Wednesday, November 25, 2015

We Give Thanks

Buddhist Cynthia Ozick asks, How often do you pause to appreciate what you have in life?”  She says, “When I was young, I took things for granted. After all, we were young and we didn’t know what life could be like on the other side.  One thing we took for granted was education. In my country, it’s compulsory for all kids to go to school, so it was a given. We never thought about how lucky we were to be educated.  Then slowly as I grew up, I began to appreciate things around me more. As I saw more and more of the world out there, I realized all the things I’d been given are not rights, but privileges. I realized that being literate is a not a right, but a gift. I realized there is a lot of war and violence in the world. I realized there are people out there who don’t have their five senses, and to have mine is a gift.  I realized the world is so beautiful, and we’re lucky to live in such an amazing world.  Sometimes it’s easy to feel bad because you’re going through a tough time in life. However, remember that no matter how bad your situation may seem, there are tens of thousands of things to be grateful for in life.

While preparing the sermon for this morning I paused.  I wondered how I would work giving thanks into a message that is shadowed by violence, bad government, the homeless families I met on Thursday, the people at the food bank who continue to scratch a life together, refugees, murdered black Americans, and all the “isms” in the world especially the ism du jour which is the systematic hatred of Muslims. I researched more and found the words of Cynthia Ozick and it struck me, it is because of all that is happening around us that is distanced from many of us that we should give thanks.

We should give thanks that we are able to gather this morning.  Our congregation in Burundi was ransacked, shot at, and their Unitarian minister was kidnapped and imprisoned.  The Unitarians there are seen as a threat to the opposition in power.  The minister will likely be killed and never see his wife and son again. They are in Maine seeking asylum.

We should give thanks that we are not walking in the heat, starving, carrying our possessions and children, or perhaps leaving those we love behind, both dead and alive.  We should give thanks because we will return to a home after this service, we will be offered a meal after this service, we will be accepted no matter the color of our skin in this community.  We indeed do give thanks.

I don’t think we can stop there.  I believe being grateful goes beyond giving thanks for what we have in this moment.  Being grateful and giving thanks is a way of life -- and man is it hard to live this way.  I was at a dinner party Friday night and experienced this sort of giving thanks and gratefulness.  I, and others, plunked down and immediately started discussing what was wrong in our world and local politics.  Our hostess sauntered over to our group and reminded us that there are other sides of the stories we were telling and began to share those stories with us.  It changed the direction our train of despair was heading.  In a flash I was able to feel grateful and able to give thanks.

Later, I thought in order for us to survive and not succumb to despair we needed to intentionally live and think in ways that will save us. I also thought hey, we are Unitarian Universalists, it’s what we do.  Anyone or any group creating change first needs to identify the problems, right?  It’s inevitable, but you can’t live there.  That is, you can’t leave your spirit in those places.  If you make what’s wrong a way of living, you will become the miserable, lethargic, sarcastic being that people are probably already calling you.  Surely you want to prove them wrong!  Your spirit and attitude become stuck and eventually catatonic.  That doesn’t mean we become naïve, uninformed, or live in denial.  It means we need to recognize that we live in a world that will break us if we do not intentionally practice giving thanks.  We can visit those dark places but we should not build our houses there.

Gratitude means thankfulness, counting your blessings, noticing simple pleasures, and acknowledging everything that you receive. It means learning to live your life as if everything were a miracle, and being aware on a continuous basis of how much you’ve been given. Gratitude shifts your focus from what your life lacks to the abundance that is already present. In addition, behavioral and psychological research has shown the surprising life improvements that can stem from the practice of gratitude. Giving thanks makes people happier and more resilient, it strengthens relationships, it improves health, and it reduces stress.

