Today I’m excited because we are beginning a new series that will help prepare us for the forgotten holiday of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is being gobbled up by Christmas (no pun intended) and I don’t mean Christmas as in the celebration of Jesus’ birth, I mean the mad rush to buy all our of our Christmas gifts in a few days of crazy sales. I heard on the radio this week about stores that were not going to be open on Thursday and I thought, wow, that’s great that they weren’t taking part in this black Friday madness, and then realized, oh wait, they are talking about being closed on Thanksgiving Day. It used to be the big news was if you were going to be open on Thanksgiving but now it is being closed. Thanksgiving is being taken over by the shopping madness of Christmas and with it goes our focus of giving thanks.
This month we are going to learn once again how to give thanks and we are going to use a series of Psalms which many believe were written to prepare people to give thanks. The scriptures are the 15 Psalm between Psalm 120 – 134 and they are known as The Psalms of the Ascent. We believe these psalms were written to be used by the people of Israel as they made yearly trips to Jerusalem. Three times each year, faithful Jews were to travel to Jerusalem to worship God – they went to give thanks. They were to go for the feast of the Passover, where they remembered and gave thanks for God’s deliverance of his people from captivity. They were to go for the festival of Pentecost which came in the spring at the time of the first fruits so they were thanking God for providing them with food and they were to go for the festival of Tabernacles. This festival had two meanings, the first was to remember and give thanks for how God had led his people through the wilderness where all they had to live in where temporary shelters or tabernacles, and the second was to give thanks for the harvest because this festival came in the fall.
So three times a year the people of Israel were to leave their homes and travel to Jerusalem to gives thanks to God and no matter where they came from, this journey was a climb because the city of Jerusalem is in the mountains. Jerusalem sits on what is known as Mount Zion and it is surrounded some slightly higher hills like Mt. Scopus and the Mt of Olives, which is where this classic picture of Jerusalem is taken from.
It doesn’t matter where you traveled from in all of Israel, the trip to Jerusalem involved a climb or an ascent and because these psalms were used by the people to encourage them on their journey they became known as the Psalms of the Ascent.
As we read the psalms we not only find lessons on gratitude, but we can also see the spiritual journey of God’s people. That journey begins with Psalm 120:1. This is where they journey starts and it starts before any physical move is made; it starts when people call on the name of the Lord. Whether it is good times or bad, any spiritual journey begins when we call on God who hears us and welcomes us.
Psalm 121:1-2. From calling out to God we now turn and look for God and while it says the people looked to the hills for help, or to Jerusalem, they knew their help wasn’t in the hills or in the city but in the God who the people believed in that city. By looking to Jerusalem they were looking to God for help.
Psalm 122:1. Here they prepare for the journey and what we learn is that it is not a solitary trip, it is a trip of families, extended families and even entire communities – Let US go up to the house of the Lord. And then look at 122:2. OUR feet are standing in your gates. And again in Psalm 122:4. This is where the TRIBES or where all the people gather to praise God. From this psalm we learn our first lesson in living a life of gratitude, we need to listen to others. The trip Israel made to Jerusalem was made by families and friends and communities who listened to one another as they made their way and in travelling together and listening to one another on the way, they learned to give thanks.
We are losing the ability to listen to one another today. Studies show that while we spend 60% of our time listening, we only retain 25% of what we hear. There are several reasons why we don’t listen well. One reason is that we have become dependant upon other means of communication like writing and audio and video recording. If we know we can go back and listen to it again, why do we need to really listen the first time? It’s also hard to listen in the midst of all the noise that takes place in our world today. We are bombarded by noise everywhere we go and in the midst of it all it becomes difficult to listen to what is ultimately important.
We also have shorter and shorter attention spans so that instead of listening to complete and complex thoughts and ideas we only listen for the sound bites and only read the pull quotes. We see this at work in all the political debates we see these days. We don’t give politicians the time they need to state their plans and positions and when it’s over people just analyze the sound bites. We are also becoming desensitized to what we hear so that to capture anyone’s attention we need to hear things that are more and more shocking or graphic. What used to shock us doesn’t anymore which means that we pay less attention to it – we stop listening.
So why is listening to others so important? It’s important because listening creates understanding. Listening helps create healthier communities. Listening helps us solve our problems and grow together and this unity and community pleases God and God’s pleasure brings forth God’s blessing. Look at Psalm 133.
It pleases God when his people live together in unity. It is good and pleasing to God when we listen to one another, understand one another and help one another. When we are willing to live in this kind of community it’s like dew falling in Jerusalem (which remember is a very dry region) which is a blessing and God bestows even more blessings than unity and community, he brings life forevermore.
So it honors God when we listen to one another because the respect we show others in listening unites us and listening to others leads us to a life of gratitude. One of the great privileges of being a pastor is getting to listen to others and hear the life stories of so many diverse people. While I was in seminary, I was the chaplain for some low income senior housing and I often went to read the Bible to woman who was blind. After I would read, she would share stories with me about her life. She was a descendant of slaves and she told me stories about the night her grandparents or great-grandparents were told that they were finally free. She talked about the joy and fear they experienced as they left plantations and moved to new communities to live as free men and women. I was in awe in listening to her family’s story and was so appreciative for the opportunity to know her and share with her. I was also so thankful for the life I had and that I didn’t have to go through the same struggles and I was grateful that while we still have our problems, slavery was overcome in our nation.
