Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Practice of Gratitude

“For what we are about to receive, may we be truly thankful.”
This month we begin our exploration of the theme of gratitude.   Of giving thanks.  And I’d like to begin with that well-known family grace — "For what we are about to receive may we be truly thankful." You may have grown up saying this simple prayer before dinner, or maybe you remember watching the Walton and Ingles families saying it on TV — "For what we are about to receive may we be truly thankful." A prayer of thanksgiving before the evening meal.
I read a marvelous exploration of this prayer, though, by a man who realized that this prayer from his childhood, this prayer he knew so well, was not, after all, the prayer of thanksgiving as he had always thought it was. His father had led the family in saying that table grace every single night of his childhood – a practice he continued with his own family.  It had become part of the rhythm of his life.  Yet one day it struck him that this grace he’d been saying every night was not a prayer of thanksgiving but was, instead, a prayer of petition — not "for what we are about to receive we are truly thankful," but, "for what we are about to receive may we be truly thankful." This prayer was not about giving thanks but about asking for the gift of gratitude.
The truth is, it can be hard to say, "thank you."
Well, that's not really true. It's easy to say "thank you," but it can be tremendously hard to really mean it. To say, with all your heart and soul, "thank you" is a very humbling thing. It means admitting that there was a hole in my life which you have just filled, that there was something I needed which you had and which I now have only because of your generosity.
American popular culture praises self-sufficiency, honors those who stand on their own, asking for and needing nothing from anyone but themselves. Did John Wayne or Clint Eastwood ever ask for help when they were cleaning up a town? Did Sigourney Weaver ask for help when she was battling aliens? They all got help, of course, lots of it, but they never asked for it and they never really did say "thank you" afterwards. These heroes, these American Icons are, in fact, always the ones being thanked, the ones to whom everyone else goes for help. John Donne aside, these figures are islands, standing alone and aloof, needing no one. Strength of Character, in popular American imagery, means never having to say "thank you."
I've often wondered why it's so hard for people to write "thank you" notes. (Perhaps it's "better to give than to receive" in part because when you receive you've got write all those notes!) Sometimes I think it's because we're expected to say "thanks" for socks and underwear — never an easy thing.  Still, I think a bigger part of the reticence is simply because it can be so hard to say "thank you." You've got to humble yourself, you have to acknowledge both your lack and the other person's fullness, you need to publicly state that you cannot stand alone.  To say “thank you” is another way of saying “I need you.”  Rarely an easy thing, either.
In the thirteenth century the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart famously said, “If you can manage to utter only one prayer in your life, and it is, ‘Thank You,” it will suffice.”  “If you can manage to utter only one prayer in your life, and it is, ‘Thank You,” it will suffice.” 

“Thank you” may be difficult to say (and really mean), but apparently it’s pretty powerful when we do.  So let’s dig into this a little bit.

Some of you may know that we Worship Weavers have a wiki with which we wonder with one another about the themes that we’re exploring.  Any of us – all of us – are able to access it and add our thoughts, whether we’ll be actively involved in a particular service or not.  It’s an experiment as of now, yet as it develops I can imagine opening it to the larger congregation so that our pre-sermon conversation can be even more rich and full.

Thomas Collier put in his two cents for this service and suggested that we look at the 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger.  (Now I know that for some people Heidegger is, if you’ll excuse me, verboten, because of his membership in the Nazi party and his statements in support of Hitler.  I believe that this demonstrates that not everything he thought is worth our attention, but don’t believe that it negates all of his insights into dasein – being.

Heidegger argued that we live in what we might call an “average-everydayness.”  Most of us are living most of our lives immersed in the day-to-day, moment-by-moment, stuff of our existences.  The philosophers Lennon and McCartney put it like this.

“Woke up, fell out of bed.  Dragged a comb across my head.  Found my way downstairs and drank a cup.  And looking up, I noticed I was late.” 

(That’s from their seminal work, “A Day in the Life.”)

Heidegger said that we live the vast majority of our lives in such “average-everydayness.”  And, to be even more clear about it, this “average-everydayness” has something of a negative cast to it.  We don’t tend to notice, to be aware of, the things that go right in our world, the things that go according to plan; we take these things for granted.  The water’s hot in the shower; the microwave heats my breakfast; the car starts and gets me here on time.  None of this usually rises to the level of my conscious attention.

