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Sermon: We Are The Gratitude People

Gratitude coverSeptember 22, 2013

Matt Alspaugh


What is it that defines us as Unitarian Universalism? Are we an intellectual discussion club, as some would call us? Is this just the godless hangout of radical social activists and protesters? Is it true that we are simply that we are mainly about excellent coffee? The caffeine sacrament? What is at the heart of our faith?

A few years ago, Rev. Galen Guengerich, of All Souls Church in New York City, wrote an article in our UU World magazine called “The Heart of Our Faith”[1]. In trying to find the heart of our faith, he quickly moves past belief, especially that canard that UU’s can believe anything they want. He suggests that people don’t come to Unitarian Universalism just because they are escaping abhorrent beliefs elsewhere, in the same way that “People don’t go to Carnegie Hall because of what they [don’t want to] hear.”

To find a positive, affirming heart for Unitarian Universalism, Guengerich starts by looking at core principles, central disciplines, the heart of other faiths. He says,

Unless our faith is mere intellectual affectation, however, the defining element of our faith must be a daily practice of some kind. What kind of practice? For Jews, the defining discipline is obedience: To be a faithful Jew is to obey the commands of God. For Christians, the defining discipline is love: To be a faithful Christian is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. For Muslims, the defining discipline is submission: To be a faithful Muslim is to submit to the will of Allah.

He goes on, acknowledging that while all these are fine disciplines, they are not ours. He continues:

…. my current conviction is that our defining discipline should be gratitude. In the same way that Judaism is defined by obedience, Christianity by love, and Islam by submission, I believe that Unitarian Universalism should be defined by gratitude.

According to Guengerich, we are the gratitude people. That’s what our bumper sticker ought to read, he tells us.

Gratitude as a Feeling

But for me, the first challenge is to define gratitude. It’s a feeling. I know what it feels like. But looking it up in the dictionary, well, that’s a little like looking up the definition of the color ‘blue’. Or it’s a bit like the Supreme Court justice said, “you know it when you see it.”

Or you know it when you don’t see it. There’s a story that I’m told comes from Garrison Keillor’s radio program.

A grandmother is walking with her 5 year old grandson along the beach, when all of a sudden a rogue wave comes up and grabs the child and washes him out to sea. She looks up to the sky, shakes her fist and shouts, “God — this is unacceptable, unbearable. You cannot just take away an innocent child.” And just as she says these words, another wave comes and deposits the child, right in front of her. She picks up the child, looks up at the sky, and shouts, “This child had a hat!”[2]

Awe and Fear

Gratitude is related to awe, that sense that we are very small and insignificant compared to forces and manifestations much larger than us. Awe has been described as

“overwhelming and bewildering sense of connection with a startling universe that is usually far beyond the narrow band of our consciousness.”[3]

I imagine that for many of you, the Sloan Star Survey video[4] brought forth a sense of awe. It did for me. But embedded in awe as just a touch of fear — just a sense that because we are minuscule, so tiny, in the face of such grandeur, we could easily be threatened, we could easily be in danger.

The great religious traditions dwell on awe and fear. In the ancient Hindu text, the Katha Upanishad, the god Brahmin is described:

The cosmos comes forth from Brahman and moves
In him. With his power it reverberates,
Like thunder crashing in the sky.

In fear of him fire burns; in fear of him
The sun shines, the clouds rain, and the winds blow.
In fear of him death stalks about to kill.[5]

Or consider Psalm 33, part of which reads:

Let all the earth fear the Lord;
Let all inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it all came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm.[6]

Responding to Awe

How do we respond to awe? How do we live with the reality that we are surrounded by powerful and perhaps indifferent forces of nature that could stalk about to kill us at anytime? How do we respond to fear? How do we live with the reality that we are surrounded by forces both human and non-human and in-human that could harm us at a moment’s notice? The list from recent days: scenes of floods in Colorado, two mass shootings this week alone, chemical weapons in the air, more on global climate change, it just does not end. How do we respond to this, emotionally? How do we keep our balance?

Yes, we are small and insignificant beings in this huge universe, utterly dependent on the health of this planet, dependent on good relationships with other people around us, dependent to some degree on the luck of the draw.

