Finding Gratitude @UUP 11-20-16
Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude, and I have found that over time the thing about life that I am most grateful for is laughter. Laughter keeps us going I think. It can call attention to some of the absurdities of life in a way that helps us cope when reality doesn’t live up to our expectations. And how often does that happen? Even the Thanksgiving meal doesn’t always turn out perfectly. Sometimes the pies are burnt, and sometimes the conversations around the table can be hurtful. I know some of us may be facing awkward family situations over the holidays. If that is true for you, please know that we are holding you and feel free to call a friend or your minister for emotional support, debriefing, or just to rant a bit. Holidays can be hard. There is always some sadness among the fun. We miss people that have died, loneliness can be worse if we don’t have a family with which to share holidays. So, all of you, if you have space at your table, invite someone who might be alone. And if you are alone, and don’t want to be, call someone and offer to bake some pies. If they are slightly burnt, who cares? Sometimes we have to work to create joy in our lives. Put a stone in the pot, keep the faith, and we can find ways to be fed together.
We are taught to count our blessings, to cultivate gratitude. This is a good thing in many ways, and it is part of the task of religious community to remind us to celebrate, to savor the good times, to appreciate beauty, to rest easy, and to simply let the love that surrounds us enter into our hearts and our souls. When we are truly aware of all the gifts we have received, we can be filled with a sense of abundance, a sense of generosity.
For myself, there are many things that I feel grateful for, things that are gifts in the sense that they are not things that I necessarily earned or was owed somehow.
I am grateful that I am alive.
I am grateful for my wife Anne, who for more than 41 years has stood by me, comforting me when I have been sick or sad and always calling me back to honest self-awareness when I am in danger of losing that important connection.
I am grateful for our three adult children and all they have taught me about life and about patience and letting go.
I am grateful for my education, for the opportunity to engage ideas.
I am grateful for the chance to have led a productive life when I worked for Social Security, for helping those that needed help.
I am grateful for the work of ministry, work that seems so close sometimes to the very meaning of life, and may be the exact reason that I am on this planet at all.
I am grateful for all of you. To look out on your faces this morning is a blessing indeed.
The list could go on. I am thankful for the flowers and trees, the sunsets, the mountains and rivers, friends, good food to eat, small kittens to hold, and for lessons I have learned. It is important to be grateful for the truly wonderful things and people in our lives, those that remind us how precious life is, those that inspire awe, that call us to reverence, and to humility. These are blessings in every sense of the word and it is easy to be thankful for them.
But things, and people, don’t have to be perfect for us to feel gratitude for them. And sometimes the less than ideal is even better. Sometimes folks have a better time laughing at a partially raw turkey on Thanksgiving Day than they would in a tense atmosphere at a gourmet meal. It is much better, I think, to have small children around than not, even if they sometimes spill things. Adults spill too and the tablecloth should always be much less important than the guests.
To really cultivate gratitude means to look for the positives in those less than perfect situations. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make things nice. The undercooked turkey usually only happens once in the lifetime of all but the most disastrous cooks. We should be grateful that we are able to learn from our mistakes. I only carved into a raw turkey once.
Gratitude can also help us accept the things we cannot change. It matters how we look at things, and I am talking about more than the old glass empty/ glass full dichotomy. It also isn’t about blind optimism or simply looking for a silver lining to a dark and dangerous cloud. I am not sure that the recent election results have much of a silver lining at all.
When we accept reality, however, both the good parts and the bad, we may also grow more grateful, and so appreciate the good things more.
Ill health will come to us all with time, especially if we are lucky enough to live until old age. I love the following poem by May Sarton. She calls it
Friend or Enemy
I can look
At my body
As an old friend
Who needs my help,
Or an enemy
Who frustrates me
In every way
With its frailty
And inability to cope.
I shall try
To be of comfort to you
To the end.
Sarton’s words are so full of love! She is not particularly grateful for the frailty of her aging body, but she loves it, treasures it in fact as a friend.
To cultivate gratitude also does not mean we have to be grateful for everything.
There are many things I am not grateful for. The list is a long one. I am sure you all have your own lists.
Having gratitude does not mean you have to be happy with the way things are. Many of us are outraged at the growth of racism and white supremacy.
Perhaps, though, we can be grateful for the outrage because outrage can provide energy for action, for change. Outrage, by its very nature contains a seed of hope. It is the passive acceptance of evil, of injustice, that is soul killing.
Gratitude is a religious issue. It has to do with reverence and with what we value.
Sometimes appreciating the good things of the world, really valuing them, can lead us to make things better.
The Reverend Doctor Rebecca Parker says that,
“Our society is currently guided by a worldview that is insufficiently grounded in reverence. Religiously, it is a worldview that regards the world itself as trash—a planet that God is soon going to discard in a plan to wipe this world away and create a new one. Economically, the dominant worldview regards human beings as self-interested individuals, motivated only by their personal desire to consume.
And scientifically, it sees existence as devoid of value, atomistic, disconnected, and mechanistic. Such inadequate views are tearing our world to tatters by lack of regard for the communal character of life.”
“We must learn again to live with reverence.” She says, “Reverence is a form of love. It is a response to life that falls on its knees before the rising sun and bows down before the mountains. It puts its palms together in the presence of the night sky and the myriad galaxies and recognizes, as poet Langston Hughes tells us, “beautiful are the stars, beautiful too are the faces of my people.” Reverence greets all humanity as sacred. It genuflects before the splendor of the grass and the magnificence of the trees. It respects the complexity, beauty, and magnitude of creation and does not presume to undo its intricate miracles. Instead, it gives life reverent attention, seeking to know, understand, and cooperate with life’s ways.”
Parker is right. We as a culture have to learn more reverence for life in all of its diverse glory. Learn to be grateful for our lives, for the health of this planet, for our relationships with others. If we learn to recognize these as the blessings they are, to treasure them, then we will work to care for them, to protect them.
Our Unitarian Universalist faith should inspire us to use both our hearts and our minds. To discern the good that is inherent in almost all of life, to treasure life and the world, to refuse to fall victim to the idea that what is not ideal is somehow trash. To cultivate beauty and wholeness, to recognize that our lives are our own and that it is up to us to spend them in ways that reflect appreciation of the miracle, the chance that we have been given to make a difference.
I will end another poem, by Rebecca Parker, particularly fitting in these times.
Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind’s power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
To search for the sources of power and grace;
Native wisdom, healing, and liberation.
More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth
The chorus of life welcoming you.
None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility waiting.
The choice to bless the world is more than act of will,
A moving forward into the world
With the intention to do good.
It is an act of recognition,
A confession of surprise,
A grateful acknowledgment
That in the midst of a broken world
Unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.
There is an embrace of kindness,
That encompasses all life,
And while there is injustice, anesthetization, or evil
There moves a holy disturbance,
A benevolent rage,
A revolutionary love
Protesting, urging insisting
That which is sacred will not be defiled.
Those who bless the world live their life
As a gesture of thanks
For this beauty
And this rage.
Amen and blessed BE