Gratitude in All Things
Why Should We Be Grateful?
I am told that people pay more attention to your sermons if you throw in a joke or two. So, I’m going to do that. In fact, I will give you two. First, why did the smartphone write a thank you note to the charger? Because it gave it a boost when it was feeling drained! It’s a dad joke, I know, but I am a dad, so I can get away with it. How about this one? Why did the pencil say thank you to the eraser? Because it knew every mistake was a chance to start anew! Sorry. That’s the best I’ve got.
Both of those jokes reveal my topic for today, which is the need to show gratitude for all things. But since we’re in church, maybe I’d be better off quoting some scriptures.
The apostle Paul said:
The prophet Nephi said:
The holy man Job said:
The Lord himself said:
These individuals aren’t simply talking about being thankful for our blessings, or counting them as the hymn encourages us to do, they’re talking about being thankful for everything — which includes blessings, to be sure, but also includes those things which we sometimes perceive as “cursings.” These are things that don’t look like they offer anything but challenge, and heart break, and difficulty, especially when we’re in the middle of them. But, nevertheless, these are things designed to bless us.
My thesis for today’s talk is this: Challenges and trials and difficulties and struggles — these things don’t just happen to you — they happen for you.
They are not necessarily punishments for bad behavior — I’m fairly certain our loving Father in Heaven doesn’t dole out negative punishments unless absolutely, positively necessary. Like he did in the time of Noah. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have any politicians in Washington. They’d all be stricken with leprosy or be cursed with boils or frogs or something. Wouldn’t that be nice? But I do think he withholds blessings if we don’t qualify for them. I think he withdraws His Spirit when we choose to ignore Him, which will always lead us down a man-made path of misery and woe. But that isn’t His doing. That is entirely our doing.
I believe that the Father of our spirits does absolutely everything he possibly can to help us, to teach us, to coach us, to ennoble us. He gives clear guidelines as to what will make us happy and what won’t. But when we regularly choose to disregard his counsel and break his rules, his hands are tied. While certainly saddened, like any loving father would be, he still misses us tremendously, and wants us to return to our heavenly home. Like we read in the parable of the Prodigal Son, he is always looking out on the horizon to see if he can see us in the distance. And if he does, he will always run out to greet us with open arms and a tender embrace.
Of course, you and I can never return to our heavenly home because the Laws of Justice require that a price be paid for our mistakes. Most of that price we could never pay on our own. Even if we had the desire, we don’t possess the capacity to repay it. Only one person had that ability. And that was our sinless Savior, who willingly paid that price on our behalf. And then, because he is full of mercy, full of compassion, full of love, just like his father, Jesus will give us the gifts of redemption and resurrection and reunification and restoration. But, if, and only if, we make certain covenants and receive certain ordinances, and if our hearts truly indicate that we are sorry for our transgressions and are actively trying to follow Jesus in every way possible. If these conditions are met, he will take our hand into his wounded hands, and guide us back into the presence of God.
Every couple of years or so I like to read the entire standard works in one go around because it gives me a different perspective of the dealings of Father in Heaven with his children on this earth. It gives me a chance to zoom out my viewpoint, as if I was positioned on the top of a very high mountain, and take in a panoramic macro view of his efforts to help his children.
It is a great exercise, because you will see that there is absolutely nothing he won’t do, and there is absolutely nothing the Savior won’t do, or nothing the Holy Ghost won’t do, to help us return to them. They have done it over and over and over again. And will continue to do it for all eternity. It is their way.
They are meticulous planners, master designers, careful constructors — they never do anything without calculating its impact on us. They didn’t just create this world, place us here, then forget about us — they take an active interest in helping everyone and everything fulfill the measure of their creation and find true joy. They are actively involved in our lives whether we recognize it or not. We see their influence and their impact only if we want to see it. They do not force themselves on us. That is part of their divine nature. It is who they are. That is their work and their glory. They would rather help us progress and become as much like them as we want to be. That is their prime directive.
So to me, it is unthinkable that they would allow us to endure struggles, and temptations, and trials, and aversity, and sicknesses, and persecutions, and anxieties, and sorrows, without having calculated that it will help us in some way that we couldn’t possibly understand from our perspective. It may be centuries after the event before we can appreciate just how necessary it was for our personal development.
Now I’m going to talk about something that I normally wouldn’t. Forgive me if I get too personal. But I felt prompted to share something with you.
