Gratitude and Generosity
October 22, 2017
When I had two kids in college, I was in a parking lot in the Chianti region of Tuscany while my wife was at the market. I was feeling dizzy, weak, sweating profusely, and I started to faint. I surmised that I was having a heart attack- never mind that I was missing the critical symptom, chest pain. The thought occurred to me that I might be leaving this world.
I have to tell you that I didn’t see any vision of a tunnel of light, glorious angels, or a feeling of peace. Actually, as I was sitting there, I was trying to think of how to say ‘take me to the hospital’ in Italian, all the while cursing the irony that my cardiologist was actually back at the house 2 miles away- I happened to be on vacation with my cardiologist.
I never could get a workable phrase together before I realized that I was going to pass out. And you might think that us Ministers, being spiritual leaders, would have some kind of integrated calm at a moment like this, some kind of serenity or acceptance, some words of wisdom in their passing. My last words were “I can’t afford this now.”
It is funny when these things happen to you mid-life. I’m very aware of the fragility of life and that stayed with me for quite some time. Perhaps you saw Warren Zevon interviewed by David Letterman shortly before he died from cancer. Knowing that he had a terminal disease and that his time was not long on this earth, Dave asked him what he had learned through the process. Warren said ‘to enjoy every sandwich’.
He’s right. It was interesting to see the film that Warren made about his last few months of life. He became focused on spiritual things that really matter. He made an album with a whole bunch of his friends, a wonderful creative process with folks he really cares about. He spent time with his kids, with his wife, with people he had known for years. Even when he was tired and sick, he had a way of celebrating the wonderful humanity of living.
We are about to enter the holiday season and before the rush starts, I want to remind us that we celebrating God’s unmerited grace towards us, the fundamental message of Christmas. And backing up from Christmas to Thanksgiving, President Lincoln asked our nation to invoke our Gratitude- a spiritual disposition so fundamental that he wanted all Americans to reflect on it for a day together.
We have a lot to be thankful for.
I recently read a description of our country in 1903, 110 years ago. “Only 14 percent of home in the U.S. had a bath tub. Only 8 percent had a telephone. A three minute call from Denver to New York cost 11 dollars in an economy where the average worker made between $400 and $2000 a year.
There were only 8,000 cars, and 144 miles of paved road… The average life expectancy was 47 years of age.
90% of all U.S. physicians had no college education. The 5 leading causes of death were pneumonia, the flu, tuberculosis, diarrhea, and heart disease or stroke. 95% of all children were born at home.
“Most women washed there hair only once a month and used borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter [which may explain, in part, why people were happier then].
“Crossword puzzles, canned beer and iced tea hadn’t been invented yet. There was no Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
Only 6% off all Americans had graduated from high school, and one in 10 adults couldn’t read or write…”
And if you were African-American, 84 of your people were lynched that year (and 15 white people too). Arkansas joined Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and other states to impose Jim Crow laws, making intermarriage illegal, restricting voting rights to nearly nothing, and creating segregated schools and neighborhoods- expanding out of the former slave holding states towards the west (Texas, Oklahoma, etc.)
Despite our problems, it is an important reminder that we are blessed to live in an incredibly interesting era, with expanded opportunities for self-realization for a very wide spectrum of the population.
In our scripture this morning, St. Paul encourages us to cultivate a life of gratitude. Appreciate the world around us. It seems to me that the world as we experience it invites this kind of awe and appreciation. Appreciation is a fundamental spiritual disposition that Christianity highlighted and underscored.
I have been privileged in my life to have many encounters with the transcendent gratitude that attends the cosmos and I am more regularly engaging this from here on. It is one of the things that came clear to me on sabbatical.
Our country, in particular, is blessed with majestic landscape. There is something about the wide grandeur of our mountain peaks that is sobering in their perspective. Despite being relatively young, the life cycle of a mountain range is so much broader than our own that they bear with them the strength of the eternal hills. Next to them, it is much easier for us to have a sense of our own ephemeral evanescence without being the least bit morbid or maudlin. (slide 1,2,3).
There is something about the experience of water particularly, at the dawn or in the evening, when everything is calm that pervades and saturates our senses and our soul with placid tranquility. (slide 4,5,6).
At the edges of our comfort zone in the natural world, even as we are nearly freezing to death to get to and from that place, there is often an ethereal quality is pulls us into it, even as it is dangerous for our health and well-being (slide 7,8,9, 10) This last one is from the mountain range in Idaho and you can almost see Zeus bearing his thunder bolt can’t you?
Likewise, over the course of eons of time, left without interruption by humans, erosion and movement produce artistic quality patterns that are just stunning (slide 11,12) Similarly, we can produce some of the same results just using time lapse photography to merge celestial movements, highlighting their patterns. (13)
In my lifetime, the sense of wonder has moved out of the orbit of earth alone to take on planetary and then galactic proportions. I think of the Big Sky on the high plains in Montana without any humidity in the air which makes the moon appear closer and clearer. (slide 14, 15)
But since we have projected the Hubble telescope, the wonder of our solar system has continued to expand. These are two images of Mars and Saturn. (slide 16, 17) Wondrously beautiful.
(slide 18) A galaxy in panorama, just awesome.
