Gifts of Being from Sources Beyond Ourselves

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on November 24th 2013.)

I’ve loved the thanksgiving prayer of Unitarian Universalist minister Richard Fewkes since I first heard it.  As we heard our youngest choir members sing it so sweetly this morning:

“For the sun and the dawn which we did not create,
for the moon and the evening which we did not design,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

Elizabeth Alexander set these words to music, explaining that “my family has spoken this blessing as our table grace for the past twenty years.  This is no small praise, for I had exhaustive criteria for this prayer: it needed to be simple enough for a young child to learn, beautiful in language and form, and appropriate in the presence of a guest of any faith. It was a pleasure to set Richard Fewkes’ words to music, so that I could share his generous sentiment with others.”

Now I don’t know how many Unitarian Universalists engage in what they might consider prayer on a regular basis.  Indeed it has been said that prayer in most Unitarian Universalist circles is something like a dog walking around on its hind legs: the surprise isn’t from seeing it done well, but from seeing it done at all.  But some sort of blessing or grace at the dinner table may not be that unusual, particularly when taken as an opportunity to teach children about the value of gratitude, as was evidently part of Alexander’s intention. (She is, by the way, a Unitarian Universalist.)

Now expressing gratitude is one of the four classic purposes of prayer.  The other three are expressing wonder, expressing regret and expressing need, though the forms of those expressions obviously vary depending on your theology.  I think one of the reasons many Unitarian Universalists don’t consider anything they do as prayer is because we’ve fallen victim to the idea that praying is simply about asking for things, and to most of us that sounds pretty self-serving.  But let’s try to escape the trap of a narrow theological frame and broaden our thinking.

What about prayer as an expression of wonder?  I’m by no means a morning person, but whenever I get the opportunity to see the Sun rise into the dawning sky, I can’t help but marvel that I’m standing on a huge ball of rock that’s spinning as it circles through space around a vast ball of fire.  Moreover, the scales and distances are so immense that we actually see the Sun as it was more than eight minutes into the past.  That’s just one of the many wonders available to us every minute of every day.

What about prayer as an expression of regret?  There are all the ways in which I fall short of my own intentions, all the ways that I don’t live up to my own vision for who I want to be in the world.  Whether I make promises to myself or to others, I can run out of time or I can get distracted; I can forget something on my ever-growing “to do” list, and then there’s always just plain old-fashioned procrastination.  But I try to be aware of how I fall short, because it’s only by being honest with myself that I can fix what my mistakes and figure out how to do better next time.

And what about prayer as an expression of need?  This is not just asking for things.  If we’re willing to admit, particularly to ourselves, our limits and our faults, then we ought to be able to admit what we need, from one another, from the world, from life.  I need to feel connected to family and friends, for instance.  I need to feel like I belong.  I’ve found I have a real need to spend time with my one-year-old daughter before she goes to sleep, and so I also need the people who run our many evening committee meetings to be understanding of that when I arrive late.

And then there’s prayer as an expression of gratitude.  Many people have noted that gratitude isn’t just for Thanksgiving Day.  It’s something to be done every day, a way of life that we should always be practicing because it helps to move us from dwelling on what we lack — and with that attitude what we need will always be scarce — to celebrating what we have — and appreciating how our needs are met in a spirit of abundance.  As addiction recovery specialist and self-help author Melody Beattie puts it, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.  It turns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.  It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.  Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Personally I think that gratitude is foundational to any expression of need, regret or wonder.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that gratitude brings depth and motivation and promise and usefulness to those other expressions.  After all, it’s no good to become so focused on what we need that we fail to appreciate what we already have; it’s certainly no good if reasonable and honest acknowledgements of our failings become drowned in self-pity; and it’s no less unhelpful to spend every waking moment in such a state of amazement that we are incapable of actually doing anything with the gifts we’ve been given.  It’s gratitude that frees us from the paralysis that can so easily come from need, regret and even wonder.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer continues:

“For food which we plant but cannot grow,
for friends and loved ones we have not earned and cannot buy,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

Any occasion to sit down for a good meal with friends and family is a chance to think intentionally about these gifts, to appreciate them and perhaps to express gratitude out loud.  A major holiday that’s actually called Thanksgiving does, of course, lend itself to doing this more readily, but Thanksgiving isn’t the only time to be grateful any more than Christmas is the only time to be nice to people or Valentine’s Day is the only time to be loving or St. Patrick’s Day is the only time to eat food that’s all been boiled until it’s the same color.  If, that is, you have some objection to vitamins.

