Posted in Sermons

Sermon: A Practice of Gratitude

My pretty Thanksgiving Cactus in the sunshine

My gift for you today is a little book of Gratitude. If you carry your book of gratitude with you, maybe when a delight or something to be grateful for strikes you, you’ll be moved to write in it then and there.

The science is really clear: having a regular practice of gratitude is really good for our mental health. It increases a sense of well-being and happiness, and decreases symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. Studies have been conducted on well people and on patients seeking counseling. A Berkeley study showed that the effects weren’t just the immediate good feeling that comes from thinking nice thoughts. Using fMRI technology, the brain scans showed more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex when people were feeling gratitude, and these changes lasted up to three months after the practice was begun.

In another study, scientists asked one group of people to write down the things that they were grateful for on a weekly basis, while the other group recorded hassles or neutral life events. The folks who kept gratitude journals exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were generally more optimistic about the upcoming week—compared to their negatively focused counterparts.

This seems to be borne out among my friends. I asked on Facebook whether my friends had a regular gratitude practice. Those who responded that they did reported that it makes them feel closer to God, more empathetic, not as quick to anger, a better life, closer relationships, better outlook, and “reduced grump-butt levels.” My friends exist on a wide religious spectrum, and I know that these answers came from Christians, pagans, and those who don’t subscribe to any particular religion.

In my own experience, I’ve found that knowing I’m going to be looking for something to write in my gratitude journal has the effect of making me more present to notice things to be grateful for or finding delight in. What about you? Do you have a regular practice of gratitude?

Surveys show we WANT to be more grateful. One reported that 78% of Americans had felt strongly thankful in the past week. That number is so high that it seems likely that there’s some social desirabaility bias going on – we want it to be true that we feel deep gratitude on a regular basis. Diana Butler Bass, author of the book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, comments on this statistic and compares it to another study in the same year, 2015, and has this to say:

That sounds great, but those numbers also point to a problem: that of a gratitude gap. They reveal a disparity between our private feelings and our public attitudes. Social scientists have extolled gratitude as a personal path to peace, health, and contentment. Giving thanks, however, is more than a private practice; those same researchers insist that gratitude is socially beneficial and strengthens communities. Gratitude is about ‘me’ and it is about ‘we.’ Where is the gap? A week after the Pew survey on the gratitude question, Public Religion Research Institute posted a very different study regarding American attitudes as we moved into a Presidential election year. That study discovered that Americans were more anxious, less optimistic, and more distrustful than ever. Subsequent political events made evident a surge of rage, revealing a toxic level of anger, fear, division, and intolerance in the American electorate.

The survey puzzled me. Did the same people who felt grateful also express these negative emotions? Had they divided their lives into personal thanks and public rage?

She says further on, “our understanding of thanks is polluted by our toxic dissatisfactions.” When I read this, I immediately thought of Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday not only based on toxic cultural fables that literally whitewash our history, and it’s becoming a holiday of gluttony with a thin veneer of gratitude that seems to be thinning even more. Even further, in recent years, Christmas has encroached on our supposed thankfulness more and more to the point that Black Friday now starts at 6 pm on Thanksgiving Day, and peoples “toxic dissatisfactions” have them running out of houses full of turkey so that they can do battle for the best prices on the commercial madness that our American highest holy day has become. I wonder at how many tables this week thanks will be expressed for families, while failing to express thanks to family members.

Christmas itself often brings anxiety about the equivalency of our gifts.

For me, and maybe for you too, a practice of gratitude might feel a little messy if you don’t believe, as the Bible says in James, that “every good gift and every perfect present comes from above.” If your practice of gratitude incorporates expressing your thanks to God, I think that’s a beautiful thing. But I also think we need not forget those through whom those gifts come. Let me ask you this: if you believe in a benevolent deity, what would make them happier – if you spent every night on your knees pouring out verbal thanks to them in prayer, or if you shared your gifts, your blessings and your thanks with others? If all good things come from god, then your sharing – whether that’s your love, joy, gratitude, or material things – means you get to be part of the divine distribution process, and how cool is that?

