Thanksgiving may be the holiday from perdition for nutritionists and my fading waistline, and it produces plenty of war stories dealing with the fact that Aunt Martha can’t hold her gin like she used to, the newly self-proclaimed vegetarian at the table is considered too exotic for your crowd, you are no sooner in the door and your mother says, “Oh that’s how we are wearing our hair now, and a whole host of other family meltdowns. But this has recently become the favorite banquet of those studying the consequences of giving thanks. Developing an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, less anxiety and depression, higher satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others. I recently read a study from the University of Kentucky that shows that feeling grateful makes people less aggressive when provoked, which helps explain why we might survive Thanksgiving without serious injury. But what if you’re not the grateful sort? Author Alex balk tells us “When your relatives force you to look at photos on their phones, be grateful they no longer have access to a slide projector. When your relatives expound on politics, be grateful that they do not hold an elected office. Instead of focusing on the dry, tasteless turkey on your plate, be grateful the six-hour roasting process kills any bacteria.”
Our small group ministry groups have been working with the notion of gratitude this month. Working to define and understand it. Why gratitude? Gratitude refers not only to the gratitude that arises following help from others but also the regular focusing on and appreciation of the positive aspects of life. Gratitude is foundational to our well-being. My colleague the Rev, Galen Guengerich, of All Souls in NYC, describes two dimensions of gratitude that make it fitting as our defining religious practice as Unitarian Universalists: “One has to do with a discipline of gratitude, and the other has to do with an ethic of gratitude. The discipline of gratitude reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and world around us for everything that matters. From this flows an ethic of gratitude that obligates us to create a future that justifies an increasing sense of gratitude from the human family as a whole. The ethic of gratitude demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return. It is our duty to foster the kind of environment that we want to take in, and therefore become.” I became aware of the discipline, that is the practice, and ethic of gratitude around the same time Richard and I adopted our sons. I made mistakes parenting. It’s impossible not to and you weren’t trying hard enough if you didn’t. But one aspect of parenting that I am proud of is that I didn’t expect gratitude from my sons. You see, when you adopt at risk children it is sometimes easy to expect them to be grateful that you swooped in and saved them. This expectation would have been about me affecting their lives and assuming they would not change mine. If you remember in the story of Anne of Green Gables Matthew, adopting Anne, tells Marilla, who is also adopting Anne, that they could be of good use to Anne. What they discover after sharing their life with Anne is that she was of good use to them.
The ethic of gratitude demands that we care for the world that will care for us in return. These simple examples demonstrate our need to care for one another. And so this is how my family grew. We found one another and practiced gratefulness not as a debt but as a way of being with one another and the world. We practiced in a way that we took in gratefulness, therefore becoming grateful. Gratitude becomes a way of being, a state of mind when it is practiced. And so this is how we will grow our ministry and heal our world. Practicing gratitude can be as simple as putting on the thankful coat that we heard about in our story. Mindfulness and practice.
“Unlike freedom, gratitude is a uniquely religious virtue,” Writes the Rev. Galen Guengerich. “Why is this? A sense of awe and a sense of obligation, religion’s basic impulses, are both experiences of transcendence, of being part of something much larger than ourselves. The feeling of awe emerges from experiences of the grandeur of life and the mystery of the divine. We happen upon a sense of inexpressible exhilaration at being alive and a sense of utter dependence upon sources of being beyond ourselves. This sense of awe and dependence should engender in us a discipline of gratitude, which constantly acknowledges that our present experience depends upon the sources that make it possible. The feeling of obligation lays claim to us when we sense our duty to the larger life we share. As we glimpse our dependence upon other people and things, we also glimpse our duty to them. This sense of obligation leads to an ethic of gratitude, which takes our experience of transcendence in the present and works for a future in which all relationships — among humans, as well as between humans and the physical world — are fair, constructive, and beautiful.”
The idea of faith as a discipline may sound like sacrilege to many Unitarian Universalists. But remember this: our faith is more than mere rational pretension. The defining element of our faith must be a daily practice of some kind. What kind of practice? The Rev. Sam Trumbore writes that this is a spiritual discipline. He says, “For Jews, the defining discipline is obedience: To be a faithful Jew is to obey the commands of God. For Christians, the defining discipline is love: To be a faithful Christian is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. For Muslims, the defining discipline is submission: To be a faithful Muslim is to submit to the will of Allah.”
What should be our essential spiritual discipline? As Trumbore tells us, obedience, love, and even submission each play a vital role in the life of faith, ours should be gratitude. In the same way that Judaism is defined by obedience, Christianity by love, and Islam by submission, I believe that Unitarian Universalism should be defined by gratitude. Gratitude should be fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist theology.
Brother David Steindl-Rast is a Benedictine monk and one of the leading figures in a worldwide gratitude movement. Yes there is a gratitude movement. It even has its own Facebook page and claims the words of Congregationalist minister and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher who wrote “Gratitude is the fairest blossom which springs from the soul” We might be more familiar with his wife, abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe who we claim as part of our history. Long before gratitude became a hot topic of scientific research, Brother David was writing about gratefulness as the heart of prayer and a path to liberation, helping to promote the practice of gratitude as a way of healing oneself and society.
Brother Rast writes “grateful individuals live in a way that leads to the kind of society human beings long for. In many parts of the world society is sick. Keywords of the diagnosis are: Exploitation, oppression, and violence. Grateful living is a remedy against all three of these symptoms.”
Exploitation is born from greed and a sense of inadequacy. Grateful living makes us aware that there is enough for all. It leads to a sense of abundance and a joyful willingness to share with others. Oppression is necessary to exploit others. It results in competition and power. The more power you have, the more you can exploit those below you and protect yourself against those above you. But grateful people live with a sense of abundance; they need not exploit others. Oppression becomes unnecessary and it is replaced by mutual support and by equal respect for all. Violence springs from the root of fear — fear that there may not be enough for all, fear of others as potential competitors, fear of foreigners and strangers. But the grateful person is fearless cutting violence at the root. There is a willingness to share and eliminate the unjust distribution of wealth that creates the climate for violence and believes difference and diversity can only mend us and make us whole. Grateful living takes away the main reasons for exploitation, oppression and violence; through sharing, universal respect, and non-violence it provides the basis for a healthy world with a chance to survive, a chance for wholeness.
Brother Rast tells us “It is, however, pretty evident that greed, oppression, and violence have led us to a point of self-destruction. Our survival depends on a radical change; if the gratitude movement grows strong and deep enough, it may bring about this necessary change. Grateful living brings in place of greed: sharing; in place of oppression: respect; in place of violence: peace. Who does not long for a world of sharing, mutual respect, and peace?”
I’m hoping by now you are connecting these thoughts to our principles, to the ways in which we have agreed to walk together and create change. From ancient times through modern social science and research, gratitude has been distinguished as a desirable human quality with the function for making life better for oneself and for others. So it is with a grateful heart that we are Unitarian Universalists. Let us raise up the virtue of gratitude. Let us understand that we can save ourselves. Let us create a just, compassionate world where all life is celebrated. Let this season wake our hearts and minds and guide us on our journey toward wholeness and to be bold enough to embrace the practice of gratitude.
May it be so.
Gratitude, a sermon delivered at 1stUUPB by the Rev. CJ McGregor on Nov 24, 2013.