SCRIPTURE LESSON: Philippians 4: 4-9

A friend of mine recently posted a beautiful high country photograph on Facebook.  Jagged peaks in the background were bathed in orange-gold alpenglow. A pooled stream in the foreground mirrored back the light dancing off those mountains.

“I am grateful for memories of beauty,” my friend wrote. “Once, I sauntered here, in this slice of the Range of Light, on the far edge of a long-ago September. Each breath was a gift; each step was a delight.”

This morning we find ourselves on the threshold not only of a holiday but a whole season filled with memories and gratitudes old and new.

Starting on Thursday and on through the weeks that follow, we will have many occasions to be mindful of our blessings, lots of opportunities to rejoice and be glad. We may well even find ourselves feeling a little like my friend, counting each breath as a gift and each step as a delight.

I’m not big on the history of Thanksgiving. There’s too much fiction in it for my tastes. Instead, I approach Thanksgiving like I do New Year’s Eve. I use it as an occasion to look both backward and ahead. Come Thursday, I will be gathering up gratitudes for all has been given while letting myself be grateful in advance for the blessings to come.

I don’t know if this describes your Thanksgiving experience or not, but along with noticing my gratitudes and gifts, I find that the holiday has a shadow side. Noting and naming what I’m thankful for also heightens my awareness of what I’m not thankful for—realities I’m unsettled and displeased by, my dislike of and even distrust of certain people in my orbit.

When my brother and I were young, our mother taught us to do the laundry. She dumped the hamper out onto the floor and then proceeded to show us how to divide our clothing into piles. Whites and lights here. Darker items over there.

Even now, all these years later, when I’m sorting clothes on wash day, I silently repeat what my mother taught me. “White, white, dark, white, dark, dark.”

Turns out, I do this in other ways as well. I sort the people in my life. In one invisible pile will be the people I like, love, or agree with. In the other will go the folks I don’t much care for.

I do this with experiences and opportunities, too. And current events. What is pleasing goes here, and what is not goes there.

By the time Thanksgiving dinner is set on the table, I’ve already done a lot of practicing, a lot of sorting. There I sit, wanting to be in a place of profound gratitude only to discover that everything has come along for the ride—the good and the bad, the pleasing and the displeasing, the things for which I am grateful and the things for which I am not.

I judge myself for this.

Here’s my question. What are we to do with the people and realities that we’ve sorted into the unwelcome, unlovely, not grateful for pile? Do we ignore this stuff, these folks? Push this stuff away? Do we try to take Mary Poppin’s advice and attempt to swallow them with a spoonful of sugar?

Maybe for a day, maybe on a special occasion this works. But on a daily basis, it’s hardly sufficient, hardly sustainable. What are we to do about those people and realities that feel more like curses than blessings? A spoonful of sugar isn’t nearly enough.

We heard Paul’s counsel: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Whatever we give our attention to grows in size and import. We forget how powerful this principle is. Until someone like Paul reminds us, that is, or we stumble upon a book or blog post highlighting the power of attention.

What you see is really is what you get. Jesus understood this in the most profound of ways. Surely this is why he regularly encouraged us to focus on today, not tomorrow, to see abundance where the world has taught scarcity, to look beyond appearances to worthiness, and to regard no one as an enemy.

Neuroscientists are on to the very things Paul and Jesus knew. They tell us that that an orientation toward gratitude, a willingness to affirm the good, is profoundly good for us. Not merely emotionally and spiritually, but also physically.

But what are we to do with all the things that come our way that are displeasing, disfigured, distressing, disappointing? Look away from them? Deny their existence? Let them frighten or infuriate or depress us?

Last week, Mary Hoch’s daughter Jessica posted a video on Facebook. She had thrown a party in honor of an important milestone—being cancer-free for the last five years.

At her party, Jessica gave a speech and in it, she offered up powerful words of appreciation for the ways her diagnosis and treatment had changed her life for the better. She spoke with true appreciation for the ways a life-threatening disease had brought so much that was good, life-giving, and even transformative.

And as I listened to Jessica, I wondered how it is that we can welcome into our lives what it is that isn’t lovely, that doesn’t fit Paul’s list of commendables.

You and I know very well the “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey” welcome statement, but to what extent are you and I able to receive into our own lives a “no matter who” or a “no matter where,” something challenging that lands on our doorstep?

A perfect complement to Paul’s wisdom today comes from Rumi, the Sufi mystic I am so fond of. Rumi encourages a kind of radical hospitality that holds the power to transform our lives that is every bit as great as that which we’ve heard from Paul this morning.

The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing and
invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Fr. Richard Rohr has a simple prayer practice that builds on Rumi’s wisdom, something that feels doable on a daily basis.

Rohr calls it a “Welcoming Prayer,” and the idea is this: we simply sit in silence and whatever arises from within—no matter how familiar or unfamiliar, no matter how beautiful or ugly—we greet with the inwardly whispered word “welcome.” And to whatever arises next, we silently say “welcome.” And then “welcome” to whatever comes next. And so on. Welcome, welcome, welcome.

If you like, you can try this later in the service when we enter into silence.
I’ve long loved the radical hospitality that the United Church of Christ extends. And yet it has rarely occurred to me that I could extend this same kind of hospitality to myself.

Maybe I didn’t know that I could. Maybe I wasn’t sure I’d be safe. Maybe I needed to find Rumi and Richard Rohr, who both give me a way to open the door to every part of me, every inward attitude.

Paul is right, of course. It is a saving practice to turn our attention to what is true and commendable and pleasing. And yet life serves up so much that can be nourishing and life-giving but comes to us as scrap, as leftovers, as inedible, or worse.

Approached tenderly, approached with respect, and given time, just about anything arriving on our doorstep can become a channel for joy, a reason for gratitude. Just ask Mary Hoch’s daughter, Jessica.