And if you don’t believe that all good things come from god, then finding the source of your good things becomes maybe even more important. It makes me think of this meme I’ve seen before:

Gates was going to be my service coordinator today but couldn’t. She shared with me this video that I wanted to share with you:

AJ Jacobs on Gratitude

What jumped out to me in that video is that this exercise in gratitude drew Mr. Jacobs’ attention to what is our 7th principle of UUism: respect for the interconnected web of existence of which we are all a part. I think the heart of gratitude lies in this principle, and maybe also in the principle of democratic process.

Our society has roots in feudalism. Under that system, and systems before it, you do something for your lord – give him part of your livelihood – and he does something for you, namely, lets you live in his territory. This equation, where a benefactor bestows something upon a beneficiary, and the beneficiary is expected to be both grateful and often also to cough up something of value in return, is a societal more, and we’ve had a couple of centuries to shake it, but we’re not doing a great job of it. Your parents probably taught you that when someone gives you a birthday or graduation gift, you’re expected to say thanks. Even before that, when a stranger gives a child a piece of candy, we say to the child, “What do you say?” I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, it’s valuable to teach children to express gratitude. But, as this author says, “obligatory gratitude rarely has a heart.” It’s part of maturity to grow and express gratitude not only when it’s expected. When you express gratitude the way Mr. Jacobs did, to people who are underappreciated for making the world work successfully, then your thank you becomes a gift.

It’s important to separate the emotion of gratitude from the intentional focus on the present moment. It’s also important to have perspective, because from a mature vantage point, we can see that things that felt really awful in the moment were really, ultimately, something we learned from and grew. When you can be grateful for that painful event in your life, and see it from a new vantage, that’s a mark of maturity.

I think it’s also important to be careful, in our practice of gratitude, that it doesn’t become a kind of prosperity gospel. This is essentially what prosperity gospel teaches: God wants you to be materially wealthy and personally happy. Therefore, your wealth and your privilege can be considered evidence that you are blessed by God. This isn’t exclusive to Christian teachings. In the video The Secret the idea was popularized that the Universe wants your highest good and therefore, if you just ask in the right way, all good things will come to you. This is really just a non-Christian prosperity gospel.

Do you see the danger in this kind of thinking? It leaves everything else out of the picture. You have “stuff” because God likes you and he hands it to you. If that “stuff” comes at the cost of child labor or environmental damage or other people being disadvantaged, or any number of other societal ills, well, if it was the will of the universe, who are we to argue, right? And then, if we’re not being financially blessed, what did we do wrong, why have we lost the favor of God or the Universe?

If gratitude is only about the good feeling we give ourselves about counting our blessings, then it will help us cope with a dysfunctional system. But if we still carry around a structure of gratitude as a debt or obligation that requires payback, and if we find in our gratitude practice that the blessings we are counting are primarily first-world material things, then “it serves to reinforce hierarchical structures of injustice and spiritualizes gifts and blessings while offering only heavenly rewards to those lower down the system.” In other words, those who are well off see their blessings as evidence that God cares about them, while people who don’t have these privileges will, if they’re good, get some nice things when they get to heaven.

From Rev. Bass’s book:

We might be grateful persons, with thankful hearts, and be fanatical about gratitude journals and intentions, but as soon as we walk out our front door or turn on the news, we are confronted with a world of payback, quid pro quo, corruption, and ungrateful neighbors. […] If gratitude is built on a myth of scarcity and imperial hierarchies, it has been corrupted. If gratitude is privatized and collaborates with injustice, it is not really gratitude… Gratitude begins with a profound awareness of abundance and builds communities of well-being and generosity. Gratitude opens toward grace.

True gratitude, not transactional gratitude but transformative gratitude, cannot be quiet in the face of injustice. The sort of gratitude that changes our individual lives will also revolutionize our lives in community and as citizens. Gratitude as an ethic moves us from the kind of private thankfulness that comforts us to public practices that push us out of our comfort zones.

“The ‘me’ of gratitude must extend to the ‘we’ of gratitude as an ethic, a vision of community based on habits and practices of grace and gifts, of cultivating a wide field of vision and deepening our awareness of humility and blessing, of setting tables and sharing food for all. Gratitude is not merely resilience. Gratitude is resistance too. It is time for all of us to join in the resistance.”

