Posted in Sermons

Sermon: A Practice of Gratitude

My pretty Thanksgiving Cactus in the sunshine

My gift for you today is a little book of Gratitude. If you carry your book of gratitude with you, maybe when a delight or something to be grateful for strikes you, you’ll be moved to write in it then and there.

The science is really clear: having a regular practice of gratitude is really good for our mental health. It increases a sense of well-being and happiness, and decreases symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. Studies have been conducted on well people and on patients seeking counseling. A Berkeley study showed that the effects weren’t just the immediate good feeling that comes from thinking nice thoughts. Using fMRI technology, the brain scans showed more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex when people were feeling gratitude, and these changes lasted up to three months after the practice was begun.

In another study, scientists asked one group of people to write down the things that they were grateful for on a weekly basis, while the other group recorded hassles or neutral life events. The folks who kept gratitude journals exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were generally more optimistic about the upcoming week—compared to their negatively focused counterparts.

This seems to be borne out among my friends. I asked on Facebook whether my friends had a regular gratitude practice. Those who responded that they did reported that it makes them feel closer to God, more empathetic, not as quick to anger, a better life, closer relationships, better outlook, and “reduced grump-butt levels.” My friends exist on a wide religious spectrum, and I know that these answers came from Christians, pagans, and those who don’t subscribe to any particular religion.

In my own experience, I’ve found that knowing I’m going to be looking for something to write in my gratitude journal has the effect of making me more present to notice things to be grateful for or finding delight in. What about you? Do you have a regular practice of gratitude?

Surveys show we WANT to be more grateful. One reported that 78% of Americans had felt strongly thankful in the past week. That number is so high that it seems likely that there’s some social desirabaility bias going on – we want it to be true that we feel deep gratitude on a regular basis. Diana Butler Bass, author of the book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, comments on this statistic and compares it to another study in the same year, 2015, and has this to say:

That sounds great, but those numbers also point to a problem: that of a gratitude gap. They reveal a disparity between our private feelings and our public attitudes. Social scientists have extolled gratitude as a personal path to peace, health, and contentment. Giving thanks, however, is more than a private practice; those same researchers insist that gratitude is socially beneficial and strengthens communities. Gratitude is about ‘me’ and it is about ‘we.’ Where is the gap? A week after the Pew survey on the gratitude question, Public Religion Research Institute posted a very different study regarding American attitudes as we moved into a Presidential election year. That study discovered that Americans were more anxious, less optimistic, and more distrustful than ever. Subsequent political events made evident a surge of rage, revealing a toxic level of anger, fear, division, and intolerance in the American electorate.

The survey puzzled me. Did the same people who felt grateful also express these negative emotions? Had they divided their lives into personal thanks and public rage?

She says further on, “our understanding of thanks is polluted by our toxic dissatisfactions.” When I read this, I immediately thought of Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday not only based on toxic cultural fables that literally whitewash our history, and it’s becoming a holiday of gluttony with a thin veneer of gratitude that seems to be thinning even more. Even further, in recent years, Christmas has encroached on our supposed thankfulness more and more to the point that Black Friday now starts at 6 pm on Thanksgiving Day, and peoples “toxic dissatisfactions” have them running out of houses full of turkey so that they can do battle for the best prices on the commercial madness that our American highest holy day has become. I wonder at how many tables this week thanks will be expressed for families, while failing to express thanks to family members.

Christmas itself often brings anxiety about the equivalency of our gifts.

For me, and maybe for you too, a practice of gratitude might feel a little messy if you don’t believe, as the Bible says in James, that “every good gift and every perfect present comes from above.” If your practice of gratitude incorporates expressing your thanks to God, I think that’s a beautiful thing. But I also think we need not forget those through whom those gifts come. Let me ask you this: if you believe in a benevolent deity, what would make them happier – if you spent every night on your knees pouring out verbal thanks to them in prayer, or if you shared your gifts, your blessings and your thanks with others? If all good things come from god, then your sharing – whether that’s your love, joy, gratitude, or material things – means you get to be part of the divine distribution process, and how cool is that?

And if you don’t believe that all good things come from god, then finding the source of your good things becomes maybe even more important. It makes me think of this meme I’ve seen before:

Gates was going to be my service coordinator today but couldn’t. She shared with me this video that I wanted to share with you:

AJ Jacobs on Gratitude

What jumped out to me in that video is that this exercise in gratitude drew Mr. Jacobs’ attention to what is our 7th principle of UUism: respect for the interconnected web of existence of which we are all a part. I think the heart of gratitude lies in this principle, and maybe also in the principle of democratic process.

Our society has roots in feudalism. Under that system, and systems before it, you do something for your lord – give him part of your livelihood – and he does something for you, namely, lets you live in his territory. This equation, where a benefactor bestows something upon a beneficiary, and the beneficiary is expected to be both grateful and often also to cough up something of value in return, is a societal more, and we’ve had a couple of centuries to shake it, but we’re not doing a great job of it. Your parents probably taught you that when someone gives you a birthday or graduation gift, you’re expected to say thanks. Even before that, when a stranger gives a child a piece of candy, we say to the child, “What do you say?” I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, it’s valuable to teach children to express gratitude. But, as this author says, “obligatory gratitude rarely has a heart.” It’s part of maturity to grow and express gratitude not only when it’s expected. When you express gratitude the way Mr. Jacobs did, to people who are underappreciated for making the world work successfully, then your thank you becomes a gift.