Two psychologists, Michael McCollough of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis, wrote an article about an experiment they conducted on gratitude and its impact on well-being. The study split several hundred people into three different groups and all of the participants were asked to keep daily diaries. The first group kept a diary of the events that occurred during the day without being told specifically to write about either good or bad things; the second group was told to record their unpleasant experiences; and the last group was instructed to make a daily list of things for which they were grateful. The results of the study indicated that daily gratitude exercises resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism, and energy. In addition, those in the gratitude group experienced less depression and stress, were more likely to help others, exercised more regularly, and made greater progress toward achieving personal goals.

One of the things such studies show is that practicing gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%. That's significant, among other things, because just as there’s a certain weight that feels natural to your body and which your body strives to maintain, your basic level of happiness is set at a predetermined point. If something bad happens to you during the day, your happiness can drop momentarily, but then it returns to its natural set-point. Likewise, if something positive happens to you, your level of happiness rises, and then it returns once again to your “happiness set-point”. A practice of gratitude raises your “happiness set-point” so you can remain at a higher level of happiness regardless of outside circumstances.  In addition, Dr. Emmons’ research shows that those who practice gratitude tend to be more creative, bounce back more quickly from adversity, have a stronger immune system, and have stronger social relationships than those who don’t practice gratitude. He further points out that “To say we feel grateful is not to say that everything in our lives is necessarily great. It just means we are aware of our blessings.”

We tend to take for granted the good that is already present in our lives. There’s a gratitude exercise that instructs that you should imagine losing some of the things that you take for granted, such as your home, your ability to see or hear, loved ones or anything that currently gives you comfort. Read a newspaper if you’re struggling to imagine losing something.  Then imagine getting each of these things back, one by one, and consider how grateful you would be for each and every one.

We need to find joy in the small things instead of holding out for big triumphs before allowing ourselves to feel gratitude and joy.  Another way to use giving thanks to appreciate life more fully is to use gratitude to help you put things in their proper perspective. When things don’t go your way, remember that every difficulty carries within it the seeds of an equal or greater benefit. In the face of adversity ask yourself: “What’s good about this?”, “What can I learn from this?”, and “How can I benefit from this?”  Not unlike the hostess of the dinner party I mentioned.

Pastor Eddie Lawrence shares with us two big reasons that we need to give thanks.  The first is because we can’t be peaceful if we are not being thankful. Peace and ingratitude cannot sleep in the same bed together, nor do they fellowship in the same person. There is something about the nature of ingratitude that keeps us from being filled with the peace. He writes, “We are told that peace is to rule in our hearts. The word 'rule' in this verse means to serve as an umpire. We cannot release peace to ourselves and others when we are living out of bounds. And the land of ingratitude is definitely outside the boundaries. There are no benefits that come with ingratitude.”

Ask yourself, Do you enjoy hanging out with someone who is always demonstrating how ungrateful they are? They are always negative? Always pointing out what is wrong with everyone else but never see it in their own lives? I would venture to say that none of us here would deliberately choose such a person for our friend. Neither does peace.  If you think about it, when we are being ungrateful, it is a sure sign that we are not at peace with our place in the world.

The second reason is that you can’t be in unity if you are not giving thanks.  As I just mentioned, we find it difficult walking in unity with people who are ungrateful. How can thankful people and unthankful people really walk in unity?  Pastor Lawrence tells us that we have two choices:  “We will live with one of two orientations in our lives: We will be focusing on goodness and blessings, or, we will be constantly complaining about what has not yet happened, or what others are not doing, or what the government is not doing, and on and on it goes. And most people who live this way, seldom see their own irresponsibility or need to change.”

Being unthankful leads us into foolishness and darkness. If we are not a thankful people, we are a foolish people. If we are not a thankful people, we are not choosing light but darkness.
Ingratitude indicates that some darkness has taken root in our hearts and leading us into foolish thinking and living.  There are so many gifts in life, which we perhaps can recognize if we take some time. Let us give our thanks in ways that are true and right for us. May we remember to look for reasons both great and small for giving thanks, and may doing so increase our happiness. Perhaps this is what it means to say, Happy Thanksgiving.

May it be so.

We Give Thanks, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on Nov 22, 2015.

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