Message 40, “Toward a New Thanksgiving: A Spirituality of Sufficiency”

November 21, 2010

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


I remember when I was much younger, perhaps around eight or nine years old, I got caught up in the fad of the times to collect marbles and then compete in a game to acquire someone else’s marbles.  This was a 1970’s version, I suppose, of the current fad to play with Gameboys or Nintendos.  And, as a gay boy before I even knew I was one, I was not a rough and tumble guy involved in sports like football, basketball or wrestling.  But I did like the game of marbles and that gave me entry into the world of the cool guys.

My mom bought me a starter set of marbles and I remember scouring through them to find the ones that were most valuable – those with intricate design, clear glass or swirled patterns.   Art and beauty were foremost in my mind.   The color and the design had to be just right!   And so I began to do all I could to acquire more and more of the most elegant marbles.  I held on to the ugly ones too.  The more I had of those, the more it seemed that I was good at winning them in competition!  I can’t remember how long this phase lasted for me, but I what I distinctly recall was my desire to have more and more marbles and to seek after only the best ones.  Playing for fun with other guys became less and less important – I might lose some of my prized marbles.  What became most important was to carry around with me a bag of beautiful marbles – in multiple sizes – which I would display to others hoping to arouse their envy.  I had become a little, greedy, gay, marble tycoon – acquiring far more marbles than I would ever need!

Commenting a hundred years earlier on that childhood affliction of mine called greed, Mark Twain once said, A human being has a natural desire to have more of a good thing than he or she needs.” And the more modern commentator, Maurice Sendak, wryly noted on the same subject, “There must be more to life than having everything!”

What we seek today, as we have over the past two Sundays, is a new truth in our upcoming Thanksgiving.  The title of the holiday itself often frames our attitude at this time of year.  We are thankful for all of the blessings we have received.  In that regard, I imagine that on Thanksgiving forty years ago I was saying to myself that I was truly grateful for the hundreds of beautiful marbles I had collected.  What has stirred me, and I hope some of you in this November message series as we examined Native-American and Pilgrim spirituality, is the notion of living in balance – with nature, with each other, and with ourselves.  Thinking about the idea that our human propensity is to seek after excess – to desire more of things which we do not need – I wonder if our Thanksgiving thought this year and for the future might be gratitude for the things we don’t have?

This idea might be expressed in a number of ways.  I call it a spirituality of sufficiency.   This is not praise for all that we have or all that we must have.  Instead, it recognizes simple needs and sufficient supplies.  As a starting point, might we approach Thanksgiving with the humility the Pilgrims said they believed?   Once again, the ethic is to be thankful for all that we do NOT have – all of the unnecessary items and attitudes we could possess, but don’t – and to instead be satisfied that, for most of us, our basic needs in life have been met.

At that first Thanksgiving nearly four-hundred years ago, the Native-Americans shared their food with the Pilgrims in an attitude of sufficiency.  By sharing their food stores – their wealth – with others, they expressed a belief that there would always be enough for all.  This attitude was clearly expressed in their spirituality about living in balance with nature.  By consciously choosing to use and consume only enough for their needs, Native-Americans were assured that all parts of the universe would exist in harmony or within the Sacred Hoop of life as they called it.  I can well imagine the Natives giving thanks at that first meal not for the fact that their table was full with food, but for the fact that they had given away so much.  Since they believed in a spirituality of sufficiency, there was no worry.  They would have enough.  By giving away their food, they opened themselves to the joy, laughter and human connection of that first Thanksgiving meal.  As Mahatma Gandhi once put it, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every person’s need, but not every person’s greed.”

A new sense of Thanksgiving might compel us to reject the symbols of this holiday – a horn of plenty bursting with abundance, or a table heavily laden with all kinds of food.  Could we instead think in terms of economy, of ecology, of simple needs and of basic provisions?  Might we waste less, observe limits and choose never to take more than what is required?  All of this is certainly not the American way.  Our culture demands that bigger is better and that more is always the best.   More money.  A bigger house.  A roomy car with lots of horsepower.  A giant screen TV.  Larger food portions.  A plush and expansive church building.  Bigger.  Better.  More!  More!  More!  And that mindset leads directly back to the Pilgrims who so quickly were unsatisfied with a limited colony, who wanted more land and who wanted more power and more religious conformity.   From our very beginnings, Americans have seen life as having unlimited possibilities – to work more, achieve more, acquire more and consume more.  As we know, this has had both good and negative consequences for our environment and our way of life.

Almost all other species on earth have developed systems that value limits.  Instinct and evolution have taught them to spontaneously know when enough is enough.  Humanity, on the other hand, must consciously choose to set limits for itself.  We are a greedy and arrogant species.  We take more than we need and we think higher of ourselves than we should.  As we saw with Native-Americans, they chose to live a simple life within a natural system of inter-dependence and inter-connection.

This understanding of balance in all things must extend to all aspects of our lives if we are to fully achieve a spirituality of sufficiency.  In matters of wealth, might we come to redefine what it means to be rich?  Instead of material or financial criteria for measuring wealth, a new understanding of it would encompass having enough for one’s basic needs, having time to experience laughter and play and having access to meaningful interaction with other persons and other creatures.

Also, instead of placing a solely economic measure on our work, we might value it for the degree of satisfaction, community impact and meaning it brings.  Even further, diligence and hard work – which are often cited as the means to greater financial wealth – these might also be redefined.  We act in ways that seem virtuous – buying, selling or working hard to achieve economic growth that creates jobs or opportunities for others – but what if we cut back?  What if we realized we have enough and do not need more?  What if, in our work, we realized we already have enough and do not need to work more simply to achieve finances beyond what we need?  Concepts of job sharing come in to play.  Perhaps there are many of us who work and earn beyond what we need.  We could share our job in order to allow another to make just enough for their needs.

We can work harder at building the kind of quality wealth I just defined.  By working less – perhaps in job sharing – we would free up time in life to build the kind of wealth that we truly want  – emotional satisfaction, play, reflection and time for loved ones, friends and self.  Personal fulfillment and satisfaction, therefore, need not be met solely through our jobs or through an accumulation of wealth beyond our basic needs.

In our reflections, meditations and prayers this upcoming holiday season, can we envision a new spirituality in giving thanks?  There exist on this blue marble planet, hanging in the vastness of space, over six billion fellow humans.  It seems there can barely be enough of the sun, water, land and air we need to survive.  And yet there is enough if we appropriately share.  We find in our lives too many things and too many extras that consume our time and attention.  We frequently fail to live as humble souls in harmony with each other and with other creatures.   Let us give thanks, this Thanksgiving, for all that we do NOT have.  And let us remember that there are many who cannot offer such a prayer for they truly have nothing.  To the child somewhere in this world who rummages through garbage heaps to find daily food, to the homeless woman asleep on the doorsteps of a local church, to the confused and frightened gay teenager thinking of suicide, to the sick and weary one, alone in a nursing home or hospital, without friend or family, who simply waits to die, there can never be enough.  In our spirituality of sufficiency, we remember there are far too many people with whom we can share our bounty of time, of money and of love.

Within our family of friends and loved ones here at the Gathering, we have so much.    We are a deeply grateful people.  To whom much has been given, much is expected.

We have more than enough.

May we have hearts to give away our surplus.

And then, may we joyfully celebrate this Thanksgiving all that we do not have and do not need…