You know, when Donald Trump won the presidency, as I told you a couple of weeks ago, my reaction was activism. But as my friend Angela said to me, we engaged in a sprint, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t have the endurance to keep going, calling my representatives every day and showing up for every rally, or, like her, running for office. I burned out. I felt kind of guilty because I had bought shirts and pins that said “Nevertheless, she persisted,” and “Resist,” yet I was not persisting. Maybe you’ve had this experience too, the constant barrage of more and more ridiculous news from the White House has just ground me down over the last three years. I started to wonder, what can I do that matters? My phone calls to Diane Black do not matter, not at all.

But over time, I started to realize that my best service to the community and the world was within these walls. I could find people who were similarly discouraged and be with them and make them feel maybe for the first time in a week that they weren’t alone. I could use the church’s voice in the community, put on my golden swarm shirt and show up for a rally to say “I will not forget the victims of this shooting,” or “I do not support children being locked up at the border.” The work of this faith community is small, but with networking with other liberal orgs in the community and with your support, it can grow. We don’t have to resist alone, because we’re together, and together, we’re making things happen. In the last few weeks our church has received a grant to help increase early childhood literacy in the area, and we can do that in a way that promotes inclusion and acceptance, because that’s our vision. Some of our friends have a vision even bigger than that. There’s a lot more our little church can do, and it starts with us. When I think of the things I’m most grateful for, this church is at the top of the list, right after my family. You’re at the top of the list. So I would encourage you to consider that in your thought process on gratitude, and if you haven’t made a pledge to help support the work of this growing church in our community, to contribute to having this little haven here in Conservative Cookeville, there’s still time to do that.

My blessing for you this week:

May you give thanks
May you express thanks to those who have blessed you
May you look at your blessings a little differently than you have in the past
May you see through the lens of interconnectedness.
May we have courage to resist when resistance is needed
May we as a community build within these walls an ethic of gratitude
May we model the kind of thankful world we want to see outside these walls

Posted in Big Questions

I’m sorry… Thank You

Hawaiian Volcano. Photo by Marc Szeglat, volcanoes.de

My meditation this morning left me with tears streaming down my face. It was a practice called Ho’oponopono, a practice of indigenous Hawaiian healers and shamans, and something I want to work with more. Here is the practice, a sort of mantra:

I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.

In the version I practiced, as part of Davidji’s 30 Days to Rebirth course on Insight Timer, the meditator imagines themselves as a child. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you. Then as a young adult, an adult, recently. Then imagining another person. I’m sorry, Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.

When I arrived at the last portion of the practice (which I think I will expand to make it more metta-style when I do it myself, maybe more on that later), my mind went immediately to my brother Anthony, who committed suicide in 2016. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.

I cannot ask his forgiveness any longer, and even if he was alive, I don’t think it’s a conversation he would have wanted to have. But it’s a conversation I can have with him now. I’m sorry that when you needed me, when everyone you loved was cutting you off, that I said okay to that practice and hurt you. They told me it was the loving thing to do. How can cutting someone out of your life ever be the loving thing to do? I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.

And back to myself, for doing the cutting off: I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.

There’s so much to process here.

And as I journaled about this, I have shifted my practice of gratitude to a practice of delight. What, in this heavy but necessary moment, could I call a delight? I wrote this:

Delight: How about this? Crying. It is a thing I have always hated. I hate the not-in-control-of-myself feeling, especially in front of other people. But my grief — for Anthony — taught me that catharsis is important and needed, that repressed tears will weigh down your soul to the point of sickness, even to the point of death. I promised myself then, grieving, that whatever comes, I will let it come, and then let it go.

Did I ever see my adult brother cry? I remember when he was really little, and he would cry. My grandfather told him ‘Toughen up, be a man,’ and mom got mad. He’s not a man, she said, he’s a little boy, and there’s nothing wrong with tears. Which message did he internalize? Which one did I?

My Aunt Betty was famous in my family for her ability to cry gracefully. It was, mom and I said, because she didn’t bother trying not to cry, she just let the tears flow, and we (mom and I) would say she was beautiful, crying, and wish we could be beautiful crying too, and not resist it.

