Monday, January 28, 2008

Sermon: "Experiments in Gratitude" (Delivered 1-27-08)

There are two short one-liners about prayer with which I want to begin this morning’s sermon. The first is from an episode of the Simpson’s from many years ago where the family gathers around the dinner table and Bart Simpson is invited to say grace. He bows his head and says, “Dear God, we paid for all this food ourselves so thanks for nothing.”

The second one-liner comes from spiritual writer Anne Lamott who states that there are really only two types of prayers: “Please, please, please, please, please” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Ah, and we are back talking about prayer and spiritual practice again today in this, the second sermon in the series called “Get a (Spiritual) life.” But, before we get to prayer and spiritual practice I want to back up a little bit and offer some comments for your consideration about context. [These comments are embellished from a discussion with eleven other ministers at a growth conference I attended last November.]

I want to generalize. I want to suggest that while we live in a land of plenty, a land of prosperity, a context of widespread comfort for most of us gathered here this morning, that we are not a comfortable people. I want to suggest that there is a sense of dissatisfaction for many of us that permeates and pervades our living. This dissatisfaction is often framed in terms of a disappointment with our political climate, but the dissatisfaction goes beyond politics. The dissatisfaction is often framed as concern for issues – homophobia, global climate change, or poverty – but the dissatisfaction transcends our justice concerns. I want to suggest that the dissatisfaction is rooted in our very culture. There are hungers that are our culture does not feed. Hunger for depth. Hunger for relationship. Hunger for life. To paraphrase my colleague Michael Schuler, “We are a life-seeking people in a largely death-focused culture.” We want to replace irrational fears with trust. We want to replace attitudes that divide and separate us with meaningful connections. I want to claim that there is this sense of emptiness and restlessness that we are trying to fill. And coming here, to this church, is about feeding this hunger. It is about filling this void. It is about having the courage to try to create a culture that meets the needs that our larger culture fails to meet. Further, I would suggest, spiritual practice is one part of changing ourselves and defying the culture that conspires to leave us feeling hungry and vaguely uncomfortable.

This past week I read a book entitled Worship that Works by two UU ministers, Wayne Arnason and Kathleen Rolenz, who spent a sabbatical road-tripping across the United States and visiting houses of worship – UU and non-UU – that were widely held to have outstanding and transformational worship services. Currently, I am writing a review of their book for a denominational publication, so I’ll spare you too much detail. In their book, these two ministers devote considerable attention to describing the theory behind different parts of a church service.

In their section on prayer they describe the formula most common in Protestant prayers. The formula can be remembered by the acronym ACTS, which stands for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication.

It is interesting that for three out of the four parts the authors needed to reframe the words very deliberately to make them palatable to most Unitarian Universalists. Adoration, they say, usually has to do with titles given to God, titles like, “All powerful God, King of Kings, Lord of Heaven and Earth, creator of the universe, et cetera…” They reframe this by asking Unitarian Universalists to name feelings of awe, wonder, and grandeur.

Similarly, with confession the authors explain that this need not have anything to do with the notion of original sin. Rather, they advise, if our spiritual practice brings us into a place of utter honesty and authenticity, then we will be aware that we do not always embody our best selves. We will tell the truth about our own imperfections.

The third part they needed to significantly reframe is supplication, or asking. That is the “please, please, please” part. They explain that UUs often tend to be “rightly uncomfortable with this kind of supplication. We don’t believe in a God who is a substitute Santa Claus, dispensing favors like toys from a large knapsack.”

But, it is telling that the authors found it completely unnecessary to recast or reframe or translate the spiritual practice of gratitude and thanksgiving. They write, “Thanksgiving is probably the easiest prayer for Unitarian Universalists…. We are an appreciative people, thankful for our health, our lives, our communities, for liberal religion, for one another. We give thanks for food, for our volunteers, for our programs, for our ministers.” They said it, not me. Another UU minister once said something to the effect of, “If Unitarian Universalists had a shared and universal spiritual practice, it would be an exercise centered in the expression of gratitude.”

Beginning this Friday, February 1st, I am inviting the entire congregation to join me in a month of spiritual practices centered in gratitude. The idea for this was stolen from my wonderful colleague in Pennsylvania, Rev. Ken Beldon. The concept was his; the content is mine. In your order of service, you’ll find an introductory sheet describing the practices for each day. But that is just the beginning. On my blog you will be able to find entries for each of the 29 days of February and a lengthier description of the practice for each day, plus resources, and perhaps some quotes or additional reflections. You will also notice that I will leave the comment section open. You can write your own reflections about participating in the daily practice of gratitude.

A few “nuts and bolts” comments: First, any of these practices can be easily modified for solo practice or family practice. On my blog there will be some suggestions on how to do this. Second, most of the practices can be done in 5 to 15 minutes. Third, all but two or three of them cost nothing. Fourth, you are grown ups. You can alter them, switch days, or whatever. Fifth, have fun.

