Worship Script (4 of 4)
Unfasten your hearts,
Unclench your caution,
Unfetter your regard,
Let loose that critical view
So that instead you can spend this whole hour
In praise and thanksgiving!
We gather to praise this good life,
And to give thanks for it.
Let us worship together.
HYMN #1 May Nothing Evil Cross This Door
“I made cranberry sauce, and when it was done put it into a dark blue bowl for the beautiful contrast. I was thinking, doing this, about the old ways of gratitude: Indians thanking the deer they'd slain, grace before supper, kneeling before bed. I was thinking that gratitude is too much absent in our lives now, and we need it back, even if it only takes the form of acknowledging the blue of a bowl against the red of cranberries.”
― Elizabeth Berg
“What can we make of the inexpressible joy of children? It is a kind of gratitude, I think—the gratitude of the ten-year-old who wakes to her own energy and the brisk challenge of the world. You thought you knew the place and all its routines, but you see you hadn’t known. Whole stacks at the library held books devoted to things you knew nothing about. The boundary of knowledge receded, as you poked about in books, like Lake Erie’s rim as you climbed its cliffs. And each area of knowledge disclosed another, and another. Knowledge wasn’t a body, or a tree, but instead air, or space, or being—whatever pervaded, whatever never ended and fitted into the smallest cracks and the widest space between stars.”
― Annie Dillard
HYMN #6 Just As Long as I Have Breath
STORY FOR ALL AGES
A water bearer in India had two large pots, one hung on each end of a pole, which she carried across her neck.
One of the pots had a crack in it. While the other pot was perfect, and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the mistress's house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.
For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water to her master's house.
The perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect to the end for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.
After two years of what it perceived to be a failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream: "I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.
"Why?" asked the bearer.
"I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your mistress's house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don't get full value from your efforts," the pot said.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and, in her compassion, she said, "As we return to the mistress's house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path."
Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wildflowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some.
But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure.
The bearer said to the pot, "Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot's side?
“That's because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you've watered them.
“For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my mistress's table. Without you being just the way you are, she would not have this beauty to grace her house."
Moral: Each of us has our own unique flaws. We're all cracked pots.
But it's the cracks and flaws we each have that make our lives together so very interesting and rewarding. We've just got to take each person for what they are, and look for the good in them.
Spirit of Love, within us, between us, and beyond us,
We give thanks for each breath,
and each gesture of care and compassion we’ve known in our lives.
As we receive the gifts that come our way in this life,
May we be transformed into vehicles of the Holy,
So that our relations with others carry the quality of blessing
And the impact of wisdom.
And may others be strengthened for having known us,
So that, together, we can carry out the work of the Beloved Community.
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.
“Thanksgiving is a Verb” by Diana K. McLean
I love the feeling I get when I sing Spirit of Life, especially with a congregation in worship, as we do each week after Joys and Sorrows and the pastoral prayer. It calms me, centers me, anchors me in the truth of who I am and what I am connected to.
But some days, you know, that calm, centered, grounded feeling just isn’t there. I suspect right now we are all having more of those days than we usually do, but they happen even when we’re not in the midst of an emotionally fraught election season.
My favorite example of that kind of day is one that happened to me in the spring of 2005. I was in my early thirties, married, and the mother of a toddler, after years of thinking I wouldn’t have the opportunity to be a mother. I knew how lucky I was not only to have this child in my life at all, but that as a family we had found a way for me to be able to stay home in his early years to care for him myself.
That all changed when my then-husband was one of twenty-eight firefighters laid off by the City of Spokane due to budget cuts. That spring, he was traveling all over the Pacific Northwest interviewing for jobs. Meanwhile, I had reluctantly given up the privilege of spending my days at home with Aidan, and was working to help pay the mortgage on our first house.
Our baseline day-to-day stress level was pretty high.
And then that night, he was driving back from an interview in the Seattle area. He called me from Ritzville, about an hour west of Spokane, to tell me that his car had died, and he was having it towed to a repair shop that would look at it in the morning.
So, instead of putting two-year-old Aidan to bed, I buckled him into his carseat and we drove to pick up his dad. And then, as we approached Spokane on the interstate after two hours on the road, my car died. It had just enough momentum to coast up the small rise in front of us, down the exit ramp we’d planned to take anyway, and around a corner to come to its final stop on a less-busy street.
I remember thinking, “Are you KIDDING me?” -- along with several other comments not appropriate to the pulpit.
It was, in other words, the grown-up version of Judith Viorst’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
Even my insurance company agreed, sending someone to inspect both cars to be sure there wasn’t sabotage involved, considering the unlikely odds of both of the cars in a single household dying so completely within a few hours of each other. Nope, no sabotage, just a REALLY bad day.
As we sat in my car that night waiting for the tow truck to come, I thought of the spiritual practice I’d adopted that January of keeping a Gratitude Journal. Every night, I’d write down five things from that day for which I was thankful. On this night, I thought, “There is NO WAY I am going to find five things to be thankful for today. I can’t even think of ONE.”
