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 Sermons

Indigenous People’s Day

O Great Spirit,
Whose voice I hear in the winds
and whose breath gives life to all the world.
Hear me! I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes
ever hold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made
and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand
the things you have taught my people.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden
in every leaf and rock.
Help me remain calm and strong in the
face of all that comes towards me.
Help me find compassion without
empathy overwhelming me.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother,
but to fight my greatest enemy: myself.
Make me always ready to come to you
with clean hands and straight eyes.
So when life fades, as the fading sunset,m
y spirit may come to you without shame.

I’m going to start this sermon with lies. As you’re probably aware, tomorrow is our national observance of Columbus Day. It’s been moved to a Monday holiday, but officially, it recognizes the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, on October 12 in the year… well, you probably know.

Like most Americans, you’ve probably had a whole lot of education about Christopher Columbus. It feels to me like we started there in every history class I ever took, from first grade to college, though, to be fair, college gave us a chapter about the people who were here first, beforehand. I’m sure you learned the rhyme, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. You probably forgot nearly every other date you learned in history class. Can you think of another one, off the top of your head, other than 1776? So here’s a sample of lies your teacher told you, as mentioned in the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, which has an entire chapter on Columbus.

  1. Columbus discovered America. Even if we discount the peoples that were here, there were Vikings and explorers from Siberia who came here much earlier.
  2. The ships endured bad weather. Nope. Columbus’ own journals say the seas were calm. We just like the adventure tale.
  3. Everyone thought the earth was flat and Columbus proved otherwise. Nope. It was common knowledge at the time that the earth was round, modern day flat-earthers notwithstanding
  4. Columbus just wanted to explore and find a trade route to the West Indies. Actually, he was pretty into conquest and exploitation, too
  5. Columbus made friends with the native population and gave them their name ‘Indians.’ Well, that last part is true. We’ll cover his treatment of the natives in a bit.
  6. Columbus was Italian. This isn’t certain either. He may have been Spanish. He may even have been a Jew.
  7. A quote from a 1992 high school textbook: “Although Columbus made three more voyages to America, he never really knew he had discovered a New World. He died in obscurity, unappreciated and penniless. Yet without his daring American History would have been very different, for in a sense Columbus made it all possible.” He wrote in his own journals, “I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent.”

What was it that Columbus made possible? Columbus’s first order of business upon meeting the Arawak Indians was to discover if they had any gold. The Arawak told them there was a tribe nearby that had gold, so he sailed to the other side of the island, saw some villages, and wrote about them: “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.”

On his first voyage, he kidnapped 10-25 Indians and took them back to spain. Indeed, on return trips, since the gold he envisioned in massive quantities did not pan out (pun intended), he had to return some kind of dividend to Spain, and what that turned out to be was human trafficking. In 1495 they rounded up 1500 Arawaks and took them back to spain as slaves. The Arawaks, as you might not be surprised to hear, resisted, which gave Columbus an excuse to slaughter and conquer them, besides the ready-made excuse of their not being Christian. Spaniards took whatever they wanted, including the women, their food, hunted Indians for sport and murdered them for dog food. Most of these gruesome facts are available in the accounts of the Spaniards themselves, including Columbus.

The other thing that Columbus apparently made possible was wiping out of dozens of native civilizations by disease.

Charles C. Mann’s book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, dispels the myth of the pre-Columbian Native as backward, unenlightened, a primitive holdover. In light of evidence gleaned by archaeologists over the past several decades, thriving, enormous civilizations existed here in the Western Hemisphere that rivaled the most sophisticated in the Old World.

Mann begins with an introduction entitled, “Holmberg’s Mistake.” Allan R. Holmberg was an anthropologist who lived among the Siriono people in a part of Bolivia known as the Beni, between 1940 and 1942. His account of their lives, Nomads of the Longbow, was published in 1950, and accounts for a lot of our modern perception of natives. He called the people “among the most culturally backward peoples of the world,” and saw them as the “quintessence of man in the raw state of nature.” Holmberg described them as having no clothes, no domestic animals, no culture to speak of, no religion, and he attributed this to their being primitive and backward. He, and many others, viewed native peoples as having essentially nothing worth having until Columbus brought it to them in 1492.

