1st UUPB SERMON March 11, 2018 Gary W. Evans
Today, our topic is Gratitude – the quality of being thankful; it’s from the latin word “Gratus”; the root word of Gratitude, and, of Grace.
In the same way that Christianity is defined by love, Judaism by obedience, and Islam by submission, I believe that Unitarian Universalism should be defined by – gratitude.
Two dimensions of gratitude make it fitting as our defining religious practice. One has to do with a discipline of gratitude, and the other has to do with an ethic of gratitude.
The discipline of gratitude reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and world around us for everything that matters.
From this flows an ethic of gratitude that obligates us to create a future that justifies an increasing sense of gratitude from the human family as a whole.
The ethic of gratitude demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return. It is our duty to foster the kind of environment that we want to take in, and therefore become.
The two forms gratitude takes in our lives (a discipline and an ethic) are natural outcomes of the two elements of religious experience (awe and obligation).
The experience of awe leads to the discipline of gratitude, and the experience of obligation leads to an ethic of gratitude.
We pride ourselves on being self-reliant and self-sufficient.
Our nation was founded on a deep-seated belief in the freedom of the individual. This freedom extends to every aspect of our lives, including the political realm (as democracy), the economic realm (as free-market capitalism), and the religious realm (as the motive force behind the Protestant movement).
But, this liberating emphasis on the individual also represents danger.
The temptation is to disregard our utter dependence on the people and world around us.
We think our purpose and destiny are independent of others.
We compare our possessions and accomplishments with theirs, and we resent what they have achieved that we have not. In short, we disregard our dependence.
Unlike freedom, gratitude is a uniquely religious virtue.
Because it has a sense of awe, and a sense of obligation, which are religion’s basic impulses, they are both experiences of transcendence, of being part of something much larger than ourselves.
The feeling of awe emerges from experiences of the grandeur of life and the mystery of the divine.
We experience the thrill of being alive and yet a sense of utter dependence upon sources of being beyond ourselves.
This sense of awe and dependence should engender in us a discipline of gratitude, which constantly acknowledges that our present experience depends upon the sources that make it possible.
The feeling of obligation occurs to us when we sense our duty to the larger life we share. As we glimpse our dependence upon other people and things, we also glimpse our duty to them.
This sense of obligation leads to an ethic of gratitude, which takes our experience of transcendence in the present and works for a future in which all relationships—among humans, as well as between humans and the physical world—are fair, constructive, and beautiful.
Put another way, the discipline of gratitude connects the present with the past, while the ethic of gratitude connects the present with the future.
When Henry David Thoreau went into retreat at Walden Pond, he and his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson had been studying Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist texts.
He wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
He understood that conscious life was a gift for which the highest form of gratitude was to know it in all its depths.
This grace of conscious life, of having a mind that can know “this moment is like this,” is the root of all wonder, from which gratitude flows. The wonder, the mystery, is that you, like everyone else, are given this short, precious time of conscious embodiment in which you can directly know life for yourself.
However you find life to be – cruel or kind, sorrowful or joyous, bland or stimulating, indifferent or filled with love – you get the privilege of knowing it firsthand.
Gratitude evolves into the practice of selfless gratitude, in which your concerns slowly but surely shift from being mostly about yourself and those close to you, to being about all living beings.
As this occurs, you need less and less in the way of good fortune. It becomes enough that there are those who are happy, who are receiving love, who are safe, and who have a promising future.
It is not that you would not prefer good things for yourself, but your sense of well-being is no longer contingent on external circumstances.
You are able to rejoice that amidst all life’s suffering, there exists joy. You realize that pain and joy are part of a mysterious whole.
When this state of selfless gratitude starts to blossom, your mind becomes more spacious, quieter, and your heart receives its first taste of the long-sought release from fear and wanting.
Real gratitude begins as appreciation for that which has come into your life. Out of this appreciation, a natural, spontaneous emotion arises that is gratitude, which is often followed by generosity.
There is a shadow side to gratitude, in which reality gets distorted.