And then, almost before I’d finished that thought, I immediately came up with five: (1) no one was hurt by an accident caused by either car’s failure; (2) my husband’s car died only an hour from home, when earlier that day he’d been five hours away; (3) none of us ended up stranded in one of the many long empty stretches of interstate between towns; (4) my car was able to coast off the exit ramp and around the corner to park on a residential street with light traffic; and (5) my sister-in-law not only came to pick us up that night but loaned us her car until we could figure out what to do.
I don’t know if I can adequately explain what a pivotal moment that was for me.
That moment, that end-of-an-awful-day moment, is when I realized that gratitude had become part of how I live instead of something I do.
It’s the Gratitude Journal that changed that for me, the fact that the last thing I do before turning out the lights each night is reflect on what from that day I can be grateful for.
It’s not that before the gratitude journal practice I walked around being a Negative Nellie all the time. I didn’t. I was appreciative of the good things in my life, and I was aware that even in rough times, I still had plenty of those good things. But as a teenager, other people’s optimism occasionally drove me a little crazy. I didn’t want to hear how yet another move with the Air Force meant I’d get to see new places and make new friends. I didn’t want to hear about how my childhood epilepsy was so much better than if I’d had the kind you don’t outgrow, the kind with more serious seizures and more powerful drugs.
All of that was true, of course, but I just wasn’t ready to hear it. I wanted to be allowed to wallow, just for a little while, before being expected to see the bright side of a situation.
The young adult version of this teenage wallowing was that I was a worrier. It wasn’t unusual for me to go to bed at night and spend an hour with my brain still spinning, going over things that happened that day, often things I wished had gone differently, and trying to figure out how to fix them the next day.
That version of me, had she still completely been in charge on The Day The Cars Died, would have stayed stuck in the “What an awful day” mentality. It’s a mentality that can make a person feel like God (or any higher power) is absent or impotent or maybe even downright mean-spirited. Or it can make us feel like we must have done something wrong to deserve that kind of day.
But I was raised Unitarian Universalist, so I don’t believe in a punitive God. I was taught that life is essentially good, that God (if there is one) is loving, that the Universe is basically benevolent, that we are worthy of love and joy and blessings, that we are supported by our interconnectedness with all of life.
We don’t believe that a life full of blessings means that we are somehow special,
that we are one of God’s chosen to whom blessings flow while others (less worthy than we are) are left to suffer. Our religious ancestors rejected that theology in favor of universal salvation, universal worthiness, universal essential goodness. Original blessing, instead of original sin, informs our religious perspective...we believe that blessings are not reserved for a special few, but are instead available to all.
So why, then, can it be so hard to see the blessings in our day-to-day lives?
Perhaps because our culture encourages complaint. Perhaps because when we’re hurt it’s easy to get stuck in that pain and not lift our eyes to a wider horizon, a view that allows us to see that even if we are standing knee-deep in manure, there are fields and forests full of beauty not far away.
I’m certainly as guilty as anyone of getting too focused on the mess I’m in rather than the wider vision. Ending my day with gratitude is what shifted that for me, not only allowing me to sleep better, but also making me more adept at focusing on what went right rather than what went wrong.
Since The Day The Cars Died, I’ve faced days on which worse things than two cars dying happened. And even on those days, I found something, even if it was something small, to be thankful for.
Now, I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna here. The fact that I could find things for which to be thankful even on rough days doesn’t mean that those days weren’t awful. And the last thing I’d be likely to say to someone, whether a friend having a hard day or a member of this church in a pastoral care context, is, “Can you find something to be thankful for today?” Much like my teenage self, we all need some time to be with the suffering before we can look beyond it. I wouldn’t have been receptive to someone trying to force me to be grateful when I wasn’t, nor would I expect anyone else to appreciate that kind of nonsense from me.
What the Gratitude Journal did was to enable me (when I was ready) to end my day focused not on the awfulness but on the glimmers of brightness even on a dark night.
I do this better some days than others. Like any other healthy habit, I sometimes fall off the wagon and don’t journal for a while. But if I pay attention, I notice the difference in my days, the same way I notice how I don’t feel as strong and healthy if I don’t exercise.
We shouldn’t expect perfection from ourselves, with this spiritual practice or any other. These practices are a form of spiritual self-care, and we need to recognize that sometimes self-care looks like ignoring the journal, pulling the covers over our heads, and calling it a day. (I’m thinking of Scarlett O’Hara’s last line in Gone with the Wind...sometimes all we can muster in terms of gratitude or optimism is “Tomorrow is another day.”)
In the long term, though, I believe there is much to be gained from incorporating gratitude into our daily spiritual practice. This time of year can give us a sort of jumpstart.
I enjoy and participate in seasonal practices of gratitude, like the one currently happening on Facebook and Twitter, where people post one gratitude each day in the month of November, using the hashtag #30DaysofGratitude.
That’s all great. But it doesn’t go far enough. One day, or even one month, of gratitude implies that gratitude is an action, a task, something we put on our calendar and then we’ve done it for the year.
