My colleague Barbara Merritt tells a story about a spiritual teacher in India who was asked: “What is the worst karma a person can undergo here on earth? What is the greatest difficulty? The harshest circumstances?” She said the responses that immediately came to her mind were things like “financial poverty, to be born in a war-torn country, mental illness, debilitating physical illness, domestic abuse….”
But the teacher’s answer wasn’t any of these or anything like that. He named being ungrateful as the worst karma. He said, “If you suffer from ingratitude then it won’t matter what blessings and goodness are in your life, you won’t be capable of receiving it. In contrast, if you are grateful, then even in the most challenging of circumstances, you will be able to recognize the many gifts that you are receiving.” (www.questformeaning.org/quest-article/gratitude-may-2011/)
Being ungrateful is for many people the greatest difficulty, or at least one of them. When ungrateful, we get in our own way. Ingratitude prevents us from enjoying our lives and keeps us from being thankful for what we do have.
It’s usually easy to be grateful for the extraordinary things, for the really big things – like when someone goes out of their way to offer help or present a beautiful gift or make a major contribution to society. These grand gestures that people make rarely get forgotten or overlooked. The same is true of nature’s gifts. A stunning sunset or natural wonder stops us in our tracks with gratitude.
Blessings that don’t always receive intentional acknowledgment are the routine ones and the ones we have come to expect. These are the things like running water and having food to eat every day, even the freedom to vote, speak out, and protest. The failure to notice these moments means blessings and experiences can go by without being appreciated.
I was reminded of this several times this week. One day I had to run out earlier than normal in the morning and got caught up in a long line of cars at the elementary school a few blocks from my house. I was irritated. I started feeling annoyed with people who don’t live in my neighborhood who clog up my streets and cause me inconvenience.
But then I started thinking about how lucky I am to have a flexible schedule so that I can leave the house at a different time most mornings. I have a reliable car that keeps me warm in the cold weather. I have a short and easy commute especially in light of how many people spend lots of hours in snarled traffic commuting to and from work.
It’s wonderful to see young children in my neighborhood on a regular basis, and I’m grateful for our educational institutions and the teachers. Another morning - the coldest we’ve had so far this fall, my electricity went out. I was resenting it. I had to call the electric company. I had no idea when it would come back on. What a nuisance!
While my electricity was out, and especially when it came back on, I was grateful for heat, lights, and a working stove.
Both of these inconveniences this week were reminders of how much I have to be thankful for. Not that I’m grateful to get stuck in traffic or to be without electricity. But grateful for what I do have. It’s soulful and humbling to bring attention to the simple things. My colleague Michael Schuler in Making the Good Life Last writes: “I believe that to live is a privilege, and for that privilege I always feel grateful.”
According to Psychology Today, “Gratitude is an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has—as opposed to a consumer-oriented emphasis on what one wants or needs.” (www.psychologytoday.com/basics/gratitude)
Our culture feeds the feeling not only that we don’t have enough but that we aren’t enough. That we need more. That we should have more. This can include the nagging feeling that we should have a better job, be a better parent, look better, and have more friends. And if you feel lacking in any of these, there’s a product you can buy to improve whatever is not good enough, even if that is you. Cosmetics and cosmetic surgery, self-help books, clothing, gadgets, etc. Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to grow. Growing and making improvements in our lives is not the same as acquiring more things.
Gratitude helps counter the constant urge to have and be more and more. Gratitude helps us remember what we already have. The Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
My colleague Galen Guengerich goes so far as to identify gratitude as central to Unitarian Universalist theology. We may not think of gratitude as a theological concept, but he defines it as part of religious practice. Guengerich defines gratitude as a theological concept for two reasons. First of all, gratitude is a discipline. Second, it is an ethic. He says:
The discipline of gratitude reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and world around us for everything that matters. From this flows an ethic of gratitude that obligates us to create a future that justifies an increasing sense of gratitude from the human family as a whole. The ethic of gratitude demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return. (www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/11144.shtml)
In other words, being grateful for what we have reminds us that we are connected to each other and that we have a responsibility to each other. Being ungrateful does just the opposite. It alienates us from this connection. The moments when I am caught up in feeling ungrateful, I definitely don’t feel that connectivity. What I feel is powerless, unhappy, agitated, impatient, overwhelmed, insignificant, slighted. Just notice next time you feel ungrateful how that impacts your relationship with other people, with God, and with the world.
Here at church we strive to practice the discipline of gratitude and to honor the interconnectedness of our lives. Grateful for what we have we are motivated to respond to others and to the earth with an ethic of responsibility and care.
This morning I want us to express our gratitude for what we do have. One of the things we have is each other. In a moment, I’ll ask you to express your thanks. Don’t worry. You aren’t going to need to do anything fancy. We are going to express gratitude to each other for something we don’t think about all the time. Just for being here. Just for showing up this morning. For being who we are.
All of you got up this morning and instead of staying home in your pajamas and instead of going shopping and instead of going to the gym and instead of getting on the computer or watching TV, you came here. It matters that you are here. Your presence matters to everyone else who is here. Your presence helps to create the vibrant community of love we are building here.
So take a moment now to turn to a person or two nearby and say “thanks” or “I’m glad you’re here,” or if you know the person well you might want to offer a silent hug or bow to one another.
“Thank you.” These are powerful words. They are words of life, of living, of blessing, of appreciation, of worth, of joy, of intention, of love, of noticing, of spiritual practice, of ethical living. When we express our gratitude, we grow stronger and more connected.
In this month when we are thinking about living lives of purpose, most of us can use a few reminders to be intentionally grateful. May we each strive to be grateful - on purpose.
Thank you. Amen. Blessed be.