Contending with our Inner Grinch: How Grateful Are We … Really?

A Sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

Audio Recording

To listen to this sermon, click on the arrow below, at the left side of the box:

Sermon Text

Last week we led a multigenerational service citing some pretty grown up texts and resources.  This week we’re doing a grown-up service using a couple of very relevant children’s books.  But before we get to them, I want to begin with what is perhaps a sign of the times, or perhaps even more rightly, timelessness – a bunch of horribly clever and obnoxious historic insults which offer some useful context for a sermon about the satisfactions and problems of mean-spiritedness.  Perhaps it is needless to say – I have great affection for all these insults – which gets us quickly to our starting point – that truth that sometimes mean-spiritedness is perversely satisfying.

“He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” – Winston Churchill

“I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.”  Clarence Darrow

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” – William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway).

“I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one.” – British playwright George Bernard Shaw to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  In response, Churchill wrote: “Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second …. if there is one.”

“He is not only dull himself; he is the cause of dullness in others.” – Samuel Johnson, 18th century British author

“His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” – Mae West, 20th c. movie actress

“Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” – Oscar Wilde, 19th century British playwright

and finally: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening.  But this wasn’t it.” – Groucho Marx, 20th c. American comedian and actor

When I say these are perhaps a sign of the times, I don’t mean these mean-spirited early years of the 21st century when countries, Eurozone nation-states, political parties and demagogues of various stripes are at each other’s throats.  That’s not true, I partly do mean that.  If you thought I meant that, I did and you were totally right.

But I also meant these times, late November, with Thanksgiving just barely behind us, leftovers still to be eaten and the December holidays of hope, light, and joy looming, and I do mean looming, before us.  These larger times, this particular interval of time, leads me to those insults and how much I enjoyed reading them as I was working on this sermon this week. Their clever meanness was just what the doctor ordered.  And I know, from conversations with some of you this fall, that I’m not alone in that scope for crankiness – or, for the purposes of this sermon, Grinchiness.

Because to some degree enjoying those insults means nothing right? – a quick laugh at the expense of a sometimes anonymous person not even of this time or place is arguably harmless and even meaningless.  What I’m talking about is really something more, a affliction of spirit, a shrinking of our hearts quickly or slowly. Instead of thankful we feel self-absorbed, self-pitying, oppressed, unappreciated, jealous,  – oh there are more ways to feel grinchy than I can name, but no matter what their particular form, we know there is one feeling that’s never, never part of that mix:  gratitude.

It’s all very well to lift up abundance and gratitude and thankfulness in November as we ramp up to the Thanksgiving, but it’s more important be real.  And the fact that we are entering a season that’s supposed to be all about gratitude followed closely by joy doesn’t mean we’re all going feel it.

Unitarian Universalist minister Bob Walsh writes about the grace that used to be said by his grandfather – it’s his earliest memory of a prayer.  He says…”…. (read Walsh’s reflection from All The Gifts of Life, p. 21-22).

Two things stand out to me about Rev. Walsh’s reflection.  One is this reality that there are times when we only go through the motions – speeding through what’s meant to be a sincere moment of appreciation so fast an observer could entirely miss what we’re ostensibly doing.  And the second thing that stands out is his insight that “Our gratitude is dulled by the very abundance of what we have.” ‘We are not thankful enough.’

I think he’s right – that we’re all not grateful enough, and while that may be understandable, it’s also not the way we should leave things, not the way we should leave ourselves.  Plenty can get in the way of our gratitude, not least, as he says, an abundance that ironically dulls us to how much we have to be grateful for.  We all have blessings to be grateful for every day – and yet, frequently stuff gets in the way of our gratitude for love, kindness, luck, hope, for freedom from pain or fear or want or illness or shame or anger or despair.

Even more surprisingly, it doesn’t take much to tip us over into grinchiness.  Often it’s small things, inconveniences, old habits, pet peeves, small things but they might have been greased with WD-40 they make such a slippery slope down, down, down into whatever ungrateful way we’re feeling.  You may know the children’s story Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day – maybe it was read to you or maybe you read it to your kids?  Among other things, that story is about the formation of a young Grinch. But the thing is, each element that contributes to making it a terrible, horrible, NO good, VERY bad day – each element is so small. The problem is Alexander gives into each one, and stacks it upon the last one, until he has a towering inferno of grievances that has only one way to go – down.

