Message 111, “Thankfulness in Action: Affirming Others”, 10-28-12

(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


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Some of you might have heard of the African psychology or way of life called ubuntu.   It is a traditional way of thinking that comes from the African Zulu language and culture.  Ubuntu became globally popular in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa and promoted it as a new way of thinking and a way to bring differing cultures and people together.  As a distinctly African form of life psychology, ubuntu is a totally different way of thinking from the western ideal of celebrating the individual.  Indeed, ubuntu specifically says that in order to be human, we cannot be islands unto ourselves.

Our value, our humanity and our very meaning come not from our unique identity but instead from the part we play within the whole of humanity.  I am human NOT because of something in me, but because of me in something greater than myself.  I am human because YOU are human.  I have value because you have value and together, WE have value as parts of a collective whole.  Using the analogy of a multi-colored tapestry, each individual thread – or human as the analogy goes – is not celebrated alone.  The weaving of many colorful and unique threads into a wondrous tapestry is what is celebrated.  I am nothing by myself.  I am something because I am a part of the wide and awesome human family.

An essential component to ubuntu psychology is the idea that as a part of a collective whole, we do not tear each other down.  Instead, we affirm, celebrate and praise the other.  We are thankful for the life and actions of each other precisely because they impact our own well-being.  By affirming others, I not only praise someone else, I implicitly praise myself, since we are a part of an integrated whole.  If I lift you up, I lift up myself.  As I said, the ubuntu ethos turns western psychology on its head.  No longer do I live in a survival of the fittest world where I must compete and struggle in order to thrive.  Rugged individualism is essentially a dirty word in ubuntu and, thus, it is a hard pill for many Americans to swallow.  No longer are the lives and accomplishments of others a threat to me personally.  I want others to succeed because that will, in turn, help me.  It becomes a part of my very nature to affirm and praise others because, in a large way, I will affirm and praise people with whom I am intimately connected as a fellow traveler in this adventure called life.

Bishop Desmond Tutu once said, “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

As we move into the month of November and begin to think of Thanksgiving and the holidays, I hope our goal as individuals and as a faith community will be to focus on the larger meaning of the season – gratitude, generosity and finding a sense of peace.  For the sake of our November message series, we will look at how to put thankfulness into action.  How can we not only speak the appropriate words of thanks, but how do we show them, practice them and make praise a part of our lives all year long?  We’ll also look at how we find an honest appreciation for ourselves and then, how we can value the larger community.  What we’ll discuss and do over the coming month might seem insignificant, but I hope that just by doing what we talk about in these messages, we’ll better integrate thankfulness into our daily lives.

It is said that to affirm another person is to say “thank you” to them.  When we offer sincere praise for another, we tell them we value who they are, what they do and how they live.  It is a way of expressing gratitude for the diverse beauty he or she offers the world.  To affirm a person is to show them love.  Albert Schweitzer said that affirming others is a spiritual act because it touches the soul of another – it lets him or her not only know they are appreciated but also deeply feel in their spirit that someone else loves and cares for them.  Indeed, one contemporary commentator on spiritual life, Robert Fury, says that words of affirmation to another are like rainwater to the soul.  Affirming words, to use his analogy, soothe, comfort and nourish a person’s spirit.  How many of us have been deeply touched when someone else has taken the time to tell us we are worthy?  The Biblical book of Proverbs elaborates by saying, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, they are sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”

A problem for many of us is that not only do we not hear very many words of affirmation, we often fail to offer them to others.  Busy lives, discomfort and a skewed understanding of appreciation all hinder our ability to praise others.  Too often, we feel uncomfortable telling someone we admire them for what they do and have done.  We also tend to believe that someone must earn our appreciation or that the other, especially a partner or loved one, should be the first in affirming us.  In other words, our thinking about giving praise is much like some of us give material gifts – we do so in return for a gift received or in anticipation of a gift in return.  If we think about those motivations, we realize that giving praise in such a manner is not real and it does not come from the heart.  Genuine affirmation for a partner, spouse, child, friend or stranger does not come with strings attached.  Its spontaneous and originates in one’s own inner spirit.  The part of us that perceives good in the world sees such goodness in another person and then prompts us to show or tell him or her those feelings.

Much like we discussed last week in touching our spirits and finding our compassionate selves, being willing to regularly affirm others means we must work to silence our judgmental minds.  Why is it that we can be so negative with others – especially with people who are closest to us?  We judge others in their faults and mistakes.  We are often only too eager to tell the other what we negatively think of them.  We need not become mindless doormats, but that is usually not the issue.  We have to silence our minds that want to judge and blame.

The opposite of that approach is to listen to our hearts and see the beauty in the other person and then offer thanks for that.  What we find is that while we can perversely think negativity will somehow hurt or correct the other, judgment and harshly critical words only diminish ourselves.  Yes, we may have made our point, but what kind of legacy is that?  What have we done to elevate the other and thus heal our world?

While gentle suggestions and loving advice to others on ways to improve and grow is good, study after study indicates that affirmation is usually a more effective strategy.  I am lucky to have had some of you tell me when a Sunday message could be improved or that my style of speaking is too cerebral and thus I should focus more on my heart.  I appreciate gentle advice and I try and learn from it.  But, I’m also blessed to hear sincere words of praise for a message that touched someone.  If the person is specific and honest in their praise, my instinct is to continue doing what I did well.  The person has encouraged me in a positive way in what I did, and my future focus will be on working even harder at that specific approach.  And the same is true for any person.