With the large collective focus on gratitude that we experience in the Thanksgiving season, it’s easy to get on the bandwagon. There’s a sort of domino effect, as can be seen when one person starts a “30 Days of Gratitude” on Facebook or Twitter or a blog, and soon some of that person’s friends are doing the same thing, and it spreads from there. A shift within one person’s interactions with the world catches on with the people around them.
What we see in this kind of seasonal expression is so contagious, so extraordinary and transcendent that it builds a strong case for what could happen if people made gratitude part of their daily routine, as I have with the Gratitude Journal. What I’ve learned is that gratitude, especially when grounded in our beliefs, is an attitude rather than an action. Acts like writing in a Gratitude Journal or posting 30 days of gratitudes online are tools to help us get to the point where gratitude is part of how we live; they are a means to an end.
Now, I can hear those of you who don’t enjoy writing thinking, “Really? She wants me to write every day? That’s not going to help me feel gratitude!” And that’s fine. I’m not up here evangelizing on behalf of journal and pen manufacturers. The journal is one practice of gratitude, but it’s not the only one. It’s not even my only one.
When my son Aidan was maybe five or six years old, he earned his very own pottery chalice by memorizing a kid-friendly version of our seven Unitarian Universalist Principles. He knew I already had a wooden chalice of my own, and he came up with a beautiful practice for us to follow as a family. He wanted both of the chalices to live on our dining room table, and he said that before dinner each night, we should light them and share what he called “thankful fors.” The only rule was that we can’t just say the same things again and again: we’re thankful for our health, our house, each other, our cats. The thankful-fors have to be specific to that day, very much like the Gratitude Journal.
Sometimes it was easy for each of us to think of something to be thankful for. Other times it took some prompting, questions about what the best part of the day was. But, just like the Gratitude Journal, it got easier the longer we did it.
By the time we moved to Colorado when Aidan was in second grade, gratitude was so much a part of how Aidan lives that he declared it to be “the best day ever”...not just the day we arrived in our new home, but nearly every day for the first three months. Every Christmas for a long time was “the best Christmas ever.” You get the idea. He’s not always happy, he’s not always positive, but his default setting, if you will, is gratitude for what is and optimism about what is possible. It’s even still true now that he’s a teenager.
I can’t help but think how different my teenage attitude might have been if I’d had a gratitude practice that started when my age was still in single digits. How might I have handled adversity better--or at least with more grace--if I’d had that underlying sense of gratitude for life’s blessings?
I’m not talking just about gratitude for the obvious things. Not just about the rush of gratitude when something amazing, like the birth of my son or the call to serve this congregation, happens. I’m talking about gratitude for all that we are blessed with in our everyday lives. A daily practice of gratitude moves us beyond the idea that we are thankful for those big things--a birth, a wedding, a welcoming of a foster child into our home, a new job, a promotion, an A on a test. We find ourselves being thankful for the particularly colorful sunset, for the glittering ice-coated trees, for the phone call from a friend just when we are feeling lonely.
When we are living gratitude, we are primed to go out and be someone else’s “thankful for”. That’s what President John Kennedy was pointing to in his 1963 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation when he said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
By moving from simply expressing our gratitude to living in a way that reflects it, we achieve what Rev. Galen Guengerich believes should be the defining spiritual practice of Unitarian Universalism: a gratitude made up of both a practice (what he calls a discipline) and an ethic that we strive to live by.
A daily expression of gratitude, whatever form it takes, helps us experience moments of transcendence, which Guengerich describes as “the experience of being burdened by the persistent tragedy of the world and exhilarated by its sublime beauty...the feeling of being deeply connected to everything: all that is present as well as all that is past and all that is possible.”
In that grander scope of vision, the tragedy and the beauty are balanced in a way, held within the framework of all that is and all that is possible. This is what makes it possible for me to be grateful even on the bad days, for me to continue to find meaning in a daily practice of gratitude.
The ethic of gratitude grows out of that discipline. When I recognize all I have to be thankful for, it’s impossible for me, believing in both the interconnectedness of all life and the inherent worth of each individual life, to not want the same for everyone.
Impossible for me to want less education and opportunity for a stranger’s child than for my own, impossible for me to care less about a stranger’s hunger or pain or loneliness than my own.
Gratitude, in other words, is what breaks my heart wide open so that I am grounded in love, even in times when everything around me suggests that I would be safer to approach things with caution if not fear. With a wide-open heart, I live fully into my own potential and want the same for each of you, for each of us, for all people everywhere.
It is for this wellspring of love, always available to be tapped into, that I am most grateful, this month no more or less than any other time of year.
May we be thankful today and always for the blessings that are ours, and may we seek to be a blessing to others.
HYMN #67 We Sing Now Together
Let us go from this place
With the song of praise on our lips
And, in our hearts, deep thanksgiving.
Let us go from this place
Warmed, so that we can warm the world
With the light of our love.
Go in peace.