Worship Script (3 of 4)

OPENING WORDS

This morning, we gather to praise all that is.

We gather to praise even what we don’t yet understand.

We praise without critique

We praise outrageously.

We praise without moderation.

We become praising fools!

As we do—as we lavish this world and each other with praise—

We notice the flickering of recognition welling up from within:

That all we have praised far surpasses our efforts

To capture its worth in words.

In our time together, let our habit of praise

Move us swiftly to awe

When our praise will no longer be words,

But will arise from our silence.

 

HYMN #123 “Spirit of Life”

 

FIRST READING “Pied Beauty,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things— 
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; 
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; 
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; 
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; 
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim. 
All things counter, original, spare, strange; 
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) 
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; 
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him.

 

SECOND READING “First Thanksgiving” by Sharon Olds

When she comes back, from college, I will see 
the skin of her upper arms, cool, 
matte, glossy. She will hug me, my old 
soupy chest against her breasts, 
I will smell her hair! She will sleep in this apartment, 
her sleep like an untamed, good object, like a 
soul in a body. She came into my life the 
second great arrival, fresh 
from the other world — which lay, from within him, 
within me. Those nights, I fed her to sleep, 
week after week, the moon rising, 
and setting, and waxing — whirling, over the months, 
in a steady blur, around our planet. 
Now she doesn’t need love like that, she has 
had it. She will walk in glowing, we will talk, 
and then, when she’s fast asleep, I’ll exult 
to have her in that room again, 
behind that door! As a child, I caught 
bees, by the wings, and held them, some seconds, 
looked into their wild faces, 
listened to them sing, then tossed them back 
into the air — I remember the moment the 
arc of my toss swerved, and they entered 
the corrected curve of their departure. 

 

HYMN #18 What Wondrous Love

 

STORY FOR ALL AGES

“Know Yourself,” by Amat Jamilah

Kan ya ma kan, [Once upon a time]: there was and there was not a man known far and wide for his generosity. One day, sitting with his friends sipping coffee in the village square, a poor woman approached him with a small request for money to feed her child.

"Of course!" he replied, and without hesitation plucked coin after coin out of his pocket, piling them into the woman's hand until they spilled on the ground.

Overwhelmed with this show of kindness, the woman began to weep. She bowed her head in gratitude. "May Allah bless you, Sir. You have saved my child's life." She carefully placed the coins in a small cloth sack. Glancing up a last time, she thanked him with a frail half-smile.

When she was out of earshot, the man's friends probed him with questions: "Why did you give her so much money?" asked one.

"That was foolish. Don't you think she will tell all her friends?" asked another.

"A line of beggars will be at your door tomorrow morning!" warned a third.

"Just yesterday, you gave your zakaat, your yearly donation to charity," said a fourth. "You weren't obligated to give her any. Why did you do it?"

The generous man kept silent until their indignation ran its course. At last they quieted down.

"While such a poor woman may be pleased with just a little money from me," said the generous man, "I could not be." He looked from friend to friend. "Unless I give her what I am able to, I won't be happy. She may not know me, but I know myself."

And the group of men, thoughtful and contrite, said no more about it. 

 

MEDITATION

Spirit of Hope, crash like a wave onto the parched beach of our lives.

Saturate our minds and fill those dark canyons within us

Which we had left abandoned for lack of you for so long.

Buoy us up, flip us over, tumble us forward,

Until we agree to surrender to you, despite the evidence,

And allow ourselves to become an expression

Of what you’ve been driving at along these long years.

Blessed be and Amen.

 

CANDLES OF JOY AND CONCERN

Those who are so moved are now invited to come forward to light a candle, expressing a joy or concern in their lives.  As you do, you may briefly share what it is. We ask that people coming forward speak for no more than a sentence or two, and that they speak from the heart about issues in their lives, rather than political issues, which we can take up at coffee hour or in the parking lot.

 

SERMON

Giving Thanks for Everything

by James Ishmael Ford

There’s an old joke—perhaps you’ve heard it. A man and his granddaughter are walking along a beach. It’s a wonderful day, although it seems there’s a squall just over the horizon, and it looks like it’s coming toward them. Even as the man thinks perhaps it is time to call it a day a giant wave crashes into them and before he can do a thing the child is carried away. Filled with horror he looks up to the heavens and shouts, “God, how can you do something so terrible?” And even before the words slip from his lips another wave comes washing over him and as it recedes deposits the child in the man’s arms. He looks at the little girl to make sure she is okay. She smiles at him and locks her arms around his neck. The man then looks back up at the heavens and shouts, “Hey! She had a hat.”

We laugh. Okay, I laugh. There’s something so human in this. A slice of homemade apple pie is great. But, hey, where’s the scoop of French vanilla ice cream? We can be grasping creatures, missing the apple pie, missing the saved child. We can be resentful and angry about, well… there’s just a ton to be resentful and angry about. But lost in the waves of those feelings something slips away from us, something lovely and beautiful. Gratitude gets washed away in the waves, along with the hat.

It seems our English word gratitude comes to us through the French and back to the Latin gratus, meaning thankful or pleasing. It turns out gratitude is closely related to the word grace, with its various meanings of showing favor, pardon, mercy, elegance, songs, praises, announcements. I really like that— “announcements,” and we’ll come back to it.

But first, a pretty good way to understand something really important is to notice what surrounds it, what can turn our hearts from some deeper matter, what some of my friends call the near enemy of that which is important. And so, what is the near enemy of gratitude? I know how I’ve experienced people who seem to be expressing gratitude for something I’d had a part in, but afterwards I’m left with an uncomfortable feeling. It comes across as flattery, with a sense of manipulation hanging in the air after the conversation.