Is this an irrelevant story for us adults, we who have an adult sense of proportion and perspective and who know better?  Well – let me be the first to say – yeah, it’s relevant. Alexander’s in every one of us, no matter how old we are, no matter our circumstances.  Someone in our family does that thing that makes us crazy, something we’ve worked hard on falls apart, it’s raining and we’re stuck in it, we lose a document, a game, a guess… or maybe we’re just dog tired and don’t have the energy to do more than slog through the day or night.  Even just gratitude takes energy and time to feel – and maybe we’re too pressed and stressed to have any energy for it, let alone time.

In which case, how fortunate, how providential – yes, I’ll get tired of saying that but not yet – bear with me, I’ll get over it soon I’m sure –  how providential that just like it can be surprising how little it takes to tip us into grinchiness, it also doesn’t take much to tip us into gratitude.  If you remember, in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, what starts the Grinch down the path toward awareness and appreciation is a small thing named Cindy Lou Who.   In real life, small things take many forms and it’s both hackneyed and true that these small things can make a great difference even when we are disillusioned or exhausted or despairing or angry or shut down.  Sometimes they make a difference that doesn’t even feel right, if what we’re struggling with is grief or loss.  And still it happens.  We wake up to a beautiful day, we feel sunlight on our skin, music on our ears, the kiss of a friend or a lover or a dog or a cat or a hamster, a walk, a conversation, a time of silence and peace, a single leaf falling in the air, harbinger of mortality and winter and still full of lightness and beauty.

In the end, this sermon is a lot about paying attention to small things, because as microbiology reminds us, small things can be dangerous or wonderful.   Small things add up to big things, and it’s no small thing whether we live, ultimately, in gratitude or ingratitude.  On the largest scale, we who live in this country, even now, still live in relative peace and prosperity that makes every one of our lives more livable, more safe, more productive, more respected… we have a lot to be grateful for – and responsible for – on a macro level.

But my concern this morning remains small, micro level.  I don’t want any one of us to live our lives in ingratitude, because in the end, all that we let rest in ingratitude will diminish our ability to look back on a life worth living.  It’s too easy to get tipped over and to stay tipped, to let resentments block us from experiences of beauty, love, peace, hope… it’s terribly easy to stay in a place where we can’t see anything to be grateful for even when blessings are all around us.  After a long and painful illness, I learned to be grateful for the absence of pain, for the ability to simply be still without pain.  After weeks of rain, to be grateful for sun.  After years of solitary life, to be grateful for love and companionship.  After nights of restlessness, to be grateful for sleep.  After a day of fasting, to be grateful for food.  After a stay in the hospital, to be grateful to be home.  The littlest things sometimes – I have been grateful to breathe a deep breath without coughing, grateful to walk without pain, grateful for a clean room or even just a clean sink.  And the biggest things sometimes:  after a near miss, life.  Even after terrible loss, life.

So here we are, preparing for December, for Advent, Hannukah, Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa.  And maybe that preparation will take some spiritual preparation and not just the usual logistical prep of grocery lists or travel plans.  In this world of disappointment and hope, devastation and beauty, pain and peace, we are entitled to some grinchiness and ingratitude, we are just not entitled to stay in grinchiness and ingratitude.  So go ahead and acknowledge disappointments, pains, hardships, burdens – and then let them go.  Let them go, and turn your mind and soul.  Against the slippery slope of grinchiness, sink some markers you can hold to and work your way over to another path. The season is upon us and there’s no escape:  not a one of us is without blessings.  Time to start counting them.  Amen.

Opening Words

Here we are, balanced together for a moment between one holiday and a slew more of them.  Here we are to take a breath, to share an hour, to offer and receive greetings, to participate in community and faith.  We have set aside this time for the nurture of our hearts and minds and souls.  None of us is here by accident.  We come here for communion with each other and with the sacred, to be humbled, to be exalted, to laugh, to cry, to risk, to heal.  May we make the very most of this day, starting now, together.

Closing Words

For all that we have received, for all the blessings we enjoy, may be truly thankful.