A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, November 25, 2012
PENETRATING THE WHOLE MYSTERY OF LIFE; GIVING THANKS FOR EVERYTHING
There was an old Taoist who lived in a village in ancient China, named Master Hu. Hu loved God and God loved Hu, and whatever God did was fine with Hu, and whatever Hu did was fine with God. They were friends. They were such good friends that they kidded around. Hu would do stuff to God like call him "The Great Clod."
That's how he kidded. That was fine with God. God would turn around and do stuff to Hu like give him warts on his face, wens on his head, arthritis in his hands, a hunch in his back, canker sores in his mouth and gout in his feet. That's how He kidded. That God. What a kidder! But it was fine with Hu.
Master Hu grew lumpy as a toad; he grew crooked as cherry wood; he became a human pretzel. "You Clod!" he'd shout at God, laughing. That was fine with God. He'd send Hu a right leg ten inches shorter than the left to show He was listening. And Hu would laugh some more and walk around in little circles, showing off his short leg, saying to the villagers, "Haha! See how the Great Clod listens! How lumpy and crookedy and ugly He is making me! He makes me laugh and laugh! That's what a Friend is for!" And the people of the village would look at him and wag their heads: sure enough, old Hu looked like an owl's nest; he looked like a swamp; he looked like something the dog rolled in. And he winked at his people and looked up at God and shouted, "Hey Clod! What next?" And splot! Out popped a fresh wart.
The people wagged their heads till their tongues wagged too. They said, "Poor Master Hu has gone crazy." And maybe he had. Maybe God sent down craziness along with the warts and wens and hunch and gout. What did Hu care? It was fine with him. He loved God and God loved Hu, and Hu was the crookedest, ugliest, happiest old man in all the empire till the day he whispered,
Hey Clod! What now?
and God took his line in hand and drew him right into Himself. That was fine with Hu. That's what a Friend is for.”
—David James Duncan, The River Why
There's an old joke, perhaps you've heard it. A man and his granddaughter are walking along a beach. It's a wonderful day, although it seems there's a squall just over the horizon, and it looks like it's coming toward them. Even as the man thinks perhaps it is time to call it a day a giant wave crashes into them and before he can do a thing the child is carried away. Filled with horror he looks up to the heavens and shouts, “God, how can you do something so terrible?” And even before the words slip from his lips another wave comes washing over him and as it recedes deposits the child in the man's arms. He looks at the little girl to make sure she is okay. She smiles at him and locks her arms around his neck. The man then looks back up at the heavens and shouts, “Hey! She had a hat.”
We laugh. Okay, I laugh. There's something so human in this. A slice of homemade apple pie is great. But, hey, where's the scoop of French vanilla ice cream? We can be grasping creatures, missing the apple pie, missing the saved child. We can be resentful and angry about, well, there's just a ton to be resentful and angry about; but lost in the waves of those feelings something slips away from us, something lovely, and beautiful. Today, I want to talk about that something lovely and beautiful. Today, I want explore gratitude, what it means, a little of what it doesn't mean, as well as how we come to find it as fully a part of our lives.
It seems our English word gratitude comes to us through the French and back to the Latin “gratus,” meaning thankful or pleasing. Turns out its closely related to the word grace, with its various meanings of showing favor, pardon, mercy, elegance, songs, praises, announcements. I really like that “announcements,” and we'll come back to that.
But, first a pretty good way to understand something really important is to notice what surrounds it, what can turn our hearts from some deeper matter, what some of my friends call the near enemy of that which is important. And so, what is the near enemy of gratitude? I know how I've experienced people who seem to be expressing gratitude for something I'd had a part in, but after that I'm left with an uncomfortable feeling. It comes across as flattery, with a sense of manipulation hanging in the air after the conversation.
Here to really get to the heart of the matter we need to open our hearts, and perhaps even confess. And, so, yes, I've even been that person who expresses gratitude to flatter, to manipulate, often barely conscious of what I'm doing. Maybe some others among us here have also been that person, have embraced some facsimile of gratitude for any number of reasons, maybe even sometimes for good reasons. The world isn't a very safe place, and a little flattery addressed to the powerful can be a smart thing.
But, we need to be careful. There is something astonishingly important, I feel, in the act, in the experience of gratitude, genuine, if you will gratitude, the spontaneous arising of those feelings of thankfulness, of pleasure, of being present to the announcement of things. Cicero is said to have said how “gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” I think this is so. And so, if so, we need to attend.
But then is this a noun, a state of being, something we achieve? Or, perhaps, does it come mostly as a verb, something we do? An important question I think as we explore this mother of all virtues.