If we affirm that which is good in a person – looking past the warts and figurative blemishes in him or her – we enlarge that person’s heart and mind.  Praise stimulates further action in the same direction.  One will be even more generous if he or she is praised for their generosity.  One will be more inclined to forgive if one is praised for one act of forgiveness.  Positive words of affirmation encourage people in their greatness.  Indeed, if we want a partner or lover, for instance, to be more loving and attentive to our needs, do we tear them down by pointing out how many times and how many ways they fall short?  Or, do we build them up and praise him or her for the ways in which they have blessed us and loved us?  Which do we think will stimulate growth and change in the other?  What approach would work for us with our own flaws?  It might be an old cliche but it has stood the test of time – as St. Francis de Sales once said, “A spoonful of honey is better than a barrel full of vinegar.”

Interestingly, that approach was applied by the apostle Paul when he wrote to a friend named Philemon – which is also the title of a very short New Testament book.  Paul wrote his friend in behalf of another friend named Onesimus – one whom he had recently met and who was an escaped slave.  Philemon was the owner of Onesimus.  Paul did not condemn slavery as an institution but he did implore Philemon to show love for a fellow Christian and grant equality and freedom to this one slave.  He did so by lavishly praising all that is good in Philemon.  “I always thank my God for you because I hear about your love for all of his people”, Paul wrote.  “Your love for God’s people has given me great joy and encouragement.”

Instead of berating Philemon for owning a fellow Christian as a slave, Paul praised him for the love he shows all Christians.  Whether or not Paul was employing a subtle form of persuasion, he implicitly knew that affirming words would work more effectively.  While historians are not absolutely sure, there are reputable indications Onesimus was freed.

Because so many of us, gays and lesbians in particular, have low levels of self-esteem, we can often seek affirmation in all the wrong places or in all the wrong ways.  We can seek it in substance abuse, in casual sex, in tearing other people down, in food, in being a work-a-holic, in filling our lives with material things, etc, etc.  Instead, what we know to be true is to seek affirmation in places and from people that build us up in authentic and meaningful ways.  Perhaps we need to avoid people who persist in being too negative toward us or others.  Perhaps we need to hang around people who affirm what is good in us and who call us to our greatness.

That is one fundamental purpose for healthy faith communities – they elevate, build up, encourage and support their members as well as the wider community.  I genuinely believe that is a hallmark of the Gathering and of this community of people.  Every member and every visitor is celebrated for who they are – no matter what.  Church politics and infighting are non-existent here – that alone makes this place very rare and very special.  Our focus is on doing good – for one another and for the world.  Egos are largely held in check.  Each of us, I believe, deeply wants to improve as a person in order to help others.  That’s why we’re here.  That’s why so many give and serve in sacrificial ways.  The Gathering is merely an organizational manifestation of the gratitude, compassion, service and innate decency of its members.

And that brings us full circle back to the value of affirmation and the psychology of ubuntu.  If we believe that we exist as a part of a greater whole, and its well-being is intrinsically tied to our own, the affirmation of others is a way to improve our own lives and that of others.  Living a positive life that is oriented toward building a better earth means that we want others to succeed.  From the President, no matter who that will be, to other nations, to our next door neighbors, to people who may have hurt us, to those in this room, we hope they are successful in life and in doing work that improves the world.  Thankfulness and affirmation are key to that thinking.  When anyone is encouraged and enabled to do well in life, we all do well.  When Philemon was praised for his love of others so that he might be encouraged to free one of his slaves, all of society was better off.

Ubuntu thus elevates the whole and not the part.  Ubuntu seeks harmony and peace – how much better to achieve that than through praise?  Ubuntu seeks restoration and reconciliation over punishment and retribution.  How much better to achieve that than to find the good in each person – to see the criminal, for instance, in his or her humanity and elevate that which is good and positive.  Ubuntu psychology is a way of thinking where each person instinctively sees the good in others, while forgiving the bad.  We see strength in another even when they are weak.  We see love, even when there is hate.  We see and encourage generosity even when there is selfishness.   As Peter Raboroko of the African National Congress says, “By appreciating the greatness in others, a person reflects the greatness in him or herself.”

Imagine how you feel when, despite your flaws, you are loved anyway.  Think about the impact an affirming person has had on your life when they touched your heart, saw your innate beauty, and then told you so.  For me, I have such gratitude for those kind people in my life – people like my daughters who praise me even though I’m not a perfect dad, to my mom who sings my praises to all her friends and is genuinely happy when I succeed, to lovers in my life like Keith who have told me I am strong even though I am often so very weak.  How might we see those in our life who have disappointed us – to see beyond their all too human flaws and give thanks for that which is good – their love, their gentleness, their decency, their efforts to be better?  We need not cynically and falsely tell them our praise in order to improve them.  Instead, we must let go of our judgmental minds and really see, really see, all of their good.  Whatever and whomever created them, we must see them as the creator sees them – a work of art, a wonder to behold, a gift to the human race, a life worthy of praise and thanksgiving!

My friends, life is too full of pain and suffering without us making it worse through negativity and critical words.  Who among us has not fallen short in life?  Who among us has not spoken with anger and hate?  Who among us has not been indifferent, unforgiving, harsh or dishonest?  We are each imperfect souls but, despite that, we are also full of love, empathy and generosity.  Let us see that good in each other.  Let us see that we are a part of all humanity struggling against a harsh world to build a form of heaven.  Let us be thankful for each other, for all people, and let us affirm them and live in a way that beckons each person to fly with angels and reach for their better selves.                                 I wish you all much peace and joy.