Psalm 65; Matthew 5:3-10; 7:7-11
Two monks sat at dinner one evening. On one side, a monk who spent his days complaining about everything from the food, to the difficulty of the work, to the scratchy clothing. On the other side, a newcomer. Ah, he thought, “A new person to hear my complaints,” and he dove right in. The newcomer listened patiently, asked questions, found out about the monk’s former difficult life as a shepherd. He had compassion on the monk, hearing that he had been trained to fear by his hard life. It sounds like you came here to escape your troubles, and in some ways, you have done so. I lived a life among the wealthy. “I came here to find the secret of happiness. You see, I was never satisfied with what I had when I lived in the palace. I found fault with everything, and I always wanted more. But since I came here and learned the secret, food has never tasted so good. I sleep like a baby at night.” No one had mentioned the secret of happiness to the unappreciative brother before. He looked around to make sure no one else was listening, lowered his voice, and asked, “Can you tell me the secret?” “It’s easier if I show you.” The second brother got up from the table and walked over to the cook, who looked harried and exhausted after preparing dinner for so many. He clasped the cook by the hand, looked him in the eye, and said, “Thank you for the wonderful supper. It was delicious. I enjoyed it very much.” Immediately, the cook lit up. His face brightened, his slumped shoulders straightened, and he beamed at the brother, who smiled back at him warmly. Then he looked over at the complaining monk and winked. [Schroeder, C. Paul. Practice Makes Purpose, p. 133.]
Today we come to the fifth of six spiritual practices of love: Grateful Receiving. Again, we are faced with the truth that love is a practice. Love is something we do. When the scriptures say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27), it is not talking about a feeling. The Hebrew language is an earthy language, with a very small vocabulary. It has no words for emotions. Instead feelings are described by what the body does. We have the same thing – butterflies in the stomach, racing heart, flushed face – we all know that these describe what Western language has learned to call emotion. This is an important reminder for us today. Remember that loving God and neighbor is not a feeling we are instructed to create out of nothing. It is an action we are called to perform. Many Hebrew translators use the word, lovingkindness, instead of love, to communicate this. Being kind is an action. It is something we can do.
So, too, with gratitude. It is a practice, not a feeling. Anything can be a gift if we choose to see it that way. And choosing a grateful perspective is the practice of Grateful Receiving.
Pollyanna comes to mind. Why? Well, Pollyanna practiced Grateful Receiving so famously, that her name has become synonymous happiness. And also with naivete or refusing to face facts.
Pollyanna’s philosophy of life centers on what she calls “The Glad Game,” which she learned from her father. The game consists of finding something to be glad about in every situation, no matter how bleak it may be. It originated in an incident one Christmas when Pollyanna, who was hoping for a doll in the missionary barrel, found only a pair of crutches inside. Making the game up on the spot, Pollyanna’s father taught her to look at the good side of things—in this case, to be glad about the crutches because she didn’t need to use them. When her parents died and she came to live in New England with her starchy Aunt Polly, her game was severely challenged – as if she had not known life’s deepest sorrows already as a young girl. But pretty soon she was teaching others to play the “glad game.” She was teaching them the practice of Grateful Receiving. And it changed the town. Everyone around her became happier because she gave them her respect, attention, smile, joy, and always the benefit of the doubt.
Do we really believe that gratitude can be the secret to happiness? For ourselves, for our community, for our city, our world? If we have learned to receive all things gratefully, as a gift, what happens to fear?
Hate is not the opposite of love; fear is the opposite of love. In love or hate, we are drawn toward each other. But when fear takes over, we run, hide, connections are broken. Cynicism, ungratefulness are born of fear.
I wonder if Pollyanna came to be looked at cynically, as naive, ridiculous…, because we no longer know the practice of gratitude.