(slide 19) The birth of a star
(slide 20) The engine of a black hole, sucking up stars.
We now believe that the visible universe accounts for less that half of the total mass of the universe. One can only speculate on the mystery that will unfold as we image this bigger mass that we cannot see with the simple eye alone.
On the other end of the spectrum, the micro universe is equally as beguiling as the macro-universe. These snow crystals. (slide 21,22, 23). They exhibit a remarkable complexity, variety, and beauty.
And the ordinary world around us (slide 24, 25, 26) is full of lovely glimpses of grace unfolding before us.
(slides, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31) No, our world fundamentally presents itself to us with wonder, with awe that it is so much bigger than us and grants us such an incubus. It is majestic, inviting, and it can absorb us. There is such a mystery and wonder to the livingness of the earth, to it’s radiance and the fact that we are part of it at all.
When my children were little babies, I used to hold them on my chest. You could feel their little heart beats and their breath so regular as they fell asleep… just a simple heartbeat is almost a metaphysical transcendent when you reflect on the great chain of being and your little link in it…
And the way that kids can rest with complete, secure abandon on your chest. It is marvelous.
Existence itself is full of wonder. It beckons forth in us gratitude that we are here and that we get to participate in it. Life is just fundamentally good- It is filled with tragedies, accidents, depressions, difficulties, sure… but it is fundamentally good even with them.
I take gratitude to be a fundamental spiritual disposition that responds to the gracious transcendent aesthetic of the cosmos. For me, that has always been one of the strongest arguments for God- just look at it and tell me how it makes you feel. It moves us deeply in ways that we can’t even fully articulate. Existence is wonderful. Being alive is wonderful.
St. Paul says, cultivate a life of gratitude. It should be a lietmotiff that you come back to again and again. Obviously, you can’t stay with the wonder thing day in and day out- not with that knucklehead honking at you on the Garden State Parkway, not with your kids and those glazed over eyes from staring for hours at game boy, not with 12 voice mail messages on your cell phone. There are all kinds of banal realities around us to keep us perpetually grumpy, focused on the “to do” list, just trying to get through the day and week. I understand that.
But, Warren Zevon was right, enjoy each sandwich. Spiritually awake people are attuned to this. They take from the occasional, overpowering experiences of the transcendent in nature and they let those inform them and guide them through lots of daily stuff…. Like watching a kid finally get some mastery of an instrument they have been practicing (that is a transcendent breakthrough)… like an endearing touch of warm humanity (that can be a transcendent moment)… like an opera, a ballet, a play when so many great performers come together in a moment of magic… You just go ‘Wow, it is great to be alive.” Cultivate that spiritual disposition. Weave it into the fabric of your daily existence. Be grateful.
And you know what happens when you do? You become a generous person. You live out of the abundance of the treasure of life. What a better way to live.
Ego tells us to live out of scarcity. Ego reminds us that there won’t be enough. Ego is afraid that we won’t be taken care of. Ego wants to horde more than it really needs.
Gratitude reminds us that the resources around us are not ours to hold onto for very long in the best of circumstances. Gratitude reminds us that the real joy of life is becoming a blessing to those around us. Gratitude reminds us to invest ourselves and our resources in ways that multiply the blessings that we know are spiritually real.
Now you know that this is the time in the life of our Church when we are asking you for money for next year. We need the kwan. We want you to fork it over. And I know you will. And that is part of what I am talking about.
But what I am talking about is much broader than that. It is the very real spiritual disposition of gratitude and generosity that shapes all aspects of how we live, our time, our involvement, our investments.
For most of us this is a growth area, to learn to live out of life rather than out of fear, out of trust rather than anxiety. The good news is we can get better at it.
I met a woman who grew into this spirit in her own funky way. When I met her she was probably 70 years old. And she lived in this very interesting home in Princeton that had an extensive garden out back and quite a lot of greenhouses and barns and out buildings right around her house.
She had lots of cats, but also birds, dogs, farm animals- a pair of geese, a couple chickens. It was a rambling home and she was a bit of a hippy. She would regularly have a grandchild or two over, friends. I got to know her because she was looking out for a teenager that was going through a rough patch.
She kept a teapot going and was forever offering you a piece of nut bread with a mug of tea. Whatever else was going on, she was always moving around the endless plants that adorned her home, watering here, weeding there. And what a green thumb she had, all this stuff that grew.
She had this marvelous tradition, especially for first time visitors, she would take a clipping from one of her plants, plop it in a planter with soil, and hand it to you as you left. And you had to do something with your little plant because you were now a gardener too. And there was something about her manner, the way she handled her plants and the people around her, that you knew you couldn’t just throw this plant in the dumpster, you had to tend to it. Spiritually, she was, in one of William Faulkner’s favorite words, fecund. She grew other people, she grew stuff. She was fecund. That is a great spiritual response to the wonder of the world. Gratitude begets generativity. And something like that is what I hope you will grow to become.
Grateful, generous, gracious, growthful. Live out of your positive spiritual energy and let it multiply. Invest yourself in others, in ways that others can grow. Bless others. Give… And I don’t want to scare you, because if you let this develop, you might find yourself becoming one other G word, you probably never thought would be associated with you… Godly. Watch out. Amen.