Rejoice in the Lord Always, Paul tells the Philippians.
Don’t worry about your life, Jesus tells his disciples.
If we aren’t supposed to worry about OUR lives, perhaps we can worry about other people’s lives instead? There’s plenty to worry about there. But I don’t think that’s the point.
Do not be anxious about anything, Paul says.
Do Jesus and Paul not know that we are in the midst of a pandemic?

We are reminded by the words of the hymn we sang: What have I to dread, what have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms. I have blessed peace with my Lord so near, leaning on the everlasting arms.

And yet, Anxiety and suffering and sadness and loneliness are in the air in more palpable ways in the midst of this pandemic. We’re missing so much about what life used to be, we hear about so much suffering, and it is sometimes difficult to maintain a grounded, non-anxious, grateful stance. I find myself vacillating between different emotions – anxiety and gratitude being two of them, like the two are becoming well acquainted. 

Anxiety, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. It helps motivate us to finish projects or sermons so they can get recorded by Saturday morning. Anxiety is also part of a natural response to threat or danger. 

It activates our body chemistry for fight or flight when threatened. But when anxiety flares up on a regular basis without threat, or if we continually worry about everything, and always feel like were in crisis – That kind of anxiety and worry increases the tendency to divide into opposing camps, making conflict more likely; and it limits our options by suppressing creativity & gratitude. 

During threatening changes in our lives and in the world, there is a tendency to crave definitive answers & certainty. We long for a God who will clearly lead us through the anxiety of the wilderness. What we see in the Exodus story, instead, is a God who refuses to show God’s face to Moses when he asks. God says 

No one can see the face of God and live.” 

Moses stands in the cleft of a rock, and God passes by. Moses sees God’s back, but not God’s face.  We too, may not be able to see God directly in the midst of anxious situations, but what we can see is where God has been, and prayerfully begin to see where God is leading us. 

And we are instructed in every situation, by prayer and petition, WITH thanksgiving, to present our requests to God. And God’s peace will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 

Both Paul and Jesus offer a template for reducing anxiety and worry – paying attention to God’s creation and practicing gratitude. Jesus invites us to consider the to the lilies of the field and draws our attention to the birds of the air. 

We are in the 3rd week of a sermon series, Earth, Our Original Monastery by Christine Valters Paintner. In this chapter, she writes:  The animals and the elements live their fullness without holding back and in them, we can discover what it truly means to become authentically ourselves. They teach us how to live by by no longer refusing our own true nature.

Listen to the words of this poem by Thomas Merton, 20th century Trappist Monk:

 “Praise of God – In Praise of ‘Sainted’ Created Things
The forms and individual characters of living and growing things, of inanimate beings, of animals and flowers and all nature, constitute their holiness in the sight of God. Their inscape –  their unique inner nature –  IS their sanctity. It is the imprint of God’s wisdom and God’s reality in them.  The special clumsy beauty of THIS particular colt on THIS day in THIS field under THESE clouds is a holiness consecrated to God by God’s own creative wisdom and it declares the glory of God. The pale flowers of the dogwood outside THIS window are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up INTO the face of God. This leaf has its own texture and its own pattern of veins  and its own holy shape. The lakes hidden among the hills are saints, and the sea too is a saint who praises God without interruption in her majestic dance.

Merton writes:

Animals don’t spend time in discernment; trees don’t go off on retreat to listen to their calling. They are exactly as they were created to be, and reveal a path of yielding, of not resisting, of simply allowing themselves to unfold as intended. To be fully human means to live in connection to nature and receive her wisdom and guidance. To live among the trees and the rhythm of sun and moon. To see the rise and fall of the tides and the strength of mountain presence. To recognize them as mentors providing inspiration for how to follow this path of authenticity for ourselves. Creation teaches us what it means to be fully oneself without forcing or holding back.

Christine asks: So Why do we work so hard to resist our calling? How do we peel back the layers of fear and resistance and obstacles we set before ourselves?
   Our egos are attached to being viewed in a certain way, wanting to present ourselves as tough and strong and independent, but gratefulness invites us to see our dependence on the Giver of all good things.

Father Ron Rolheiser writes:  The holiest person you know is the most grateful person you know.

St. Benedict, taught his followers to be content in whatever circumstances you find yourself in, to find satisfaction with what is in the moment. Craving less and being more satisfied with what one has.

But what if you are having difficulty feeling gratitude and contentment? Gratitude doesn’t really work when someone tells you to be grateful. Or when people tell you not to worry, it doesn’t work. If you are having a hard time rejoicing or feeling grateful right now, the best thing you can do is to be gentle and tender with yourself. 

Let your gentleness be known to ALL Paul says.  The first step is being gentle with yourself. To give yourself grace and unconditional self-acceptance. In times of crisis or anxiety, we are more apt to judge ourselves and then judge others. So practicing self-compassion is crucial.  Most of us don’t say, “I have decided to live my life free from gratitude.” But on those days you don’t feel grateful – you can pray – 

“Dear God, I wish I had the desire to be grateful. I want to give you all the anxiety and anger and hurt I am holding onto.”  

The act of saying that prayer will open your heart a bit wider to experience more gratitude in your life. Pay attention to moments that surprise you  – perhaps an unexpected kindness. I had such a moment last Sunday afternoon when I found myself so thankful by the compassion and kindness of strangers. 

We were kayaking near the mouth of Gig Harbor, when the current flipped me into the churning water.  I awkwardly flipped my kayak over and tried to swim away from the current to either self-rescue or get to shore.  Out of nowhere a kayaker came alongside so I could hold on as he paddled me and my kayak away from the current, and then a motorized dinghy came alongside.   He tied my kayak to his boat, and rescued me from the cold turbulent water. I could have pretended to be self-sufficient & independent.  Instead I experienced one heart full of gratitude for two compassionate strangers.  

Christine writes: Become open and available to each other. Where I am exposed to my weakness and need your strength and gifts. Where I am not pretending to be entire and sufficient unto myself. 

Was that ever the truth last Sunday afternoon. 

We are interdependent and need each other. It’s good for us to let go of our false illusion of independence and self-sufficiency, to be vulnerable and accept what others can offer. To be grateful is to be vulnerable, to be shown our dependence on others  – other people, and Earth herself. 

There are moments of kindness and compassion all around us, there are moments of beauty for us to behold if we are present to the moment. Hold on to any fleeting moment and build on them. 

Gratitude can begin with the smallest acknowledgment and be expanded, so we too can Rejoice Always.

Rev. Steve Garnaas Holmes: Consider the lilies, made beautiful. Dare to give thanks not just for what you have, give thanks  for who you are. Your gratitude itself will be a blossom of loveliness.

Neil Rader: The Creator Comes To Us In The Creation – A few years ago, while I was serving on the UCC Conference Board, I was attending a board meeting held on the east shore of Lake Coeur-De-Laine at Camp N-Sid-Sen. One evening we met down by the shore for worship. Randy, the camp director, was giving the vespers service when he suddenly stopped. He realized that no one was paying attention. He turned around and saw the most amazing sunset that I have ever seen. At that point Randy said, “There is you sermon.”  We all went down to the shore and watched that beautiful sight. I thought this was the creator saying, “Welcome my children. With you I am well pleased!”