Gratitude and Prayer

June 10, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert
Focus Scripture: 1 Timothy 2:1-7


First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all–this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

Gratitude and Prayer

One of the central messages that we hear from the letter to Timothy today speaks to the importance of prayer.  It is a reminder to the people of that time who were suffering under repressive leaders and it is a reminder to us that prayer really is the starting point for a life of faith.  We are invited to cultivate a life of prayer as individuals and as a community of faith…and so we gather each week and share our prayers together and seek to be inspired in our lives through the words and music which surround us in prayer. We also hear that offering thanks should be an essential part of prayer.  So often, we turn to prayer when we are struggling and need help, but many of us understand well that to begin each day in a spirit of gratitude for the blessings in our lives is foundational to living well and being mindful of the gifts we are fortunate to have.  Let us pray, Loving God, you call us to embrace both you and the children of this world with unconditional love. Give us grace to discern what your love demands of us that, being faithful in things both great and small, we may serve you with an undivided heart.

In this letter to Timothy, written in Paul’s name late in the first century, we understand that at least a generation or two of the early Christians had already passed from the scene. Jesus had not returned before the apostles themselves died.  The early Christians had already suffered persecution and great resistance, including expulsion from the synagogues. Even when the emperors weren’t actively persecuting and executing Christians as Nero and others did, those in power were not believers, and the Roman Empire itself was thoroughly pagan. It was clear, too, who was in charge of political life, with troops, money and power of every kind in the hands of those in power.

So this is an important moment for the author of the letter to remind young Timothy, who is working hard to strengthen the church in Ephesus, about who is actually in charge of everything. In such an age, not unlike our own, earthly rulers might have been awed by their own power and might, and their subjects might have cowered, too, and wondered where to place their trust. Paul writes to his beloved colleague, Timothy, clarifying things: there is only one God, not a pantheon of competing ones, and there is such a thing as truth, and you can count on it because we have received it from the one true Mediator, Jesus Christ. In the meantime, then, pray for your leaders, even the pagan ones, in fact, pray for everyone, at all times, Paul says. If we pray in all things and in all times, perhaps it won’t be so hard to get along with one another, and with our rulers and kings, as we make our way toward the truth.  (Reflection by Kate Matthews)

I spoke with the children earlier about the book Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott.  In her book which was published a few years ago, she describes these three words as the three simple prayers essential to helping people get through challenges in life, difficult times and the struggles of daily life.   It is these three prayers – asking for assistance from God, appreciating what we have that is good, and feeling awe at the world around us – that can get us through the day and can show us the way forward. In Help, Thanks, Wow, she speaks about how she came to these insights, explaining what they have meant to her and how they have helped in her own life, and she explores how other people have embraced these same ideas.  Simple words…Help, asking God for help for ourselves or for those we know who need God’s love or comfort or healing; thanks, a prayer of gratitude for the many blessings in our lives, and Wow, being aware of the beauty and awesomeness of life in all of creation.

I recall a former theology professor of mine who said that it is helpful to think about how we pray both as individuals and as a congregation, because that says a lot about how we understand our relationship to God.  Do we ask God to help grant us the courage or strength or hope to face whatever may be unfolding?  Do we just ask God to take care of others in need, or to give us the faith to respond to our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in concrete ways?  Do we speak to God in the midst of our days or do we only think about God in church or only in times of great distress?  Do we try to be mindful of our blessings each day, even when times are tough?  And do we cultivate a real appreciation for the beauty of God’s creation…for the heavens at night, the beauty of a simple moment in the day, the sun on the leaves as they begin to change color?  Do we take a moment to pause and really be thankful and aware of God’s presence in our lives and in the world?

It’s striking that the writer of the letter to Timothy emphasizes how important it is to pray for the leaders, despite the fact that they are not believers, despite the fact and perhaps exactly because of the fact that they often persecuted the early Christians or sought wealth and power for themselves and did not always have the interests of the many people under their control as a priority.  It’s a reminder to us to pray for our leaders too, as difficult as that may be…to pray for those in local or national government, to pray for leaders around the world, or any who hold positions of power, to pray that they may be guided by the highest principles and not simply selfish wants, that they may be concerned for all who live in their towns and cities and countries…especially, as Jesus once said, for those, the least among us.  And we do need to pray that God’s mercy and wisdom may enlighten all who are running for office…that they may be mindful that all of our resources are a gift from God to be used in service to all and that all people deserve to live in dignity as children of God.