I’ve never been what you would call a healthy individual. I’m the youngest of eight and I’m pretty sure the good gene pool we drained by the time I was born. Presently, I have eight chronic diseases, most of them auto-immune disorders. My pancreas doesn’t produce insulin, so I’m a type 1 diabetic. My lungs don’t function normally, so I have asthma. My liver is enlarged, my thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormone, and my adrenal glands are erratic; even watching a ball game on TV or playing a cutthroat game of Monopoly causes a pitter-patter in my heart that doesn’t belong there. My heart and arteries require medication. I have nerve issues in my back, like degenerative disc disease. My skin won’t produce enough melanin so I can’t stay out in the sun very long. I am allergic to lots of things, including wheat. In short, I’m a dead man walking.
About nine months ago, I started developing a new issue. My hands began to really, really hurt. I couldn’t twist toothpaste caps, open jars, button buttons, or zip zippers. As an organist, I found it too painful to push the keys, change the stops, and even turn the pages. As a worker, I had a hard time using my computer keyboard and mouse. And all of this was starting to get to be too much. Depression started creeping in. My doctors thought it was rheumatoid arthritis, a particularly painful disease that is often clustered with the other things that are wrong with me. So they started doing some bloodwork.
One of the tests revealed that there were some elevated levels of something that is often associated with bone cancer. However, the doctor said that to rule out a diagnosis of cancer, I would need to lose some weight. 50 pounds was the magic number. After I did that then they would rerun the tests.
Now my favorite hobby, and perhaps the one and only thing that endears me to my family and friends, is my ability to cook and bake really tasty things. I’m just about to gear up to make another 75 pounds of fudge, caramel, and candy as presents for the holiday. So naturally, I haven’t weighed less than 200 pounds for decades.
But this threat of cancer was the thing that finally motivated me to do something different. So on July 24th, like the Pioneers who entered the vast wasteland of the Salt Lake Valley, I stared at the vast waistland of my belly and started the ketogenic diet. Now, four months later, I have lost the 50 pounds. I now spend about 6 to 8 hours each week at the gym, and as a result, I feel better than I have in a very, very long time. My hands are pain free, my back is strong, my heart is getting stronger, I can finally see my toes, and I haven’t had any insulin for three months. This week I go back to the doctor to get some more bloodwork done and see if I really do have the big ‘C’.
I don’t think I have cancer. But I do think that the Lord knew that a scare of cancer may be the only thing that would get me to finally change the way I ate and exercised. And as a result, I feel blessed. I can now better fulfill my callings, better provide for my family, better do the things that Lord wants me to do. He certainly doesn’t want me roaming the hallways of heaven any sooner than is necessary. He wants me down here where I can learn how to better love my children and grandchildren and learn how to better sacrifice my desires for his desires.
Being Thankful for Challenges
Now I know that many of you have far greater health challenges than I do. My heart goes out to you. That is one of the great side-benefits of having some of the diseases I have. I can actually feel your pain. We can commiserate about our shared experiences together, build instant bonds of understanding, and then we can figure out how to support and help each other. We couldn’t do that, without the challenges before us.
I’m just thankful most of my challenges have been related to health. There are far greater challenges that lie out there. There are financial troubles, marital troubles, emotional struggles, intellectual challenges, relationship issues, spiritual problems.
Some of you have faced challenges that would completely overwhelm me. I do not understand how you have overcome them, or if you still have them, have you have learned to live with them. It is remarkable how strong, and resilient, and patient you are. And yet, you are here, for at least two hours, with a smile on your face, a twinkle in your eye, and a commitment to follow the Lord Jesus Christ wherever he leads you, even if it leads you through the valley of the shadow of death. I am amazed at you. I feel blessed to be surrounded by you. I am thankful to be a part of this community of saints. It truly is one of the most Zion-like places on the entire earth.
So this month, as we focus on acknowledging the blessings we have, which is entirely appropriate and should be part of our daily meditation, let us also be thankful that the Lord has allowed us to spent at least a part of our lives struggling with massive challenges.
Because every time we struggle, we are growing. We are developing character traits we wouldn’t have picked up in any other way. In many ways we are becoming more well-rounded than we would have been otherwise. We are developing resiliency, we are developing patience, we are developing humility, we are developing courage, we are developing compassion. We are becoming more than we thought we could be.
Of course, we all have the choice to either become bitter because of these experiences or become better. Bitter or better, that is your choice. At the moment, if you’re leaning towards the bitter side of things, may I offer this little piece of advice.
