“Grounded in Gratitude”
Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County
November 24, 2013
To recap: we are on a spinning ball, in the middle of space, surrounded by fiery stars and humongous rocks and millions of miles of emptiness. We are here on this planet crammed from one end to the other with all kinds of life: teeming with plants and insects and animals big and small. Including us. We live these lives that are too short, far too short, and yet are long enough for thousands of days of activity and experience and connection. As it happens we have enough food to eat – today at least, and we are not in hospital – today at least. And today, one of those several thousand days of our lives, all too few, we have an opportunity to make the most of our time, to find any one of so many countless ways to fall in love with the world and one another.
I don’t know about you, but for me the only sensible response to all this, other than bewilderment, is to be completely and utterly grateful.
I mean, this is what we got, right? You could wish for more. We all do, sometimes. You can look around, look at other people’s lives, notice what you don’t have. Or you can say, “wow, I’m breathing today. I’m moving my body today. My mind is moving today, I can think about the world, observe its beauty, its wonder. I got enough food today. I got my people around me today.” (and you got us at any rate, whoever else you count as your people.) I got so much. You can usually find a way to be grateful. Because we’re not here very long, in the grand scheme of things, might as well appreciate it.
I’m here to talk about gratitude. This year, it so happens that Thanksgiving and Hanukah, two festivals of gratitude, happen on the same day, so the stars are certainly aligned. I have to warn you that I sometimes repeat sermons; I will probably give this same sermon, or some version of it, when Thanksgiving and Hanukkah next occur together again, in 2070, fifty-seven years from now. You are duly warned.
This year the theme of our services has been living a visionary lifei, and in the first part of that we’ve been talking about ways to grow your soul, individual ways we can live a visionary life. Over the last 7 services we’ve explored having a calling; following your dreams and letting your dreams influence your life; compassion; courage; transformation; memory and the influence of those who have died; moderation and keeping the shape of our vision over time. If you made it to all seven sermons, congratulations, gold star; if not, don’t worry, they are available on my blog, which you can get to on the website.
But today, just in time for the holidays, we’re starting on the second part of living a visionary life. The first part was grow your soul; in the second part the theme is “spirit-led life”. How do we connect with the spiritual – what does it mean to be a spiritual person? Now, as I said in the welcome, we have theists, atheists and agnostics in the congregation, so the answers might certainly vary. But I think as Unitarian Universalists there may be some general aspects to spirituality that a great many of us share.
Today, for example, gratitude. I bet everybody here has felt gratitude in their lives. If you hadn’t, you probably wouldn’t be here. The coffee’s not that good.ii You’ve all felt how amazing it is to be alive, and you felt it so much you just had to share it, and see it reflected in others. It’s one of the universal human feelings you bring here to our community, to our altar of human togetherness.
Galen Guengerich, a UU minister I mentioned last week, suggested that the defining spiritual discipline of Unitarian Universalism should be gratitude.iii Gratitude is the heart of our faith. Judaism has obedience as its center, a deep, spiritual obedience not to human lords but to God. Christianity has love, agape and caritas, as the main way it connects to God; Islam has submission, surrender to God’s loving will. Surrender to love, and obedience to conscience, certainly play a role in our faith, but there is something to be said for gratitude being at the center. Our faith begins with a recognition that to be here at all is an amazing thing. It calls us to appreciate the amazing, fundamental fact of our existence, which we did nothing to deserve, we just started our life.
Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, festivals of gratitude, have a lot in common. Both commemorate a difficult meeting of two cultures. In Thanksgiving it was the Wampanaug and the Pilgrims, near the beginning of a catastrophic period for the various Native American peoples, two centuries during which disease and genocide decimated the population. The candles of Hanukkah were lit after the Jewish people survived the attack of the Seleucids, a mighty empire at that time.
While these were momentous meetings of peoples, both holidays celebrate an occurrence that in the grand scheme of things doesn’t seem so important. Thanksgiving is centered around a meal. One meal among many. In Hanukkah it’s having enough oil to light candles for eight nights. Not exactly deliverance from one’s oppressors, or resurrection, or the birth of God among humankind.
These gratitude festivals start with small things. You don’t need a lot to be grateful. People with next to nothing can be grateful. And often are.
We know gratitude is good for us; study after study describes how the daily or weekly practice of gratitude actually lowers rates of heart disease, stress, has all kinds of benefits. Those who keep a gratitude journal, regularly writing down things they were grateful for, in one study had an marked increase in happiness six months after the study began. It was found many participants kept the practice up years after the study ended. iv
You can always be grateful. You can always start there. The Pilgrims of Thanksgiving and the Jews of Hanukkah had next to nothing. The pilgrims were starving. Many died. The Jews had survived a military assault, but their temple had been utterly desecrated, the spirit of the people was a wreck. And what did they find? Eight tiny candles. Something to celebrate. A light in the darkness. It wasn’t much. It was enough.
Actually, many scholars, including some observant Jews, believe the eight candles story of Hanukkah was a later addition. Why would the Rabbis make up a story about eight candles? Because they didn’t want Hanukah to be about a military victory, about fighting. While the survival of the Jewish people is something to celebrate, the killing of other human beings is nothing to celebrate. One should not make a holiday about such things, argues the rabbinic tradition. And so, the holiday of Hanukkah, a minor holiday in the Jewish tradition, is a holiday of hope, of holding on, of gratitude.
