Message 77, “Winter Readiness: Storing Up and Attitude of Gratitude”, 11-20-11

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


To listen to the message, click here.  To read, see below.

Most people who get to know me soon realize I am not a morning person.  I have the most energy at night and I hate putting an end to my day.  So I stay up later than I should, but I pay for it in the morning.  The cold glare of first light is not kind to me.  My hair stands up at all angles, there are bags under my eyes, and I am usually still half asleep.  I might mumble a few words, but I’m mostly silent.  Until I get my fill of caffeine, I am not a happy, chirpy person in the morning.  And yet, I probably should be.
I recently read a story about gratitude…….that made me think.  Have you ever experienced a sleepless night when you toss and turn in bed, you cannot get comfortable and you lie awake for many hours?  You fret and worry because you have an early appointment and yet sleep eludes you.  When the alarm does go off and wakens you from the few minutes of sleep you did find, you stumble into the shower, grumble about the early time, and then chase down coffee and toast.  Off you go to your appointment only to face morning traffic.  Your day, you tell yourself, has not begun well and most people would agree.
What if, instead of that scenario, you cannot sleep because your bed is a pile of dirty rags on a hard, dirt floor?  You awaken in the morning from a fitful sleep not from an alarm but from rain falling on your head.  Any grumbling that is heard is from your empty, hungry stomach.  And your commute to work is to walk a few miles to the local dump, where your day’s task is to scavenge for scraps of food and clothing in order to survive.  Such a scenario is not fiction – it happens to millions around the world every day.

This contrast of stories pricked my conscience.  What right do I have to wake up on any morning with a complaint on my lips?  What if I woke each day with a simple expression of gratitude that I was awake and alive?  What if, from the beginning moment of every day, I gave thanks for having a clean bed, a roof over my head, food to eat, friends to meet and work that satisfies my needs?  What if I gathered from my heart all of the gifts and joys and experiences I have accumulated…. to then see that compared to so many, I am a richly blessed man?  Might my perspective on life, on other people and on myself be totally different?  I think it would.  Indeed, as an old proverb says, “I once was distraught because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

From our “Winter Readiness” series this month, we have learned life lessons using metaphors associated with this time of year.  We learned two weeks ago that we cannot escape the universal law of consequences.  Each of our actions and thoughts affect our lives and those of others.  We harvest…..what we sow.  And last week, using the analogy of threshing………we looked at how times of adversity are good for us.  There are kernels of insight and growth that come from the threshing of life – and we can either embrace challenge, or flee from it.

Today, I want to look at the spiritual discipline of gratitude.  After storing up ……….all of the good crops we have received in life, can we learn to adopt an attitude of gratitude for them?  Can we draw upon the storage bin of our hearts all that we have harvested and winnowed and then give thanks?  I propose that none of us can find genuine peace and happiness until the very core of our souls is thankful for all of the big AND little things we have.  There is no man and no woman who cannot find blessings in his or her life – no matter their age, health or wealth.  And thus, few people have an excuse to be unhappy.   Indeed, happiness IS gratitude.  Depression and despair, my friends, is a lack of gratitude.

And recent research is proving this point.  Concluding a recent landmark study on the power of gratitude, two psychologists from the University of California at Davis and at the University of Miami, found that grateful people are healthier, happier and more successful in life and in relationships.  The researchers assigned one group of people to write down five things for which they were grateful over their past week.  Another group was assigned to write down five hassles they experienced in their past week.  After ten weeks of doing this, the gratitude group felt markedly better about their lives.  They reported fewer health complaints, they spent an average of 2 hours more per week exercising, they were more optimistic about the future and they felt closer to the significant people in their lives.  And a surprising outcome was also evident.  The gratitude group reported offering other people more emotional support and help with personal problems.  Gratitude cultivated goodwill for others.  An attitude of gratitude, it seems, is the perfect antidote to depression.

And such gratitude should also reach directly into our homes and families.  Another researcher, Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington, discovered a way to predict, after only three minutes of observation, and with 90% accuracy, those inter-personal relationships that will thrive and those that will not.  For every negative expression towards a loved one – a frown, put-down, complaint or expression of anger – there must be at least five expressions of appreciation for the other – compliments, smiles, or statements of gratitude – if the relationship is to succeed.   If this ratio is skewed toward the negative, the relationship will most likely fail.  How often do we look past the small hurts we suffer from people in our lives, and see instead the big picture of love, loyalty and decency from family, friends and significant others?

Gratitude, though, is not just found in mere words.  It is a cultivated and learned attitude.  The gratitude of which I speak is not a form of self-congratulation for all that one has achieved and acquired in life.  It does not to look around our homes and give thanks for the car, the flat screen TV or the computer.  Living in a culture that celebrates materialism and the aspiration to get rich, we are prone to be less and less grateful for what we do have.  If my eye is constantly yearning and seeking more, new, better and shinier, when will I have time to give thanks for the older, the sufficient and the reliable?  I must learn the power of gratitude for the simplicities of life, for the basics of food, shelter, and companionship.

An attitude of insufficiency, however, leads to suffering and pain.  We think to ourselves that we deserve more – in things, in relationships, and in experiences.  The opposite is true.  We find meaning and happiness in constancy, forgiveness, patience, loyalty and simplicity.  Almost all of us have more than enough material things – stuff that only gets old and soon becomes clutter we don’t throw away.  Jesus encouraged his followers to store up in heaven the kind of wealth that does not rust or get eaten by moths.  For a man who literally owned nothing, the Jesus ethic was one of contentment and gratefulness.  That is the stuff of real wealth.