This morning in meditation I was beautiful crying. I did not resist it. In meditation — alone — I can let the tears flow, feel them drip from my chin, and feel deep gratitude for the way they wash through me like a summer storm and leave me feeling cleansed and purified. A little more whole.

Posted in Uncategorized

Introvert Exhaustion

I’m tired. Are you?

I’m a social introvert. I love people, and overbook my social calendar all the time. And then, I hit a wall and I absolutely have to shut down. I call this Introvert Hibernation Time.

I love you. Go away.

If you’re a introvert I know you’ll relate. Introverts aren’t shy, necessarily; the difference between introverts and extroverts is that extroverts get energy on interaction with other people and introverts get energy by being alone, or with one (rarely more than one, but few at most) very special people.

I hit the wall this week. Stress from my husband’s illness, stress from college assignments, and I found myself with little or nothing to give and wanting to lock myself in a room and… what?

How do you fix this?

The answer, of course, is time, and being gentle with yourself, but I have a few other tips I’d like to share.

1. Know your limits and put them in writing. I can look at my jam-packed calendar and know I’m going to need to schedule IHT (Introvert Hibernation Time, remember?) afterwards, and I will literally put it in my planner that way, with SCHEDULE NOTHING at the top of the day(s). And hey, if you surprise yourself and feel great that day, then you can always dial up the social interaction to exactly where you want it. Coffee with your bestie? Snuggle time with your love? Go for it. Hopefully both of those people will understand if you don’t.

2. Know what drains you. I can do a whole lot of church stuff and it doesn’t drain me, but one craft show will usually knock me out for a few days. Phone calls drain me if they’re important, or full of conflict, or something I’m dreading. Settings where there’s a lot of noise and chaos drain me, even if I’m having a good time. If there are bodies in my personal space, especially in a crowd, my reserves are leaking like a sieve. Consider making a list in your journal, if you’re a journaler.

3. Know what re-energizes you. This is a much more fun list to make. Here are a few ideas: Spending time in nature. Doing something creative. One on one time with someone who is awesome. Spending time with animals — taking my dog for a forest hike is a double whammy for me, and if I add in a creative thing like taking wildflower photos to paint later. Ooh, that’s bliss. Finding QUIET. If you have to go somewhere away from home to get that quiet, find a corner of the library, or hit up that forest again. Music can fill some people’s wells. Indulging in a good novel (be careful here, sometimes lying around in your pajamas bingeing Netflix can be well-filling, and sometimes it can just make you feel like a bum and more depressed). Chances are, if you make a list of things you absolutely love, you can go back and highlight the things that are also well-filling, it’ll be most of those things. For me, a social introvert, they don’t match entirely, but it’s a good start. Definitely make this list too. In fact, consider making the list anew every time you’re feeling burned out.

4. Schedule a play date. Setting up a couple of hours of just-for-me-time/self care on a weekly or otherwise regular basis is good preventative medicine.

5. Know the signs of introvert exhaustion. Sometimes, we’re getting irritable, or depressed, we don’t realize it’s because we need a little alone space. We introverts can often get very deep into our own heads, with thoughts swirling endlessly, firing judgments at someone who is getting on our last nerve, without knowing that it’s really not them, it’s us. We lose touch with our actual feelings. It’s different for everyone, but here are a few that should make warning bells go off:

  • Noise drives you insane and you feel overstimulated just listening to someone talk.
  • You’re tired all the time even though you’re sleeping.
  • Or, insomnia.
  • You’re uncharacteristically irritable.
  • Emotional sensitivity.
  • Tough to get motivated.
  • Your eyes glaze over when you try to focus and you find yourself staring into the middle distance and shutting down emotionally.
  • Psychosomatic symptoms. You hurt somewhere even though you don’t remember hurting your back, your knees, your neck. Even of you understand that you have chronic pain in this place, did you ever injure it? If not, please do some research on Tension Myositis Syndrome and see if you fit this picture. Finding out about this changed my life.