Still, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking Thanksgiving as an opportunity to think more about those things for which we are grateful, and there’s some merit to the idea that if we focus on some particular good habit for at least a while, then some of it will stick with us afterwards.

So it’s not too surprising that, for the last forty years, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee — the UUSC, for short — has been asking UU congregations to participate in its “Guest at Your Table” program, starting the Sunday before Thanksgiving and running through the Winter holidays.  If you’ve been to this or any other UU congregation on such a Sunday before, you’ll have heard the basic idea, which has a lot to do with gratitude.

The official mission and vision statements of the UUSC are as follows: the “UUSC advances human rights and social justice around the world, partnering with those who confront unjust power structures and mobilizing to challenge oppressive policies”; the “UUSC envisions a world free from oppression and injustice, where all can realize their full human rights.”  As such, the UUSC is in Haiti, supporting people who are rebuilding communities that are still recovering from the earthquake that devastated the country three years ago.  And the UUSC is in Arkansas, helping people who are fighting against worker exploitation in situations where wages are stolen, where safety rules are ignored and where sexual harassment is overlooked.  And now the UUSC is in the Philippines, too, working with local and international organizations as well as the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines to provide relief in communities where people lost almost everything to Typhoon Haiyan.

Those are all worthy efforts, of course, and the UUSC is engaged in plenty more all over the world.  For me, though, it all comes down to gratitude.  Most of us, most of the time, are amongst the fortunate.  And that goes for Unitarian Universalists in general, at least within the United States: most of us, most of the time, are amongst the fortunate.  The UUSC, then, is one way that Unitarian Universalists, collectively, can give back.  You’ve probably heard the saying that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”  It’s one of the many sayings that people think are in the Bible, only this one actually is — it’s said by Jesus in the Book of Luke — though it was also paraphrased by Oliver Wendell Holmes and John F. Kennedy.  The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, then, is one way that Unitarian Universalism recognizes that obligation, and so it makes perfect sense to learn about and think about the UUSC’s work during that time of year when we are encouraged to express gratitude for what we have and how we have been blessed.

And so for the last forty years, the UUSC has been asking Unitarian Universalists in congregations across the United States to support their work by participating in Guest at Your Table.  GaYT_boxThe idea is pretty simple: you take one of these boxes, and you take it home, and you put it on your dinner table, and every time you sit down for a meal — and perhaps say a formal grace or at least go around the table and have everyone speak of something for which they are grateful — then you see the box and remember to put a few coins or even a couple of dollar bills into it as a way to make concrete your gratitude for what you have and how you have been blessed.  Every year the UUSC selects four of their partners and writes “Stories of Hope” about them to help bring to life some of the valuable, vital work they’re doing, but that doesn’t really matter, because you know that everything they do is good, worthwhile work that reflects UU values and makes a difference in people’s lives, but that’s not why you put those cents and dollars into that box.  No, you put that money in because you are grateful for what you have and how you have been blessed.

But this year, the UUSC isn’t making these boxes.  They’ve decided that in keeping with their other efforts to be good stewards of the environment, Guest at Your Table will collect money through a website.  After all, producing thousands of boxes and printing them all in full color only for them to be used for a couple of months before they go, hopefully, into the recycling bin, well, that’s perhaps not the most environmentally friendly thing to do every year.  And I applaud that, but, you know, it worries me.  I worry about how well it will work, without the physical presence of the cardboard boxes on people’s dinner tables.  It turns out that it also worries J— who, I should note, has been the one who for so many years has maintained this Fellowship’s participation in the UUSC’s programs and for that we should all express our gratitude to her.  So she and I did some of our own thinking “outside the box” — yes, groan — and came up with our own UUFP way to do Guest at Your Table this year.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer continues:

“For this gathered company which welcomes us as we are,
from wherever we have come,
for all our free churches that keep us human
and encourage us in our quest for beauty, truth and love,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we like food here.  We like eating together, whether it’s a potluck or a lunch after services at a local restaurant or a meal for six or eight offered by members as an auction item or a special dinner as part of the annual pledge drive.  Members of this congregation covenant to companion one another on this journey of the spirit that we call life, and there’s nothing wrong with remembering that to be a companion literally means to share bread with someone.  Well, we have a few people who can’t eat gluten, but the good news is that there’s always plenty more food than just bread here!