Finally, I can’t force any of you to participate. All I can do is offer the invitation. What will be the results of the month of gratitude? I have no idea. This is a big experiment. But I am curious about the results of the experiment. What will happen to us individually if we commit to a daily practice of gratitude? What will happen to our congregation if enough of us take up this challenge? Like I said before, I have no idea. That is why it is a big experiment. But, I think we’re on the right track. After all, gratitude is the practice that comes easiest to Unitarian Universalists.

I do, however, have a few hypotheses about what might happen. In discussing this sermon-series with the worship committee, one of its members, T.K., shared the results of a psychological study that I found absolutely fascinating. According to this study, if at the end of your day you make a list of three things particular to that day for which you are thankful, and then speak those things out loud to another person, it has the same effect as taking a low-grade anti-depressant drug. The types of things that might be on such a list could include: hitting every green light on the way to work; receiving a compliment on your sweater while in line at the store; receiving praise for a project at work or school; getting a caring call or email from a friend or relative; seeing a cardinal; or even just enjoying a perfectly ripe piece of fruit.

There are some things on the list that may seem like they have nothing to do with gratitude. For example, on one day, I ask you to celebrate the fact that February is National Baking Month and National Cherry Pie month by baking something. What does baking have to do with gratitude? On the surface, nothing. But go deeper. If you bake with somebody, can you be thankful for time spent in another’s company? If you bake for somebody, can the act of baking be an act of love and an expression of gratitude? Or, ask the Ancient Hebrews. In the Jewish tradition, they commemorate Passover with the eating of unleavened bread, Matzoh. The ancient story tells of the Hebrews needing to flee so suddenly from Egypt that the bread had no chance to rise. For the rest of the year eating risen bread calls to mind freedom and having a settled home. And then, there is the miracle of nature, the magical alchemy of yeast that makes the bread rise.

About two years ago I delivered a sermon on a book by the title, “How to Want What You Have.” The book described three practices: the practice of compassion, the practice of paying attention, and the practice of gratitude. What I discovered was that these practices were inseparable, not bounded, not hermetically sealed one from the others. As you pay more attention you become more thankful; as you become more thankful you also become more compassionate. Work on any one of the three and the other two develop as well. There is an interconnectedness that is evident in all of this.

So, I want to explore gratitude with you, first with a couple of examples and then from a more theoretical basis:

During my entire four and a half years as your minister I have only received two anonymous letters of criticism. Now, my official policy about anonymous feedback is that it goes directly to the shredder and I ignore it as if it was never received. There are two reasons for this. First, anonymous criticism goes against the democratic values for which our religious tradition stands. A democracy aspires to transparency and openness. Our legal system demands that the accused know who their accusers are. The whole point of free speech (or free press, or free assembly, or free anything) is that people can express their own opinions in their own name. The second reason I have the policy of ignoring anonymous criticism has to do with the type of community we hope to build. In such a community, communication is open and direct. Secret and indirect communication has a toxic effect on communal life. But, of course, there is policy and there is reality. The reality is that I do read it, and even though I pretend to ignore it, I do actually stew and steam.

I consider it a sign of health that I’ve only received two anonymous letters of criticism in my 4 1/2 years here. (And, to be honest, I’ve received many, many more letters of anonymous praise, some of them with money inside, and I don’t shred those so I guess that makes me a bit of hypocrite. But I’d still love to know who sent them, so I could thank them.)

In any event, back in 2003 after my first couple of months here I got this anonymous note that said that I chewed with my mouth open. I had already broken bread with dozens and dozens of church members and I had no idea whatsoever who sent it. My decision was immediately two-fold. I could cultivate and direct hatred, irritation, indignation, and wrath towards this mystery person. I could say, “Well, you ain’t exactly Emily Post, either.” Or further, I could fantasize about this person as being someone with horrible body odor, someone who trails six feet of toilet tissue from their shoes, someone who possesses a great fondness for velvet Elvises. Or, I could choose compassion instead – openness on my part despite their anonymity that cut off connection. And from compassion to gratitude – a kind of gratitude that does not condone anonymous criticism but can hold that other in a compassionate place – maybe they would be too embarrassed, too introverted, too intimidated to approach me directly.

One of my colleagues with whom I am most intimate about sharing the joys and sorrows of our ministries and our lives once described a particularly painful situation in her personal life, but then framed that grief in the language of gratitude. At first I wanted to tell her that there is a whole selection of emotions that one very well might feel under these circumstances, but gratitude is not among them. It turns out I was the one who was wrong. For her, a combination of attentiveness and compassionate resulted in gratitude, as unlikely as that was.

Recall one of the most challenging passages from the Christian scriptures: “Love you enemies, do good to those that hate you. Bless those that curse you; pray for those that persecute you.” Gratitude may seem like the easiest of practices, but it just may have the capacity to lead us to places of tremendous strength and depth.

So, this is my challenge to you. Over the next month, experiment with the practice of gratitude. Experiment with gratitude by yourself and experiment with gratitude in cooperation and in community with other people.

What will be the result? I can’t promise anything. But the result may be greater attentiveness, greater compassion, greater awareness of the world around you and – as a consequence of that awareness – a deeper investment in the world around you. It may help you to recreate the culture of this world when you find that culture wanting and diminishing of human life.

Take some risks.

Try out something new.

Bake something.

Being grateful is much better than the alternative.