Psalm 118:1-6a; 19-24

Simple Gifts

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Psalm 118:1-6a; 19-24

Simple Gifts

Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Did you enjoy the anthem the choir just sang? It’s based on a Shaker hymn called, “Simple Gifts,” by Elder Joseph Brackett. Composer Aaron Copland made it famous in the 1940s when he used it as the basis of a movement in his tone poem, Appalachian Spring. In 1963, Sydney Carter put his own words to the tune and called it, “Lord of the Dance.” We still sing it from time to time. Going back to the original, Elder Brackett penned these words:

“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

“When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.”

I’d like to capitalize upon the spirit of this hymn and invite you to think with me about the simple gifts for which to be thankful in the season of Thanksgiving.

Stephanie Harris-Smith called me Wednesday and asked if I would comment on an article she was writing for the Hope Star. Her question was, “What are you most thankful for?” I thought of the usual things such as friends and family and good health. But, after we hung up, it occurred to me that this is just the tip of the iceberg. So, I made a list of all the things I have to be thankful for. To my surprise, what came to mind were not the big ticket items, but the simple gifts of life we often take for granted.

I’d like to share my list with you in the sermon this morning with the hope that it’ll inspire you to make a list of your own and so, give you that much more reason to be thankful.

First, I’m thankful for the five senses: The sense of sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. Of course, not everyone has all five. There are those who are blind and those who are deaf; plus, few of us have a full dose of any of them. For example, I have to wear reading glasses, and my hearing isn’t what it used to be. And yet, what a blessing it is to be able to see the world around you reasonably well, and hear the sounds of nature, and savor the rich aroma of food on the stove, and feel the texture of crushed velvet and taste the goodness of homemade apple pie.

Riding a motorcycle makes me conscious of how little we smell the countryside around us when we travel. For example, in the fall there’s the smell of burning leaves; in the spring, fresh-cut hay. Riding by a chicken house at any time of the year will just about knock you over.

So, my list of things to be thankful for begins with the five senses. They’re just a few of the simple gifts we take for granted.

Take the human body, in general, with all of its complexity of moving parts. It’s amazing. For example, if you didn’t have toes, you wouldn’t be able to keep your balance. If you didn’t have joints, you wouldn’t be able to bend and turn. The psalmist said it best when he wrote that we are, “…fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

In one of my favorite episodes of Mash, Hawkeye Pierce, aka, Alan Alda, waxes eloquent on the benefits of the opposable thumb. I bet you never took time to give thanks for that! Yet, it’s true: The fact that you even have a thumb, and that it’s constructed the way it is, gives you the ability to grip a hammer, open a jar, and hold a pencil or a knife, fork and spoon. The opposable thumb is an incredible piece of work, and that’s just one more simple gift to be thankful for.

Then there’s the gift of imagination. I use it all the time. I’m a visionary at heart. One of my favorite sayings is that of George Bernard Shaw who said, “You see things as they are and ask why; I see things that never were and ask, why not?” That speaks to me – to look beyond the mundane realities of everyday life and imagine how God would have it to be. And isn’t that what Jesus wanted his disciples to do when he taught them about the Kingdom of God? For example, he said,

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast,
which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal,
until it was all leavened.”
(Matthew 13:33)

The gift of imagination allows you to see the possibilities. It’s like the gift of wonder, which is yet another simple gift to be thankful for. Wonder comes naturally to children, as they listen wide-eyed to a well-told story, or when they play with imaginary friends, or as they gaze into a kaleidoscope. Can you remember, as a child, looking up at the stars on a crisp, cold night and saying the little nursery rhyme?

“Star Light Star bright,
The first star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.”

A close cousin to wonder is the gift of creativity. Everyone has it, to some degree. To be created in the image of God is to be, well, creative. Obviously, some get a bigger share than others. For example, whoever created the Internet – and no, it was not Al Gore – got a double dose, as did Georges de Mestral, the inventor of Velcro.

There are so many gifts to be thankful for. The gift of a smile, for example, can light up your life and make an otherwise dreary day brighter and more cheerful. Have you ever been down in the dumps and a total stranger gave you a big smile and said hello? It washes over you like a summer breeze.

A genuine smile is one of the simplest gifts we have to share. Mother Teresa said it best. She said, “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” I like this: “If you see a friend without a smile, give him one of yours.”

Add to smiling the gift of laughter. Mary Waldrip says, “A laugh is a smile that bursts.” I like what Victor Borge said, “Laughter is the closest distance between two people.” And so it is – laughter is one of the purest forms of intimacy. It refreshes us, clears out the toxins and brings us together, as one. A Yiddish proverb says, “What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul.” A good belly laugh is one of the best ways I know to relieve stress.