I am learning from Robin Wall Kimmerer and her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, that I and my culture are woefully lacking, unschooled in gratitude. Native American lives were shaped and are shaped by gratitude. She describes the people’s eager waiting and joyful greeting of the salmon:
“Come, come, flesh of my flesh. My brothers. Come back to the river where your lives began. We have made a welcome feast in your honor.” By sunrise… the people are all standing along the river singing a welcome, a song of praise as the food swims up the river, fin to fin. The nets stay on the shore; the spears still hang in the houses. The hook-jawed leaders are allowed to pass, to guide the others and to carry the message to their upriver relatives that the people are grateful and full of respect. The fish course by the camp in great throngs, unmolested as they make their way upstream. Only after four days of fish have moved safely by is the First Salmon taken by the most honored fisher and prepared with ritual care. It is carried to the feast in great ceremony on a cedar plank in a bed of ferns…. They dance in long lines, singing thanks for all that is given. The salmon bones are placed back in the river, their heads facing upstream so that their spirits might follow the others. They are destined to die as we are all destined to die, but first they have bound themselves to life in an ancient agreement to pass it on, to pass it on. In so doing, the world itself is renewed. Only then the nets are set out, the weirs are put in place, and the harvest begins. Everyone has a task. An elder counsels the young one with a spear, “Take only what you need and let the rest go by and the fish will last forever.” When the drying racks are full with winter food, they simply stop fishing. [Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, p. 243.]
I wish I had time to read aloud this whole chapter for you, or the whole book for that matter! But somehow, story after story in her words and in her world, new to my ears, the song of gratitude comes through from the heart, deep and pounding and joyful. On the cover, Elizabeth Gilbert calls the book, “A hymn of love to the world.”
My ears are beginning to be tuned to this deep, grateful joy. When I read Psalm after Psalm this week, looking for just the right song for this morning, I felt that same deep, pounding joy in our own, all too familiar scriptures. Re-read the Psalms, especially 100-150, or read the final chapters of Job. These singers and poets, too, had found the secret of a happy life.
I used to argue in my head with Ken Taylor, author of The Living Bible, for his translation of the beatitudes. “Happy are those…,’ he translated. Happy! That seemed so small, trite. But maybe that was just my western cynical mind. Now, I wonder if he was on to something – the secret of happiness is gratitude – for everything we receive. Those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the persecuted, the peacemakers. Happy. For they know that what they receive is a surprise, often unwanted, but yet a surprise which keeps them close to the one who loves them most – their Creator. And somehow, in the big perspective of God, they know they are part of an earth where each little thing depends on the next little thing. It is good. Or, it is enough.
Lives driven by hurry, and the race to get more than the next person out of this life, kills our spirit of connection in the world of which we are a part. With only our self-interest at heart, we miss joy and true gratitude. The mourners, the meek, the hungry – somehow they know this. They have time to be grateful. We could learn a lesson from them.
G.K.Chesterton said, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or whether you take them with gratitude.”
Schroeder suggests a simple, 2-step process for beginning the practice of Grateful Receiving. And simple does not mean easy – just that it is short enough to remember! First, write down three things for which you are grateful. No need for a long list. This is a practice exercise and you don’t what to assign yourself too much practice!
Then express your gratitude to each person or thing which you have identified. Do it in person and out loud, if possible. Do it with actions, symbols or songs. If your gratitude is for something intangible, decide on a ceremony in which you can act it out. Write a letter to a deceased loved one and burn it knowing that the smoke carries your gratitude. If you are grateful for the beautiful color of the hydrangeas in this season, tell them. Out loud. Say thank you. As you pick your last tomatoes of the season, or pumpkins, say thank you for all the leafy beauty they gave you all summer.
Or, take a week and some colorful sticky notes and start writing down the things for which you are grateful, and stick them all over your house. Tomatoes, lettuce, eggs, pork loin… on your refrigerator. Peaches, plums, apples, on your counter. Warmth, beauty, comfort, on your fireplace. And don’t forget your mirror. Be thankful for what you love about yourself. Stick them on your mirror as a reminder each morning, when you may not feel so beautiful. Still, you can be grateful. For what? Write it down. Stick it up. Read it over and over.
Then, after you have practiced for a while, try it on the hard stuff. Where can I be grateful in the face of hurricanes and earthquakes? Reflect on where there can be notes of gratitude in grief, even after unimaginable acts of violence, or personal betrayal.
Gratitude returns us to our place in the world after loss. It says we still have a place in the network of creation. And our sadness tells us that we have loved.
This kind of practice will begin to spill out in how you talk to others. And it may change their day so powerfully that they talk differently to those for whom they are grateful when they get home. This is a “pay it forward” practice. Do you doubt that it can change the world?
Remember the mantra on your bookmarks: I receive the gift that is offered. Say it, out loud if you can, as often as you remember it this week.