Practicing Praise and Gratitude
Kent French, (MDiv '07, Harvard Divinity School), delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on April 2, 2019. Audio can be found here.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, 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.
Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
On your way here this morning, my guess is that you had a few frustrations along the way.
Maybe—if you’re a student, a choral fellow, or even the guest speaker—the alarm went off a bit earlier than you were ready.
Perhaps you had some inconveniences: a slow barista in the line at the coffee shop, an April morning with the lingering chill of New England winter, the bus was late, a rude commuter crossed your path. I’m sure you can think of something.
We are well equipped to look for annoyances, inconveniences, things that seem out of place, that don’t square with our view of perfection.
A former local pastor was surprised when she first started getting to know her congregation here in Cambridge. After worship, there always seemed to be at least a few critical barbs lobbed at her at the door: a typo in the order of worship, a grammatical mistake here or there, a flaw in the argument of the sermon, a problem with the building. She was stunned at first. Even a bit despairing. What swarm of gadflies have I come to serve? And then it dawned on her: I am serving a congregation full of academics and administrators. It’s their job to critique. That’s what they are trained and hired to do! And they do it so well.
Several of you remember that I served as Seminarian and undergraduate chaplain in this church, amidst the widespread culture of critique that is a premier research university. And since that time I’ve served three lovely and vibrant congregations, full of many good and accomplished people, just like in this place. Their resumes, accomplishments, insights and experiences often amaze and inspire me.
As a pastor, I’ve seen that the more high-achieving, the more accomplished the people, the higher the level of critique. And as I get to know people better, I find a higher the level of self-critique, sometimes even self-loathing.
In our ongoing judgment of the world, we critics often end up being hardest on ourselves. And we often learned this from our parents or some other well-meaning person who wanted to see us do well in life. Some of us may have grown up in constant negativity.
The other chief factor I’ve noticed in high-achieving people is a high level of anxiety. And the insidious thing about anxiety is that it is often the motivating engine that propels us to get things done. For many of us, the psychological stick is what beats us on our way to the finish line.
I do not, however, believe that this is a faithful or spiritually holistic way to exist. “Do not worry about anything,” the letter says, echoing Jesus’ own words in the Gospel. We are to have hearts and prayers brimming with thanksgiving.
Researchers in positive psychology have found that human beings are quite similar to our other animal relations, in that we are hard-wired to be anxious. Our brains are designed to be scanning the horizon for potential predators and other threats. We cannot help it. As one researcher puts it, our brains are like Velcro for negativity and Teflon for positivity (See Rick Hanson, Buddha’s Brain, Hard-Wiring Happiness, and Just One Thing.)
However, positive psychologists have also found that we can actually re-wire our brains. By changing our minds to think more positively, we can effectively change our neural pathways. It takes time and repeated, consistent effort. In fact, we have to be willing to stay centered on positive things 5 to 10 times longer than we do on negative things in order for them to stick. Over time, however, we can change that in ourselves.
And if you’re concerned about whether people still get things done without anxiety, they’ve found that a more positive mindset actually makes us more productive, more effective, healthier, and happier.
This is liberating, Good News indeed, good scientific news.
And it lines up with good spiritual news. The researchers agree that the best antidotes for changing our minds include regular practices of praise and gratitude.
Last week, a rabbinical colleague shared that she used to be a consistently negative person. She was always able to find the fly in the ointment, the soot and smears on her window to the world.
She began working with a spiritual director, who introduced to her an old Jewish practice of listing 100 blessings throughout your day. He gave her the task of writing down 100 daily blessings for 30 consecutive days. The trick was that she couldn’t repeat any of them. Over a month, she had to identify 3,000 different blessings.
She started the first day, armed with a new journal and her favorite pen. She walked outside and saw the sunny sky. She wrote it down as a blessing. She saw some pink flowers. She wrote them down. She saw the nice terra cotta pot with the flowers. She wrote it down.
And then she was stuck. She honestly could not think of anything else. She paused for a long while before realizing: I can give thanks for the dark green leaves on the flower plant. Write it down. I can give thanks for the light green leaves. Write it down.
And she kept at it. After 30 days and 3,000 blessings. And she will tell you: It transformed her life. I can attest that she now shows the kind of gentle rejoicing that Paul advocates for the Philippians.
At our luncheon meeting, she led 15 of our interfaith colleagues in 3-5 minutes of writing down 30 blessings that we encountered before arriving. We hurriedly scribbled them away and then shared them with one another. They included things like waking up, a loving spouse, coffee, running water, flush toilets, a good colleague, spring sunshine, budding trees, a car that started, and on and on.
We found ourselves giving thanks for things and people that we too often take for granted, or things that we were once thankful for but had stopped honoring (like, say getting into college or having a job). We were taking time to acknowledge the many individual parts of the whole interdependent web of existence that makes our lives possible.
I was going to have you do that exercise here today and then share with each other in the pews. It would be good for all of us, I’m sure, but perhaps uncomfortably touchy-feely for Morning Prayers at 8:40 am.
So instead, I encourage you, I urge you, for the sake of your own mind and spiritual well-being, to find a friend, a colleague, a loved one, and give yourself five minutes to make your own lists. Thirty blessings from your day. And then share them with one another.
If you’re really spiritually brave, try doing it for the next 30 days and see what happens. Or try it for the remaining 19 days of Lent.
For you and I, beloved, are called, as children of God to keep our minds on 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, we are to think about these things.
And the God of peace will be with us. May it be so. Amen.