As a church community, we come together each week to pray together.  Even when we don’t always feel prayerful, it’s such a life-giving practice, and often, we may be inspired in faith by others who pray for us.

However, personal prayer is also really important in our lives.  It’s something that has been a part of my own life since I was a young child and I am deeply grateful for the adults in my life who really modeled how important prayer is and encouraged me to pray.  Several years ago, my husband and I were living through a very sad and difficult time in our lives with a number of losses of friends and family in a period of about a year.  At a loss for what to do, I discovered a beautiful meditation and we began to use that as part of our daily prayer.  It was called Waiting on God, and in it the writer invites us to not always fill out prayer time with words, but to try to quiet our hearts and minds and to allow space for the Holy One to speak to us and surround us with what we need in those moments.

In recent years, there has been a great deal of focus on the importance of developing a habit of gratitude in our daily lives.  People who pause each day to be mindful of the blessings in their lives are often more positive and hopeful about life.  Recently I came across a wonderful piece on gratitude as it focused on a director on Broadway recently nominated for multiple Tony awards.  The CBS reporter Jamie Wax profiled Michael Arden by sharing the following:

Broadway often celebrates people overcoming differences and adversity. Those stories are usually told on the stage.  A biography in a Broadway Playbill is an opportunity for a theater artist to list credits and achievements. For director Michael Arden, Tony-nominated for “Once On This Island,” it became an opportunity to do something else – to acknowledge a gift given to both him, and the lead character in the show, a gift that he continues to give to others.

“Once On This Island” is the story of a child found in a tree after a storm … lost, until an older couple adopts her.  It’s not just the story behind the hit Broadway musical; for Michael Arden, the show’s director, it’s the story of his life.

Arden was taken in at an early age by his grandparents. As he writes in his Playbill bio: “They loved him as their own, accepted him, despite not always understanding him. This production is dedicated to their memory and to all those who give shelter and love to those they find in trees.”

They found him stuck as a toddler after family tragedy left Arden with no one to raise him.  “My grandparents, Jim and Pat Moore, were an incredible couple. They drove me to the community theater, where I did plays as a kid,” Arden said.

The Moores, a traditional couple from Midland, Texas, did their best to understand their grandson.  “I’m also a gay man and that wasn’t something their Southern Baptist upbringing had really prepared them for,” Arden said. “But those differences never got in the way of never-ending love and support.”

He’s taken that love and support and translated it into a successful career – having been awarded two Tony nominations as a director.  And he pays it forward, taking risks on people he “finds in trees.”

One of those risks was casting a group of deaf actors in a Broadway musical for the revival of “Spring Awakening,” “to be able to give these deaf performers, an opportunity to be rock stars and to be able to share their culture with people who might never get to see it otherwise,” he said.

When asked what it is about Arden that makes him take such risks, seasoned theater veteran Lea Salonga said, “Maybe there’s a pioneering groundbreaking spirit about him.” Arden recognizes that none of the opportunities he’s given others would have been possible without the opportunity his grandparents first gave him.  The reporter Wax also asked Arden, “What would you say if you could talk to your grandparents?”

“I’d say thank you,” he replied. “We don’t ever realize how precious life is while we’re living it. And I will try in everything I do to honor the love that you gave me.”

Not only did Arden cast a male actor in a female role in “Once On This Island,” he also cast a female actor in the role of the God of Death – traditionally played by a man.  His current show has been nominated for eight Tony Awards, which will be broadcast tonight.  (Reported by Jamie Wax, CBS Saturday Morning)

What really struck me about this story is that his spirit of gratitude for what his grandparents did for him has been shared with others as he has provided opportunities for folks to appear in non-traditional roles or in performances in which they might not have been able to find a role.  The incredible love and support his grandparents offered to him has rippled out in his own life as a Broadway director such that he has brought other people opportunities for which they now must certainly be immensely grateful.

We do live in a culture that reminds us frequently of what we do not have or in an order to sell more things, reminds us of what we still need.  And yet, if we pause and think about the most important and fundamental elements of our lives, we realize that we always have something for which to be grateful.   Perhaps over the coming months, we too might take time to wait on God, and to include in our prayers each day, in our time of meditation and reflection, attention to the blessings from the past and in our present lives.


L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, 20th century

“Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky–up–up–up–into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”

Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott published in 2012