Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A Place for Gratitude

I invite you to close your eyes and visualize what we often refer to as the first Thanksgiving in America – the one along the shores of the Massachusetts Bay with the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors in 1621.  And it’s okay to visualize like you were taught in Elementary School.  (Open eyes)  What did you see? Tell me.

Some of that may be true and other parts have been added in the tradition.  For example:

It wasn’t actually “the first Thanksgiving.”  Both Native Americans and Europeans had been having all kinds of harvest thanksgiving festivals for ages.  And there were others noted in our history which some consider our first Thanksgiving – like after the Thanksgiving festival that was proclaimed in Massachusetts in 1647 – after the massacre of the Pequot people.

But the 1621 feast is what people later looked back on and lifted up in the history books.  The holiday wasn’t made official until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared it as a kind of thank you for the Civil War victories in Vicksburg, MS and Gettysburg PA.  

Another myth may be the make up of the menu – turkey and sweet potato pie!  Probably not.  There was no mention of turkey at the 1621 bounty – and there was no pie (they had no oven or flour) – and no sweet potatoes.  It IS recorded that the Wampanoag natives brought five deer to the feast and the Pilgrims went out for wild fowl so there may have been wild fowl as well – possibly ducks, or geese or turkey. 

In our elementary school plays – the pilgrims invite the Indians – there’s no mention of an invitation.  Perhaps the leaders decided together – as some form of diplomacy to join their harvest feasts.  They do mention the games though – so all is well.

The role of Sqanto is also complicated.  He wasn’t just some native coming out of the woods to help.  He was more like their savior.  Tisquantum – known as Squanto was a part of the Patuxet, a band of the Wampanoag tribe who had previously lived right where the Pilgrims settled – Plymouth.  He was captured by the English in 1614 and sold into slavery – first in Spain, then in England.  While in England, he learned to speak English – and was able to catch a ride back to his homeland.  But when he got back – he found that all of his people in the little village were dead of the plague – brought to them by the Europeans.  Nevertheless, when the Pilgrims showed up in that deserted place, he sort of adopted them - assisted them, translated for them, taught them how to grow corn and more.  

SO – why do we bother to lift-up this little band of Europeans – and why am I sharing about this here at a Unitarian Universalist Congregation?  Well folks, these are our spiritual ancestors.  The little church they formed there in Plymouth is the Unitarian Universalist Church, the oldest one in America.

The one there now is the First Parrish Meeting House of 1899 – built to replace a church that was burned.  Our former members, Pauline and Bob, are members of this church.

This little band of settlers didn’t have an easy time of it. They were severely persecuted back in Scrooby England.  William Bradford, the first Governor of the new colony, describes what life was like for the Separatists in England:

They could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted and persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison with those now came upon them… Some were taken and clapt up in prison. Others had their houses besett and wacht night and day, and hardly escaped their hands. And the most were faine to flie and leave their houses and habitations, and the means of their livelihood. Yet, seeing themselves thus molested, and that there was no hope of their continuance there, by a joynt consent, they resolved to goe into the Low Countries, where they heard was freedom of religion for all.

So - These separatists left for religious freedom – or freedom from the Church of England.  They first settled in lowlands of Holland – but became concerned as their children began to pick up the Dutch language and Dutch Ways – so they went back to England and prepared to set out for a new home in the New World – hoping to land in the Virginia area, but end up 300 miles north.

Here’s a short video clip about the trip.


They end up in the little settlement that was formerly the home of Squanto’s tribe.  And strived to do their best to make it through the winter.  It’s bitter and hard – and only half of them make it through.  But, they end up learning from Squanto, having a good summer crop, and deciding to celebrate a year after their initial arrival. 

In his musing about this, Rev. Scott Alexander writes:

It is spiritually important that we not romanticize that first American Thanksgiving as some carefree festival of reckless joy. With apologies to Hallmark and my well-meaning fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Daley, the Pilgrims seated at that first Thanksgiving table were haggard survivors—exhausted men and women still thin and weak, wearing little more than rags. Yes, they were grateful to have endured, to be sure, but looming over whatever happy feelings they mustered must have lingered incredibly deep measures of grief and fear.

It’s a miracle of the heart that those pilgrims could even think of giving thanks to God, or celebrating life’s bounty with their Wampanoag neighbors. No one could have really blamed them if, as the first anniversary of their arrival in America approached, they had decided to hold a service of mourning for the dead and withdrawn into their own sadness in the gathering autumnal darkness.

It seems to me that what makes the real Thanksgiving story so remarkable is not the joy which the Pilgrims and Wampanoags shared on that day, but rather that their painful backdrop of grief was not allowed to block out their celebration. What makes that first American harvest festival so nobly instructive is our remembering the profound depths of misery which preceded the Pilgrim’s decision to celebrate and share. Somehow they were able to choose gratitude over bitterness, generosity over greed, thanksgiving over self-pity.

And that is why I chose to share about this First Thanksgiving to begin my message that responds to the question:  What are we here for?  The response today is – to grow gratitude.  And our spiritual ancestors provide a good example for us.

These Thanksgiving pilgrims had endured terrible hardships and had another, perhaps, terrible winter before them that November.   Yet – they chose to focus on gratitude. 

Now these Pilgrims did not have the research to back up their actions as beneficial – they were just grateful folks.  But unlike our spiritual ancestors, we UU’s (who love good evidence) DO have significant research pointing to the positive outcomes of expressing gratitude.

I went to the Harvard Medical School site to get this information to share with you, so hopefully you’ll deem it credible.

Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.

One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

Another leading researcher in this field, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week's assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.

