A Reflection on Gratitude and Giving for "The Season of Giving Thanks" by The Rev. Miles Brandon
So, there are more storage units in the United States than there are Starbucks and McDonalds combined. In all, the total amount of self-storage space in America is 2.3 billion square feet comprised of 48,500 units. The annual revenue of self-storage in the US was $36 billion in 2015, twice that of the global music industry. 67% of those who rent self-storage units live in single family homes…and most of those have a garage and 33% also have a basement…so folk not necessarily living in super confined spaces.
So, what does any of this have to do with a theological reflection on gratitude and giving? Well…I imagine if I was to unfold the fall colored cards in the glass vase on our altar…these cards on which we are invited to list 3 things we are grateful for each week…I imagine few lists include things of any kind…meaning the sorts of things that one might reasonably expect to find in any average self-storage unit in any average city or community. Now, I think there may very well be things listed that are tangible objects…like a home…a roof over one’s head that provides warmth, security, a place to gather, rest and recreate…and indeed every single person should have a secure, healthy dwelling to come home to at the end of the day…though of course so many in our world don’t…which is why having a home is indeed worthy of being counted among our blessings. And there may be other tangible thing on the cards in the vase…like food on the table…and, again, every single person should have access to healthy, nutritious and satisfying food that gives us the energy we need to live and move and have our being…though of course so many in our world don’t…which is why having our daily bread, just as Jesus included it in the prayer he taught us…the Lord’s Prayer…is indeed a blessing worth counting. However, I imagine that if I was to read the cards in the vase…much or most of what we would find listed are less tangible items, than what our nation spends $36 billion dollars a year to store. I imagine we would find things like the names of loved ones…both friends and family…and things like health and faith and a stable marriage and education…or a new baby or good work that provides meaning and stability. I imagine if I unfolded and read those cards on this altar I would read the names of people who will sit in these very chairs on this very day…people we love and care for and who love and care for us in this family of faith we share. And, we…you…are a faithful lot here at St. Julian’s, so I imagine I would also read on those cards on our altar right now…the name Jesus…over and over and over again.
I have told the story before of my grandmother…my father’s mother…who in a particularly difficult time in life…recovering from surgery, caring for a dying loved one and struggling with a child with addiction…in the midst of that time of profound struggle in her life…took to beginning each day by listing her blessings. She told me some years later that she believed that the exercise, and I would call it a spiritual discipline of listing, naming and giving thanks to God for our blessings, literally saved her life. Further, she told me that at the very top of the list each day over the many days she kept up this practice, was my brother, Ross, and me…her two grandchildren. And I suppose what I am getting at is that most of us can really count the things that matter most in life, the things that are the very most important, the things for which our hearts overflow with gratitude to God…we can really count all of that goodness on one hand. And, they are not things that we pay to store away in some shed or building…but things that are always with us or at least always near our hearts wherever we might be. In regard to dollars and cents, they cost nothing…though they are worth everything…all the spiritual and emotional capital we can pour into them.
This is in large part the point of the Season of Giving Thanks each fall at St. Julian’s. But before I continue I should say…yes, the honest to God truth, is that I hope that at the end of this season…which is just next Sunday, Nov 11…that together we will commit the time and energy, the talent and giftedness, our regular prayers, and all the financial resources we need to fund the budget just set before you, which represents in dollars and cents the ministry and worship and good work that we believe God is calling us into, both for ourselves and those beyond our own walls, in the year that lies ahead. I hope we can pay our mortgage and utility bill…fully fund our ministries and the stipends and salaries of those who lead the life-giving work that flows from this place…the world altering prayers that rise up from this place…the adoring worship that give thanks and glory to the God of life and love from which every blessing we count, all those blessings sitting before us on our altar right now, flow. Yes, I hope with all my heart, that the commitment cards that are placed at this altar at the 9:30 AM service next Sunday will provide exactly what we need…to do exactly what God has set before us. Further, I believe with all of my heart, that that is exactly what will happen through God’s faithfulness and our own generous and sacrificial offering. I trust there will be much for which to give thanks and celebrate at the Thanksgiving Meal that follows the service. For our shared ministry continues to grow and multiply…it matters and makes a difference…we have been, and many beyond ourselves have been, the beneficiaries of the grace upon grace that has and will continue to flow from this God-infused family of faith…a family I am so grateful to share with each of you.
But…that great theological word…but…that is not really the first purpose, the highest and most valuable purpose of this Season of Giving Thanks that we enter into together each fall at St. Julian’s. Instead, what is most intended is for us to be intentionally called, at least for one season a year, into the important spiritual work of remembering…remembering what in life is most important…things that should never be stored away and forgotten. The things we can count on one hand…again things like…but surely not limited to…loved ones, health and faith in God. And then remembering them…expressing gratitude to God for them…and if a person…perhaps even speaking words of gratitude directly to them…we are provided the chance to re-orient and re-order our lives, which we are all in need of from time to time, around those essential…God given gifts. For as my grandmother learned, that work can life-saving…and it surely can be life-giving. For my experience is that when my own love is properly ordered and placed…that all kinds of good things follow. I tend to make better decisions about things like how I spend my money…better decisions about what I might be holding on to a little too tightly and need to let go of…like what others think of me and my dependence on gaining wealth as the primary basis of my own sense of security. When I am focused on the most important things in my life…I literally pray more. I take better care of my body. I am more generous and more willing to sacrifice on behalf of another. Perhaps the best thing to say is that I am just plain kinder. This is the point of the Season of Giving Thanks…to take stock of what matters most, give thanks for it, and re-orient our life around it.
Lastly, I have found that when I do this sort of gratitude oriented spiritual work…I begin to realize all the, and pardon my language here, crap that I am carrying around in my life…the literal and figurative stuff…the stuff that takes up too much storage in those 48,500 storage units across this land and also the stuff that takes up too much storage space in my head. Just think what wonders could be worked for good and for God if we could reorient the $36 billion a year spent in this country on storing stuff. But if that feels just too big to wrap your mind around, the Season of Giving Thanks allows us to apply this thought simply too ourselves…what wonders could we work for good and for God if we held on to only what matters most…and gave the rest away…sold it…used it…reoriented it…recycled it…to and toward the places and people who could really use it…and this includes freeing up and reorienting our own time and energy and spiritual resources. I’m telling you, if we all, everyone, did this good gratitude oriented spiritual work…the world would be turned on its head…and we would be freer than we have ever been before.