Sunday, November 20, 2011

Gratitude in a Complex Context

Preparation for the Sermon:  Can you feel it in the air?  The Holiday season is just around the corner.  For some this is a time filled with stress, maybe with loneliness or with sorrow.  Or maybe even with anger at the commercialism which invades what used to be sacred space and time.  But for me…..  Wow!  Thanksgiving season is the beginning of a magical time.  A time of childish wonder and of rich traditions and memories!   Actually, you have most likely seen the picture of my childhood Thanksgivings.  Norma Rockwell painted it.  The grandparents, the table crowded both with people and with all the traditional dishes—mashed potatoes and gravy, candied sweet potatoes, cranberry salad, green beans, pecan pie and, of course, that beautiful golden brown turkey being carried in triumph to the table.

That was my childhood Thanksgiving.  A small Midwestern town. The big white house with the turreted front parlor, the wrap around front porch.  The coats piled in the entrance room on the bench, hats perched on the antlers of the Stag hanging on the wall.  And people….me and my brothers and sisters, mom and dad and my Grandparents, Aunts, uncles, cousins…and cousins….and cousins.  We could be a mass of humanity numbering 30 to 40 filling that big white house with the roars of greeting and the squeal of children wallowing in hugs and kisses from doting aunts and uncles and grandparents.

There was the baby grand piano around which we gathered to sing (Often in 4 part harmony), the living room where we crowded onto sofas and laps and spilled over to fill the oriental carpet on the floor for the stories and the now lost art of the parlor games.  There was the traditional touch football game in the sprawling side yard, and the climbing race to the top of the three story blue spruce in the back yard. And the aromas which filled every room with the hints of the dinner feast soon to follow.  It was idyllic.  Everything was perfect.  Everyone was perfect.  Life was perfect. And the world was perfect. 

And it remained that way until one day in college when I learned that my perfect Midwestern town was a hotbed for the Klu Klux Klan, and home to three John Birch Society chapters and that during the height of the civil rights marches, town fathers were on the roofs of the Elks and the Moose lodges on opposite ends of town with rifles and shotguns waiting for those people to try to march into our town.  The Norman Rockwell façade began to fade away as the realities of the underbelly of my perfect town were exposed. 

And with the passage of time and of childhood innocence, my perfect family began to take on more of the tarnish of common humanity.  I can now see that the holiday suits, dresses, perfumes and colognes only disguised the grudges and resentments and harsh criticism underneath and do not resolve them.  That, in addition to the hugs and the casseroles and the candies and the flowers, other things also come in through the door on Thanksgiving day.  My father’s and my uncle’s alcoholism.  My aunt’s mental illness.  My cousin’s teen-age pregnancy.  My sister’s rape.  My cousin’s drug dealing and drug abuse.  These were also present within the annual family gathering.  As a wide eyed boy I was totally oblivious to most of this history.  Even in adulthood it was never discussed –seldom even acknowledged openly. 

Yet this morning, I can still recall those Thanksgivings of my childhood and how they were filled with love, with music and laughter, the sense of belonging.  I no longer see the world as perfect or my family as perfect.  And, despite the erosion of some of my childhood naïveté, this remains a Norman Rockwell, magical time for me.  I celebrate with thanksgiving for the goodness that coexists in the midst of the imperfection.  It is a time to gather together, to remember, to celebrate and to be grateful.  Happy Thanksgiving.    (Bob Kiefer)                                                                                                   
* * *

