Counting your blessings (Thoughts on John 21)

153 fish. That's a lot of fish.It's also a strangely precise number. We're used to the Bible talking about forty of this or five thousand of that – round numbers that I tend to assume are estimations. It's quite strange to come across a number this precise.I suppose that what the precise number reminds us of is that this is being written by a real person and it is the story as told by someone who really saw it. St Jerome suggested that there were 153 types of fish in the world. Which, unfortunately, is untrue; current estimations are that there are about 20,000 species of fish.

153 is a triangular number.  It is the result of 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13+14+15+16+17.  But I don't think that's why there were 153 fish! There are an infinate number of triangular numbers, and there is something mathematically interesting about every single number so we should never read too much into this sort of thing. When something really great happens, we like to share the details of it with others. It seems to me that is was John is doing here. He's excited about what happened and so he shares the details with his readers.

The other thing that you notice is that – if he knew how many fish there were – then he must have counted them. Counting is an interesting thing. And counting is one of the ways that we identify ourselves. There's the inhumanity of numbering people: like John Val John rejecting being addressed as 24601 when he leaves prison towards the beginning of Les Miserables.

There's the very famous opening of Briget Jones' Diary: “Sunday 26th Feb. 8st 13, alcohol units 2 (excellent), cigarettes 7, calories 3,100 (poor).” We keep count of our weight, of our age, sometimes we even keep count of our grudges. Who hasn't caught themselves yelling – in the midst of an argument - “how many times have I told you . . .?” “How many times do I have to ask you . . .?” And the Bible contains a lot of counting too! Strangely, nobody in the Bible records their weight. But a lot of people are occupied with their age. God, however, doesn't keep count. Whenever ages are mentioned in the Bible, it seems to be in order to emphasise how little God's plans are affected. God doesn't take much account of ages. Easy for Him, of course, to Whom a thousand years are like a day! (Psalm 90:4) Nor does God keep count of grudges! Who can forget Peter's wonderful question “how many times should I forgive my brother?” Peter suggests counting to seven. Jesus moves it up a level: not counting faults, but multiplying forgiveness. (Matthew 18:21-23) “I tell you not seven times but seventy times seven”. After all, if we count other people's faults, then how can we expect God to let ours go? (Luke 6:37 “Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.”) 1 Corinthians 13:5 reminds us that 'love keeps no record of wrongs'. Love does not keep count of grudges or of hurts. Let's not count faults – neither theirs nor ours. If God does not count our faults, then why should we count them? If God has forgotten them and covered them over, hidden them the other side of the sea, then why should we go back, looking for them? Let's not keep count of anyone's faults – neither those of others, nor our own.

Another thing that – particularly as church congregations – we like to count is people. Have you ever asked someone what a service was liked and received a lot of numbers in reply? Twelve people came, the sermon lasted twenty minutes and the whole thing over-ran by ten. Christ assured us that 'wherever two or three were gathered together' He would be here. But, in actual fact, He doesn't keep counting. Christ often comes in person when only one person is there to meet with Him. He meets people alone, He meets people in small gatherings and He meets people in huge stadiums.

Of course, there are times when we must count people. It would be silly to fail to supply enough chairs, or to give out three cups of tea per head. But, counting people doesn't give us a very good picture of what God is really doing. Don't forget that even in Acts, when Luke wishes to convey the excitement of the early, rapid expansion of the church, he doesn't give us the numbers! Don't count heads, count fish. In the story that we read, John was counting. He wasn't counting faults, nor ages, he wasn't even counting people. John counted that this was the third time that they had seen Christ, since He rose again. I wonder what it would look like if any of us tried to count how many times we had seen Christ?

What would we count? Would we count those moments in worship, when we seemed to hear the angels singing alongside us? The days when we'd seen the beauty of creation and it had taken our breath away? The times when others had helped us, been there when we needed it most, prayed with us, given us what we needed, been Christ for us? Would we count the decent sermons we'd heard, the great books that we had read? I have thought about this a bit recently, and I think it might be an interesting way for anyone to while away a little time. How many times have you seen Christ?

