Generating Gratitude

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

Do you ever have a hard time feeling grateful? Maybe it’s the age I am—I’m entering my “curmudgeonly years.” Or maybe it’s the age we live in. But some days it’s just hard to give thanks.

  • The political chaos of our country and the world is so disheartening. I still read a daily newspaper, but I’ve taken to calling it “my daily outrage.”
  • Our denominational future is at best uncertain; I vacillate daily between hope and despair.
  • People are hurting everywhere I turn: sick, dying, hungry, poor, lonely, dealing with grief, divorce, mental illness, and dementia. I hurt for them, and sometimes for myself.
  • I worry about the future of our church, our nation, our planet, and my children and grandchildren.

Some days I find it hard not to live with a “bunker mentality”—hunkered down, drawn inward, just trying to protect myself and my loved ones and hang on as we slide down the tubes.

That’s no way for a disciple of Jesus Christ to live! We are called to “give thanks in all circumstances.” (I Thessalonians 5:18) How do we generate an attitude of gratitude? In this season of Thanksgiving, how do we give thanks?

I remember the Cokesbury hymnal song from days gone by: “Count your blessings, name them one by one; count your blessings, see what God has done.” When we think about it, we really can.

  • God has brought us through tumultuous times before, both in our country and in our church. Our “better angels” have always prevailed.
  • In our personal struggles, sometimes a time of trial turns out to be a time of great spiritual growth. “In all things, God works for good.” (Romans 8:28) Through my worst times, I have still grown and learned. Even death is not the final answer; we have eternal life in Jesus.
  • The Word of God assures us, over and over, that we need not fear; God is ultimately in charge, and we can trust in God’s providence. Scripture gives us reasons to be thankful.
  • If we can get quiet before God, we can hear the “still, small voice” say “peace,” and in our hearts we know it’s true.

Of all the saints I have known—men and women, clergy and laity, young and old—the one universal quality of character I have seen is gratitude. To a person, the saints are thankful. I don’t think that’s an accident.

Gratitude generates stewardship. When we realize that everything we have is a gift of God, we strive to take care of what we have been given.

  • Thankful for creation, we care for the planet, from individual acts of conservation to advocacy for the big issues of recycling, climate change, and responsible development.
  • Thankful for our country, we participate in the process. We get informed; we vote; we engage in dialog for our best values.
  • Thankful for our church, we serve with our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.” Regardless of what happens with our denominational structure, we have a vital mission to make disciples and transform the world.

When we stop and think, God has been gracious to us in so many ways. So, in return, “like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. …Whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.” (I Peter 4:10)

I think I’ll put up my bad attitude, put down my “daily outrage,” pick up my Cokesbury hymnal, and sing!

Conference Voices: It takes a church to raise a village

If I might be forgiven of the sin of pride, I’d like to brag a little bit. Recently the chair of the team that oversees our mission ministry reported to one of our Sunday School classes that our church sponsors eleven different mission projects throughout the year, some annually, but some as often as weekly, mostly local, but some international. In addition, we are involved in 23 mission partnerships with projects and non-profits in our community. If something good is happening in our town, there are probably some Methodists at work. Finally, we have two church-wide mission activities each year, both of which support our conference initiative, 200,000 Reasons, to end children’s hunger.

I can be proud of the involvement of the church because I have very little responsibility for it. Most of it was happening before I became their pastor. I do encourage a missional spirit, but then I just get out of the way and let the lay people work. It’s pretty amazing.

In this issue of the Arkansas United Methodist, you can see several examples of lay folk in ministry. Lay ministry is the key to vitality in the church now and our hope for the future. Historically, the ministry of the church was in the hands of the laity. In the 20th century, as the ministry became more “professional,” clergy began to dominate, and churches began hiring staff to do ministry. As the church began to decline 40 years ago, the paradigm began to shift back to our historic roots, and the empowerment of lay ministry became a critical component of church growth. Nowadays, vital churches have abandoned the “attractional” model of the past century and adopted a “missional” model that reaches outside the church, mostly through lay people, to transform lives, communities, and the world. (Does that phrase sound familiar?)

Lay ministry is a response to a CALL. We all have a call from God to be in ministry, and God has given each person gifts to perform ministry. (See Romans 12:3-8 and I Corinthians 12:4-27) Some are called to representative ministry as pastors or full-time Christian workers. Most of us are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our everyday lives, in our workplace, school, and home. God does amazing work through ordinary folks who actually have more contact with the lost, broken, hurting people of the world than those of us who spend most of our time inside our ecclesiastical walls.

Lay ministry can be so much more FRUITFUL than professionalized ministry. Remember when Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38) One professional scythe-slinger can only cut so much grain, but put 200 workers in the field, and they are through before lunch. One pastor in a church can work herself to exhaustion and still not get everything done. If 20 or 200 lay people serve the Lord only two or three hours a week, it exponentially multiplies the ministry. The Kingdom work bears more fruit.

Lay ministry can be more EFFECTIVE. I was called and gifted to be in ordained ministry; hopefully I have been effective at the tasks I do. But my church would not be effective if they had to rely only on the things I’m good at. I have seen people do amazing works of God in areas that are beyond my capability. I have seen people spend hours, days, even weeks caring for broken souls in times of sickness and grief. I’m not as good at children’s and youth work as I once was. I cannot lead a choir, play the piano, produce a spreadsheet, or build a wheelchair ramp as well as some of my lay people can.

I don’t need to, because they can! And so the church is more effective.

Lay ministry brings its own REWARD. Service to God does not escape our Master’s notice. Jesus said, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:42) This is not the reward of salvation; we are saved by faith, not by works. But it is the reward of satisfaction and joy at making a difference in the lives of others and in the Kingdom of God. Deep down, I think we all long to hear those words from Jesus at the end: “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Master!” (Matthew 25:23)

The vitality of the church now and forever belongs to the vast majority of disciples of Christ who are not ordained, professional Christians. For almost four decades I have been privileged to serve in ordained ministry. But it would have been a long, hard, lonely and unproductive road without the dedicated and effective lay ministers who have walked the path with me. Thanks be to God for that incredible gift! If you are a lay person and have persevered to the end of this column, I encourage you to be that gift to your pastor, your church, and your Lord.