Of course, studies such as this one cannot prove cause and effect. But most of the studies published on this topic support an association between gratitude and an individual's well-being.

Other studies have looked at how gratitude can improve relationships. For example, a study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.

(And there were other studies that described how gratitude motivated folks in their workplace)

There are some notable exceptions to the generally positive results in research on gratitude. One study found that middle-aged divorced women who kept gratitude journals were no more satisfied with their lives than those who did not. Another study found that children and adolescents who wrote and delivered a thank-you letter to someone who made a difference in their lives may have made the other person happier — but did not improve their own well-being. This finding suggests that gratitude is an attainment associated with emotional maturity.

I hated writing thank-you notes when I was a child.  I can assure you that it did not make me happier.  But in my old age, perhaps I have developed that emotional maturity – or just have more wisdom.  And I am learning – that when I incorporate a discipline – a practice – of expressing gratitude, IT DOES help me – and I hope the folks I’m thanking.

Did you get a thank you note from me this week?  I sat down and for three or four days – made thank you cards for each person who submitted a pledge to us this year.  And as I drew or colored in your chalice or whatever I put on your card, I purposely thought about you and the gifts you bring to this congregation – and to me personally.  With each stroke, I felt and expressed the gratitude – as I did when I wrote the note. 

Here are some other practices in addition to writing notes that the folks at Harvard suggest.

Thank someone mentally. No time to write? It may help just to think about someone who has done something nice for you, and mentally thank the individual – even if they’ve already gone to that great beyond.  I invite you to do this now.

Another, of course, is to Keep a gratitude journal. Make it a habit to write down or share with a loved one thoughts about the gifts you've received each day.  Some folks do that as a blessing at dinner with their loved ones.

(Sing) “Count your many blessings name them one by one”

Pick a time every week to sit down and write about your blessings — reflecting on what went right or what you are grateful for. Sometimes it helps to pick a number — such as three to five things — that you will identify each week. As you write, be specific and think about the sensations you felt when something good happened to you. – (Like the poet Alexander thinking about that butter.)

And finally Pray. People who are religious can use prayer to cultivate gratitude. And/or Meditate. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Although people often focus on a word or phrase (such as "peace"), it is also possible to focus on what you're grateful for (the warmth of the sun, a pleasant sound, etc.).

Now sometimes it’s HARD to focus on our blessings when life is hitting us hard.  I don’t want to be all Pollyanna and say that you don’t feel the hurt, the pain, the bitterness.  Of COURSE you do.  Of course I DO.  And that’s why I look to stories like the first Thanksgiving to motivate me.

These Unitarian Universalist spiritual ancestors and the Native folks had ALL been through countless hells, lost loved ones, experienced sickness, starvation, and deep, deep grief.  Yet on that day in November 1621 – they came together to share their food and their gratitude – and all were better for it.

Some say that as Unitarian Universalists, we have no Central religious faith practice as other Religions do.  Rev, Galen Guengerich addressed this in a sermon at All Souls New York in 2007 entitled, The Heart of Our Faith.  He said:

I realize the idea of faith as a discipline may also sound like heresy to many Unitarian Universalists. Unless our faith is mere intellectual affectation, however, the defining element of our faith must be a daily practice of some kind. What kind of practice? For Jews, the defining discipline is obedience: To be a faithful Jew is to obey the commands of God. For Christians, the defining discipline is love: To be a faithful Christian is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. For Muslims, the defining discipline is submission: To be a faithful Muslim is to submit to the will of Allah.

And what of us? What should be our defining religious discipline? While obedience, love, and even submission each play a vital role in the life of faith (says Guengerich), my current conviction is that our defining discipline should be gratitude. 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.

I like that as a central practice for Unitarian Universalism.  Being Grateful.

So this week especially – let us commit to that practice and ethic of gratitude.  And let us start today by being grateful for what we find here – at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro. 

On Friday, I wrote to our listserv and to our Facebook group asking folks to help me compose a liturgy of gratitude – and I’m grateful that many of you responded.  I’ve taken your responses and summarized and edited them into this little liturgyy for us.  I’ll share some of the things mentioned – and your response will simply be “We are so grateful.”

For a wonderful meetinghouse without a mortgage – that is in a great location:

We are SO grateful.

For good worship services and programs provided every Sunday morning.

We are SO grateful.

For a UU Church home away from home for some folks, who are greeted with deep smiles and “Welcome Back” and “Nice to see you again.”

We are SO Grateful.

For the good folks who get here early and prepare coffee and refreshments every Sunday without fail.

We are SO Grateful.

For those who have accepted leadership positions on the board and in committees and given more than their share of time, talents, and treasure to this congregation

We are SO Grateful.

For a place where everyone’s gifts are valued –

We are SO Grateful.

For the interesting and caring people we meet here, and the friendships we make

We are SO Grateful.

For teachers and childcare folks who give their love and time to our children while teaching and modeling our principles and values,

We are SO Grateful.
For parents and grandparents who get up on Sunday in time to get themselves and their child or children to church, contributing their energy to our synergy, enlarging our village and enriching us all.

We are SO Grateful.

For the folks who work in the broader community on behalf of our congregation to bring nourishment, peace, justice and love to all.

We are SO Grateful.

For our shared ministry – including our professional minister, our pastoral associate, and many other lay folks who contribute to our ministry –

We are SO Grateful.

And for the creation of 

A Place for Community

A Place to respond to the injustices of the world

A place to share our time, talents, and treasure

A place to celebrate who we are!.

A Place to honor life and death.

A Place to simply Love One Another. 

AND a place to GROW Gratitude!

We are SO Grateful

May it Continue to Be So!

1 comment: