“Filtering for the Wonderful”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On November 24th, 2013
I have chosen as our scripture lesson for this morning, the Sunday before our national holiday of Thanksgiving, a well-known passage from the 4th chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Paul is writing to the first congregation he helped establish on European soil. The letter is filled with joy and appreciation. He speaks earlier in the letter of his sense of partnership with them and he calls them to have the same mind in them that was in Christ Jesus. Near the end of his letter he gives them this advice. Pay particular attention to what he says about the peace of God and the God of peace. And, of course, to what he says about thanksgiving.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
My younger daughter Martha, who is in her first semester at UVa, is taking a class there called Introduction to Perception through the psychology department. A few weeks ago she excitedly told me about a video clip the professor showed in class. As she started her story, I knew I’d seen the clip before— I’d even mentioned it in an Easter sermon several years ago. But this week of Thanksgiving it bears revisiting. The video depicts six people, three in black shirts, three in white shirts, passing basketballs. At the beginning of the clip, a voice asks the viewer to count how many times the people in white pass a basketball. It turns out the answer is 15.
Martha was telling me about this, and then she said, (and I knew what was coming) “Dad, I was so focused on counting the passes that I didn’t even see the person in the gorilla suit walk right through the middle of the game. The gorilla even stopped in the middle and beat his chest.”
Now the invisible gorilla experiment was first done by some researchers to demonstrate that what you focus on, what you expect, in large part determines what you see. If you’re too focused on counting the passes, you don’t see the gorilla. But once you know that the gorilla walks through the middle of the game, you can’t miss seeing it, however many times you watch it again, even if you are still counting the number of passes.
What you focus on, what you expect, determines what you see. If you look for the good in someone or something, you’re more likely to notice it. If you look for the awful, you’re more likely to notice that. If you look for the good in life, you’re more likely to notice it. If you look for the bad, you’re more likely to notice that. As Nancy Stansberry told the kids in our Moment for Young Disciples earlier, “As you go through life, let this be your goal: Look for the doughnut and not for the hole.” If you’re looking for the doughnut, you’ll find it. If you’re looking for the hole, you’ll see nothing.
Not too long ago a fellow pilgrim on the journey of faith introduced me to a twist on this concept. He calls it installing filters. Typically I’ve thought of filters in terms of regulating what comes out—out of our mouths, out of our keyboards. That too, is a handy use of the idea of a filter, by the way, (and not a bad one to remember as you gather with relatives and friends around the Thanksgiving table or in an internet thread). We joke about people no longer having any filters, particularly as they grow older. They just say exactly what’s on their mind, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Yes, there’s something liberating about that. But there is a need for some filtering of what comes out of us.
However, my friend was talking about filters in terms of sorting what comes in, what you focus on, what you pay attention to. Sensing a bit of heaviness in my spirit, my friend told me about this filter idea. He said, “Have you tried filtering for, sorting for the wonderful? For the joy, the possibility, the beauty, the God, even in the worst of life? If you’re looking for the crummy stuff, the awful, you can find it. And I’m not suggesting that you ignore it. It will always be there. But if you spend all of your time focusing on the crummy stuff, you will miss so much of the good, the wonderful, the sweet. Try sorting for, filtering for, that. Look for that,” he said.
Now to be fair, I don’t think I walk around with a cloud over my head. Nor do I think that I’m oblivious to what God is doing in the world. But anxiety can creep in to my life. Anxiety comes when you begin by judging circumstances rather than accepting them as a beginning point and working from there. Anxiety comes when you focus more on what you perceive to be the problem than on what the solution might be. Anxiety comes when we focus on what seems wrong, rather than what is going right. .
So many of us who pay careful attention to what’s going on in the world can lapse into anxiety. We can begin to feel so responsible for everything, so overwhelmed by the brokenness in people’s lives, the pain and the illness, the heartache, not to mention the injustice and violence in the world. You don’t have to be a pastor, a social worker, or a therapist to relate. You just have to be human, for God’s sake.
So there are times when a little perspective comes in handy. Perspective is all about what you focus on. Is it all about you, or is it about something and Someone beyond you? Filtering for the wonderful isn’t being Pollyanna. It is looking for the joy even in the sorrow, the possibility in the middle of the pain, the opportunity in the challenge, the hope, the certainty of meaning, even when it seems all is lost. It’s about remembering that God is God, and guess what, you are not and neither am I.
It’s about remembering that the one whom Isaiah called Wonderful Counselor is present in the midst of life, all of life. And that as Martha Whitney reminded us in her Real World, Real Faith talk last week: God is good, all the time. And all the time, God is good. That’s not always easy to remember because life brings its share of grief and anxiety to us all. But it’s a matter of attention. It’s a matter of where we choose to focus.
That’s what the Apostle Paul was trying to say in his letter to the Philippians, I think. Writing from a prison cell, now get that, writing from a prison cell, he was encouraging those people he loved to pay attention to their filters.