I have listened to many veterans talk about their time of service and just last year was able to hear from John Leiter Sr. talk about storming the beaches of Normandy. Again, it was in listening to others that I learned to give thanks for what I had and the time in which I grew up. I have talked to countless people who survived the depression and listened to my own grandparents talk about all they had to do to get through those difficult days. Listening to others teaches us to appreciate what we have and it moves us to appreciate those around us even more. When we hear stories of faith and how God helped others through the past it not only strengthens our faith but it moves us to praise and thank God for who God is and what God has done.
This is what I picture taking place on the journey of God’s people to Jerusalem year after year. They told stories about how God helped them in the past and those stores where shared with each new generation, and think about the stories they could tell. Abraham was one of the first to make a journey up Mt. Zion to the area that we call Jerusalem and he went because God told him to go and make a sacrifice of his son Isaac. Abraham went in faith trusting God to provide and at the very last moment God did provide and spared Isaac by provided a lamb. Can’t you picture that story being told to young children year after year?
Or the story of Jacob who wrestled with God and we believe that was in the area of Mt. Zion, or all the stories of David who made Jerusalem the city of God and moved the ark of the covenant into the city, and then the stories of Solomon who built the Temple. So many great stories which all pointed to God and all called for the people to give thanks and praise to God.
Listening to others, really listening to the life stories and faith of others leads us to places of deep gratitude not only for God but for those God has placed in our lives and as we make our journey to thanksgiving we need to take time to listen – to really listen. As we visit with family and friends we need to listen to stories and gain wisdom. We need to learn from others and share with others and give thanks together.
While it is getting more difficult to listen these days, we are not teaching people how to listen and there are some things we can do to improve our listening skills and I want to share a few with you. These come from Julian Treasure in a TED Talk from July 2011 that I encourage you to listen to. The first thing he says we need is silence. Each day create 3 minutes of silence. Maybe it’s in the morning when the children are gone, or sitting at your desk before lunch, or a walk around the block in the afternoon. Simply find 3 minutes of silence because silence helps us listen better.
Second, learn to identify all the sounds in the midst when you are in a noisy place. Julian Treasure calls this mixing. If you are taking a walk, listen for the cars, or the airplanes, or the sound of the wind. If you are at the mall, identify the music on the PA system, listen to the voices of the people around you and the sounds of people moving. At work, listen and identify all the different sounds you hear as people come and go. Being able to identify and name one voice or track in a busy place helps you listen more carefully when you are talking to someone in a crowd.
Third, savor the mundane sounds you hear every day. Maybe it’s the chimes on the clock in the hall, or the laughter of children in the neighborhood or the wind through the trees or the roar of an engine. For me, I’m going to tune into the coffee pot making coffee each morning while I lie in bed waking up because it is an awesome sound.
And there is what Treasure calls R.A.S.A. which stands for Receive, Appreciate, Summarize, Ask. These are standard practices used in good listening skills. We first need to receive the message and then we need to express our appreciation for the message and the messenger. Then we summarize what they have said and last, we ask questions to get more information and make sure we have heard the message accurately. This active listening skill will not only draw more information from people but will make them feel more valuable and important which builds unity and community and causes us all to be grateful. These four skills can help us listen better and in their own way they also open the door for more gratitude and praise.
Let me close by saying that we not only need to listen to those people God has placed in our lives but we also need to listen to those who have gone before us. In Hebrews 12 it talks about this great cloud of witnesses who surround us and these are the saints who have gone before us and they can keep encouraging us but only if we will listen to them. We need to stop and listen to the advice of our parents and grandparents who are no longer with us but whose lives of faith and words of love still shape us. What kind of things did they share with us through the years? What was important to them and what lessons have we learned from them? The more we listen to them the more grateful we become for them and for their love and influence in our lives. We named the saints this year from Faith Church and I am thankful for the lessons each of them taught me, lessons about dedication, service, family and faith. I am grateful for their witness and grateful that God has welcomed them home. They can still teach me about gratitude.
So as it says in James 1:19, let us be quick to listen. Let us listen to others so that we can live lives of gratitude.
Living the Life of Gratitude ~ Listening to Others
1. On this All Saints Day, who are the saints who have gone before you that you are grateful for? What are their lessons of life and faith that you need to listen to this week? Write them down and share them with others.
2. Read Psalm 122 and Psalm 133. Reflect on how they encourage us to listen to others. Identify how listening to others can help you live a life of gratitude on your faith journey.
3. To improve your listening, practice these listening skills. (Taken from the Julian Treasure TED Talk, July, 2011, available at www.TED.com)
Create 3 minutes of silence (or quiet) every day.
Learn to identify all the channels or voices that you hear in a noisy place.
Savor the mundane sounds you hear every day. List three sounds you will pay attention to and
listen to them each day.
Practice the good listening skills of RASA
Receive the message someone is giving
Appreciate the message and the messenger
Summarize the message
Ask questions to clarify
4. To read through all the Psalms of the Ascent during this series, read Psalm 125 and 127 this week.
What lessons of life and faith do you learn from these psalms?
How might they have helped people on their journey to worship God in Jerusalem?
How can they help you?