(Click on the play button below to listen to the sermon.)
Our reading today starts with an inspiring thank you note to a church. Most of the books of the Christian New Testament are personal letters from Paul and his imitators, so we get many notes of praise and thanksgiving, so lets talk about how to write a masterful thank you note. It is not hard to write a basic thank you, but there is a real art to doing it well. Here is how I learned. There would be a day of reckoning in January when my mother would declare that all notes for all gifts must be written. I dreaded it, what do I say, what if they don’t like my note, what if I didn’t really like the plaid sweater vest? My mother gave me a simple template:
“Dear (fill in the blank).
Thank you for the (blank).
I like it because…”
And if I didn’t like it, skip straight to “It was very thoughtful of you. Love, Todd” Boom, done! The template still works. Its not hard to write a decent thank you note, even if you have bad handwriting and your using a crayon, it will be OK.
So why don’t we do more of it? Even decades later I still have some resistance to getting my thank you notes done. Of course, I have a resistance to all writing projects, for fear that somehow my words will not measure up, and my thank you note will be lame, sounding like a Hallmark card. (How do they stay in business? I guess because getting just the right tone is not easy, so we outsource it to a group of polite Midwesterners in a windowless office in Kansas City.)
Do you save thank you notes? I save them, even the Hallmark ones. Sometimes, if I’m wondering whether I’m a good person, I want to have a preponderance of evidence. Any thank you is a good one, even just the “thanks for all you do” notes. I have received a few letters which I consider to be masterful, and I occasionally read them again. What do you think makes for the best thank you notes? Some notes come at just the right time, when people recognize you are doing something that is hard and they appreciate it. Other times people notice the small things, and give value to our behind the scenes work. Stories about how you have made a difference are always great, because otherwise how would you know. I imagine that if you get to heaven and find out the ten best things you have done in your life, that at least five of them you never knew about, because no one ever told you the end of the story. These personal testimonials can affirm your life purpose and keep you moving forward when you don’t know if you are making any difference in the world. The masterful thank you notes are grounding, remind you of who you are, your best self, and affirm your place in the world.
Peggy Anderson was a virtuoso at the writing her gratitude. She would send notes highlighting an idea from a sermon, then write how she grappled with it and came to a new awareness about something, which often expanded my own thinking. Or she would right notes that recognized the little things behind the scenes that no one else picked up, and she would bless those as important work. She was so eloquent, but that alone wasn’t what made her thanks masterful. What was most valuable is that she paid attention. A thank you note does not begin with searching for a pen. It begins with noticing and valuing a person, in part for what you do, but also affirming who you are. True thanksgiving starts with mindful attention to another person.
No one can know themselves without feedback. For all the importance placed on loving yourself and having self-worth come from within, we really do not know ourselves except in relationship and in community. We need community to know ourselves, perhaps we even need an “organized religion.” I prefer as little organization as needed. The real question is what are we organized for, and one answer is, we are organized to give thanks to God for the gift of life. Every Sunday is a Thanksgiving. The first hymn is always full of praise and thanksgiving, the Lord’s Prayer begins with “hallowed be thy name.” In other words, your name is sacred, because you are the source and ground of our being. We are grateful to be connected to the source. A church must have a culture of thanksgiving. The worst temptation of being church is having a culture of judgmental moralists who keep people in line with criticism. That is a prevalent way of having an organized religion, but what if we are organized around deep thanksgiving? This is what we are affirming in the first line of our draft vision statement, “We welcome all people to joyful, Christian community.” Joy is all about thankfulness.
Paul and his imitators understood this. He opens his letter, not with an institutional critique of what is wrong with them, but with thanksgiving for their faith, for the ways God is bearing fruit within them, they are a people filled with grace and they are known for the fruit they bear. The letter appears to come at a time when the church felt under siege, a time of persecution and vulnerability, so to know someone saw their faith and gave thanks for them and their witness was a powerful thing. Someone is paying attention and valuing us. Paul’s letters were also full of advice, and challenge and even criticism. Having a culture of thanksgiving doesn’t mean not being truthful. But it is always in the context of being thankful for people and their best selves. Quite honestly, we seldom read aloud or quote Paul’s criticism. It is his poetic wonderment at who God is and what we can be in God that inspires us.
How do we create this culture of Thanksgiving in practice? Here are some examples of how it works. I give every couple I marry the same homework. At least once a day and say “I appreciate you because…” They always come back and report greater satisfaction and less stress. Why? Because a good relationship needs four positive interactions for every negative interaction. That is how we heal and repair the inevitable friction between people. This formula applies to parenting, the workplace, volunteer work, all places where humans relate to each other. Employee satisfaction surveys show that appreciation for the work they do is more important in job satisfaction than salary. It is good to have both, but feeling valued is worth a great deal.
This is a time when we truly need to call forth our best selves and deepest efforts. Just like Colossians was written to a community under threat of persecution, we live in difficult and conflictual times. We must not lose our capacity to be thankful. We are getting ready for Thanksgiving weekend and many people are filled with dread about meeting relatives who incomprehensibly voted differently than we did. For many people Thanksgiving is becoming the anti-Christmas. If you choose or feel that you must share a feast with people whose opinions make you ill, how can we be thankful? How would this work? At the first annoying political dig, you say, “I am thankful to God for life, I’m thankful for you, please help me keep it that way.” I don’t think there are magical formulas to calm the divisions, but it may at least help you find your best self.
You may not feel like being thankful right now, especially with the world in such a mess. Gratitude for life does not paper over the problems and pretend they don’t exist, but it does put things into perspective. If you have worshiped and sang in a black church, you know what I’m talking about. I preached regularly at the Smith Metropolitan AME Zion Church, and these were some of the most joyful times in my life. I believe that gratitude and praise actually does help us solve our problems, because it is a affirmation of life, we acknowledge that God is good, all the time. God’s love and grace rises fresh with every sunrise. If you want to make a difference in the world, it helps to wake up singing “I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me.” Continually Appreciate beauty, show love, be thankful. This is what keeps us human. This is how we are mindful of God’s joyful work within us and through us. May you have a Happy Thanksgiving!