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God of Gratitude

By Kevin Johnson

Stock family working on crafts together

Scripture: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (NIRV)

15 The tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were whispering among themselves. They said, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 Then Jesus told them a story.

“There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger son spoke to his father. He said, ‘Father, give me my share of the family property.’ So the father divided his property between his two sons.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son packed up all he had. Then he left for a country far away. There he wasted his money on wild living. 14 He spent everything he had. Then the whole country ran low on food. So the son didn’t have what he needed. 15 He went to work for someone who lived in that country. That person sent the son to the fields to feed the pigs. 16 The son wanted to fill his stomach with the food the pigs were eating. But no one gave him anything.

17 “Then he began to think clearly again. He said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough food! But here I am dying from hunger! 18 I will get up and go back to my father. I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven. And I have sinned against you. 19 I am no longer fit to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.” ’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him. He was filled with tender love for his son. He ran to him. He threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattest calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 This son of mine was dead. And now he is alive again. He was lost. And now he is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “The older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants. He asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come home,’ the servant replied. ‘Your father has killed the fattest calf. He has done this because your brother is back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry. He refused to go in. So his father went out and begged him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve worked like a slave for you. I have always obeyed your orders. You never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But this son of yours wasted your money with some prostitutes. Now he comes home. And for him you kill the fattest calf!’

31 “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me. Everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad. This brother of yours was dead. And now he is alive again. He was lost. And now he is found.’ ”

When you find yourself in the space where the world currently finds itself, a place of anxiety, a place where normal seems so far away, what do people of faith do to keep moving forward and to focus on hope? One response that people of faith in ancient times had was practicing rituals. Rituals give people the reminder of God’s promise and an opportunity to trust in the true mystery of faith. The world finds itself in a pandemic, which brings emotions such as fear, anxiety, and worry.

I am amazed that every time I read this parable; I hear a different voice resonating in the story. But in each of the voices, I find the emotion of gratitude. I wonder how the son could give thanks to God when he found himself hungry and without family or friends. I wonder how the father had gratitude each day, looking down the road for his son’s return, hoping today would be the day. I wonder how the “older” son expressed gratitude and gave God thanks in the midst of all that he saw unfold.

I wonder how your family can find a daily opportunity to express gratitude and give God thanks during this crisis.

What do people of faith do to keep moving forward and to focus on hope?

Hearing and seeing how the different characters respond in this parable allows us to open our hearts and minds to the message God brings. It is a message of peace in times of pain. It is a message of hope in times of despair. It is a message of gratitude in selflessness in a time of selfishness. One of the key themes in this parable is the father’s gratitude for the youngest son’s return home. The father’s attitude of gratitude is seen each time we read the parable.

Just as the father demonstrates gratitude in this parable, we too are called to give thanks for all that God has done for us. During this time that people around the world hear words such as pandemic and quarantine, we need to be grateful for the good that God offers. We need to pay attention and focus on what is good in our lives (even if it seems only for a moment). We need to see, feel, and point out God’s presence in our lives. We need to share those moments with others. When we reflect on God’s presence in this parable and in other significant passages of scripture, we recall those moments of the presence of God as holy. These memories are a good place to begin the conversation of identifying our own rituals. These memories of God’s promises of peace in those passages from the Bible help us see, feel, and remember God’s promise to be with us. That promise gives us hope. The power of God’s hope got people in scripture through the dark places, and God’s hope will guide us out of our current darkness.

The practice of the spiritual discipline of gratitude is one way we can focus on God’s hope during these trying times.

Here are some suggestions for a family or faith community with creative, deliberate rituals that focus on gratitude.

  • As a family, take time at the end of each day to share three things that show your gratitude to God. Borrowing from Jimmy Fallon, write three “thank-you” notes and read them out loud. Find some “thank-you writing music” to play while you spend this time in reflection.
  • Take the word G-R-A-T-I-T-U-D-E and give thanks to God for something that begins with each letter of the word. Each family member takes a turn until you have given thanks to God for nine things each day. Make each day different.
  • Set an extra place at the dinner table (chances are this quarantine may allow family dinners to happen again). Have a paper placemat at the table and have every family member write or draw an image of something that shows God your gratefulness. Pray for those things before each meal.
  • Jesus reminds us in John 8:12 that he is the light of the world. “12 Jesus spoke to the people again. He said, ‘I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows me will never walk in darkness. They will have that light. They will have life’ (NIRV).” Jesus’ words remind us that our gratitude to God will bring us out of these dark places that we are experiencing. Place a “light” in a window. Perhaps it is a candle, or a piece of artwork that you create, or even hang some Christmas lights to remind those around our house we are grateful for God and acknowledge God guides us out of darkness.
  • Similarly, create a door hanger with this Scripture passage; “But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord (NiRV).” Joshua 24:15. Place the door hanger on the front door of your house as a reminder to the community around you of an expression of gratitude towards God.
  • Create a list (use those cell phones and tablets that kids can’t put down) of the things you are grateful for, so you and your family can always remember God’s many blessings, even in the midst of sorrow, pain, loss, and/or grief.
  • Encourage each family member to find a Bible story or verse of scripture that reminds them of their gratefulness of God. Memorize the verse. Sing “Thy Word is a Lamp unto my Feet and a Light unto my Path” (Search for the Amy Grant song on YouTube if you are unfamiliar with the refrain) in unison to begin this prayer time. Individually say your verse, then collectively respond with Psalm 119:105 in unison again. Take these moments for grateful reflection and worship.
  • Begin a family journal by leaving a notebook in a central location and write your daily words of gratitude. You might consider hanging a large poster-sized paper on a wall of your home and have family members add words as they pass by the wall. Some homes even have chalkboard painted walls or refrigerators that have built-in tablets to add notes. Create a family text group to continue journaling conversation. Be creative to your unique situation but continue the discussion with each other to express gratitude.

Weekly Wondering Questions

I Wonder...

  • What you are grateful for?
  • How do the things you see on the news make you remember God’s peace?
  • How do the things you hear about the ones who are infected remind you of God’s comfort?
  • How do the things you feel about the situation make you remember Jesus’ words of bringing light to a dark world?
  • How do you know God is with you?
  • Where did you see the hope of God today?
  • What can you do today to show others the light of Christ in a dark world?

Weekly Family Prayer

Loving and Gracious God, we know that the world today is anxious and scared. We give you thanks for your peace during these difficult and strange times. We thank you for the memories of those people of the faith, and we are reminded that you are with each of us and all of us. During this time of quarantine, help us learn how to trust you, love you, and share your love with others. God, be with our families as we spend time together preparing our hearts and minds to notice that you are in this. Give us creative ways to remember and show our love to you, to others in our home, communities, and world. It’s in your holy name, we pray, Amen.

Verses marked NIRV are from New International Reader's Version (NIRV) the Copyright © 1995, 1996, 1998, 2014 by Biblica, Inc.®. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Rev. Kevin Johnson is the Director, Children’s Ministries for Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship at Discipleship Ministries. Kevin’s hero Fred Rogers suggests that we, “listen to the children, learn about them, learn from them. Think of the children first.” This quote defines Rev. Kev’s approach to ministry. Kevin, an ordained elder of the Kentucky Annual Conference, has over fifteen years of ministry experience in which he has thought of the children first. Prior to ministry, Kevin worked with children in the hospital setting and in group homes for emotionally and physically abused children.

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