Staying Focused

Staying Focused

Thanksgiving and Praise

Of David.
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
   before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
   and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;
   for you have exalted your name and your word above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me,
   you increased my strength of soul.

All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord,
   for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
   for great is the glory of the Lord.
For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly;
   but the haughty he perceives from far away.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
   you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies;
you stretch out your hand,
   and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
   your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.
Psalm 138 (NRSV)

Sun Behind the CloudsI wonder, have you ever been on a hike or an extra-long walk somewhere? I want you to take a minute to think about what it was like. Where did you go? Who were you with? Were you in a new place, or was it somewhere you’d been before?

I find that sometimes when you go on a hike or a long walk, the world seems to stop and you are surrounded by the beauty of nature. Have you ever had that happen? You just to stop and take a deep breath, taking in the scenery and appreciating the beauty all around you, and it’s amazing and awe-inspiring! But there are also times on a hike that you start to feel tired. Your feet and legs get sore. Your breathing gets heavy. The path seems to be endless, or you reach a steep incline or even a rock wall that you are unsure that you can navigate, and you start to question whether or not you’re going to make it.

Often in those moments, I find that I lose sight of the beauty all around me and, instead of appreciating the simple sounds of nature and the fresh clean air that surrounds me, I start to get weighed down by my doubt, my frustration, my tiredness, basically, the struggle within me. But did the world around me change at that moment? Did the birds stop singing and the wind stop blowing gently through the trees? No, my focus simply changed and I started to pay more attention to my struggle, my fear, my frustration, and my doubt, than to the beauty and joy around me.

Friends, this kind of focus change happens to us all the time. It’s not only when we are out in nature on a hike. It’s every minute of every day. The truth is, it is always up to us to decide what to let in. We decide what to focus on in our lives, and we decide the choices to make in response to what we are feeling.

Many times when we read the psalms, especially the words of a psalm of thanksgiving, we hear words of joy and thanksgiving and praise. And that is a wonderful thing. Now in today’s message, we could have focused simply on the goodness of God’s grace, the amazing gifts that we are given, and what a wonderful world we live in. After all, we like to hear about good things, don’t we? It’s would be a lot nicer and feel a lot better to always talk about praising and giving thanks instead of suffering and facing hard times, wouldn’t it? But friends, in life, I can guarantee you that there will be amazing days, filled with sunshine and gentle breezes and singing birds, but there will also be days when it rains – days when those gentle breezes become damaging winds and the sound of those singing birds becomes the voices of people around you gossiping and complaining and the voices of judgement and unrealistic expectation coming from the world around you. But through it all, I always want you to always remember that even in the midst of a storm, the sun is still shining behind the clouds.

In today’s reading from the book of Psalms, the writer talks about his life. He reflects on the moments when he gives thanks to God with all his heart and the times that he sings out praises to God. He celebrates the good things that God has done: listening to him, answering him, guiding him, surrounding him with safety, teaching him and leading him to do good works. Now the psalm could have ended there, and everyone would be filled with happy feelings of joy and goodness, of wholeness, and praise and thanksgiving. But the psalmist knew that just like when you go on a challenging hike, life isn’t only about the experiencing the good times. It’s not only about knowing that God is with you on the sunny days when you feel the gentle breezes and hear the singing birds. But it’s also about facing the tough times and knowing that God is still with you. It’s about facing the struggle and the pain and the suffering of the world and having the ability to focus on the grace and the joy and the love of God, even in the midst of it.

As the psalmist says: Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me. 

Friends, sometimes it seems as though the world is crashing down around us. Sometimes it seems like everything is broken and hurt and suffering. But when that happens, I want you to think back to that hike that we talked about earlier today, remembering that the world hasn’t changed. God doesn’t change. Our circumstances at the moment may, and our focus definitely does, but it’s up to us to decide what we are going to focus on, what we are going to let in, and how we are going to react.

Folks, I want you to remember that in the deepest darkest times of our lives when we feel the most frustrated and stressed and sad and alone that God is always there. God never leaves us! Now we may have a hard time feeling and knowing God’s presence, not because God is absent, but because our focus has changed and our attention is being brought to the struggle and the pain rather than the joy and the grace and the beauty all around us. But always remember that the sun is still shining even behind the clouds.

My friends, you are surrounded by gifts and grace, peace and joy and love, even in the midst of your stress and struggle. And God continues to love you and guide you and hold you even in the midst of your pain when you feel so lost and alone.

So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your busy week ahead, remember to praise God and to focus on giving thanks even in the midst of your pain and struggle. Look for the rainbow in the midst of the dark sky, because the sun is still shining. And reach out to others, sharing God’s justice and mercy and love, not telling them how they should live or what they should do, but simply mirroring the unconditional love of God for them so that they too might find light in the midst of their darkness.

My friends, may it be so, thanks be to God. Amen!

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