Giving Thanks

I don’t how many of you saw this report on the news the other week which was headlined: “An Optimistic Outlook ‘Means You Live Longer’”.

The report was based on research conducted in the United States on over 70,000 people and it concluded that positive people – optimists – were more likely to live to the age of 85 or over. Indeed, the study claimed that the most highly optimistic people had a 11 – 15% longer life-span than the most pessimistic people.

Now this was only one study but it does link into a lot of research that is currently being undertaken in the scientific world – particularly in the areas of the psychology, psychiatry and neuro-science.

There is a growing awareness of how feelings of stress, depression and general pessimism can impact upon our immune systems – causing us to be less able to fight infections.

And there have been several studies undertaken which have linked stress and negative thinking to with the shortening in our bodies of telomeres – a part of our chromosomes which apparently, when shortened are associated with cellular ageing and a higher risk for illness and diseases.

Alongside this, there has developed over the past few years a greater promotion of the benefits of the practice of Mindfulness, Yoga and other forms of meditation – which G.P.s in this country are beginning to prescribe to patients alongside the usual medicines as a way of coping with stress and depression – encouraging people to take note of the small, everyday things in life which bring them happiness and joy.

Now, you may or may not agree with all these studies; but they do make you think – they certainly make me think anyway – particularly as I am a person who can get very stressed and anxious about things; and not only do these studies make us think about our physical and emotional health; they also, I think, are pointing to something about our spiritual health as well.

Because at this time of year, the Church year turns to the Season of Harvest and the glories of God’s creation; and with that, often comes a focus on praise and thanksgiving to God – being positive – affirming God for his goodness and for all the blessings he has given to us, to our families and friends, to the whole of the created world.

As Christians, we are called, I believe, to lead lives of thankfulness, of gratitude; and when we are in church then it is pretty easy isn’t it to get caught up in the music and the singing and being with our fellow Christians and feeling uplifted and positive and thankful.

However, when we’re on our own, at home, by ourselves, it can be more difficult to keep on praising God, to keep on being thankful – especially when we come to times of quiet and of prayer.

Because I don’t know about you, but I often find, that whenever I sit down to pray and to be quiet and spend time with God, as soon as I try to settle myself and to concentrate on him, then immediately, lots of different thoughts and feelings come into my mind to distract; and often these thoughts and feelings are focused on difficult or unpleasant experiences.

And I start to dwell on all those things which have happened in my day or in the past week which have been negative and upsetting. For example, if someone has had a go at me or has criticised me; or if my day has been really busy and stressful and I’ve been running around all the time and I still have loads of things I’ve got to get through on my to-do list; or if I’m worried about my children – about something which has happened to them at school – it can be anything.

But what these negative feelings and thoughts do is to make me feel sad and depressed, and I begin to lose my focus on God and focus instead on me and my life, and how difficult and depressing everything is; and if God does get a look in, then what I do is just fire off prayer after prayer listing all these negative things at him – I’m asking for his help, yes, but I’m not really listening for his response – I’m just bombarding him with requests…. Sound familiar to anyone?

Now, I’m not saying that difficult and horrible things don’t happen in life; and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pray to God about them; but what I am saying, is that, as Christians, we need to try and find a balance – between asking God for help and praising and thanking God for God’s goodness.

Because the God we believe in as Christians is a God who is present throughout all of creation; and not only is God present, God also wants to bless us with his love and grace. God has so many good things he wants to give to us; and if we allow ourselves to be caught up in negative and depressing thoughts and feelings all the time, then there is a danger that we will not recognise and acknowledge all the gifts, all the blessings, all the grace which is being divinely offered to us.

So how can we pray in way when we are on our own that can help us broaden and shift our focus and allow us to celebrate the goodness in our lives as well as mourning the difficulties and the pain?

Well, one way to do this is through an exercise which is often practised in the Ignatian spiritual tradition – The Review of the Day.

The Review of the Day works with the premise that God is always at work in our lives and is always blessing us and showing us his love – often through the loving words and actions of other people. And what The Review of the Day suggests is that in order for us to appreciate these blessings, we should train ourselves to sit quietly at the end of each day and make a deliberate attempt to recall the past day and ask God to show us how and when we have been blessed.

For example, someone might have smiled at us as we passed them in the street; a neighbour might have popped round to check how we are; we may have seen some beautiful flowers in our garden; we may have had a walk in the park and have enjoyed the beauty of the leaves turning golden brown upon the trees; we may have had a laugh or a joke with someone on the bus. All these things may seem small, but they are examples of God blessing us through others.

And if we recall these things, then as we recall them, we allow ourselves to dwell in them; we say a specific thank you for each one of them; and we receive them as blessings, as gifts of grace – we allow their goodness to sink deep, down into our spirits and fill us with gratitude and thankfulness and praise….

Now the idea of the Review of the Day is that it won’t work if you do it a couple of times and then stop. It has to become a habit – part of the routine of your regular prayer-life. But if you do make it this, it does work, it does encourage you to be more thankful, more grateful, and more able to praise God for all this gifts, for all his goodness.

So as the season  turns into Autumn; as we celebrate Harvest and the beauty of God’s world and the many blessings which God has given to us – especially in the wonder and magnificence of creation – let us remember to live lives of gratitude and praise; and to remember, each day, to thank God for his many, many blessings to each one of us…

And if you’re not sure how to start giving thanks, then perhaps these words from Psalm 148 will inspire you:

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
    praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
    praise him, all his host!

Praise him, sun and moon;
    praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
    and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever;
    he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
    stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
    creeping things and flying birds!

Kings of the earth and all peoples,
    princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
    old and young together!

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for his name alone is exalted;
    his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people,
    praise for all his faithful,
    for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the Lord!

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