Monday, November 10, 2014

Gratitude in Hard Times

I preached this sermon on Sunday November 9, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Texts:
Story: An adapted excerpt from The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom - this link takes you to the full passage but I did shorter adapted version
Poem: "Be Thankful" Author Unknown

Gratitude in Hard Times

I know that many of us are struggling this week with hope and gratitude following the elections this week.  Not all of us and some may be pleased with some if not all of the results.  If my Facebook newsfeed is any indication there was a great deal more disappointment than exuberance following Tuesday.  Others of us are struggling with illness or family members with illness, are struggling financially, battle depression, are worried about loved ones who are struggling and all the other things that can make it hard to be grateful.  Around the world there are people living in a poverty we cannot imagine, live in fear of bombs and war, are in prison, are facing death, are alone. Finding things to be grateful for is not always easy.

In our story from Corrie ten Boom it would be hard to imagine a more dismissal picture…Corrie and Betsy are in a concentration camp, they are starving, they are in a confined space, it is filthy and there are fleas.  They don’t actually talk about being bitten by the fleas but we can imagine that we can add itchy bites to the whole situation. Yet in that situation Betsy tells them to give thanks for the fleas and it turns out it was the fleas that kept the guards from checking too closely on what was going on in the barracks so the Bible remains safe and the reading of it goes on.  Corrie is skeptical as I would imagine most of us would be at giving thanks for the fleas.  Yet what might it mean for us to give thanks for everything, including the challenges in our lives?

I am reminded of Parker Palmer who is an author and educator who also shared in his book Let Your Life Speak about his battle with depression. Parker, over time and it took a long time, came to see his depression as part of his spiritual journey, as leading him to his truth self and true vocation.   In the midst of his journey through depression Parker finally found a therapist who would also treat his depression as part of an inner journey.  In one session, she suggested that rather than see his depression as the hand of a friend pushing him down to the ground where it is safe to stand rather than as an enemy seeking to crush him.  Parker, like Corrie, was at first incredulous at this image.  In time however this image of depression as a friend who pushed him down where it is safe to stand slowly healed him as began to live a more grounded, authentic life.  He could see how fear, ego, and a series of what his life “should” be had led him to living an ungrounded, inauthentic life and his journey down into the depression and facing the demons there led him to a deep healing; to authenticity.

Not everyone can make that journey; not everyone makes it through.  We can name far too many who do not, many our own family members, friends, celebrities like Robin Williams who finally lose their battle with depression.  It is critical that we not reduce hard times, debilitating times, to Pollyannaish opportunities for silver linings and gratitude.  It takes great strength to see good in the midst of suffering. It should never be a demand, only a possible way forward.  Yes many have shown us that it is possible and we must also acknowledge that hard times do break people, people are fragile, and not everyone comes out stronger – it is not true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It may be true for some and our care, love and prayers are needed for those for whom life is filled with too much grief and suffering.

In my own life I can see things that at the time felt like the end of the world that became pathways to new places.  Like so many others I was once fired from a job and I can honestly say it was a gift.  I was blessed with enough income from unemployment to figure out what to do next and it led to my decision to enter Wesley Theological Seminary.  Being fired removed me from a highly toxic work environment and allowed me to embark on a new direction.  I remember at the time though part of me felt like the world had ended. I was ashamed and embarrassed.  I was relieved. I was scared.  It took time to see it as a gift; as a blessing.

Lately I have embarked a on new practice, learned from the Science of Happiness class that I have been taking through edX and UC Berkeley.  It is the practice of Three Good Things.  Each night I write down three good things from the day.  For me, even on the hardest days, this practice helps me see the good.  They may be small simple things, like cuddling or playing with our kittens, a delicious meal or a hot shower but remembering that it was not all bad, that there was good in the midst of it all restores hope and gives strength to put the day to rest and begin again the next day.  For me this has been a life giving practice and helped me to deal with some of my current struggles. For others it may be impossible to see even three good things in their day.  I offer it as a practice that I have found helpful and healing.

Part of what is so broken in our American culture and in particular American politics is that we don’t stop to reflect on what is working, on that which we can be grateful for.  How many positive political ads were run that said hey this is really working and I pledge to support policies that will help keep this working or expand it so even more people can have access?  We don’t run our campaigns this way, our campaigns feed on what is broken, what is lacking and then promising to fix it.   This is true of our political system and it is also true of our consumer culture.  Our consumer culture thrives on our sense of scarcity.  It thrives on making us believe that happiness can be purchased and packaged.  It requires us to be always hungry and never satisfied.

Our poem this morning invites us to give thanks for hard things, for opportunities to grow.  It offers a practice, like the Three Good Things, to re-frame the story we tell ourselves. Just like the ten Boom’s their prayers and practice did not change the situation which was horrible and evil, it did however change them.  Finding gratitude in the midst of hard times does not always change the conditions but it can change us, it can give us the opportunity to see a new way through.  It can give us strength to persevere or maybe to let go.

Another troubling aspect to our culture is the assumption that there is a way through or things can be fixed and yet there are some things that cannot be fixed or cured, they can only be accepted.  Death is one of those things.  All of us will die and all of us will lose those we love to death.  There is nothing we can do to change this, we can only accept it.  In the midst of grief, often people will offer words that time will heal and yet that is not always a comfort.  Sometimes in the midst of grief healing is the last thing we want.  I also think it is not true.  Grief does not truly heal, the loss remains.  With time, love helps fill the cracks and crevices. Much like the Japanese art of filling a cracked bowl with gold which I find a more helpful image; the bowl is cracked and remains so but with care and time the cracked places become beautiful.  Those who live with chronic illness, including my wife, struggle to have people understand including medical and other professionals, that there is no healing in the sense we usually think of it.  This is not a cold or the flu where we are sick for a while and then get better.  With chronic illness, terminal illness, what we consider healing has to look different.  It may look like more good days, less pain, sometimes just allowing oneself to be with the pain or may even look like letting go as in the case of Brittany Maynard for whom there was no cure for her brain cancer. Her healing was about accepting that she was dying.  In our death denying, everything can be fixed culture, acceptance and letting go are not easily done.  Yet we can also be grateful in the midst of letting go. We can be grateful that a loved one is no longer suffering; grateful that in the midst of our own pain another’s has ended; grateful for the life lived.  

All of the world’s philosophies and religions seek to make sense of suffering, grief, illness and death.  Each tries to offer a why, to offer a way through.  Gratitude in the midst is one way, one practice we can embrace to make hard times easier, to shift our perspective.  We do not have control of all of the circumstances of our life, we can choose how to respond and the story we choose to tell.  It may take years for us to find gratitude in the midst of hard times, in the midst of grief, illness, death. We can cultivate gratitude as a practice, as a habit that we develop.  We can take to the heart the words of Meister Eckhart “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

May it be enough!