Here, to really get to the heart of the matter, we need to open our hearts, and perhaps even confess. And, so, yes, I’ve even been that person who expresses gratitude to flatter, to manipulate, often barely conscious of what I’m doing. Maybe some others among us here have also been that person, have embraced some facsimile of gratitude for any number of reasons, maybe even sometimes for good reasons. The world isn’t a very safe place, and a little flattery addressed to the powerful can be a smart thing.

But we need to be careful. There is something astonishingly important, I feel, in the act and the experience of genuine gratitude—the spontaneous arising of those feelings of thankfulness, of pleasure, of being present to the announcement of things. Cicero is said to have said how “gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” I think this is so. And so, if so, we need to attend.

But then is this a noun, a state of being, something we achieve? Or, perhaps, does it come mostly as a verb, something we do?

Galen Guengerich, senior minister at All Soul’s Unitarian in Manhattan delivered a sermon at his home church in 2006. In the following year it was adapted as an article in the UU World, our denominational magazine. Galen asked a very interesting question. “What should be our defining religious discipline?” He goes on, “While obedience, love, and even submission each play a vital role in the life of faith, my current conviction is that our defining discipline should be gratitude.” Gratitude. That’s what really caught my heart. Galen explained, how “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.” Galen suggests gratitude as an action, as the verb of our lives is the very heart of our liberal faith.

Now, I actually think gratitude lies near the heart of all three of the great Near Eastern faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, not to mention perhaps all the great religions of our world. Still, as a discipline, as something we consciously do, I think he’s calling us in an important direction.

Wandering around the web I’ve found all sorts of advice as to how to cultivate gratitude. There are four step plans, five step plans, ten step plans. For the most part they seem to turn on stopping and noticing. With a dash of fake it ‘till you make it. As I consider that stopping and noticing with a dash of fake it ‘till you make it the heart of spiritual disciplines, I think most all of them are probably useful.

But reading the lists I found myself thinking of a one step program. Many, many years ago I came across a small book called Wisdom of the Desert, which is a selection of sayings from the fourth and fifth century Christian monastics and sages called the Desert Fathers, and for those who pay attention, Mothers. This particular volume was collected and translated by Thomas Merton, who brings not only a great eye for matters of depth, but also a style sympathetic to a world religious perspective. I consider it one of the central books in my spiritual life.

And one of the characters who shines out from that collection, and whom I’ve encountered again in other translations of the actions and sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, is someone called Abba John the Dwarf. Abba or Abbot John was born around 339, studied under the direction of another of the great Desert mystics, Abba Ammoes, for a dozen years before wandering further into the desert, where, despite his best efforts, people came to listen to and follow his guidance. There are lots of stories about him.

Abbot John would recount the story of a pagan philosopher who told his student that for three years he should give money to anyone who insulted him. When the three years passed the philosopher told the young man to go to Athens, as he was now ready to really learn. At the gate to the city he encountered an old woman who insulted everyone as they passed. When it was his turn and he was insulted, the young man just laughed. The old sage looked closely at him and asked why the laughter. The young man replied how for three years he’d paid for this sort of abuse, and now at the gate to the city of wisdom he was getting insulted for free. The old woman smiled and replied “Enter the city of wisdom, young man. It is yours.”

Okay, maybe that might prove a harder discipline than the three or five steps you can get online. But, here’s an easier discipline, this time from that late thirteenth, early fourteenth century German Dominican friar Meister Eckhart. The master once said. “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

Want to be grateful?

Then just say thank you.

Now, I think there’s another mystery hidden within why this just say thank you is enough. It has something to do with that noun and verb thing.

Leonard Cohen was once asked about his song “Hallelujah,” which is one of those divine thank yous that have caught my heart. He was asked the song really meant. Cohen replied, “It explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value.” Gratitude takes many shapes. There are many kinds of thank yous. Some are perfect. Many, even most, are broken. I think of those near enemy thank yous, so broken. But, here’s a secret. In fact, at bottom, at the end of the day, even those almost fake thank yous have value. All of them have value. All in some deep and true sense arise with equal value.

The reality is that within the web of relationships, within the world that we live in with all its horrors and all its joys, the moment we stop and notice, we discover we are bound up within a great mystery of intimacy. And, as natural as our breath, gratitude arises. And in my own experience, I find gratitude, kindness, and generosity all arise together. The mother virtue may be gratitude, but her sisters kindness and generosity walk with her.

I find motivation and sustenance through acting in the world out of this practice. I see the connections. I am horrified and I am grateful, grateful beyond any words. And I want to do something. Here, I suggest, is why our own tradition is so caught up with the work of justice in this world. The intuition of connection, of gratitude, calls us to service, to care, to love and action.

So noun and verb, our actions and our being. When we attend to the matter of gratitude, we find something fundamental, something deeper than the hurts and longing.

Albert Schweitzer, who knew his fair share of hurt, reminded us, “The greatest thing is to give thanks for everything. He who has learned this knows what it means to live. He (She) has penetrated the whole mystery of life: giving thanks for everything.”

We open our hearts to what is; we don’t turn away. And we discover a strange and mysterious and wild beyond imagination universe. And, we find the secret: we’re totally and inseparably a part of it. Noun and verb. One thing.

And as we notice, how can we not open our hearts, and open our mouths, and from that place, say anything but thank you?

Thank you.

Thank you.

 

HYMN #159 “This is My Song”

 

BENEDICTION

Go out into your week

With the peace that passes even your understanding.

Practice that peace and let it become

What you give to the world.