The first lesson of the universe is that we are not in control. But the second lesson is that we are not completely vulnerable. Rather, our control, our influence operates in relation to other people and to other things in the world. Gratitude emerges from the intersection of the realization that we are not in control and the parallel realization that we are interconnected and through relationships we do have some influence and some sense of purpose. Out of awe, out of love, gratitude wells up.

Gratitude Helps Us Cope

One reason gratitude appeals to me as a possible center of our faith is that gratitude, unlike obedience, or submission, doesn’t have to be directed at anyone or anything. Gratitude gets around the question of whether or not there is a deity, or multiple deities, to be grateful to or for.

Gratitude just is.

You see, gratitude is not an intellectual activity, or a belief, it’s a feeling. Gratitude comes from the heart, not the head. Gratitude is heart-felt. Now, we Unitarian Universalists are often not good dealing with affairs of the heart. We do tend to be a bit more of a heady bunch; we often like our sermons to be intellectually stimulating. So for those of us who need that head stuff, let’s turn to the science of gratitude.

The Science of Gratitude

The study of gratitude is part of the field of positive psychology — the psychology of healthy, thriving persons, families and communities. What we’re learning is that grateful people receive tremendous benefits from their gratitude. They “are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships”[7]. They reported higher “levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy”[8] than people who did not practice gratefulness.

Now, you may think that gratitude is just one of a basket of emotions that some people are lucky to inherit, so there should be no surprise that a grateful person is a happy person. Correlation does not imply causation.

But many of the studies sought to explore how people who adopted gratitude practices changed other emotions or life aspects. Here’s an example, from an article in PsyBlog, a UK online magazine. [9]

“Dr. Robert Emmons [of the University of California, Davis] carried out a ten week study with three experimental groups.

“The first group were asked to write down five things they were grateful for that had happened in the last week for each of the 10 weeks of the study. This was called the gratitude condition…. The types of things [these] people listed included:

  • Sunset through the clouds.
  • The chance to be alive.
  • The generosity of friends.

The second group were asked to write down five daily hassles from the previous week. This was the hassles condition. [The types of things they listed included:]

  • Taxes.
  • Hard to find parking.
  • Burned my macaroni and cheese.

Before the experiment began participants had kept daily journals to chronicle their moods, physical health and general attitudes. These was then used to provide a comparison for after the experimental intervention.

[What did Dr Emmons learn?]

“People who were in the gratitude condition felt fully 25% happier. they were more optimistic about the future, they felt better about their lives”

[and here’s the surprise]

“they even did almost 1.5 hours more exercise a week than those in the hassles or events condition.”

So there you have it. Not only does a gratitude practice help you by a happier person, it helps you build your biceps and tone your glutes. Sign me up!

Gratitude Practice

The science tells us we can develop feelings of gratitude through practice. So what might a gratitude practice look like?

One effective practice is keeping a gratitude journal, in which you write down brief notes, just a sentence or so, even just a list, about several things you are grateful for. Doing this even one or two days a week is enough.

If you are not the journaling type, you might consider the practice of ‘three good things’. In your bed, before going to sleep, enumerate three good things from the day. Sometimes naming three good things was not easy, but do it anyway. I’ve used this practice from time to time. Three good things is a nice way to head into the night.

You might also consider meditation or prayer. We’ll have a short gratitude meditation at the end of this service.

As you develop a practice, you may realize that the things you are grateful for are often small and ordinary. The sunset through the clouds. A kind word from a friend. A memory of a good time. You realize that these small things deserve gratitude too, for the small things give life depth and clarity.

Gratitude for the Small Things

Wislawa Szymborska (Vi-shwava Shim-bor-ska), the Nobel Prize winning Polish poet, speaks of a feeling of gratitude in the poem “Miracle Fair”[10]. She lists mundane, ordinary things, calling them what they are: miracles.


“the hand actually has fewer than six fingers
but still it’s got more than four.”

is, she says,

“A miracle that’s lost on us.”

The message of the poem is that miracles are not grandiose things — the sun standing still, walking on water — but ordinary, everyday things, small things, the commonplace miracles:

fluttering white doves
cows will be cows

If we want to experience gratitude, if we want to make it our practice, then dwell on this reality:

The commonplace miracle:
that so many common miracles take place.

If we want to feel gratitude in our very beings, take it in:

A miracle, just take a look around:
the inescapable earth.
An extra miracle, extra and ordinary:
the unthinkable
can be thought.