The following is the text of the service presented Nov. 29 by Joan Spengler. Our congregation found these words especially meaningful.
Chalice Lighting Apart but Together Cynthia Landrum
Apart but Together
Spirit of life and love,
We gather together in different ways this morning,
From computer screens, from telephones, from car radios,
We gather, reaching out across the wires, waving from a safe distance,
To come together in religious community.
From living room to front porch to car seat,
We gather as we are able,
Ready to be of service to each other, to the world,
Ready to build the community of hope and of love,
As we face this bright morning.
We are apart, but we are together.
Offering our love, our commitment,
Our hope, and our prayers,
In service to one another and this world.
It is a new way, but an old way, that we come together in worship today.
In Praise of Technology & Social Media
In praise of computers and routers and servers and all the hardware and software that can help us build our connectedness;
in praise of all the gremlins that live in the machines and bug our programs and help us to practice patience;
in praise of the trolls who dwell in the internet and push us to live out our first principle in real time;
in praise of power surges that eat our data and devour our final draft, for giving us the opportunity to rebuild and remember that our work is as much transient as it is transcendent;
in praise of the Error: Page Not Found, which reminds us that with some people we need to find new paths to make connections, because not everyone uses the same keywords;
in praise of servers that drop our connections which reminds us that all who serve have built-in limits to their capacity;
in praise of communication and connection, whether it is face-to-face or facebook-to-facebook,
We always risk errors, hurt feelings and misunderstanding,
But it is also, always, worth the risk.
Joys and Concerns – Do not leave you cares at the door. Do not leave there your pain, your sorrow or your joys. Bring them with you into this place of acceptance and forgiveness. Place them on the common altar of life and offer them to the possibility of you worship. Norman V. Naylor
Collection – The offering is a sacrament of the Free Church. It is supported by the voluntary generosity of all who join with us. The offering will now be given and received in grateful appreciation of shared hopes and values.
This talk had changed so much since its inception. Basically it was going to be a pity party; along the lines of “I am grateful that I woke up this morning, but I am stressed because I have so much to do; or I’m grateful for my wonderful kitty cats, but I really hate cleaning the litter box.” You get the idea. For every good thing that we are grateful for there is an opposing thing that goes along with it that isn’t that wonderful. Like after you get serious about your diet and then realize that now you need to get new clothes. For some people this would be a wonderful thing, for others, the thought of going out and trying on clothes just doesn’t float their boat.
First I want to say that there is nothing wrong with a pity party. Sometimes things just overwhelm us and we need to put down the smile balloons and take our shoes off and sit and mope. This is healthy. We can’t be Pollyanna all the time. Except if you are Elly. I’ve often said that Elly makes Pollyanna look like a Debbie Downer.
But a recitation of all the things that are wrong with the world, the country, or the community today, and a resignation that they will still be wrong tomorrow isn’t quite the right way to be grateful. So I started doing some research into the concept of gratitude and I’ve learned quite a bit.
Gratitude is an interesting philosophy. Yes, it is the Thanksgiving season, and we are forcibly reminded to be grateful and give thanks. According to All About Gratefulness With Robert A. Emmons, PhD Bradley Cannon (and I will be quoting from this article often)
. The word “thanksgiving” literally means, giving of thanks. Thanksgiving is an action word. Gratitude requires action. There is the action tendency of paying back the goodness that we have received. Gratitude will not strengthen relationships if it remains silent.
We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts. But according to an excerpt from Scott Alexander in his Thanksgiving Sermon:
It is spiritually important that we not romanticize that first American Thanksgiving as some carefree festival of reckless joy. With apologies to Hallmark and my well-meaning fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Daley, the Pilgrims seated at that first Thanksgiving table were haggard survivors—exhausted men and women still thin and weak, wearing little more than rags. Yes, they were grateful to have endured, to be sure, but looming over whatever happy feelings they mustered must have lingered incredibly deep measures of grief and fear.
It’s a miracle of the heart that those pilgrims could even think of giving thanks to God, or celebrating life’s bounty with their Wampanoag neighbors. No one could have really blamed them if, as the first anniversary of their arrival in America approached, they had decided to hold a service of mourning for the dead and withdrawn into their own sadness in the gathering autumnal darkness.
It seems to me that what makes the real Thanksgiving story so remarkable is not the joy which the Pilgrims and Wampanoags shared on that day, but rather that their painful backdrop of grief was not allowed to block out their celebration. What makes that first American harvest festival so nobly instructive is our remembering the profound depths of misery which preceded the Pilgrim’s decision to celebrate and share. Somehow they were able to choose gratitude over bitterness, generosity over greed, thanksgiving over self-pity.
When things are difficult it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s really bad when that light turns out to be an oncoming train. That’s what those first pilgrims went through. They left their homes to come to a new world to build a better place for themselves and their families. And there was hope. But then hunger and disease hit, like that oncoming train. But those that made it through didn’t have a massive pity party, they had a feast to celebrate the mere fact that they were still alive. This is an example of true gratitude.
