Chaplain Mel Baars
29 January 29, 2012
With My Whole Heart
I feel like I should begin with a confession. And, no, those of you who know that I often wait to write my sermon until the last minute, Saturday night or sometimes even Sunday morning, this is not a confession about my tendencies toward procrastination. I will save that confession for another Sunday. This confession is about my recent need for an attitude adjustment. Many Sundays my sermons are more for me to hear than for those who sit in the pews. Today, this is definitely the case. Earlier in the week, realizing that it was a matter of days before I would have to say goodbye to a group of friends who I have grown to love over these months, I felt my dread at saying goodbye starting to drain my glass which was previously half full. I talk a great talk about celebrating life’s gifts, even when we might wish for more, but this week it has been especially hard. In the military, change is really all we can count on, but no one said I had to like it.
In preparation for this week’s sermon, I read our psalm for today. Somewhere down the green mile as I raced to make it on time to my unit’s morning sync meeting, it hit me. I had been focusing so intently on this upcoming loss, that I had not remembered my gratitude for friendship, in the first place. Practicing gratitude is similar to practicing other spiritual disciplines, like praying or fasting. It is something we have to choose on purpose. Practicing gratitude is a way of living which transforms us little by little, each day. Learning how to live gratefully isn’t something that happens by itself. In fact, it is very hard to do, especially in the midst of stress and uncertainty, when disappointment knocks at our doors, threatening everything and life doesn’t pan out the way that we hoped. We don’t do these practices, praying or fasting or giving thanks, because we hope to change God. We practice spiritual disciplines because we hope, in committing ourselves to them, that we might grow in our capacity for faith and love more than we thought we ever could.
I think this is why the psalm spoke to me. Its first line was a bit of a wake up call. “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart.” I don’t know, maybe it is a little troubling that my first thought was suspicion. But, really? This seems a little too good to be true. Can anyone live up to this kind of gratitude? Whole hearted praise, no matter what? I am willing to bet the psalmist didn’t always feel this way. I am sure that he had some challenging moments when praise and thanks were about the furthest thing from his mind. I know this because this has been true for me and true for each of us. There are days when giving thanks is next to impossible. That is just how it is. Nonetheless, the psalmist begins his prayer in this way. This must indicate something important.
But what does it really mean to give thanks to the Lord with our whole hearts? Does it have to do with the way that we love people or how much of ourselves we are willing to give away? Does it have to do with how many times we offer our prayer or praise or sing songs of worship or even come to church? What if the circumstances which close in upon our lives don’t seem to warrant thanks or praise at all? What if we are angry with God or have been hurt by one another? What if, in our grief, closing off our hearts is the only way to survive?
Notice the psalmist’s verb. He doesn’t say I give thanks, present tense, to the Lord with my whole heart, instead he says I will give thanks. The psalmist projects a future time, what he is striving for. And, he has faith that somewhere, somehow, in the midst of his doubt and struggle to believe Good News, God will step in and make up the difference. This is a psalm of praise to a God who has been unwavering in love and kindness, BUT it is spoken by a person who desperately needs to remember that this is all true.
Great are God’s works in the world, even when what we can see is hunger or sickness, the aftermath of war and violence. God’s work is full of honor and majesty, even when what we hear on the news is injustice and failed leadership. The Lord is gracious and merciful, even when we feel far from grace and mercy, when we have lost our way and don’t have the faintest clue how to be found again. God is faithful and just, even when people behave oppositely, when relationships fall apart, when those who are supposed to love and care for one another can’t even manage civility. God’s righteousness endures forever, even when the innocent suffer and the weak are crushed. The psalmist prays, not because he hopes to change God. He knows God is not the issue. Instead he prays because he hopes, in remembering and even celebrating God’s steadfast promises, his heart might be opened again, able and willing to give thanks without reservation.
We hear a lot of mixed messages about what it means to follow God, to be a Christian, to be a disciple. In the church, of all places, we are too often encouraged to feign faith even when we are confused. We are made to feel shame if we have questions or differences of opinions. But God welcomes, even embraces, our doubts and fears and even our lack of belief at times. God doesn’t ask us for cheap optimism or even hopefulness in every season of our lives. God listens to our complaints and our lament. God hears our cries and doesn’t turn away from us. In our pain and grief, God is right there with us, balling up a fist to a world that doles out more suffering than delight. But despite this, perhaps even in spite of all the logical reasons that we might close off our hearts and shield ourselves from uncertainty and pain, what God does ask of us is that we live our lives with our whole hearts-- wholly, not holy. There is a big difference.
This is what our faithfulness looks like. Responding to God with our whole heart. And, also, almost as important, responding to our neighbor in the same way. Not just a piece, not just a portion which is convenient or left over after all the other important things we are doing. The entire gospel revolves around this. We can’t really love anyone with half a heart nor can we serve them well. We can’t really reach out to those who are in need or who are struggling, we can’t minister to others or share any Good News when what we offer is with only a small piece. If you think about it, nothing done half-heartedly is ever really done at all.
And, this is where our practices of gratitude come into play. Because we all can attest, especially here in this place, that it’s hard to maintain any perspective at all. Tunnel vision, frustration, and the sheer drudgery of our mission easily contribute to loosing perspective. And, it happens so stealthily that half the time we don’t even notice. Whether it is the grind of the day in and day out, or doing the same old stuff, over and over again ad nauseam, it is easy to slip into a deployment coma where going through the motions is about all that we can muster. And we all know that this doesn’t just happen in Afghanistan, but it can happen anywhere, anytime, when we stop paying attention.
Choosing to live with our whole heart is momentum in the other direction. It is how we can stay engaged and tuned in and ready to respond to God whenever or wherever God appears. Living with our whole hearts, this is faithfulness. It is not about talking the loudest or the longest about Jesus or keeping tabs on our church attendance or even our charitable giving. Faithfulness has little to do with what we say or profess if we don’t practice it in our lives. Faithfulness is first and foremost a matter of the heart, of the whole heart. And, only God really knows.
So what does it look like to live with our whole heart? I know I have witnessed it here again and again over these months. I have seen it, watching my roommate stay up late, reading books on optometry, trying to understand the whole picture so that every patient she helps may have a chance at maintaining sight. I have heard it, listening to my interrogators explain their approaches with detainees which rely heavily on establishing trust and relationship, even with those who make it very difficult to offer compassion. I have heard stories of caring giving, of reaching out with love to detainees, even when patience has run thin and all any of us really want to do is go home and forget the nonsense. Living with our whole hearts is not about being perfect. It’s about being generous. It’s about resisting apathy and complacency. It’s about still caring when caring seems to make not much difference in the big picture because it still may make a difference to one. Because, even one matters.
The psalmist doesn’t say he is giving thanks with his whole heart now or even that he can do this alone, on his own steam. He says he will give thanks to the Lord with his whole heart. This is a statement of faith. We don’t know where the road may lead us or even what perils may wait for us around life’s bends. No one said that practicing gratitude would be easy or that living with our whole hearts wouldn’t hurt, at least sometimes. But where we may fall short, God’s grace will carry us. On the days when we may not be able to respond fully, God will make up the difference. Practicing gratitude transforms our hearts, little by little, so that one day, when all is said and done, we may know and find rest in God’s unconditional embrace. As the Psalmist reminds himself and us, God’s faithfulness endures forever and ever. That is a promise. Amen.