Of course, we all know the old adage, “Laughter is the best medicine,” but there’s more to it than a catch phrase. Researchers link laughter to all sorts of medical benefits. You can read the studies on line; better still, rent the movie, Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams. It’s based on a true story of a doctor in Virginia, who used the gifts of humor and laughter in unconventional ways to help his patients get well.

So, let’s see … where are we? We’ve talked about the five senses, the body, the gifts of imagination and wonder and creativity; the gifts of smiling and laughing together. Let’s add to these the simple gift of a caring presence and, with it, the gift of a listening ear.

Mayme Porter says, “We live in a world of hit-and-run communications.” She’s right. Too often we fail to take the time to sit down with others and listen carefully to what’s on their minds.

A lot of it has to do with television. It’s so fast-paced. We’re expected to think on our feet and express ourselves quickly in sound bites; rather than have the leisure to think reflectively and explore thoughtfully how we think and feel about things. What a gift it is for someone to sit with you without looking at the clock and take the time to hear you out – to listen interactively – to ask questions and probe and invite you to say more – as if there wasn’t anything more important going on in the world today than being there for you.

When you have a lot of things on your mind and need someone to talk to – someone who’ll take the time to listen and respond and be there for you – who do you call? Well, as you put together your list of simple gifts, be sure to put their names close to the top, for the gifts of a caring presence and a listening ear are two of the most valuable gifts you’ll ever received. Leo Buscaglia says,

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile,
a kind word, a listening ear,
an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring,
all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

There’s no end to the simple gifts for which we have to be thankful, but, before we close, let me add to the list the gifts of faith, hope and love. Make no mistake about it – they’re gifts, pure and simple. They can only be received freely – as gifts – and not obtained by any other means.

That’s always been a mystery for me: Why it is that, say, in a healthy Christian family one child comes to believe in God and live by faith, while another doesn’t have a clue? The sad truth is some get it, and some don’t, and I’ve never been able to explain why. I’ve heard any number of anxious parents fret and stew over a child who refused to acknowledge God in any spiritual sense, but I’ve never known what to tell them, except to say things like, “Don’t blame yourself. You did the best you could. Faith is a gift. Trust God to bestow it in time, if God so chooses.”

In the meantime, if you’ve been given even a mustard-seed size faith and are able to believe in God and know in your heart that God loves you and cares for you and that God’s will for your life is good and perfect in every way, be thankful. It’s a simple gift, but it makes all the difference in how you yourself in relation to the whole of God’s creation. Nowhere is this stated more beautifully than in the song, I Believe. It goes like this:

“I believe for every drop of rain that falls
A flower grows.
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night
A candle glows.
I believe for everyone who goes astray,
Someone will come to show the way.
I believe, I believe.

I believe above the storm a smallest prayer
Will still be heard.
I believe that someone in the great somewhere
Hears every word.
Every time I hear a newborn baby cry,
Or touch a leaf, or see the sky,
Then I know why, I believe.”

To have faith is to be optimistic and be hopeful, whatever the situation or circumstance you’re facing. The writer of Hebrews put it this way:

“Now faith is assurance of things hoped for,
proof of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

So, we have faith and hope, but what makes it all worthwhile is the gift of love.

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When Kathy and I first started getting to know each other, we found that we had a lot in common. We shared similar values and views. We enjoyed doing the same things. We were compatible in every way. But would we ever grow to love each other? That was the question. You can work together and play together and pray together and help each other in every possible way, but it only counts in the long run if you love one another. Paul put it this way:

“If I speak with the languages of men and of angels,
but don’t have love,
I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal…
If I dole out all my goods to feed the poor,
and if I give my body to be burned,
but don’t have love, it profits me nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Love is the basis of every good and perfect gift; it’s the root of life abundant and eternal. And the greatest expression of love there ever has been or ever will be is found in the person of Jesus Christ. John 3:16 sums it up nicely:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish,
but have eternal life.”
(John 3:16)

Jesus lived and died for the forgiveness of our sins, and he rose from the dead that we might share in the promise of eternal life. Paul makes it clear – we did nothing to deserve it. He says,

“But God commends his own love toward us,
in that while we were yet sinners,
Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Love is a gift, pure and simple. You can’t earn it, manufacture it, manipulate it or coerce it in any way. All you can do is receive it humbly and graciously when it’s offered … and be thankful.

As you sit down with your family and friends this Thursday to celebrate Thanksgiving, be thankful for the simple gifts of life. The fact that you can taste the turkey is no small thing. Nor is the fact that the people sitting at the table love you dearly. Invite Christ to bless you with his presence, and praise God from whom all blessings flow. Happy Thanksgiving!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Copyright 2010, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.