It may well be, of course, that you find the exact number impossible to calculate. But, that needn't deter you from the game. We are encouraged to think about Godly things. Phillipians 4:8 “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Counting the number of times that we have seen Christ, must encourage us to set our minds on noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy things! So, it is worth doing, even if we don't expect to find the number.

Again and again throughout the Old Testament, God asks His people to remember what He has done; to remember the many blessings that He has given to them, to remember how He has saved them, to remember Him. John was counting the number of times they had seen Christ, he was counting the number of fish that Christ had helped them catch. He was counting blessings! Something that I have been thinking about a lot recently is the difficulty of counting my blessings. I am not really very good at focussing on the positive. I am better at listing the things that I want than I am at listing the things that I have.

I often catch myself saying 'if only I could have x, then I would be happy, then I would be grateful, then I would be a better person', but if I can't be happy, grateful and a decent person without my latest desire, then I will probably never manage to be those things.

There will never be a time when everything is perfect and we have everything that we want. Gratitude could start right now. I read somewhere that if you only pray one prayer it should be 'thank you'. That's all well and good. But to say merely 'thank you' doesn't really mean very much. When I was a child my mum taught me how to write thank you notes. You should always say thank you for the gift, of course, but then you should tell the giver what is so good about the gift that they have given you. You should tell them what you like about it or what you plan on doing with it. I still do that when I write thank you notes. I don't know if there's any great goodness in my doing so, but I do know that it makes methink more carefully about the gifts that I receive. As I consider what I am going to write, I find myself contemplating the gift and realising how much I do like it.

In fact that is something that's becoming quite a popular idea now. Recent research has shown that active gratefulness (that old saying of 'count your blessings') really does make people happier. People were asked to keep a diary of what they were grateful for – writing down all the things that made them grateful. The experiment was performed by Dr. Robert Emmons (gratitudepower.net/science.htm), who has recently published a book called 'Thanks' which details the positive effects of gratitude.

Counting Blessings versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. The paper includes 3 separate studies, so I will just be able to provide a quick glimpse. More than a hundred adults were all asked to keep a journal, and were randomly assigned to 3 different groups. Group A had to write about things they felt grateful about. Group B about things they found annoying, irritating. Group C about things that had had a major impact on them. 2 out of the 3 different experiments were relatively intense and short term (keeping a daily journal for 2-3 weeks), while one required a weekly entry during 10 weeks. 

Across the 3 different studies we found that people in the gratitude group generally evidenced higher-levels of well-being than those in the comparison conditions, especially when compared to Group B (the one journaling about hassles), but also compared to the "neutral" group.

In the longer study, which ran for 10 weeks, we also saw a positive effect on hours of sleep and on time spent exercising, on more optimistic expectations for the coming week, and fewer reported physical symptoms, such as pain. Additionally, we observed an increase in reported connectedness to other people and in likelihood of helping another person deal with a personal problem.

(from an interview of Dr. Emmons by Davidel the natural health care company)

It would be a real shame if we were all to 'practise gratitude' because we thought that it was a short-cut to happiness. But we know that gratitude is a reasonable response to what God has already done for us. We know also that gratitude is something that the Bible encourages us to practise. And we know that even when we don't feel grateful, it is still right to say thank you.

I am not sure that I really want to live my life as if it were some competition to see how happy I could be. I would rather not focus on my feelings to such an extent that I become inward-looking and self-obsessed.But saying thank you is not about looking inward, it is about looking outward. Gratitude is not about trying to feel satisfied with what we have, it is about saying thank you to God. Practising gratitude is about making an effort to notice what God has given us and saying 'thank you'.One thing that I really liked about the Dr. Emmon's studies was his finding that the people who noted what they were grateful for weekly actually experienced stronger effects than the people who kept their gratitude diaries daily.

Often when we go to church we can find ourselves haranged with a long list of tasks. Daily doses of Bible study, prayer, meditation, five fruit and vegetables are all good and admirable things. I have no doubt that they all do us all good.But, I find it a great relief to be told to do something every now and again. So, that's what I think we can take from this morning. Every now and again, catalogue your fish.