First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
Date: November 10, 2019
Wisdom Reading: Jainism. Tartvarthasutra 7:11, Genesis 1:24-26
Message: “Grateful, Awareness and Practice – Going Toward the Fear”
Jainism. Tartvarthasutra 7:11
Have benevolence toward all living beings.
And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them be responsible for the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and the cattle, and all the wild animals of the earth, and every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
Today’s section of the book Grateful by Diana Butler Bass addresses Awareness and Practice as it relates to being grateful. Throughout this section I was reminded of Meister Eckhart’s, by now, famous saying, “If the only prayer you said was ‘thank you,’ it would be enough. Bass encourages us to practice a life of gratitude. I have been known to say and write, fear, ingratitude…are less difficult practices to embrace than gratitude.
She points out that while gratitude may be an emotion, it is more than just an emotion – it is an ethic, she says, a framework of principles by which we live more fully in the world. It has to do with developing habits and practices that change us for the better. Gratitude, she writes, involves not only what we feel, and also what we do.
I have a friend and colleague who does counseling and has shared with me numerous articles about the practice of rewiring the brain for happiness and being positive. He suggests among many practices, when one begins to focus on the negative to immediately begin thinking about that for which we are grateful, something that makes us happy. He cites scientific studies that show literal changes in the way the brain operates when this is a practice. I am not there yet.
It is a process, a journey, finding ways to be grateful even when we do not feel particularly grateful. Grateful for a beautiful sunrise, the song of a bird, laughter of children, the beauty of fall leaves, a good friend and companion. These and more can be ways to be grateful regardless of our current mood or circumstance.
I think about these little things, like the other day when the car, driving far too fast, on Dodge exited onto the 132nd street ramp from the far-left lane, cut me off and several other drivers. I spoke to him from behind my steering wheel, probably a good thing he could not hear me. But later pondering perhaps I could have been a little more graceful, … grateful … that I was not in a wreck with the others trying to avoid the car, or that I didn’t have the same kind of emergency he did that would cause him to drive so recklessly, perhaps I did not know the whole story of this driver who was obviously in a hurry. Practicing such gratitude is difficult in the heat of the moment, it takes time and practice.
I have found it is more difficult when the pain, the fear, the bitterness, the suffering goes deeper and is more painful to find gratitude. I think a diagnosis of cancer, sitting at the bedside of a loved one as they breathe their last breath, the loss of a child, the loss of a dream, … there are times I think of these things and the practice of gratitude can seem so foreign and stark. I struggled a bit with this section of the book because I have seen the practice of gratitude be a denial of someone else’s pain and suffering. It takes time to journey through such difficulty and finding that which one may be grateful is a journey and a process.
I have seen it used as cliché or platitude that only deepens the hurt we are experiencing. In some respect this superficial gratitude is a refusal to acknowledge the pain. I remember a friend of ours who lost her husband at a young age and someone had made the comment that she should be grateful she had just been hired at a good job. She commented, she would rather have her husband.
There is cautionary work to be done when we read and try to put into practice a book such as this. I can cite times when gratitude is almost a privilege of those who can afford to be grateful and thus foist it off upon others because their pain is too great for us to witness or be present to.
It comes in many forms, one comment that came to mind happens often around Holy Week and Easter…. “Friday and Saturday may be bad, but Sunday’s comin’!” This is an incredibly hopeful sentiment and can be helpful., I’ve even preached it… However, for those whose whole life has been lived in Saturday of Holy week… with its grief, uncertainty, pain, suffering, and heartache… the promise of Sunday can be difficult for some to muster much gratitude.
I have never been able to be grateful for the suffering, loss, and pain of many things in my own journey of life… I would never choose to go through those things, nor would I wish them on anyone else. I have come to be grateful for some of the things I have learned, for the grace passed on to me from those I have loved, for some of the ways those losses, that pain and struggle have shaped who I am, however… it has been a long, long journey to get there.
One of my favorite images of gratitude is my dog Simeon. As with most of our pets… he doesn’t seem to be upset with the fact that we leave him alone all day… he is just grateful to see us when we get home. He doesn’t require much of us… he seems glad to just have a place to eat and sleep. I would say, I think, his most endearing quality is his willingness to sit with me, especially when he senses I am unhappy. When I am in his presence… sometimes he can even be in another room in the house… when I get frustrated with something, or upset… I’ll let out a cry, grunt, or growl of frustration… or sometimes it is just a heavy sigh, and he will come. He doesn’t assume I am upset with him, he doesn’t hide, or run away… he comes and sits next to my chair, or leans against my leg. He doesn’t get in my face, or lick my hand, or try to somehow make it better… he just moves toward me and sits with me, and lets me be until I settle down. It is calming for me and reminds me to be grateful for life. Oh, that we would learn better to do such with those who are struggling with gratitude.
The road to gratefulness as awareness and practice is a long journey… Bass points out a well-known rule of practice says that to become an expert at something, you need to devote ten thousand hours doing it. We start with the little things… even if it is one thing each day…
What is one thing for which you are grateful… right now… anyone?
Gratitude is not only an emotion; she writes, it is something we do. However, it is not a program. It is like tending a garden. It takes planting and watering and weeding. It takes time and attention. It takes learning. It takes routine. Eventually, the ground yields, shoots come forth, and thanksgiving blooms.
Let us continue on… Grateful. May it be so. Amen