It’s important to separate the emotion of gratitude from the intentional focus on the present moment. It’s also important to have perspective, because from a mature vantage point, we can see that things that felt really awful in the moment were really, ultimately, something we learned from and grew. When you can be grateful for that painful event in your life, and see it from a new vantage, that’s a mark of maturity.

I think it’s also important to be careful, in our practice of gratitude, that it doesn’t become a kind of prosperity gospel. This is essentially what prosperity gospel teaches: God wants you to be materially wealthy and personally happy. Therefore, your wealth and your privilege can be considered evidence that you are blessed by God. This isn’t exclusive to Christian teachings. In the video The Secret the idea was popularized that the Universe wants your highest good and therefore, if you just ask in the right way, all good things will come to you. This is really just a non-Christian prosperity gospel.

Do you see the danger in this kind of thinking? It leaves everything else out of the picture. You have “stuff” because God likes you and he hands it to you. If that “stuff” comes at the cost of child labor or environmental damage or other people being disadvantaged, or any number of other societal ills, well, if it was the will of the universe, who are we to argue, right? And then, if we’re not being financially blessed, what did we do wrong, why have we lost the favor of God or the Universe?

If gratitude is only about the good feeling we give ourselves about counting our blessings, then it will help us cope with a dysfunctional system. But if we still carry around a structure of gratitude as a debt or obligation that requires payback, and if we find in our gratitude practice that the blessings we are counting are primarily first-world material things, then “it serves to reinforce hierarchical structures of injustice and spiritualizes gifts and blessings while offering only heavenly rewards to those lower down the system.” In other words, those who are well off see their blessings as evidence that God cares about them, while people who don’t have these privileges will, if they’re good, get some nice things when they get to heaven.

From Rev. Bass’s book:

We might be grateful persons, with thankful hearts, and be fanatical about gratitude journals and intentions, but as soon as we walk out our front door or turn on the news, we are confronted with a world of payback, quid pro quo, corruption, and ungrateful neighbors. […] If gratitude is built on a myth of scarcity and imperial hierarchies, it has been corrupted. If gratitude is privatized and collaborates with injustice, it is not really gratitude… Gratitude begins with a profound awareness of abundance and builds communities of well-being and generosity. Gratitude opens toward grace.

True gratitude, not transactional gratitude but transformative gratitude, cannot be quiet in the face of injustice. The sort of gratitude that changes our individual lives will also revolutionize our lives in community and as citizens. Gratitude as an ethic moves us from the kind of private thankfulness that comforts us to public practices that push us out of our comfort zones.

“The ‘me’ of gratitude must extend to the ‘we’ of gratitude as an ethic, a vision of community based on habits and practices of grace and gifts, of cultivating a wide field of vision and deepening our awareness of humility and blessing, of setting tables and sharing food for all. Gratitude is not merely resilience. Gratitude is resistance too. It is time for all of us to join in the resistance.”

You know, when Donald Trump won the presidency, as I told you a couple of weeks ago, my reaction was activism. But as my friend Angela said to me, we engaged in a sprint, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t have the endurance to keep going, calling my representatives every day and showing up for every rally, or, like her, running for office. I burned out. I felt kind of guilty because I had bought shirts and pins that said “Nevertheless, she persisted,” and “Resist,” yet I was not persisting. Maybe you’ve had this experience too, the constant barrage of more and more ridiculous news from the White House has just ground me down over the last three years. I started to wonder, what can I do that matters? My phone calls to Diane Black do not matter, not at all.

But over time, I started to realize that my best service to the community and the world was within these walls. I could find people who were similarly discouraged and be with them and make them feel maybe for the first time in a week that they weren’t alone. I could use the church’s voice in the community, put on my golden swarm shirt and show up for a rally to say “I will not forget the victims of this shooting,” or “I do not support children being locked up at the border.” The work of this faith community is small, but with networking with other liberal orgs in the community and with your support, it can grow. We don’t have to resist alone, because we’re together, and together, we’re making things happen. In the last few weeks our church has received a grant to help increase early childhood literacy in the area, and we can do that in a way that promotes inclusion and acceptance, because that’s our vision. Some of our friends have a vision even bigger than that. There’s a lot more our little church can do, and it starts with us. When I think of the things I’m most grateful for, this church is at the top of the list, right after my family. You’re at the top of the list. So I would encourage you to consider that in your thought process on gratitude, and if you haven’t made a pledge to help support the work of this growing church in our community, to contribute to having this little haven here in Conservative Cookeville, there’s still time to do that.

My blessing for you this week:

May you give thanks
May you express thanks to those who have blessed you
May you look at your blessings a little differently than you have in the past
May you see through the lens of interconnectedness.
May we have courage to resist when resistance is needed
May we as a community build within these walls an ethic of gratitude
May we model the kind of thankful world we want to see outside these walls

Author:

I call myself Renaissance Girl. Technically this is the place on the web for Deanna Lack, writer... but I do a little of everything creative and I'm going to lay it all on you.

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