"That Thorns Have Roses"
A Thanksgiving Homily by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, November 20, 2016
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our reading today is an excerpt from African-American Quaker pastor Howard Thurman's Thanksgiving Day Reflection:
Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.
I begin with the simple things of my days:
Fresh air to breath,
Cool water to drink,
The taste of food,
The protection of houses and clothes,
The comforts of home.
For these, I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!
I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:
My mother’s arms,
The strength of my father,
The playmates of my childhood,
The wonderful stories brought to me from the
lives of many who talked of days gone by
when fairies and giants and all kinds of
magic held sway;
The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;
The excitement of laughter and the twinkle
in the eye with its reminder that life is good.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.
Thanksgiving time always makes me think of something written by 19th Century French journalist and author, Alphonse Karr, who wrote, "Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses."
A story within a story...
D.T. Suzuki (Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, October 18, 1870 – July 12, 1966) was a Japanese author of books and essays on Buddhism, Zen and Shin that were instrumental in spreading interest in both Zen and Shin (and Far Eastern philosophy in general) to the West.
There is a Zen story he tells that captures the attitude of mindfulness with respect to living in the present and living in a state of gratitude. There are several versions of this story. Here's my version, edited in the way I like to tell it:
An honor student, frustrated with his life and with school, worried about what tomorrow may bring, approached his teacher asking for some guidance.
Will there be time for the story of "Still Alive at 55?"
"The story goes," says the teacher in response to his students request for help, "That a Buddhist Monk was walking through the mountains one day. Then, out of nowhere, a tiger appears, chasing the monk towards the edge of a cliff. The monk, in his quest to escape the tiger, runs to the edge of the cliff and climbs over the side, where he sees five other tigers 15 feet below him, waiting to eat him.
"So the monk is just hanging there, holding on to a vine on the side of the cliff, waiting there for the little chance he has to escape or for his imminent demise. Then, as the monk hangs there, exploring his options, he turns to the left and sees a strawberry. He smiles, "Wow what a magnificent strawberry!" he says to himself. So, he picks it and he eats it.
The student waited for his teacher to continue but it was clear that the teacher was done with the story. "That’s it? That is it the story? The monk is about to be eaten by tigers so he reaches out to pick and eat a strawberry?" the student exclaimed."What’s the point?" he added.
The teacher replied, "The lesson is to know and embrace the experience of being alive. You must be alive every second you are alive."
The student responded, "But teacher, everyone is alive when they are alive."
"No," said the teacher. "It’s the experience of being alive in each moment, in each experience, good and bad. We must be alive every second we are alive and not simply exist and live out our days."
The student, confused, questioned his teacher, asking, "But everyone alive is alive, aren’t they?" he insisted.
"No. Look at you now," explained the teacher. "You are running around being chased by tigers, consumed with your thoughts of how it could be better, how you could be better if only things were different. Yet, you have shared with me over the past year several difficult situations, in addition to the circumstances that I have observed, how you were about to be eaten by tigers and how you have been saved in each situation. You can’t be alive if you are living in fear and if you’re living in fear you can’t see and experience life; the magnificence of your life that is right in front of you in each moment."
The teacher asked, "Are you running around, grinning over the feeling of being the luckiest, most fortunate and appreciative person in the world because of what IS present in your life today, or are you consumed with fear, what you DON’T have in your life or what may possibly happen sometime in the future?"
The student thought for a moment, looked up at his teacher, smiled, and continued on with his day......
May we be open to that spirit which engenders life, May we come to find that everything we need to know about living the grateful life already surrounds us, and that we need only respond to it. In pleasure and in pain, may we learn to give thanks.
13th Century German theologian, philosopher and mystic, Meister Eckhart, put it this way:
"If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough." May you always find that you have enough. May you find that the thorns are redeemed by the roses,that your suffering is redeemed by your gratitude. And may you always find it in your heart to give thanks.