Though the Siriono were culturally impoverished, it was not because of their failure to develop a culture over the millennia, but because they were decimated by smallpox in the 1920s, cutting their population from at least 3000, to 150 in the 1940s. It caused a genetic bottleneck. At the same time, they were battling white cattle ranchers taking over the region and forcing them into servitude. The Siriono were not backward, but reeling from disease and injustice. “It was as if,” Mann concludes, “[Holmberg] had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving.”

The image of the noble savage is one that has persisted in the imaginations of Europeans and their colonial descendants for centuries. Native peoples were brought back to Europe to display in a manner reminiscent of, and often as part of, a sideshow. Not understanding them, they were seen as holdovers from mankind’s ancient past. This idea, that Native Americans lived in a state outside time, having no effect on the land they inhabited, creating no lasting monuments, just waiting for conquest, dominated scholarly works and thereby high school and college textbooks for many decades. What purpose does this narrative serve? Mann quotes a British historian in 1965, Hugh Trevor-Roper, saying “Native people’s chief function in history is to show the present an image of the past from which by history it has escaped.”

Throughout the rest of the book Mann dips into culture after culture, showing the stunning complexity of Native American life before Columbus, and in many cases, astonishing numbers to boot. The narrative in most texts is that Pizarro overwhelmed the Inca with horses, steel, guns, and superior technology. There is truth in this, but the actual picture is more complex.

You see, smallpox arrived before Pizarro, killing their leader and his heir, which left a second son, Atahualpa, the de facto leader. But that was in dispute, and the Inca were in the midst of a civil war. It’s estimated that half their population died. This disaster unraveled social norms and caused all kinds of upheaval.

In the midst of this, Atahualpa, who had scouted Pizarro’s forces and determined that his 168 men were not a threat to his own 80,000, received Pizarro as a diplomat. The Inca were unarmed, expecting diplomacy. The Spaniards slaughtered them.

Without this diabolical attack, on a battlefield, Pizarro’s victory might have been very different. Yes, the Spaniards had guns, but on their mountainous home turf the Inca sling and bola were very effective. Yes, they had horses, but look at this picture of an Inca road. They were steep, with steps, much more suited for humans on foot and sure-footed llamas than steel-shod horses. Imagine trying to come up this road while someone was throwing projectiles at you from the bottom. I’m sure the person at the foot of this road can attest to what that might be like, and you might ask her because, it’s Janie.

Smallpox was probably the biggest factor in the easy conquest of native populations. The disease spreads quickly because people are contagious for 12 days before they begin to show symptoms, and they often fled the disease, carrying it from village to village, so it decimated Native populations like wildfire. There is a lot of disagreement on estimates of how many Natives were here before Europeans arrived, but some researchers estimate as many as 90 million or more, as compared with 10 million in Spain and Portugal at the time. Pizarro arrived after smallpox and still wrote of how astounded he was at the scope and population of Inca civilization. If these estimates are true, disease killed 80 to 100 million Native Americans by the seventeenth century — 1 out of 5 people then alive on earth. Mann draws an equivalency — if New York were similarly affected by disease today, the remaining population would not fill Yankee Stadium. In the sixteenth century DeSoto arrived in what is now Arkansas (with dozens of pigs, who may have been responsible for some of the epidemics) and described it as “thickly set with great towns.” But when the Frenchman LaSalle visited the same area in 1682 he found it deserted, with no villages for 200 miles.

The same was true further north. We’ve also been told the Thanksgiving story since early childhood, but the reason Tisquantum, whom we know from elementary school as Squanto, was fluent in English was because he’d been captured by British sailors seven years before, abducted, and returned to find his people, the Patuxet, completely wiped out by smallpox and there were English squatters in his village who called themselves pilgrims.

Mann makes an interesting argument regarding the human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs, as well. It certainly happened, he says, and likely on a large scale. But, he says, it was in the Spanish interest to exaggerate this aspect of Aztec life, in a sort of rationale for conquest. In addition, the contemporary European society likewise had a taste for slaughter as public spectacle, heretics being burned alive, criminals drawn and quartered, bodies impaled and displayed on city walls. Perhaps, Mann suggests, the two societies were more alike than either realized. He goes on to describe the rich culture of the Aztecs in poetry and philosophy. European and Asian cultures had the advantage of trading and intermingling for hundreds of years, building on one another’s ideas, offering one another cultural exchanges. Can you imagine what might have been possible if they had approached these massive, culturally diverse societies the way they approached Asia, and exchanged ideas? Instead they were cut down by European diseases and European greed for gold, and land.