It manifests as a hopeless or helpless attitude disguised as gratitude, and it expresses itself in a self-defeating, passive voice – “Yes, these things are wrong and unfair, but I should be grateful for what I have,” or “At least we have this,” or “Compared to these people, look how much better off we are.”
This voice, whether it is an inner voice or comes from someone else, is not to be trusted. Gratitude is not an excuse for being passive in the face of personal or societal need or injustice.
You are not excused from working to become a caring person, creating a better life for your loved ones, or protecting the innocent.
Acknowledging the great gift of a human life through gratitude is just the opposite; it is a call to action to be a caring human being while acknowledging the folly of basing your happiness on the outcome of your actions.
Sometimes you shortchange gratitude because your mind is stuck in problem-solving mode; it only notices what isn’t working and sets about trying to resolve it.
This might seem desirable, but in fact there will always be things wrong in your life.
So, you reduce your experience of being alive if you are only responding to the negative.
Is that what you want out of life? Do you really want to delay your sense of being alive while you await a future, perfect moment that is unlikely to arrive?
The phenomenon of comparing mind is another hindrance to practicing gratitude.
It is the aspect of your mind that notices, “She has a nicer car than I do,” “He is stronger than I am,” or “She is a better yogini than I am.”
Understand that there is a difference between discernment, the factor of mind that sees things clearly, and comparing mind, which exercises judgment and hides a belief system that says, “If only I have more of the right things, I will be happy.”
This is a false belief, of course, a mental habit really, but because it is unacknowledged and seldom examined, it holds enormous power in your life.
Unrecognized arrogance arising from a hidden sense of entitlement can also be an obstacle to practicing gratitude.
When you have a strong feeling of entitlement, you don’t notice what is going well, but rather what is not right.
It can stem from a sense of either having suffered unfairly or having been deprived.
It can also arise from feeling special because you are smart, a hard worker, or successful.
A mind trained in mindfulness of gratitude will stay attuned far longer and note more details of that which is good.
Disciplines teach us who we are. They remind us of commitments we have made and show us the path to walk.
I believe we as Unitarian Universalists are called to be disciples of gratitude—to learn gratitude as a daily practice. It is the discipline of gratitude.
Let me suggest a couple of simple ways we can begin to walk this path.
Some people keep “gratitude journals.” You can, too. Each morning or night, make a list of things, people, and experiences for which you are grateful.
Soon, you’ll find yourself paying closer attention to your life. You’ll notice the change in the air as spring arrives, the fleeting smile of a passerby, the resolute purpose of a child bound for school.
Life is constituted by moments like these. The discipline of gratitude gives us a new way of looking at the world.
Whether you write it down or simply pause to visualize experiences you are grateful for, you will benefit by and feel better by expressing gratitude, each and every day.
Try to actively notice things you are grateful for throughout your regular day.
For instance, when you’re stuck in traffic and it’s making you late and irritated, you notice that you can be thankful you have transportation and that other drivers are abiding by the agreed-upon driving rules, which prevent chaos and unsafe conditions.
In other words, there is a level of well-being and community cooperation that is supporting you even in the midst of your bad day.
And you can do this not just once or twice, but a hundred times each day.
You do so not to get out of a bad mood or to be a nicer person, but with the intention of clearly seeing the true situation of your life.
Traffic remains frustrating, but the inner experience of how your life is unfolding begins to shift.
Slowly you become clearer about what really matters to you, and there is more ease in your daily experience.
Each evening at dinnertime, pause for a moment, clasp hands if someone is next to you, and repeat these lines which are a common benediction often said at church:
“This is the day we are given. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
It will remind you of how fortunate we are to have each other, food to eat, our home, and this day.
The discipline of gratitude is about knowing how much we have been given and acknowledging the scope of our dependence.
It’s about saying “thank you” to the people we love, to the world we enjoy, to the universe we inhabit, and to the Spirit who holds us all in a divine embrace.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Adapted from various writings including a sermon by Rev. Dr. Galen J. Guengerich at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City