Grace Presbyterian Church/Covenant Presbyterian Church
November 27, 2019, Thanksgiving
How to Think Thankfully
“…think about these things.”
Whoa, Paul, careful with statements like that. You want to be more cautious about the company you keep.
The whole business of telling people how to think or what to think or some other variant on the concept is the kind of thing that gets used, frankly, to sell stuff. The always-fun exercise of using good ol’ auto-complete in your web browser on Amazon.com, for example, yields some of these chestnuts:
Think and Grow Rich – a title I remember mostly from very annoying television commercials and even infomercials.
Or how about this subtitle from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series – “Think Positive, Live Happy.” That could have been an infomercial all by itself.
Then there’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, a title all about how our brains work with instruction on tapping into the more deliberate part of our mental processes, which leads us towards the variant of this genre that specifically starts “how to think.” For example:
Two different books with the title How to Think About God, one a combination of two writings by the ancient Roman stoic philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, the other a more modern volume by Mortimer J. Adler.
How to Think Theologically, a volume that is occasionally put before new seminarians, also comes up. It’s now into a third edition, so evidently somebody out there thinks it’s important.
Getting away from religion, there’s How to Think About Money (I apologize, I said ‘getting away from religion’), How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, How To Think Like a Roman Emperor, and probably the best and most worthwhile of the bunch, How to Think Like a Cat. Anything that gets humans to wait on you hand and foot has to be worth considering, right?
This kind of “thinking about thinking,” so to speak, doesn’t just show up in book titles for that matter. Take, for example, one of the songs from the Broadway musical (and movie) The Sound of Music. You know the one. In the movie, after the von Trapp children get frightened by that thunderstorm and Maria sings to them something about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens…and it ends up “I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad…”
In no way will I claim that I’ve read those books, but the song I will give credit for getting one particular aspect of all this right: in order to have the desired result (not feeling so bad when the dog bites or the bee stings), the pattern of thought (remembering her favorite things) has to be cultivated. It doesn’t just happen. If one of us gets stung by a bee it’s going to hurt and we’re going to feel, probably, well beyond “bad” (or far worse if one is allergic), and simply remembering my favorite things isn’t going to be the first idea to pop into my head, unless that habit of mind has been deliberately cultivated. You have to decide to do it, so to speak.
If you were wondering how all of this could possibly connect with this reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, there it is.
We’re getting near the end of the letter, and as is not atypical, Paul launches into a final series of encouragements as he comes to a close. The language is fairly typical at first; that exhortation to “rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” has parallels in many of his other letters. Instruction about how to show one’s faith, instead of merely talking about it, is also fairly common, as in verse five’s encouragement to “let your gentleness be known to everyone.” The encouragement to pray is also common and unsurprising.
Where this wrap-up pep talk gets interesting is in verse eight. Here, in this seeming list of adjectives out of nowhere, Paul is getting down to the business of the habits of mind that go into the Christian life. And by the way Paul gives this instruction, Paul clearly indicates that these things don’t just happen; such habits of thought have to be developed and cultivated.
When we spend time in deliberate reflection on “whatever is true … honorable … just … pure … pleasing … commendable” or on the things that are excellent or worthy of praise, there are a lot of possible outcomes. One of those is certainly applicable to tonight’s occasion: Thanksgiving, or gratitude (if you want to use a more theological-sounding word). To think with deliberate attention and observation on these particular virtues brings us to greater awareness and understanding of the God in whom such virtues originate and who through Christ makes it possible for us even to approach such virtures in our own lives and hearts. So yes, such a pattern of thought and reflection might be a good start on a new self-help bestseller, “How to Think Thankfully.” But again, such reflection doesn’t just happen; it has to be chosen and engaged deliberately and intentionally. The habit has to be cultivated, again and again.
There is something about which we need to be careful in approaching such a pattern of reflection and cultivation of habit. The results might not lead us where we expect.
True, a greater sense and expression of gratitude (or thanksgiving) is a pretty likely result of such reflection, but it is not the only such result. Let’s look back at verse seven to remind ourselves of how this list of virtues has been set up. After all the instruction about rejoicing and not worrying and being in “prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” (see?), we get this sentence: “and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
It sounds like a nice conclusion to verses six and seven, and it is. That is not, however, all that it is. It’s a bridge of sorts; it serves both the ideas that come before it and the ideas that come after as well. So after we do all the praying, the peace of God will guard our hearts and our minds in Jesus. As the peace of God guards our hearts and our minds in Christ, we think on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy, we then do these things, the things that Paul himself has striven to show the Philippians in his behavior towards them. It isn’t about just a peaceful and thankful mind or heart; it shows up in how we work and act and speak and do and live as well. It’s not a passive thing, but an active and even animating thing as well. We don’t just think differently, we act differently as well.
As if that weren’t disturbing enough, that activating and animating tendency might even lead us into places we might not go otherwise. When you start to contemplate those things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy, you can’t avoid noticing those things in the world around you that are not true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Even worse, it might no longer be possible to avoid noticing those things that are not true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy in yourself.
And if the God of peace is truly guarding our hearts and minds in Christ, well, guess what? Those things are no longer going to be acceptable. You might find yourself in a spot where you have to speak up, to insist that the church or the nation or the world or, most frightening of all, your own self must be better, must be true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy.
This may not be the stuff that makes your auto-complete function fill up your browser window with happy-sounding things that make you want to buy them. And it might sometimes make you something other than happy. After all, do we really want to be happy about lies, or dishonor, or injustice, just to name a few? But here’s the thing; those same things also grieve God’s own heart. And if we’re seeing these same anti-virtues in the world and knowing the same grief and heartbreak and maybe even anger at them as our own God feels, maybe we are just a little bit closer to that God we claim to worship and to serve. And I would hope we would find that something truly to be thankful for.
So no, if you’re looking for a mind perpetually at ease and free of care, this may not be the prescription or exhortation for you. But if you can live with a heart marked with true gratitude for what God has given, that also knows what it means to live most fully in the mind of Christ even if it hurts, this may be a path to follow. If you’re ready for a thankful mind that leads to a thankful life, even if it’s a little bit challenging life, then indeed think on those things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. And indeed, the God of peace will be with you.
For the invitation and opportunity to think thankfully, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #336, We Gather Together, #659, Know That God Is Good (Mungu ni nwema); #654, In the Lord I’ll be Ever Thankful; #643, Now Thank We All Our God