Galen Guengerich, senior minister at All Soul's Unitarian in Manhattan delivered a sermon at his home church in 2006. In the following year it was adapted as an article in the UU World, our denominational magazine. Galen asked a very interesting question. “What should be our defining religious discipline?” He goes on, “While obedience, love, and even submission each play a vital role in the life of faith, my current conviction is that our defining discipline should be gratitude.” Gratitude. That's what really caught my heart. Galen explained, how “In the same way that Judaism is defined by obedience, Christianity by love, and Islam by submission, I believe that Unitarian Universalism should be defined by gratitude.” Galen suggests gratitude as an action, as the verb of our lives is the very heart of our liberal faith.
Now, I actually think gratitude lies near the heart of all three of the great Near Eastern faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, not to mention perhaps all the great religions of our world. Still, as a discipline, as something we consciously do, I think he's calling us in an important direction.
Wandering around the web I've found all sorts of advice as to how to cultivate gratitude. There are four step plans, five step plans, ten step plans. For the most part they seem to turn on stopping and noticing. With a dash of fake it 'till you make it. As I consider that stopping and noticing with a dash of fake it 'till you make it the heart of spiritual disciplines, I think most all of them are probably useful.
And reading them I found myself thinking of a one step program. Many, many years ago I came across a small book called Wisdom of the Desert, which is a selection of sayings from the fourth and fifth century Christian monastics and sages called the Desert Fathers, and for those who pay attention, and Mothers. This particular volume was collected and translated by Thomas Merton, who brings not only a great eye for matters of depth, but also a style sympathetic to a world religious perspective. I consider it one of the central books in my spiritual life.
And one of the characters who shines out from that collection and whom I've encountered again in other translations of the actions and sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, is someone called Abba John the Dwarf. Abba or Abbot John was born around 339, studied under the direction of another of the great Desert mystics, Abba Ammoes for a dozen years before wandering further into the desert, where despite his best efforts, people came to listen to and follow his guidance. There are lots of stories about him.
Abbot John would himself like to recount the story of a pagan philosopher who told his student that for three years he should give money to anyone who insulted him. When the three years passed the philosopher told the young man to go to Athens, as he was now ready to really learn. At the gate to the city he encountered an old woman who insulted everyone as they passed. When it was his turn and he was insulted, the young man just laughed. The old sage looked closely at him and asked, why the laughter. The young man replied how for three years he'd paid for this sort of abuse, and now at the gate to the city of wisdom he was getting insulted for free. The old woman smiled and replied enter the city of wisdom, young man, it is yours.
Okay, maybe that might prove a harder discipline than the three or five steps you can get online. But, here's an even easier discipline, this time from that late thirteenth, early fourteenth century German Dominican friar Meister Eckhart. The master once said. “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
Want to be grateful?
Then just say thank you.
Now, I think there's another mystery hidden within why this just say thank you is enough. It has something to do with that noun and verb thing.
Leonard Cohen was once asked about his song Hallelujah, which is one of those divine thank you moments that have caught my heart. He was asked what did the song really mean, to which Cohen replied, "It explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value." Gratitude takes many shapes. There are many kinds of thank yous. Some are perfect. Many, most are broken. I think of those near enemy thank yous, so broken. But, here's a secret. In fact at bottom, at the end of the day, even those almost fake thank yous have value. All of them have value. All in some deep and true sense arise with equal value.
The reality is within the web of relationships, within the world that we live in with all its horrors and all its joys, the moment we stop and notice we discover we are bound up within a great mystery of intimacy. And, as natural as our breath, gratitude arises. And interesting, in my own experience, I find gratitude, kindness, and generosity all arise together. The mother virtue may be gratitude, but her sisters, kindness and generosity walk with her.
I also find the motivation and sustenance in my acting in the world out of this. I see the connections, I am horrified, and I am grateful, grateful beyond any words that I can put to it. And I want to do something. Here I suggest is why our own tradition is so caught up with the work of justice in this world. The intuition of connection, of gratitude calls us to service, to care, to love and action.
So noun and verb, our actions and our being. When we attend to the matter of gratitude, we find something base line, something deeper than the hurts and longing.
Our reading for today was that lovely little story with which David Duncan ends his novel the River Why. He gives the story a Taoist wash, but in fact it is his story. And, I suggest, if we open our hearts, if we allow ourselves to just be, to just notice, just for a moment, like for David's Master Hu, we find the secrets of our lives.
It is a dance of friendship with the universe. The great clod gives us a wart. We laugh at it, and maybe a word of rebuke, there's a lot to complain about, after all. And the response is arthritis and wrens. And deep within the heart of the universe, more laughter. And with this experience comes wave after wave of gratitude.
Albert Schweitzer, who knew his fair share of hurt, reminded us, "The greatest thing is to give thanks for everything. He who has learned this knows what it means to live. He (She) has penetrated the whole mystery of life: giving thanks for everything."
We open our hearts to what is, we don't turn away. And we discover a strange and mysterious and wild, beyond imagination wild universe. And, we find the secret: we're totally and inseparably a part of it. Noun and verb. One thing.
And as we notice, how can we not open our hearts, and open our mouths, and from that place, say anything but thank you?