Monday, December 1, 2008

Gratitude in Hard Times (November 23, 2008)

Do you ever have a day when it is really hard to be thankful? Maybe someone in your family is sick and hurting. Maybe the money you were counting on to get you through your retirement is shrinking. Or maybe you just couldn’t sleep last night and then your waffle was cold, and your sneaker got full of water while you were running for the bus.

Being thankful is a way of saying “yes” to life. This is why it can be so hard to be grateful when life is tough. How can we be thankful when people are losing their jobs, when kids are getting teased by bullies at school, when war is happening right now in far away lands? Maybe that’s how you felt during our reflection when you had a chance to write your thoughts on a card. Maybe you felt like “how can I say yes to life when life keeps saying no?”

The Pilgrims, when they arrived from across the sea, arrived in the fall, too late to plant crops for the coming winter. They hadn’t brought enough food to last, and food was rationed very tightly. It was a tradition in this church back a generation ago to hand out 5 grains of corn to each person in the Thanksgiving service, to remind them of the 5 grains of corn that was all each pilgrim was given to eat each day during that cold hard first winter. In order to remember those harsh times and maintain their gratitude for the plenty they now enjoyed, some New Englanders started the custom of putting five kernels of corn on each plate at their feast.

Gratitude is an important practice in all of the world’s religions. It was an important practice for the first nations people who helped the pilgrims survive in an ecosystem that was strange to them. The Algonkian tribes held six thanksgiving festivals during the year. The beginning of the Algonkian year was marked by the Maple Dance which gave thanks to the Creator for the maple tree and its syrup, whenever the weather was warm enough for the sap to run in the maple trees. Second was the planting feast, where the seeds were blessed. The strawberry festival was next, celebrating the first fruits of the season. Summer brought the green corn festival to give thanks for the ripening corn. In late fall, the harvest festival gave thanks for the food they had grown. Mid-winter was the last ceremony of the old year. When the Indians sat down to the "first Thanksgiving" with the Pilgrims, it was really the fifth thanksgiving of the year for them! (1)

This Algnokin annual cycle of gratitude reminds me that when every season of every year there are things to be grateful for. So even on a bad, grumpy, hard to get up while it was still light out to walk to the bus stop morning, it is still possible to be grateful.

Do you remember a character called “Eeyore” from the stories of Winnie the Pooh? Well one morning he came knocking on Christopher Robin’s door.
"Hallo, Eeyore," said Christopher Robin, as he opened the door and came out. "How are you?"
"It's snowing still," said Eeyore gloomily.
"So it is."
"And freezing."
"Is it?"
"Yes," said Eeyore. "However," he said, brightening up a little, "we haven't had an earthquake lately."

Eeyore is the king of the Grumpy day gratitude -- hard times gratitude. And Eeyore gratitude is the MOST important, because those are the days when it takes real willpower to let your mind enter a grateful state. On these days you have to start with something basic. Your breath. Breath in. Breath out. Feels pretty good. We are in a warm dry place together this morning. We have time to come to church and sit and think and listen to stories, because we don’t have to work or school 7 days a week. There’s going to be food afterwards- none of us have to go hungry.

On a good day I can also feel grateful for the people that I know who love me and listen to my jokes. I can feel grateful for a certain quality of blue in the sky, and the shape of the endless mountains as I drive down 220. On a really really grateful day I can even be thankful for the hard things of life. For challenges that helped me learn and grow. Even for getting up in the dark to walk to the bus stop.

When you say thank you to your Gramma for the nice Birthday Present, you say it so that she knows you got it, and that you appreciate that she went to the trouble of buying you that toy, or knitting you that sweater. But when you say the Thanksgiving kind of thank you, you are doing a spiritual practice. You are remembering that even when the universe seems to be saying “no” you can still say “yes” to life.

It was traditional in this church to read the “ancient Scripture” at the Thanksgiving service, and so we chose one that reminds us to be thankful for this earth. Some people in our church believe in God, and some do not. But all of us can be grateful for the good gifts our earth provides. “a good land, a land of brooks, springs, and fountains flowing forth in valleys and hills, 8:8 a land of wheat, barley, vines, fig trees, and pomegranates, of olive trees and honey, 8:9 a land where you may eat food in plenty and find no lack of anything, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper”

Every day we have food to put on the table, we can be grateful.

Well, what about the people who don’t have food for their table? You might ask. Our Thanksgiving tradition has something to say about that as well. Historians say that The Wampanoag tribe who helped the pilgrims believed it was important to give charity to the helpless and hospitality to anyone who came to them with empty hands. The Wampanoag were actually invited to that Thanksgiving feast for the purpose of negotiating a treaty that would secure the lands of the Plymouth Plantation for the Pilgrims. So the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims were more like neighbors or people doing business than like family, but the Wampanoag guests, maybe out of a sense of charity toward their hosts, ended up bringing most of the food for that first Thanksgiving feast.

When we are grateful, it is easier for us to be generous. When I realize how much I have, it feels good for me to give some of it to someone who is hungry. That’s why our kitchen is full right now of soup and pies and turkey. The soup was made with love for us by the people in this community. The pies and turkeys we brought to share with folks in the Valley who don’t always have enough food to eat, so that they can feast on Thanksgiving. Giving is a way of saying “Thank You” Giving is a way of saying “Yes” to life.

So as you enter this season of Thanksgiving, remember that saying “thank you” is not just something that happens while everyone is seated at the holiday table and waiting to eat. If it helps you to remember, hold those 5 grains of corn in our hands, remember the hard times, and give thanks the simple things we have. Let holding both the hard things and the goodness together in gratitude be a spiritual practice in all the seasons of the year.


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