Yet the moment it’s only cold water coming out of the shower, or my breakfast explodes in the microwave, or the car won’t start . . . then I begin to notice things.  Then I’m aware of them.  When things work the way they’re supposed to I glide by on autopilot; when things break down I have a laser-like focus.

Here’s another example:  this summer a lot of us were complaining about how hot and humid it was.  Couldn’t stand another minute of it.  When was it ever going to end?  But how long did the “not-hot-and-humid” days last before we started complaining about how it’s too cold
The “not-hot-and-humid” days.  There are a whole lot more of them than the hot and humid ones.  The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has a teaching he calls “the non-toothache.”  When we have a toothache all we can think about is how wonderful life will be when this our tooth stops hurting.  Oh, it will be heaven, nirvana.  And yet, when our tooth actually does stop hurting, we quickly go back to living our “average-everydayness;” we lose touch with the miracle of the “non-toothache.”
How many of us woke up this morning singing praises to the sun because that pain we’d had a couple of weeks ago—the one we’d forgotten about until I just brought it up, thank you very much—that it was gone?  Or because that thing we’d been so worried about last month had resolved itself?  I’d wager that most of us have either completely forgotten about these things or had simply gotten absorbed in this week’s traumas.
But it’s worth noting that they’re gone.  It’s over—whatever it was, it’s over.  Or even if it’s not over—if whatever was troubling you is with you still—it will be over someday.  Everything ends sometimes, because life just doesn’t stay in one place that long.  And the question is, will we notice its absence when it’s gone?  Are we aware of the non-toothache?
Last night a friend of mine posted this on FaceBook:

Kid broke my printer tray, trapped herself under the bar stool in the kitchen, rubbed chocolate cake into the couch, threw crayons at the restaurant, mixed my rock shrimp tempura sauce with ranch dressing (with the aid of a french fry), kicked the dog, watched one episode of Scooby Doo and now will not stop yelling that she "hears a ghost!!!!" and put 45 puzzle pieces in my bed. I do believe I am a happy as I have ever been.
This is someone who, in that moment at least, was fully in touch with the “non-toothache.”  The story of what this woman went through to adopt her beautiful little “bee” is one I won’t infuriate you with.  (And believe me, it would bring you to a fury.)  And yet, throughout that entire ordeal she kept thinking about how glorious it would be when she was finally united with this little girl, her daughter.  And so, even after a day like the one she described in her post, she remembers, and “glorious” it most certainly is.
When I was growing up I read a lot by the author and Episcopal priest Martin Bell.  In one of my favorite passages he wrote, "Being thankful means saying yes to life in spite of all the obvious suffering and brokeness and guilt that's involved. It means enduring unbearable hardships for no other reason than to show up again tomorrow and be part of this whole wild cosmic adventure."
Living a Life of Gratitude, keeping always a "thank you" on our lips and in our hearts, is the key to living a life of Joy, and both are tied in with being Awake and Aware. Living life so that you see the lilies of the field, how they grow; so that you see the colors changing on the trees and notice how the sun plays on the mountains; feeling the warmth in a loved one's touch, hearing the love (or hurt, or joy) in their voice. To be thankful for the miracles of life we must be awake enough to see them; to be thankful for gifts given we must be aware they have been received. To be awake, to be aware, to be alive.
To be sure, this is a practice.  It takes, at first, a conscious effort to stay in touch with the miracle of the mundane – we’re so much more accustomed to being aware of the problems and looking for the burning bushes.  Yet every day of non-toothache, or not-hot-and-humid, is a blessing.  A gift.  The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh says that the true miracle is not walking on water or walking on air, it’s simply walking around on this earth.
I want to leave you this morning with an anonymous quotation a friend gave me a long time ago that has inspired me ever since:
"You are alive. It needn't have been so. It wasn't so once, and it will not be so forever. But it is so now. And what is it like: to be alive in this maybe one place of all places anywhere where life is? Live a day of it and see. Take any day and be alive in it. Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter. It is your birthday, and there are many presents to open. The world is to open."
And for that, may we be truly thankful. Print this post

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