Gratitude as Joyful Resistance

Originally delivered to Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church on 11/29/2020 as part of the Thanksgiving weekendYou can watch the service on the EUUC Facebook page HERE.

Good morning Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church. I appreciate being with you all on this Sunday after Thanksgiving. Our national holiday set aside to give thanks for the blessings of harvest and relationship. So important now as the themes of life and bounty take on a much more intimate importance. My hope is that you are all safe, and well, and are held in love. And that your celebrations and thanks giving were talismans warding off worry and despair.

Speaking of talismans, I’ve noticed something new in my neighborhood. Having lived in Seattle for almost ten years, I’ve never seen so many lights up on houses so early. There seems to be a deep yearning for the holiday spirit. A return to old traditions that remind us of better times; more simple times. Aside from nostalgia and mistletoe, I know we can offer more. I want to invite us all into a holiday season of gratitude as joyful resistance against a news cycle and ongoing quarantine of worry and despair.

A good way to begin this spiritual practice is by recognizing today as the first Sunday of Advent. The word Advent emerging from the Latin ad venire, meaning “to come; arrival.” The tradition began in the first centuries of Christianity as a time of fasting and preparation for the Christ-mass. We Unitarian Universalist set aside this first Sunday to remember the necessity of hope. Which according to Merriam-Webster, means “to cherish a desire with anticipation; to want something to happen or be true.” We hope for an arrival of vaccination. A new administration. We hope for the arrival of an ending of this time and the beginning of a better tomorrow.

An important component for our practice in gratitude is hope. I’ve learned hope is necessary for resilience. It is what led Viktor Frankl on his search for meaning after experiencing the concentration camps of World War II. He found hope in those places which for many would seem impossible. Yet Frankl witnessed that those who resisted despair seemed to have an internal fortitude. An ember of hope to curl around that no Nazi could touch. He writes in his seminal work: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

As a chaplain I witness this human capacity almost daily. A quadruple amputee who holds the hope of playing with his grandchildren while struggling to learn how to use his prosthetics. A veteran with a long history of addiction and mental illness hoping that this time, the medications will help with the demons of war. A COVID patient struggling to breathe, hoping that their body can keep going for just one more day. A common thread for each was a shift from the despair of an outward locus of control toward a spark of hope in their human spirit.

Yes, each of them experienced pain and suffering. And still, they hoped. Many asked, “Why is God doing this to me?” To which I don’t have an answer. I do not believe in a transcendent being as source of malevolent punishment. Often I will reply, “I wonder if God isn’t doing this; perhaps God is with you in it as a source of hope?” Some patients will then throw me out of the room, because my statement seems to diminish God’s omnipotence. However, more often than not, they will stop and grow silent. A particular patient said, “You know, that young physical therapist really inspired me today. Showed me a new way to use these legs. I stood up. I can’t tell you the last time I stood up on my own. Maybe that’s where God was today.”

Hope seems to come from an inner source. And yet it becomes stronger when it resonates with the hope from another; a friend, a lover, a colleague, or in this time a video of Italians singing from their balconies. Human words and actions often invite a different way of being in the world. And something in me responds in gratitude. Two years ago, this last Friday, my father passed away suddenly. Which shifted my whole experience of this season; pushing me further into Frankl’s words: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” This year, amid all that 2020 has offered, my mother and I along with my partner and child gathered in our little pod to make five dozen tamales, as a picture of my father looked on in supervision. There was grief and gratitude. I can not change the reality that my father is dead. I can honor my grief with gratitude.

Which does not mean ignoring or diminishing the reality of psychospiritual pain. Modern neuroscience is beginning to show the toxicity of the “suck it up” model. We have a right, and even a need, to our grief and sorrow and anger. We have all lost something this year; maybe more than in years past. We have had to say goodbye to loved ones. Abandon our places of worship. Give up on support groups. Teach our children through screen time. Live in isolation. And this is in addition to the normal wear and tear of everyday life. My grief and pain are real. Your grief and pain are real. Our grief and pain are real. And we are more than our grief and pain; we are also people of joy, thanksgiving, gratitude and hope.

We have this amazing human capacity to feel complex emotions. This last Wednesday, the night before Thanksgiving, I accompanied a family in saying goodbye to their 41 year old mother and partner. As her 9 year old held her tight and sobbed, saying, “Thank you for being my mom. I love you.” Her 13 year old held her hand until her final breath. Her partner and spouse holding them both. And each of them said, “thank you” to her. Thank you for fighting as long as she could. For years of memories, road trips and karaoke and game nights and hard lessons. She was able to say “thank you” in return. She died with Bob Marley playing in the background, all of us singing, “Don’t worry, about a thing. Cause’ every little thing is gonna be all right.” It was one of the patient’s favorite songs.

