosy approach him. They keep their distance, as their bodies are no longer like everyone else’s, and they are seen as unclean.
They cry out to Jesus and say “Have mercy on us.” Jesus sees them and says “Go, and show yourselves to the priests.” As they went, they were made clean.
One of the men, seeing he was healed, turned back to Jesus and gave him thanks.
Jesus said “I healed 10, but only you have shown gratitude and given praise to God. Get up and continue on your way: your faith has made you well.”
Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of how important Finding Gratitude During Difficult Times can be.
Gratitude may not cure us of what we are living with, it may not remove the illness completely, but it can create a sense of wellness, healing, joy and Dayenu.
Gratitude can give us another day, another week, another month, another year to experience and enjoy life to its fullest, until our story comes to an end.
Gratitude can make life all the more worth living.
Amen and amen.