Making gratitude the center of our faith as Unitarian Universalists has appeal for me, but I think both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, if we grapple with them honestly, caution us that gratitude, by itself, is not enough. The Pilgrims were very, very grateful. I believe sincerely grateful. This did not prevent them in participating in the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans. The very people who had allowed them to survive that winter were, as time went on, treated as less than human, and treaty after treaty was broken by the European settlers in their genocidal ambitions for the land. And in Israel, just as here in America, many native peoples are treated as second class citizens, both under the law and in practice.
So being grateful can be the center of our faith, but if our faith is to pursue the cause of justice, it cannot be the whole of it. This is true on the scale of the personal as well as the scale of the national. The slumlord, who invests in the international arms trade, may be very grateful for his lot in life. Indeed, the rich and powerful are often grateful. After all, all the studies say how healthy gratitude is! Being grateful, in and of itself, will not solve the world’s problems.
The practice of basic gratitude, of counting our blessings is important and good and probably necessary for a happy life. But there is, I think a larger gratitude than counting one’s blessings.
You know, I called this sermon grounded in gratitude months ago but then I had to look up what it actually meant? I knew grounded was an electrical term, but my grasp of electronics is – well, Abbey doesn’t even let me near the fuse box. And wisely so. But since I called this sermon “grounded in gratitude”, I learned what electrical grounding is for this sermon, and you know what? I’m so glad I called the sermon this. It’s fascinating.
See, to ground something electrical, like a power grid, means to connect the system with something that can soak up extra electricity. Now that something is usually the earth, because it’s so big, it’s nearby, and it can soak up a lot of electricity. And electrical systems are ground so that they’re safe. If you get a loose wire, extra electricity hanging around the system, and it’s not grounded, well, as soon as you touch any part of it, touch the outlet or whatever, you can get an electric shock. Could be very dangerous. If it’s grounded, it’s much more safe, because hopefully, all that extra energy goes into the earth. It doesn’t zap you, it goes back to the earth. This keeps the whole system running smoothly, and allows it to interact with other systems and with us people.
Now, where am I going with this? You are an electrical system. That’s a metaphor. It also happens to be literally true. Electricity is flowing through you. But as a metaphor, not just electricity, but all kinds of energy, ideas, hopes, dreams, are all flowing through you. The energy of pain and grief and loss is flowing through you too. All this energy has been flowing through you all your life.
The question is, what do you do with it. If you just let it run around loose, it may serve a good purpose. If you’re lucky. Our energy – our dreams, ambitions, hopes – it’s a beautiful thing. Even anger and sadness can serve a beautiful purpose, if we’re lucky.But that’s a big maybe. OR: we could get upset someday and do something really stupid, that we regret for years. Or we could blindly participate in the injustices of the world, the slaughter of native peoples, the growing inequality of wealth, the misuse of our natural resources – all the while being grateful for our little corner of the world. In other words, the energy could come out of the system in any one of thousands of ways.
But to be grounded in gratitude is something different. Being grounded in gratitude is to have a dedicated place for any excess energy, for having somewhere it can go to be useful. And that place is the world. Being grounded in gratitude means we are so grateful for our lives that we are intentionally directing our hopes, dreams, and energy toward the good of the whole earth. What if we had a way of constantly reminding ourselves that we were doing all this for the good of the all? Of getting beyond ourselves? We could say, if we were grounded, “I don’t know for sure if all my wires are connected just right, but you know what – I’m grounded in gratitude, so it’s all going for the good of the whole.”
When I was 15 or 16 I stumbled across a little song written by a singer-songwriter-guitarist called Ed Smith, another guy who liked Jonathan Larson (who wrote the song our choir sang earlier)v died too young. Just happened across his song, he was playing at a folk concert. “I got a tune I can sing, the rhythm Lord you know I love to really swing.” It went on like that for the whole song, about the basic gratitude of having a tune. It doesn’t get much more basic then that. I’ve got a tune. I can sing something, it makes me dance.
The song spoke to me, as a fellow person who likes music. “I got a tune I can sing, the rhythm Lord you know I love to really swing, and I thank you Lord.” It’s the gratitude of having something to offer. It may not be much. The song we have to sing may be pretty simple. But what a gift to be able to sing it.
Here’s the thing. Everything we have, all these gifts, all this energy of love, we have to find a way to give it away somehow. Just let it flow out through us and into the world, be grounded in gratitude. You have to give it away. I’m not saying right away, necessarily. If you have the gift of health, you don’t want to immediately get sick. But are you using that health to bring a meal to someone who needs it. You don’t have to give away your money all at once, but are you using it for the betterment of the world.
And I know, you may have a particular job, a particular family, a particular place in the community. When I say give it away, I don’t mean you have to rearrange your life, necessarily. Whatever job you do, try to make the energy you do it with be for the good of the whole. When you love your family, do it in the direction of global peace. When you go about your day, those small and necessary tasks that make it up, and the extra fun joys you make use of in your free hours, just have the hope and expectation that the overflow of it all will be for the justice of all and the love larger than any of us.
You don’t need to rearrange all the wiring of your life. Whatever your job is, that’s fine. Whoever your friends and family are, whatever your situation, that’s fine. The energy’s gonna flow through you whatever you do with your life. The question is what do we do with it?
And if we make gratitude the heart of our spiritual life, it means we’re so glad to be here that we put our lives in the direction of gratitude. You got a tune you can sing. Be grateful for it. Sing it for everyone. And that will be enough.
iiThe congregation corrected me on this point. Apparently, it is that good. Amen!
vEd Smith’s album available from http://home.earthlink.net/~h2jukebox/edworld.html Our choir sang a song from the incredible musical “Rent” by Jonathan Larsen, “Seasons of Love”, reflecting on how we use the minutes of a year.