So today, for instance, the Membership Committee is hosting the first of this year’s Fourth Sunday Soup Socials that run through the Winter months.  These aren’t potlucks, but rather R— and devoted volunteers will provide a variety of types of soup and an occasional chili that are available for anyone to enjoy.  In keeping with our own efforts to be good stewards of the environment, you’re encouraged to bring your own bowl and spoon, but you won’t be turned away if you don’t.  As R— explains it, “All are welcome to join in without having to bring anything except for your […] willingness to help out if needed for set up and take down.”

Then there’s the Thanksgiving Day potluck lunch that S— is coordinating right here this Thursday.  If you’ll be by yourself for Thanksgiving, or even if you’ll be with others who might also enjoy a friendly meal with a welcoming group, then you’re welcome to come; just let S— know today and she’ll make sure she has enough turkey.  In a similar vein, J— and I are coordinating a potluck lunch here on Christmas Day, and of course the Festival of the Season that we’re doing on December 7th will kick-off the afternoon’s festivities with a meal, too.  There are also many regular groups and programs that include potlucks or meals together in their activities, and looking out as far ahead as the Spring, we’ve already scheduled a Passover Seder — itself an ancient religious practice of companionship — for the afternoon of Easter Sunday.

Thinking about all these opportunities we have to share food together, J— and I very quickly went through the four classic purposes of prayer.  First, wonder: “Isn’t it great that we have so many times that people can enjoy food and fellowship here?”  Then, regret: “It’s a shame that we can’t always get to them and enjoy them ourselves.”  Then, need: “We should look for more occasions to do more of them and involve more people, too.”  Then, gratitude: “But we certainly owe great thanks to everyone who organizes these potlucks and meals as well as everyone who comes to them and makes them such fun.”  Well, okay, maybe we didn’t literally say those exact sentences out loud, but our conversation formed a prayer nonetheless, and out of it came an epiphany.  If the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is no longer making the many small collection boxes that can go home with each of you for Guest at Your Table, then perhaps we could instead have one big collection box that stays here at the Fellowship for Guest at Our Table.

And here it is:

GaOT_box

This box will be on the table at those lunches and potlucks and dinners I mentioned, probably on the kitchen island where the food is usually served, and it’ll be the Guest at Our Table, reminding us to be grateful for what we have and how we have been blessed.  As always, putting some coins or dollar bills or anything into the box is entirely voluntary.  We don’t charge admission to any of these meals — they’re not church fund-raisers and the Fourth Sunday Soup Socials aren’t even potlucks — and in fact some of our own members who face daily financial hardships come to such events specifically for a meal that they might not otherwise get.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  We also have plenty of people who are able to put anything from loose pocket change to a few dollars into this box and, in a spirit of gratitude, will want to do so.  It’ll add up, and come the Spring we’ll send it all in to the UUSC as our expression of gratitude for what we have and how we have been blessed, emphasizing as well that what we do as Unitarian Universalists, we do together, in community, rather than as individuals alone.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer concludes:

“For all things which come to us
as gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves,
gifts of life and love and friendship,
we lift up our hearts in thanks this day.”

As we approach this week the primary holiday of the United States, an essential civic holiday named for the essentially religious act of expressing gratitude, I invite you to keep the words of Richard Fewkes’ prayer in mind.  They’re printed in our grey hymnal and you can find them in plenty of places on-line, too.  Perhaps, like Elizabeth Alexander and her family, you’ll make it a grace, saying it together as you’re holding hands around the table before your meal.

Or keep, at least, the spirit of Fewkes’ prayer in your heart.  Keep its spirit of humility, of wonder, of grace with you; let it open you to all the possibilities offered by life and love and friendship; let it lead you to join others in the outpouring of all those “gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves”.  There is much in this world for all of us to do — and, really, to do together — but to do any of it we must begin in a place of gratitude.

So may it be.

~ ~ ~

Update!  We collected $144.44 in our Guest at Our Table box, which is matched dollar-for-dollar by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, NY!  An additional $200 (also matched) was collected by on-line donations via our UUFP team web page.  (as of June 11th 2014)

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  1. […] November 24th: “Gifts of Being from Sources Beyond Ourselves” […]

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