Why Our Savior Faced Every Challenge
No one, absolutely no one, had more reason to become bitter because of the things that happened to him during his life than our Savior. He was the one who created this planet, after all, and everything on it. He could control the sun, the moon, and the stars, and yet he never used his power to control us, his brothers and sisters, or force us to obey. He never has and he never will. He certainly could, but he certainly won’t. He didn’t have to endure the mockings, the blasphemy, the harassment, the scourging, the crucifying, the temptations, the shouldering the penalties for our sins and our transgressions.
But he did. He didn’t have to be universally rejected by everyone — everyone on this planet has at one time or another rejected him or his teachings. He didn’t have to experience the physical pains and emotional heartbreak that everyone will ever experience, but he has. He didn’t have to descend below all things in all things. But he did. And he certainly didn’t have to redeem any of us. But he did. And he will continue to do so as long as we are in need of redemption.
So why do we insist on doing things our own way, especially when His way is the only way that allows us to return to the presence of God? Why do we insist on carrying burdens that he has offered to lift from us? How can we justify wallowing around in our self-inflicted despair and perceived injustices, living in a chronic state of misery and woe and self-pity, when he had more reason than you or I to do so. If that behavior would have helped him during his struggles, he would have done it. But it doesn’t help. It never helps. Moaning and complaining and blaming only makes things worse.
Brothers and sisters, I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life where I have felt completely overwhelmed. In those times, when I felt devastated and completely helpless, and knew that I couldn’t do it any more without help, in those times, as I was finally compelled to be humble and “cry uncle”, as I shared my burden with the Father, because of Jesus Christ, and his offer to always be with us, to always lift us up out of the pit of despair, I testify that that burdens were lifted. Sometimes, I was strengthened to carry the burdens more easily, but at other times, the burden left completely. I could then breathe again. I could then smile again. I could then sing, once again, the song of redeeming love.
Because of the challenge, and because of my request to the Lord for help, I was able to receive revelation, comfort, peace, love, and growth that wouldn’t have come otherwise. There was no other way.
The Grateful Sapling: A Tale of Resilience and Growth
And so, my friends, the evidence, the experiences, the trials and tribulations, all point us towards this truth. But let me illustrate this further with a small story, a parable if you will. I call it the “Parable of the Grateful Sapling.”
In the heart of a sprawling, verdant forest, stood a small tree. This tree, unlike its taller, grander counterparts, was not yet blessed with a thick trunk or a luxuriant canopy. It was young, still learning to stand tall amidst the gentle rustle and robust sway of the forest.
One evening, the forest was visited by a tempest of unprecedented strength. The storm raged and roared, shaking the very roots of the forest-dwellers. Mighty trees that had towered above the forest floor for decades were mercilessly uprooted. Branches broke, leaves scattered, and the world of the forest was plunged into chaos.
The small tree too was caught in the whirl of this ferocious storm. The wind battered its slender trunk, its branches shook, and many of its leaves were stripped away. But when dawn broke, it found itself standing – battered, bruised but not broken.
Days passed and the forest slowly healed. New shoots sprouted, uprooted trees made way for saplings, and life regained its rhythm. The small tree, too, was healing, but along with that, it was also growing – stronger and sturdier. It realized it was no longer the feeble youngling it used to be. The storm had changed it.
Thus, the small tree felt a wave of gratitude towards the storm. Not for the damage it inflicted but for the strength it instilled. The storm, through its destructive path, had inadvertently taught the small tree the art of resilience, the power of endurance. It had transformed it from a sapling into a survivor.
Such is the power of gratitude, the strength in thankfulness, even when faced with the storms of life.
Now, as we conclude, I pray, most earnestly, that we will all remember that challenges don’t happen to us, they happen for us. They mold us, they form us, they strengthen us. View them as if they are like a fire in a forge, which, if you are a crucible of dirty sand, as the temperature rises closer and closer to 3090 degrees Fahrenheit, you will have more and more impurities burned out of you until you eventually turn into liquid glass or crystal which can be shaped and formed into something of utility and beauty.
I also testify that we will survive all our challenges if we persistently and consistently involve Christ in our lives and try to follow in his footsteps. And, when we fall short, as we will do each and every day of our lives, and for a long time after that, if we constantly thank the Lord for the opportunity to try again tomorrow, and then lean on Him for support, encouragement, and advice as we face life’s challenges, and vow to never leave His side, we will ultimately emerge triumphant and glorious.