An attitude of gratitude is also not a religious exercise – one of grateful feelings toward an unseen and unknown God.  People are the ones who build heaven on earth by marshaling the forces of goodness and compassion.  Since that is the case, being grateful should be directed to people and not a Divine Being.  Building a grateful heart is to give thanks, for example, for the clothes on our backs at this very moment – for the farmer who planted and harvested the cotton, the mill owner who spun it, the garment worker who wove it into beautiful cloth and the seamstress who sewed it into the garment we wear.  No longer should we take for granted the chain of humanity that serves and blesses us.  We are deeply thankful for them.  None of us, rich or poor, are islands of achievement.  Literally thousands of people have helped make us and enable us to be who we are.

Gratitude then causes us to see humanity in a different light.  We owe more than mere thanks to our world.  We owe debts of caring, time and money – all to pay back and be grateful for what we have been given by the human gods and goddesses who have served us.

Real gratitude is not an end-zone dance of self-congratulation – to use a football analogy.  It never shouts to the world “look at me and all that I have done!”   In fact, we have accomplished very little all on our own.  I daresay that without the inter-connected blessings and gifts from others, we would be nothing.  Nothing!  A gratitude attitude recognizes that every one of us has received far more in life then we have given away.  When we deeply internalize this fact, we are humbled by it.   It chastens us and our pretensions of self glory.   Who I am and what I have are the result of sacrifices from so many.  The only proper response, the only truly spiritual response, is to be profoundly grateful.

How do we adopt a gratitude attitude?  How do we transform our outlook that often takes for granted the gifts of life we constantly receive?  How do we genuinely become joyful and happy people?  Experts, ancient prophets and contemporary theologians all say gratitude is a discipline we must exercise and regularly work to nurture.  It rarely comes naturally.  Ultimately, it means seeing life through a lens of grace.  As the traditional hymn tells us, this is amazing grace.  Amazing in its big and small gifts.  We must receive them as if we are starving and have just been given a loaf of bread.  We were dying and then we are given the means to life.  Our feelings should overflow with grateful joy – we ought to be overwhelmed.  That is how we should feel and act each and every moment of life.

To get to that sublime feeling, psychologists recommend we do just what was done in the earlier mentioned study.  To exercise our gratitude muscle we should daily give thanks.  One method to do that is to keep a gratitude journal.  Each morning or evening we should write down five things for which we give thanks.  Next, we should regularly write a spouse, partner or loved one how much we love and appreciate them.  Finally, experts recommend standing in front of the mirror from time to time and verbally reminding yourself of the good in you and who or what helped create that attribute – your parents, the privilege of education, friends, your faith community, the book you recently read, etc. etc.  You are beautiful and kind and smart not because of yourself…….but because others helped make you that way.

Many of you know the story of Anne Frank.  She was a remarkable girl with a wisdom and maturity far beyond her years.  As did over six million other Jews, Anne and her family suffered terribly.  Enduring two years hiding from the Nazis within two small rooms – never able to venture outdoors or see the light of day, the Franks lived in constant fear of discovery.  After betrayal to German authorities, Anne and her family were transferred to a detention camp and later moved to Auschwitz.  Anne’s father was selected immediately off the train to die in the gas chambers.  Anne, her sister Margot and her mother were chosen to work in the hard labor camp – carrying heavy stones and breaking up sod.  Anne became very thin, infected with scabies and often tearful at the sight of young children being led to the gas chambers.  In the winter of 1945, after transfer to Bergen-Belsen, Anne and her sister found themselves crammed along with one-hundred thousand other women into freezing, outdoor tents.  An epidemic of typhus spread through the camp.  Anne’s sister caught it and fell from her bunk too weak to move.  She was gathered up and then buried alive in a mass grave.  Anne, also suffering from typhus, died a few days later at the age of sixteen.

Despite such a short life of unimaginable suffering, Anne remained almost miraculously grateful.  Poignantly, she wrote in her diary, “I do not think of all the misery, but of the glory that remains. Go outside into the fields, nature and the sun, go out and seek happiness in yourself and in God. Think of the beauty that again and again discharges itself within and without you…..and be happy.  In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.  I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death.”

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for so much.  I offer thanks for my family and my two daughters – two young women beautiful in soul and in heart.  I cherish the days they were given to our world.  I am grateful for the goodness of friends and relationships past and present – for the gift of love, caring and tenderness from each of them.  I am also grateful for my work – for this place that puts food on my table but, more than that, brings me in contact with people who are not perfect – as I am not perfect – but who see the world and ask not what is in it for them, but what they can do for it.

I could name a million more blessings in my life.  All of us could.  But I hope and pray this Thanksgiving we might each resolve to practice gratitude.  Each day, from the dawning moment of first light to the dying seconds before we sleep, may we find the time to be gracious to others, to be thankful, to deeply sense the magnitude of all that we have been given.  May we stand in humble awe before the wonder and beauty stored up in our lives.  As the Buddha once said, “We have no cause for any other feeling but gratitude and joy…”

 I wish you all a blessed Thanksgiving and much peace…