6. Get mindful. This kind of links to the above, but if you’re zoning out and you’re not aware of your own feelings, you need to bring yourself back and be fully present. If you’re currently totally overwhelmed, retreat, and then get mindful. Sometimes we get so much in our head we can’t even feel our bodies. Meditation is the best training for this. If you have a hard time doing sitting meditation try walking meditation, or coloring, or Zentangle, or another meditative activity. Connect with your breath (hey, you’re alive, yay!) and sort your own feelings out.

7. Don’t make IHT a habit. I know this sounds contradictory to what I said above about scheduling IHT days. But what I’m telling you is, you need social interaction. If you find it incredibly difficult to socialize with any people at all, you might consider getting help for depression, because while introverts need their alone time, we need our social time too, even when it’s a struggle. Find a buddy, preferably another introvert, to help you with this. Get out sometimes and get social. Find a safe space/group or at least a safe person where you can be yourself. It doesn’t have to be in a crowd.

8. Love who you are. You’ll never change what gives you energy. What you can change is your level of confidence and the people you surround yourself with when you are ready to surround yourself with people. Choosing your companions is a form of self care. Find some who get it when you say you need a break, people you don’t have to lie to in order to get your alone time. Introverts are amazing people! We are the thinkers, the creators, the poets and songwriters, and often, we’re sensitive people who are so very good for others when we pop our heads out of our shells. We get people, we just don’t want to be in the middle of them all the time. It’s only a matter of finding a balance between social and alone, and you can use both of them to make the world a little better.

Posted in Uncategorized

ALL THE THINGS!

fingerpainter

I realized something:  I need a vacation.  I realized it while I was journaling a couple of days ago.  I realized I really need to take some time to do nothing but make things.

So I’m doing an Art Retreat next week.  My day job doctor (I type medical records) is taking the week mostly off, so I am taking every thing except one off my schedule and I am going to let my Inner Artist off the leash to play and do whatever she wants — make things, not because they’ll sell, but because I want to, because I want to try new things or just whatever.

If you read my stuff at all you know, I’m a journaler.  I spend a couple of hours each morning reading (usually a self-help book or spiritual or classics/poetry), journaling, and meditating.  I ran across an exercise in Christina Baldwin’s Life’s Companion:  Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest, where you pick one part of yourself to dialogue with another part.  So my Everyday-Day-Job Self had a chat with Inner Artist self.  You wanna hear?

(M=DayJobMe A=Artist)

M:  So, we’re going to have some quality time next week, just you and I.  What do you want to do?
A:  ALL THE THINGS!!
M:  Well, we can’t do ALL the things.  Pick a few.
A:  Why plan?
M:  Because that way we can be ready, and have all our materials, work space ready to go…
A:  That’s boring.
M:  I know, but if we don’t do all those boring things, we end up fiddling with materials or turning the house upside down looking for them, and never get to actually playing.
A:  Fine.  I want to walk in the woods with Bandit and take wildflower pictures.  And make a beautiful website to put them on, a Nature Notebook.
M:  Okay, great.  We’re ready to go on that one, just need to pick a place.
A:  And I want to make an altar cloth, or maybe another small sewing project I can finish in a day.
M:  Might need a fabric store trip for that, or not… we have a stash.
A:  OooooOOOoo…. we could do the fabric marbling on the altar cloth.  I’ve been wanting to do that.  Then fabric paint on it.  We need a cloth for every turning of the Wheel of the Year.  Beltane is coming up.
M:  I like the semicircular ones.  Anything else we need for Beltane?
A:  A light.  Flowers.  Tiny paintings.  Get the oil paints out.  Or maybe acrylic.  And maybe a wire tree for US, inviting whatever it is we want to bring into our life.
M:  MORE creativity.  More play.
A:  YES!  So maybe citrine and tiger’s eye.
M:  I wonder if this might be the time to explore opening an Etsy shop with spirit-centered stuff…
A:  I want to make tons of things in all different ways that are connected in Spirit, I’ve wanted to do that for ages… henna candles, wood burned crystal/incense/oil boxes — no wait, maybe do henna designs on those too.  Wire trees, sun catchers, tarot bags (there’s a one day sewing project), spirit art, fabric stuff, bookmarks… all the art I love to do, with a common theme, and constant innovation and experimentation.
M  Okay.  You play next week, and see what we come up with . There’s no pressure, though.  We could make things for just us if that’s what we want to do.  Just make a mess and see what comes of it.  I’ll make a list of materials.
A:  Yeah, you do the boring stuff.  I want to wander around in the craft store though.

