What do we have to be thankful for? I mean, with all that is happening around us, in our families, and with ourselves, why should we be thankful for that which darkens the heart and makes the soul weep? Endless war, death, disease, divorce, absent adult children, heartache, health issues, hypocrisy; financial, friendship, and fulfillment woes. What do we have to be thankful for?
I attended a party last week. I wasn’t invited. I invited myself. I did hang the balloons and streamers and set the stage for the best party of the season. It was my pity party. You may know that I was hospitalized last Sunday afternoon. I’m not sure how you wouldn’t be aware, I mean I’ve been sending emails and posting on Facebook drumming up all the sympathy I could get. I found myself, 45 years old, facing serious cardiac issues. Feeling low, afraid, and confused I relied on my old standbys of anger, defiance, and why me?
Yes the pity party was in full swing and I was on the dance floor refusing to feel anything and refusing to name one single thing that was good in my life. As far as I was concerned there wasn’t anything good. nor would there be anything good in the future. I wonder if you’ve planned or accepted invitations to pity parties? Hey, pity parties work just fine as long as my friends self loathing, denial, lack of control and responsibility are there. Pity parties have usefulness in the short term, but you don’t want to be the last one at the party with the lampshade on your head.
Today, I stand before you stronger than last Sunday, pulling myself out of the demoralizing experience of sudden illness and giving thanks. I’m giving thanks that my family was by my side. I’m giving thanks that my congregation reached out again and again. I’m giving thanks that I left the party. You see, we get confused when it comes to giving thanks. We understand that we should be thankful for the big things, things we want -- not necessarily the small things we need. Seeing only the absence of the things we want, we see nothing to be thankful for.
“It can seem like being thankful, or focusing on what’s good in our lives, is of out of vogue”, says author Beverly Flaxington. Why aren’t we overall more grateful for the gifts we are given in our daily lives? Why do we have to stop and really think about what we can be thankful for? How many things do we simply take for granted throughout our day? Are you breathing right now? Are you sitting up of your own accord? Do you have any friends, family members, or pets in your life? Do you have interests, hobbies, or a talent? Do you live in a country that provides some sort of support to its residents? Do you have a congregation that listens, provides, and loves? Flaxington says, “ It’s amazing to me when I listen to people talk about their “bad day” what that really means to them. It can mean they were stuck in traffic, or late to a meeting, or we become unexpectedly sick. A bad day could be when someone rear-ended your car, or you didn’t get your way or you were just plain bored!” All of us can get so focused on what’s wrong, what we don’t want, that we forget the things going on around us that are gifts and blessings.
How do you practice gratitude? Gratitude might be risky business, depending on your life circumstances, but I would suggest that especially when we might be down on our luck, or in tight financial circumstances, or having phases of ill-health, that it is especially important to engage in regular expressions of gratitude. Gratitude gives us something to hold on to, a way to remain engaged and connected to life. And it is not only positive events ... we can find gratitude in what initially may seem like negative experiences, as these negative experiences turn us on our heads and see the world in new ways.
How do you practice giving thanks? What does it feel like, that sense of wanting to show appreciation, that sense of awe for the amazing realities of being connected to others around you? However, your feelings of gratitude aren’t enough. How do you act on your feelings, how do you demonstrate gratitude? It’s not hard: there is much to be grateful for. We simply need to pay attention.
We might use the words of e.e. cummings: “I thank you, God, for this most amazing day.” “Or, if that doesn’t work,” says the Rev. Barbara Coyne, “I thank you, Great Spirit, for this most amazing gift of a creative and reasoning mind.” Or, “I thank you, Mother Earth, for this most amazing blue sky.”
“I thank you, my children who never return my phone calls, for reminding me of the amazing gift of patience.” “I thank you, my children, who when you do call always seems to pick my busiest times, for helping remind me of my promise that family always comes first.” “I thank you, driver who slows down to allow me to enter the highway, for the difference a courtesy can make.” “I thank you, congregant who just commented on my sermon, for the gift of knowing that I have touched at least one person.” “I thank you, congregant who disagrees with my sermon, for the gift of my exploring more deeply what I really understand and value.” “I thank you, farmers and producers, for the food I am privileged to put on my plate everyday.” “I thank you, architects and builders, for the warm, dry roof over my head.” “I thank you, unbelievable sea for holding my body and raft.” “I thank you, mountains, for being strong and firm and reliable, even when I feel weak and vulnerable.” “I thank myself, for my resolve to live a grateful life.” “I thank you Life, for this amazing gift of being alive.”
In his poem “Envirez-vous,” poet Charles Baudelaire writes, “You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it — it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk. But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But get drunk. And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch in the mournful solitude of your room you wake again drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that flies, everything that groans, everything that rolls, everything that sings, everything that speaks. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to get drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue, as you wish.”
Baudelaire isn’t advocating literal drunkenness. He tells us in order to step out of hardship and focus and remember the small, but important, things, we must immerse ourselves in the things we love, the people we love and count them as things to be thankful for.
Henry David Thoreau writes a similar message in “To Live Deliberately” which is Responsive Reading #660 in our hymnal. Thoreau writes, “Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived. I do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear, nor do I wish to practice resignation, unless it is quite necessary. I wish to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, I want to cut a broad swath, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms. If it proves to be mean, then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it is sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it.” Thoreau is truly deliberate about living and choosing the essentials of life. This suggests giving thanks is a virtue, a practice, a spiritual practice.
The defining element of our faith must be a practice of some kind. 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 could be giving thanks. 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 giving thanks or gratitude. Giving thanks is fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist theology. “Grateful individuals live in a way that leads to the kind of society human beings long for.” Writes Benedictine monk David Rast.
It is with a grateful heart that we are Unitarian Universalists. Let us raise up the virtue of giving thanks. We have the opportunity on Thanksgiving to begin or deepen our practice of giving thanks. 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 giving thanks. May you and yours be blessed this holiday. I give thanks.
May it be so.
–- Sermon delivered at 1stUUPB by the Rev. CJ McGregor on Nov 23, 2014.