If your family is like mine, on Thanksgiving Day we sit around the table and hold hands. We go around and one by one we state something we are thankful/grateful for. I admit it was more fun when there were lots of people around the table. It was interesting to learn about what the others were thankful for. An aunt and uncle mentioned their bumper crop (they had a huge garden), a cousin was grateful for a high number in the draft lottery, another cousin was happy for good grades in college, and you get the picture. In a way it became a competition. Who was the MOST grateful. And this is the negative aspect of gratitude.
According to the article mentioned above (All about Gratefulness) there can be a negative effect with this sort of gratitude.
Does gratitude have any negative characteristics or effects?
One of the more interesting aspects about gratitude is that trying too hard to be grateful can backfire. We turn gratitude into a self-focused personal project. The focus becomes how I am doing, instead of what others are doing for me. A preoccupation with our performance actually hinders our performance. This is the single most important thing that I’ve learned about gratitude. It’s not about us!
Let me explain. Gratitude, by its very nature, is an external focus. It’s about receiving a gift or benefit from a source out there. It’s about other people doing things for us that we could never do for ourselves; it’s about noticing the good, taking in the good, and giving back the good. Self-forgetfulness promotes gratefulness and is the primary reason that gratitude produced benefits. This turns gratitude inside out.
Making gratitude a competition, trying to outdo someone else’s gratitude “Well I am more grateful than you for whatever” becomes self-focused, it becomes all about us rather than about gratitude.
So it seems an integral part of gratitude is honesty. Blathering on about things that you think you should be grateful for, but honestly you couldn’t care less about, is a lie. It diminishes the whole idea of gratitude. It becomes schmatitude. Sham/gratitude = schmatitude
Buddha is quoted as saying
- “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.” – Buddha
At least we didn’t die…That’s an interesting statement. And with the way things are going in the world today, I guess it’s a valid point. But there must be more to be thankful for than that. I don’t think we should just settle for that, we need to do more, be more to be grateful.
It would be horrible if what the old song said is really true – If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands. If we are grateful for something, we should be happy but maybe not satisfied with just that. But, you say, you are grateful for what you have, why should you want more?
According to Dr. Emmons this is a myth about gratitude
What are some myths about gratitude?
One of the myths about gratitude is that it leads to complacency. I’ve often heard the claim that, if you’re grateful, you’re not going to be motivated to challenge the status quo or improve your lot in life. You’ll just be satisfied, complacent, lazy and lethargic, perhaps passively resigned to an injustice or bad situation. You’ll give up trying to change something. But studies suggest that the opposite is true: Gratitude not only doesn’t lead to complacency, it drives a sense of purpose and a desire to do more.
There are more. Here’s an article I wrote on the myths: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_myths_about_gratitude
This is positive reinforcement. When a someone does something well, we tell them that we are grateful for what they did. That person is grateful for the praise and now wants to do more to receive more praise.
Yet sometimes we can get caught up in the cycle that we forget what we were grateful for in the first place. I’ve heard of people keeping a gratitude journal. Right now, it seems to be a thing on facebook. People post one thing a day that they are thankful for. It’s a great idea but I’ve noticed that when they get to day 18 or so, the things they are grateful for are starting to seem forced.
But let’s go back and examine the idea of complacency. As Unitarian Universalists we are reminded every day of our need to make things better in the world. Our fifth principle The right to conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregation and in society at large; and the sixth principle The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. All point to the work that still needs to be done. And there’s a lot of work for us out there.
But I think it’s important to remember all the good that has been done. We shouldn’t get disheartened when we look at society and see what needs our help, instead it’s a good idea once in a while to sit back and think of all we have accomplished and be grateful for what we have done.
As this essay states, sometimes it is difficult to see what we have accomplished because we are so busy looking at what still needs to be done.
Good Intentions and Incomplete Efforts
I preached recently in a building that was a beautiful old chapel in the country. Because it was old, it was one of those buildings where accessibility was a challenge. The congregation had just finished (I think the paint was still wet!) installing an accessible entrance and bathroom. They’d installed a small elevator before that. They were understandably and appropriately proud and I was enthusiastic in my gratitude as they showed me the improvements.
Then they took me upstairs to the worship space and showed me the pulpit, which was up four steps on the chancel. Those steps are not a barrier for me, but they would be for others. And we’d just been celebrating their good work in making the rest of the building accessible. And I choked. I stammered out something like “too bad those stairs are there…” which was neither very polite nor very helpful in reminding them there was still work to be done. And then I preached from their pulpit, even though it was inaccessible and even though I have a commitment to preach only from an accessible place in the room. (In this case, that just would have meant preaching from the floor rather than going up the steps to the pulpit.)
The hardest times to hold ourselves and each other accountable compassionately is when the work has begun but there’s more to be done. We want to acknowledge the effort, and it feels a little awkward to say “What a great start! You did something great, but you’re not quite there.” And sometimes, when we’re the ones who have begun to change, it’s hard to hear, “I’m still going to preach from the floor since not everyone can access your pulpit.”