So we did.  We wandered Hobby Lobby and what do you know, she wanted to make candles too (we needed a jar for dipping the henna candles in paraffin wax anyway…).
Next week is part Art Retreat, part Spirit Retreat, part Nature retreat.  We’re getting all the adulting and “boring stuff” out of the way this week and next week she gets to be the little girl playing in the finger paints again.  Oh, and I ditched the Facebook app off my phone, it’s a time suck and too tempting.  Now I’m just dropping in Facebook once or twice a day to upload pictures and projects and say hello.  Hello!  Pinterest, though, that’s a different story.

What would happen if you let your inner artist off the leash?  I might need to make a regular habit of it.

Posted in Uncategorized

Journaling

journalkitty

This is Nin-Nin the journal kitty (among many other talents).  Every morning I have to fold his blankie for him and put it at my writing desk in my bedroom, where he comes to visit and hangs out while I journal.

I started journaling in 2001.  I wish I could say I’ve journaled consistently every day since then but it comes and goes.  I started journaling because of a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and if I had to pick one book that’s changed my life, that’s it.

At the time I had just left Jehovah’s Witnesses and I was in a dark place.  I thought God was going to kill me at Armageddon, but I was so disenchanted with the religion that I didn’t care.  Julia asked me to look again at my concepts of God.  And more importantly, how they related to my art.  Because, she says, all art comes from God.

That might be an unpalatable suggestion to some people and it was to me, at the time.  Jehovah doesn’t care about that stuff, I thought.  But I had to learn that she meant (at least, this is how I feel now) that place of the divine inside you, the thing that is soul, or essence, or truth.

Ah, maybe I’m getting a little deep for a Saturday morning.  The point is, in the last 16 years I’ve come a long way, baby.  I went to my journal to figure out what I thought about everything, because I’d been told for years what I thought about just about everything, and I had to figure it all out for myself again, from scratch.   In the meantime I’ve written the odd poem, a lot of essays, a few articles that were published in the paper, and I have come full circle to writing a novel, now.  I have ideas for other things I want to write.  It’s easy to discount the writing I do on a regular basis.  Over the last couple of years I’ve become pretty consistent and I write in my journal every day.  I put stickers in it and I write in colored pen that you would probably find obnoxious but I love them and I love the process.  I start by documenting where I am in space and time:  what am I making (I am always making), what am I reading, what am I listening to or watching, sometimes what’s in the news, what’s Dictionary.com’s word of the day, what tarot card did I draw today, what are my current obsessions.  Then I just write, sometimes about what happened yesterday, sometimes about how I’m feeling.  It’s the place where meditation, catharsis, rambling and inspiration come together, and I wouldn’t be without it.

Some day I feel pretty sure that I will write a book about my journaling journey because it’s a thing I think everyone should do, and I have a lot to say on the topic.  If you have a hard time with a meditation cushion, it’s an active thing that can get you in a meditative frame of mind without navel-gazing.  If you’re grappling with tough feelings about something (brother’s death, election went very wrong, whatever), this is where you figure it out.  If you’re so tired and bored you can gripe about life.  It’s not for anyone else.  It’s for you. And then it clears out all that junk so that you can open up the channels and let your creativity off the leash, which is the point of The Artist’s Way.  It’s meant to help blocked artists, but it’s done so much more than that for me.

So each morning I sit with my kitty and my cup of tea and from the end of Daylight Savings Time to the beginning, my happy light (oh, I could wax poetic on that topic too!), my colored pencils and my pretty journal and my stickers, and I tell the Universe what’s going on with me.  I have no idea whether anyone besides me will ever care to read them… I like to think my son might, some day when I am gone, but there is a LOT to go through because I keep other journals besides these, and there is a whole big box of them in the closet.  It doesn’t matter though.  I do it for me.

I think you should do it for you, too.