I do not have time to touch on each of the many cultures Mann discusses in 1491. He covers the Olmec and their remarkable immortal stone heads, the Clovis civilization’s stoneworking, the amazing development of maize as a staple crop, the Maya and their astonishing calendars, the massive figures of the Nazca, the challenges and development of agriculture along the Amazon, the mysteries of the mound-builders of Cahokia.

The takeaway is this: Europeans did not step into a cultural void, or a pristine wilderness inhabited by a scattering of savages. There were complex, evolved cultures across both American continents, living and interacting with the land, sometimes stewarding it wisely, sometimes causing wholesale destruction, creating great, populous civilizations, and often fractured and at war with one another (another thing that left them vulnerable to invaders). It is time to stop erasing these cultures and making them nothing more than a prologue to what we tell ourselves is “American” history, which is really a history of Europeans in the Americas.

Why does this matter? Maybe History was your least favorite subject in school, and maybe I’m boring you to tears with all of this. I hope not. It matters because we continue to celebrate racial violence and oppression. Some of you will be off work tomorrow to celebrate the life of a man responsible, directly and indirectly, for untold suffering, human trafficking, murder, and the wiping out of great civilizations whose stories and cultures are now lost to us forever. But we don’t talk about that loss. We say, “without his daring, American History would have been very different.” That’s true, but I think not in the way the textbook meant it.

It matters because, as people who seek social justice, we can’t just be nonracist. We have to be anti-racist. Seven states have rejected the celebration of Columbus day, replacing it with IPD or Native American Day. Our own UUA has joined with other organizations such as the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker organization, and others, in rejecting Columbus Day and the Doctrine of Discovery, which could be a sermon on its own. This doctrine from the 15th century was rooted in church decree, and basically said, if the people who live in a place are not Christian, conquest, colonization, and exploitation are sanctioned. It’s based on a scripture that says “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread I have given you, as I said to Moses.” In 1823, the Supreme Court ruled that discovery rights of Europeans as expressed in this doctrine applied to the United States European descendants, and the result of that decision still affects government policy to this day.

So how will we celebrate the second Monday in October? I’d like to suggest that we, as a congregation, follow UUA’s lead and adopt a resolution to reject Columbus Day in favor of IPD. UUA has suggestions for honoring IPD:

  1. Craft a Sunday service around Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
  2. Build and strengthen connections to nearby Native communities. I have to do more research, but as you probably know, the local Cherokee were murdered and relocated from here on Jackson’s watch, so I don’t know how much of a Native community still exists. This bears researching.
  3. Study the Doctrine of Discovery and work to eliminate its effects. I propose that we do this in future SJMs and possibly future sermons. I’d like your feedback on this.
    Take action to rename Columbus day in your state.
  4. Provide RE programming about IPD.
  5. Hold a movie screening with a discussion afterward about Native peoples.
  6. Host a common read book discussion. They suggest Beacon Press’ An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. If you would like, we can do this after White Fragility.
  7. Engage with immigration as a moral issue. Indigenous people of Central America are a big part of today’s desperate wave of immigration to the US. We have already supported a community in Central America, the Copal A community in Guatemala, who are working to educate native cultures in their area, keep their language alive, and educate people here about what they are doing. If you would like to continue to donate to Copal A, I can give you contact information to keep up with what they are doing.
  8. Take action for the rights and needs of Native peoples. There are a lot of ways to do this. Here are UUA’s suggestions on the subject.

Before I close, I would like to suggest that we consider taking another look at our Statement of Conscience, which doesn’t include anything about Native American rights. It has statements about racial justice, but I think it’s worth having a conversation about what things should be named specifically and which are fine as generalizations. (Some in the congregation agreed that it might be worth taking a look at, and we definitely need to replace the glass).

My blessing for you today is a Cherokee prayer:

May the warm winds of heaven blow softly upon your house
May the Great Spirit bless all who enter there.
May your moccasins make happy tracks in many snows,
And may the Rainbow always touch your shoulder.

I’d like to add:

May we work to educate ourselves and others about the history of native peoples,
And may we do our part to change the narrative of oppression.