I really didn’t want to get into politics but it was the first and best example I could think of. I am grateful that I was able to vote in this past election. But a lot of work had to be done for that happen. As a woman I am incredibly grateful for the Suffragettes who fought long and hard for this privilege. But we are not quite at that point where we can say this is a true democracy because so many roadblocks are there for others. So on the one hand I can be grateful for what I have but I can also see that there is so much more than needs to be done. And this dispels the myth about gratitude and complacency. We are grateful but we see we cannot rest on our past work for too long as there is more work to do.
And true gratitude can help in many ways other than improving our society as a whole. According to Dr. Emmons there are side benefits for living a grateful life.
What discoveries have surprised you about gratitude?
It would have to be the finding, now replicated in other labs, that gratitude improves sleep. This includes better sleep quality, shorter falling asleep latency, longer sleep duration, less need for sleep medicine, and less daytime dysfunction caused by lack of sleep. Given how sleep-deprived we collectively are, and how vital sleep is for healthy functioning, this is HUGE.
Gratitude also strengthens self-control. It makes people more patient. Not that this is super surprising, but rather it was an unexpected or nonobvious discovery.
So what could possibly be bad about gratitude? You didn’t think I could be so positive without mentioning the negatives, did you?
I did research on this too. According to Courtney W. Ackerman, MSc. Gratitude can backfire.
For example it is possible to overdose on gratitude.
When it comes to keeping track of your gratitude, the adage “more is better” doesn’t necessarily apply. If you set too high of a goal for your gratitude, you may find yourself falling short, which paradoxically could leave you feeling less grateful and happy than if you hadn’t tracked your gratitude at all.
2. Feeling grateful for someone or something who isn’t worthy.
If you are in a bad relationship with someone who is emotionally or physically abusing you, or who just can’t make you happy, focusing on gratitude may be the wrong choice. This could be a romantic partner, a boss, or a roommate, or some other living situation more generally. By focusing on all the ways you appreciate your partner/boss/roommate you may choose to stay where you are when you should be focusing on finding a way to get out of an unhealthy situation.
3. Using gratitude to avoid a serious problem. Gratitude helps you focus on what is important instead of getting caught up in the little annoyances of everyday life; however, not all problems are little annoyances, and focusing your attention on things you appreciate may provide you with relief from serious problems, but the relief will only be temporary.
4. Downplaying your own successes through excessive gratitude. After something good happens to you, you will only benefit from thinking about and thanking the people who helped make it possible. But of equal importance is acknowledging your own role in the process.
5. Mistaking gratitude for indebtedness. Gratitude is the positive emotion you feel when someone else helps you out. Indebtedness, on the other hand, generally leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth – someone helped you and now you owe them.
So you can see that gratitude can be abused just like anything else. And sometimes we just have to speak the truth.
In 1931 in NYC the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism decided to not only speak the truth but they went so far as to call for a national holiday of Blamesgiving. While others are expressing their gratefulness for the good things of the past year, there can be no harm in making a list of things that were not so good. This was meant to counteract all the religious thanks that were being bandied about at this time of year. They even had a hymn re-written for the occasion.
Blame God from whom all cyclones blow,
Blame him when rivers overflow,
Blame him who swirls down house and steeple,
Who sinks the ship and drowns the people.
Blame God when fell tornadoes spread
Disaster, leaving maimed and dead;
When dread volcanoes vomit death,
Destroying towns with liquid breath.
For clergy who with hood and bell
Demand your cash or threaten hell.
Blame God for earthquake shocks; and then,
Let all men cry aloud, “Amen!”
Admittedly this is more anti-god than anti-gratitude. I guess they were tired of everyone being grateful to god for situations where god had little if anything to do with.
Everyone is entitled to be grateful for whatever they want. Gratitude can lead to a happier life and better sleep. Just don’t over do it and don’t use gratitude as a means of escaping negative situations.
And since Thursday was Thanksgiving I would just like to say
“The thing I’m most grateful for right now is elastic waistbands.” Unknown
Closing words –
For What Shall We Give Thanks?
The wheel of the year has turned again.
Once more the Thanksgiving season has arrived.
How shall we sing our song of gratitude now?
For what shall we give thanks?
For this moment;
for friends near and far;
for our breath;
for courage and clarity;
for the tables round which we gather;
for the food we enjoy with friends,
seasoned with love and memory;
for the sun and moon and stars in the sky;
for the trees who have seen so much
and still stand proud, stretching themselves to the sky;
for the bright voices of children;
for the wisdom of elders;
for actions that bless the world;
for hard work that makes a difference;
for music and art and celebration;
For all these things, we give thanks
as we worship together.
Extinguish Chalice – We extinguish this flame but not the light of light of truth, the warmth of community, of the fire of commitment. These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.
Postlude – Blessed be the sky, blessed be the air we breathe; Blessed be the earth, blessed be the trees. Blessed be the falling rain and the vast blue ocean. Blessed be the hearth fire; blessed be the sunshine.
Blessed be our lives, blessed be our deaths. Blessed be the mystery, wonder in every breath. We only have a moment here to love; beauty all around us, below and above.