The Thanksgiving legend begins in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  The original feast was probably held in early October 1621 and was celebrated by the 53 Pilgrims who survived that first year, along with the Wampanoag chief Massasoit and 90 of his men. Rather than the one day event we’ve become accustomed to – followed by the obligatory “Watching of the Football Game” –  this so-called “first thanksgiving” apparently lasted for three days and featured a menu including numerous types of waterfowl, wild turkeys, fish, and lobster, procured by the colonists, and five deer brought by the Native Americans.  (Right now there’s a debate among some of my friends on FaceBook about whether or not seal was also on the menu.)
Of course, now that I live here instead of on Cape Cod I feel compelled to note that many historians point out that the first thanksgiving celebration in what would become the United States was actually held here in Virginia, where Thanksgiving services were routine as early as 1607.  (Take that, Massachusetts!) 
Be that as it may, though, in the popular mind the “first Thanksgiving” took place in Plymouth, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has staged a reenactment of Thanksgiving each year since 1921 (which was the 300th anniversary of that 1621 harvest festival).  People gather in 17th  century costume at a church on the site of the Pilgrims' original meeting house. After prayers and a sermon, they march to Plymouth Rock. Not surprisingly, this annual event has become something of a tourist attraction.
1970 was the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim's arrival.  Wamsutta, a Wampanoag elder, had been invited to the festivities to speak on behalf of the Native peoples.  The planning committee saw a copy of Wamsutta's intended remarks in advance, however, and they expressed concerns over what they described as the "inflammatory nature" of the speech.  They actually went so far as to have a PR person rewrite it and they told him that he could either read their revision or be disinvited. 
So Wamsutta left the event and went to nearby Coles Hill, near the statue of Massasoit, and delivered his speech.  A plaque, the one pictured on the cover ofyour order of service, marks the spot.  This is, in part, what he said:
"It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you - celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People.
Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans. Mourt's Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men. Mourt goes on to say that this party took as much of the Indians' winter provisions as they were able to carry.
Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.
What happened in those short 50 years? What has happened in the last 300 years?"
The Thanksgiving legend and the Thanksgiving reality do not always line up neatly.
In Steve Amick's book The Lake, The River, and theOther Lake, there is a scene which reminded me of something the theologian Fred Buechner said about the Christian Scriptures – it’s "not too good to be true, it's too good not to be true."  As far as I can tell, nothing like this ever actually happened, but it should have . . . and it most certainly has in countless imaginations.  The scene involves Chief Joseph One-Song, an apparently fictional Ojibwe chief who, as one character put it, "knew how to make a statement."  In  the story Chief One-Song is invited to speak before the U.S. Congress in January 1837 at the granting of Michigan's statehood.  Let me read a bit of the book:
"The chief's speech was actually only two lines – eight words plus a healthy helping of wheeze and spittle . . . In translation from the Ojibwe, roughly: "You have all been a great disappointment. When are you leaving?"
I can't find this anywhere in the history books but, as I said before, it should be.  It's essentially what Wamsutta said at the first National Day of Mourning, that Massasoit's "peaceful acceptance" of the Pilgrims was "perhaps [the Wampanoag's] biggest mistake."
Now I feel compelled to point out that the NationalDay of Mourning, itself, is not without its controversy, even within the Native American community.  Russell Peters, one-time President of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council has written:
"While the `Day of Mourning' has served to focus attention on past injustice to the Native American cause, it has, in recent years, been orchestrated by a group calling themselves the United American Indians of New England. This group has tenuous ties to any of the local tribes, and is composed primarily of non-Indians. To date, they have refused several invitations to meet with the Wampanoag Indian tribal councils in Mashpee or in Gay Head. Once again, we, as Wampanoags, find our voices and concerns cast aside in the activities surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday in Plymouth, this time, ironically, by a group purporting to represent our interests."
And so even the protest is protested.  Yet that makes the confusion greater not less, doesn't it?  Is the third Thursday in November a Day of Thanksgiving or a Day of Mourning?  Is it a day to celebrate universal brotherhood and sisterhood, or a day to remember broken promises and a history of oppression?  Should we feel grateful?  Or guilty?
These questions bring to mind for me some of my favorite words from the author E.B. White:
"If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day."
Because it's not just Thanksgiving Day that offers us such a conundrum.  It's virtually every day.  If you read the paper before heading out in the morning do you curse the world or marvel at the blue sky?  Do you despair about the world we're leaving our children, or wonder at the hope they innocently offer?
It’s often said that most ministers really only have one sermon that they keep repeating in different forms.  I think I have at least a couple.  And one of them is that we need to strive to retrain ourselves away from either/or thinking so that we can embrace the world as it is, which is both/and.  We are called to save the world and to savor it – both.  Life is full of sorrow and of joy – both.  The glass is half full and it's half empty – both.

Actually, I saw a great cartoon recently.  It shows a glass with water up to the midway point.  A line points at the bottom and says, “1/2 water.”  Another line points to the top and says, “1/2 air.”  The caption reads, “Technically, the glass is always full.”

Two weeks ago we talked about the importance of having a practice of gratitude, the development of an intentional awareness of the miracles that surround us.  And remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s saying that the miracle is not “walking on water or walking in the air but simply walking on this earth.”  Even without burning bushes we are surrounded by miracles.

Last week, though, we noted that sometimes life is hard – sometimes really, really hard – and it might then seem to be impossible to be grateful.  And yet, perhaps, it’s exactly at such times that it’s most important.

This week I want to make things a little more complicated because, of course, we live in a really complicated world.  Photons act as both waves and particles.  83% of the universe is something called “dark matter” that we’re not even entirely sure exists.  And, of course, the world is both challenging and seductive, in need of saving and savoring both.

So the question this sermon was advertised to be about – whether this coming Thursday is a Day of Thanksgiving or a Day of Mourning – turns out to be just one version of a question we face all the time.  It’s the same question as to whether Thomas Jefferson is a paragon of liberty or a paradigm for oppression?  It’s the question Bob brought home even more personally for us – does the family glitter or is it deeply tarnished?  Is this Norman Rockwell or Dorothea Lange?

I’m going to let you in on a little secret.  There isn’t an easy answer.  There isn’t some over simplification that will work out all of the ambiguities and contradictions.

Life is messy.  It just is.  It’s not always fair.  Even when it seems fair in hindsight we discover how unfair it really was; and sometimes when it seems downright mean-spirited we look back to discover tremendous gifts.  As Ian Anderson said so long ago, “Nothing’s easy.”

The world we live in is not “black and white.”  It’s not even “shades of grey.”  It’s multicolored, a rainbow, with every color coming in myriad hues and tones and shades.  And the religious tradition we share, our Unitarian Universalist faith, calls on us to recognize this complexity; to acknowledge it; to embrace it; and to live in it.

There is much suffering, and there is cause for celebration.  There is promise, and there is pain.  Can you hold that?  Can you live in that?  Can you love that?
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Lori said...

You have a new follower. :) I came to services on 11/13, and have since 'friended' UUMC on FB and am now a follower of your blog. I repost your blog on FB as well. I love the worship weaving you all are doing. Best to you and yours for Thanksgiving and beyond. Lori

kloppski said...

Apologies...TJMC. :)