If someone were to ask me where was God in that unfair and unjust moment, I would say, “God was in the nurses making sure their patient had dignity. In the doctors who helped extend her life, giving her family a little more time. In the love and grief of children being able to say goodbye. God was in the bonds of relationship of an entire community who struggled and fought for a human life.” This family was my teacher for this Thanksgiving. A reminder of what Frankl saw. Not only did we cry. We also laughed – hard, abdominal muscles burning laughs as I invited them into stories of good and joyful moments. In the end, pulling into my driveway at just after 11pm, I felt held in grief AND gratitude.

Emily Dickenson wrote:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops – at all
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm
I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest Sea
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Entering into this holiday season with a theme of “hope” is connected to our spiritual practice of gratitude. For Dickenson, hope is a living song that perches in our being. Never asking for anything; always available for those who cultivate a capacity for listening. Perhaps this song of hope is an awareness that nothing in my life is promised to me. Each day, each moment, a gift. I imagine it is no coincidence that the title of Bob Marley’s famous song is Three Little Birds. “Hope” is the thing with feathers, singing “Don’t worry, about a thing. Cause every little thing is gonna be all right.”

I notice that Bob Marley does not sing, don’t fear. Don’t cry. Don’t be angry. Don’t grieve. No. He sings, don’t worry. The word comes from the West Germanic origin meaning “to strangle; to slay or kill by biting and shaking by the neck.” And isn’t this what my worry does? This emotion can have a reductive effect on my capacity for hope. Which may be why this time in human history feels so full of anxiety. More and more my capacity for hope has been constricted, squeezed and shaken by gale and storm of dictators and fascists, pandemic and recession. If hope is a song then it requires me to breathe.

We can still be afraid and hold onto hope. Because courage can only exist alongside fear; choosing to risk vulnerability not knowing the outcome. We can still cry and hold onto hope. Because our tears are rooted in our capacity to feel deeply, which is why we cry only in times of great emotion. We can still be angry and hope. Because anger provides energy and fuel for action. It tells us that the world can and should be otherwise than it is. We can still be grieving and hope. Because it is the price of love. Dostoevsky wrote: “The darker the night, the brighter the stars, The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”

I believe gratitude resists worry. It is the source of hope and cultivates joy. It seems to be both a verb and a noun; a practice. What does it mean to be grateful? Gratitude has its roots in Latin: gratus meaning “thankful.” And related to the word “grace” from the Latin gratia. Both words conveying the sentiment of “mercy, favor, and virtue.” Gratitude requires an expansion of being which is in natural opposition to the contraction of worry.

I am grateful, or another way of speaking, full of grace, when I practice mercy. Showing compassion and forgiveness when it is in my power to punish and harm. Mercy is related to justice, asking for accountability and restoration; we find this in our work for police and criminal justice reform. I am full of grace when I practice favor, which is giving out of my abundance and leaning into kindness. We find this in our work for economic equity and equality. I am full of grace when I practice virtue, which is living out my spiritual and religious values in the world. We find this in our Unitarian Universalist principles and sources which help guide us into covenant. Binding us together in powerful love and human experience.

Being full of grace only asks one thing of me; to let go and listen. In my chaplaincy ministry, I have been drawing heavily from the serenity prayer, written by theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

I have found that when I can let go of control over the things I cannot change, my worry and anxiety relax. I have the space to consider a third way outside of either/or thinking. I begin to consider both/and as options. Which is the doorway to joy. If life is suffering, and suffering comes from attachments, what would it be like to let go of the expectations I attach onto my intentions? Is it possible to experience joy in the midst of grief? Yes, it is.

 On Thanksgiving day, as I placed the masa on the table, along with corn husks, salsa, and olives, I looked up and saw the picture of my father. I felt that deep ache from inside my chest and a welling up of memories of prior Thanksgivings. Which was both beautiful and sorrowful. I longed for his deep laugh; his booming voice. And then, Fleetwood Mac started playing on the radio. My son scooped up a handful of olives and ran away with my mom laughing at him telling him to put them back. My partner poured drinks and sat down at the table. And all of a sudden, I knew my father was with me. Because my father was me, years ago. And I felt a deep joy; and I gave thanks. I was full of grace; happy to have this moment in time. Not because I earned it, but because it happened. Because it could have been otherwise.

Siblings in faith, this is what I mean by gratitude as joyful resistance. Often when I hear the word “resistance” I think of hard power. Marching in the streets and occupying space. Which is part of our long religious history and tradition. However, gratitude seems to exist as a soft power. The kind of power that allows water to carve out canyons. A spiritual practice of awareness of grace, shifting the understanding of control, and listening for that feathery creature that sings of hope. On this first Sunday of Advent, when congregations and churches around the world celebrate the theme of “hope,” I raise it up as a prayer for us all. An intention for this season that we cultivate together. And with it, may we breathe deeply in gratitude, and while breathing out, sing along with that little bird, “Don’t worry, about a thing. Cause every little thing, is gonna be all right. I said don’t worry, about a thing. Every little thing is gonna be all right.” And it will be; together. May it be so; in deep gratitude for you all and for this time we share. May all your spiritual practices be fruitful this season. Happy holidays. Amen.