“Have no anxiety about anything,” he wrote, “But in everything by prayer and supplication with Thanksgiving—with a genuine gratitude—let your requests be made known to God….” Gratitude has a way of directing our attention away from anxiety and into appreciation and wonder. Try it, seriously, try it. Being thankful reminds us that it is not all about us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that great German Lutheran pastor who was executed in a concentration camp during World War II, wrote from the perspective of someone whose days were not all sweetness and light. He faced genuine hardship and persecution for standing up for others who were in danger. His thoughts on gratitude, therefore, have a resonance beyond what mine can yet achieve. In a letter from prison, Bonhoeffer wrote: “In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.”
That’s why it is such a good discipline to name, out loud, the people and things for which we’re grateful. Try it at the Thanksgiving table this year. If you don’t already do it, try it.
In this month’s issue of the NCP Monthly, our presbytery’s newsletter, I encouraged readers to make an alphabet of gratitude, a practice I learned from my mom. Go through each letter of the alphabet and write down the names of people, places, and things for which you are grateful. Not things you have accomplished. Not achievements or possessions about which you can boast. But people, places and things which remind you that when it comes right down to it, we rely on the love and support of God and others, no matter what our circumstances happen to be. Gratitude is a way of filtering for the wonderful. I was so glad when I received an email from Leathia Swann, one of our sisters at Garden Memorial, and she said, “Aaron, I read your article, and we’re going to do that around our Thanksgiving table this year. We’re going to have the children and grandchildren do that with us.”
To bring the point home about filters, Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise, think on these things. Sort for these things. And the peace of God will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
It seems silly that those of us who have so much need to be reminded to look for and appreciate the wonderful in life when there are so many people who have so little materially who are so full of gratitude, who see such wonder, who feel the peace of God in ways we can’t seem to muster.
You’ve met them on mission trips to West Virginia or Guatemala or Peru or Honduras. The joy and peace they exude is humbling, convicting even. Meanwhile, we who have much worry and stress about so much.
Someone pointed to me to a devotional written by a friend of hers, Lysa TerKeurst.[i] It goes like this:
My son Jackson wrote a paper about the corruption and greed that caused the civil war in his native land. But Jackson wasn’t just explaining a historical event – he lived in the midst of the horrific conditions of this war. You see, for the first 13 years of his life, Jackson lived in a forgotten orphanage in the third world country of Liberia, Africa.
During one part of the paper, he described what it felt like to be naked digging through the trash looking for the treasure of thrown-away food.
The treasure of thrown-away food.
I can hardly type those words without crying, she wrote. This is my son.
And yet, despite the horrific conditions of his childhood, there was an unexplainable thread of peace woven through his recollection of the story. A powerful peace centered in the awareness of God’s presence.
The truly thankful person is a truly peaceful person. They have made a habit no matter what, to notice, pause, and choose.
Noticing something for which to be thankful no matter their circumstance.
Pausing to acknowledge this something as a reminder of God’s presence.
Choosing to focus on God’s presence until God’s powerful peace is unleashed.
Will we be a noticer? A pauser? A chooser? A person of thanksgiving no matter what circumstance we’re facing?
She went on:
I find this truth about the power of thanksgiving over and over in Scripture. What was the prayer Daniel prayed right before being thrown in the lion’s den and witnessing God miraculously shutting the lion’s mouths? Thanksgiving.
After three days in the belly of a fish, what was the cry of Jonah’s heart right before he was finally delivered onto dry land? Thanksgiving.
How are we instructed to pray in Philippians 4:6 when we feel anxious? With thanksgiving.
And what is the outcome of each of these situations where thanksgiving is proclaimed? Peace. Powerful, unexplainable, uncontainable peace.
“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7 NIV).
She concludes by writing:
One of Webster’s official definitions of thanksgiving is: “a public acknowledgment or celebration of divine goodness.” I wonder, she writes, how we might celebrate God’s divine goodness today?
I have an idea. One of the ways we celebrate God’s divine goodness, (today, today in this space, in this hour) is through the sacrament of baptism (and the reception of new members).
In a few moments we’re going to be acknowledging and celebrating God’s divine presence in Becky Paynter’s life. She’s MC and Bill’s granddaughter, she’s Kennedy and Lynn’s daughter. She’s Rick and Kennedy’s sister. But more important than all of that, as important as all of that is, Becky is a child of God.
Becky was not baptized as a baby, a child, or a teen. She’s never been baptized. When she told me she wanted to be baptized, I was delighted. How often do we get to do adult baptisms around here? It happens from time to time, but not that often.
So I talked with her about what baptism means. It’s not a ritual ceremony of purification that makes us right with God, it is an acknowledgement of what God has already done, how God already views us. We are not suddenly loved because we are baptized, we’ve been loved and cherished and viewed as God’s own all the way along and that’s something for which to be grateful.
Baptism is a public celebration of God’s divine goodness. A way for Becky and all of us to express our gratitude and commitment to the one who has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age.
That means when life goes according to our plan, and when life doesn’t. When people meet our expectations and when they fail us in unimaginable ways. When we’re in tremendous pain and when we can’t help but sing for joy. In our deepest anxiety and in our fullest praise. God is present.
Baptism you see, reminds us, to filter for the wonderful. And what’s more wonderful than the way God’s love is at work in the world? What’s more wonderful than to be part of that work, in the good times and in the bad times? In Jesus’ name. Amen.
[i] Lysa TerKeurst “The Treasure of Thrown Away Food”, November 21st, 2013, copyright, Proverbs 31 Ministries on-line devotions.