Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
In a nutshell, for me, the practice of blessing each moment, which we’re called to engage this evening – and I hope, for some number of days to come – is just what it sounds like: it’s about finding a way, daily and often, to be mindful for each moment in our lives and to bless them; to consecrate them; to revere them; to honor them; to see each moment as holy, somehow, and useful to the big picture of our lives.
In practice, it could mean taking a breath before beginning a new task. It could mean saying a prayer as a task or chore is completed. It could mean minding the clock and pausing on the hour or at even hours or every three hours at 6 o’clock, 9 o’clock, Noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m. or 9 p.m., and so on.
Blessing each moment is about being mindfully and spiritually present – not just physically in the room – for whatever we’re up to, whether that’s doing the dishes or doing our homework or doing our job.
For me, then, this practice of blessing each moment is very much about practicing gratitude.
Now, I decided – in thinking and praying and planning for tonight – that I had to come to terms with a new way of understanding gratitude in this context. And I decided, at the risk of making all of this too much like some kind of standardized test, that “gratitude is to thanksgiving as joy is to happiness.”
GRATITUDE : THANKSGIVING : : JOY : HAPPINESS
Please bear with me here. I think this is going to make sense in a minute.
Maybe you’ve considered the difference between joy and happiness before. I think I’ve even preached about it in the past, but I’m not sure when or just exactly why. The notion is that we sometimes confuse or dumb-down the definition of “joy” so that it just means happiness – nothing more or deeper than the simple emotion of something that brings a smile to your face or laughter to your lips. (As in “happy, happy, joy, joy.” Or that old camp song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart – hey; down in my heart to stay.”) It’s cute and fun and like an ear-worm you can’t get out of your head even after a few decades – so I’m sorry for that. And that simple understanding of joy – as nothing more than happy – is shallow and unsatisfying and incomplete once a fuller understanding is offered up.
I think a fuller, deeper, wiser, more valuable understanding of joy is that it abides even in the face of and in the presence of – in the midst of and in spite of – sadness and struggle and even suffering. In other words, we can be joyful even when we’re not happy, in any given moment. And I believe this because I’ve seen this kind of joy in people of great faith in moments of sadness and struggle – on their death beds, even – when illness or hardship or despair might crush someone with less wisdom or self-awareness or faith.
For example, I have a friend whose family was in the midst of more struggle and bad luck than seemed fair for a season. There was a son struggling with addiction, a daughter hospitalized with cancer, a niece who died by suicide, a brother who died from some crazy combination of addiction, sickness, and mental illness – all three. And in the midst of her very real, justified grief and anxiety, stress and fear, she said to me, “I’m so grateful for my own struggle with addiction and work through recovery and the 12-steps because I’m able to know what I can control in all of this and what I can’t; where I need to step away and where I’m able to help; And I know when I need to leave things up to my higher power so that I can be at peace.”
My friend wasn’t smiling, for sure. She wasn’t happy, by any stretch. And she isn’t naïve, either. But she had a mindful joy about her, in the midst of more struggle than I ever hope to deal with at a clip. She had a peaceful kind of joy within her that was abiding and sustaining and hopeful and life-giving, when so much around her was the opposite of those things.
And this is how I want to consider the Celtic Christian practice of blessing each moment – finding, experiencing, expressing a joyful kind of gratitude – in all things, I mean. And remember, I’m suggesting, for the sake of our purposes here that “gratitude is to thankfulness as joy is to happiness.”
And what I mean is gratitude is not merely… simply… just… “being thankful.” I wonder if we can give to “gratitude” a deeper, fuller, more mindful understanding. I wonder if we can be grateful – like my friend – even when we’re not so thankful for what’s going on in our lives. I wonder if we can be grateful with our hearts, even when our heads tell us we have plenty of reasons not to be. I wonder if we can learn to bless each moment – even when each moment may not lend itself, at first blush, to thanksgiving and happiness.
And it’s what I think Jesus is getting at in this little ditty from Matthew’s Gospel. Instead of worrying about “what we will eat, or what we will drink, or what we will wear;” instead of worrying about our next test or about those lab results or about whatever it is that gives us plenty of really good reason to doubt or stress or despair; instead of letting our troubles and trials win the day, Jesus tells us to strive first for the stuff of the Kingdom; to strive first for the stuff of righteousness – to find joy and gratitude in spite of, or in the midst, of our worries.
In the book, The Soul’s Slow Ripening, that’s inspiring so much of what we’re up to on these Wednesday nights, John Valters Paintner says it this way: “I sometimes complain so much about the rain that I miss the rainbow.” That sounded a little simple and cheesy to me at first, like something you may have seen on a refrigerator magnet or on a poster in a church nursery.
But remember… God’s rainbow stands for hope in the midst of great despair. God’s rainbow is a sign of promise in the face of great reason for doubt. God’s rainbow is a shining light in midst of supreme darkness. So, sometimes we do complain so much about the rain that we miss the rainbow, right?
Which is why I like that we’re calling this a “practice” – this “blessing each moment” – because that’s what it takes for most of us to be good at it, if we’re honest – to make this kind of gratitude a lifestyle; a discipline; a way of life, I mean. We aren’t wired this way, frankly. And the world doesn’t encourage it, either. It’s hard for some of us to pay attention to the rainbow when we’re stuck in traffic or get behind some knucklehead with 11 items in the express lane, let alone find ways to bless the moments of our lives when the real stress and bad news and hard days come.
I know someone else who had a come-to-Jesus moment, once; a reality-check; when a friend of his lost his wife to cancer. They were all too young – my age, and this was three or four years ago: This wife and mother who lost her battle with cancer… There was a nine-year-old son in the mix… an only child.
Anyway, this guy attended the funeral for his friend’s wife, saw all of that grief, and decided on the way home from the funeral service that he needed to be more grateful for his own wife and kids. So, starting the next day – and for each day of the year that followed – he wrote down one thing about his own wife for which he was grateful. He wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but it was a discipline and a faith-practice, I think. It became a daily, year-long exercise of “blessing each moment” – or at least searching each day – some days searching harder than others – for some nugget of gratitude, to put into words… to record… to reflect upon… and ultimately, to share with his wife, as a gift on her birthday the following year. He says it changed the way he understood his relationship with his wife over the course of those 365 days of counting his blessings – of blessing each moment.
And that’s something like what I believe God can do – for us and through us – if we make “blessing each moment” a regular, if not daily, practice in our lives of faith. We will grow to see opportunities for gratitude more often – and in spite of all the reasons we have to complain or despair.
We will grow to count the rainbows around us – God’s everlasting promises of presence and love and covenant – not just in spite of our struggles, but as more powerful and more steadfast than whatever irritates, or worries, or even threatens us, most.
And we’ll grow to be blessings ourselves, in the process – blessings of that abiding kind of peace and joy, that patient kind of love and mercy which surpasses all understanding… which guards our hearts and our minds and our lives, when we let it… and which each of us longs for, it seems to me, and what the world needs, in Jesus Christ, our Lord.