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Practicing Gratitude

Practicing Gratitude
Isaiah 65:17-25 Matthew 6:25-33
November 18, 2007
Rev. Alan Claassen

Many years ago I had to quit watching the TV show ER. I was really hooked on the life and death drama, the sub-plots of the characters, the cool background music, and the fascination with the techniques of modern medicine as played out in the emergency room of a hospital.
But I had to quit watching, because it seemed an absurd way to end the day; just before going to bed, watching a super-charged, 10 plots going-on-at-once show that often left me emotionally drained. So I just quit watching.
But I admit that I came back for a short time a few years ago when Alan Alda, that former hero of MASH, was a guest actor on the show.
The character that Alan Alda played on ER was a highly skilled, experienced, and caring doctor who was unfortunately suffering loss of memory due to the early stages of Alzheimers.
During the first episode in which Alan Alda appeared I was incredibly delighted when he recited one of my favorite poems. written by Wendell Berry, a poet, essayist, Christian, and Kentucky farmer. I couldn’t believe my ears when the character Alan Alda was playing, said, from memory, the first line, the second line, all the way through to the end of this poem that sometimes when I hear it I feel like I should stand up.
Would you like to hear it?
It’s called, “The Peace of Wild Things.” By Wendell Berry.
Please Remain seated

When despair for the world grows in me,
and I wake in the night at the least sound,
in fear of what my life and my children’s life may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

What I like about that poem is that Wendell Berry takes me to a place where I can be reminded of the beauty of the world. The life of the world. It doesn’t feel like the poet, Wendell Berry, is escaping problems, avoiding despair. It feels like he is taking an action that opens him up to receive the grace of God.
And that gives him courage to return to his children and not to respond out of fear, but instead to respond from a creative and compassionate place.

“I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water. For a moment I rest in the grace of the world and am free.” This poem directs our attention towards a source of grace, courage, healing.

And in this moment of grace there arises a sense of gratitude for a larger life, a wider affection. In a moment of fear and despair, Wendell Berry took an action, a simple action in a powerful place.
“I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water…”
But in that simple action new life, hope, power, and healing were found.

I think of this as having an attitude of grace. Taking a stand, positioning oneself to receive the love of God.

It is a place where we can trust silence. It is a place where we can touch a deeper understanding of what it means to be a human being called to compassion.

It’s just a moment. “For a moment I rest in the grace of the world and am free.”
I don’t have the sense from the poem that this freedom is one of escape or denial of what caused him to fear for his children’s lives. I have the sense that Wendell Berry recognized that is fears were causing him to wake in the night in he least sound. He had lost his sense of trust in the world. Where to regain it?
The simple act of lying down where the wood drake rests, the act of writing the poem that shares this moment with others, this moment of rest, returned him to a sense of trust in the world. In fact, it returned him to the world itself.

It’s only for a moment. You experience this moment of grace and then you go back and you have to deal with all of those things that sent you out into the woods in the first place. You think, the first thing I need to do is take everybody out to where the wood drake rests, but it isn’t that easy is it?

You have to bring the day-blind stars who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief back to the people who you live with, work with, go to church with, everybody.

I would like to share another poem with you that speaks of this attitude of grace. This is by the poet, William Stafford. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to meet William Stafford when I first moved to the wet Northwest. At the time I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know he had been poet laureate of Oregon. I didn’t know he had been a conscientious objector in WW II, or that he taught at Lewis and Clark College. I just knew that was easy to be with and that everybody liked him.

This poem was commissioned by the US Forest Service and appears with others at selected viewpoints along the Methow River in the northern Cascades in Washington. So imagine you are driving along a road in the Cascades, you pull over to look at a beautiful valley, and you find this poem.

A Valley Like this
“Sometimes you look at an empty valley like this, and suddenly the air is filled with snow.
That is the way the whole world happened-there was nothing, and then…
But maybe sometime, you will look out and even
the mountains are gone, the world become nothing again.
What can a person do to bring back the world?
We have to watch it and then look at each other.
Together hold it close and carefully save it, like a bubble that can disappear
if we don’t watch out.
Please think about this as you go on. Breath in the world.
Hold out your hands to it. When mornings and evenings
roll along, watch how they open and close, how they
invite you to this long party that your life is.”

“Please think about this as you go on.” Remember this moment in the Cascades. Remember the stillness of the water when you return back home.

That poem was given to me by a friend, Ray Gatchlian. Ray was a firefighter in Oakland. Ray also traveled the world giving motivational speeches, reading poetry, and making a difference in his own community by tacking the issues of racism and drug abuse.
And putting out fires.

He gave me this poem when I asked him if he had any thoughts on he subject of gratitude. I must admit that I was surprised when Ray answered that for him, at that moment of his life, a practice of gratitude was the most significant, most powerful of all spiritual practices. He had studied and worked with many spiritual practices, meditation, yoga, and he found that the practice of saying 100 gratitudes a day was the most rewarding.

100 gratitudes a day! How could one possibly think of 100 things to be thankful for in one day. As I reflected on this I quickly realized how many grumps I do a day. How many ungratitudes I do a day. How many times I wish that such and such had happened. How many times I wished I had something I don’t. How many times I wished I could be somewhere I am not.

I realized that living with 100 grumps a day makes it impossible to stand where I am. When ever I am wishing that the world be something different than it is, then I am not present in the world.
And this is exactly what Ray said happened for him. That rather than creating some sort of unreal world, the practice of 100 gratitudes a day actually helped him get into the present, into where he actually was at the moment. It helped to see that the present is always full, whereas thinking of things in the past that haven’t gone right is limited and limiting.

Nevertheless it still is a challenging practice. You have to turn off the grump voice and turn on the grace voice with in yourself.
I recently received an e-mail from a friend that would give you an idea of what it might look like to practice 100 gratitudes a day.

I am thankful for: the mess to clean after a party because it means I have been surrounded by friends, the taxes I pay because it means I am employed, the lady behind me church who sings off-key because it means I can hear, the spot at the far end of the parking lot because it means I am capable of walking, a lawn that needs mowing and gutters that need cleaning because it means I have a home, the alarm that goes off early in the morning because it means I am alive!

An attitude of grace as a spiritual practice enables us to see things as they are fully, honestly, with an awareness that with all of the events set before us we are still called to choose life. And to take actions that help others choose life.

An attitude of grace moves us fear to trust; from being judgmental of ourselves, or others, to being compassionate; from hurting to healing, from losing energy to gaining creative power, from despair to freedom.

It begins in a simple act. Going to where the wood drake rests. Stopping the car, getting out, and marveling at the beauty of the valley. Turning ones life from grump to gracious. Finding a way to feed someone who is hungry, visit someone who is locked up.

In his poem William Stafford asks, “What can we do to bring back the world?”
What can a person do to bring back hope, clarity, acceptance of the present and energy for the future?
We can look at each other and hold together that community of life affirming
love that knows compassion, honesty and forgiveness. We can celebrate simple gifts even as we mourn together the heartaches. We can hold out our hands to one another to heal the cuts and bruises that are a part of life. We can do the hard work of bringing the grace of the world into the grit of our daily life.

And when we orient ourselves to life in gratitude we open ourselves to receive God’s love which will enlighten the eyes of our heart. In this is the experience of the living Christ who guides us to care for others so that they might for a time rest in the grace of the world and be free.

And today, Jesus draws our attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. For a moment. For a moment, rest in the grace of the world, and be free. The experience of God’s presence in creation can bring us to a place of gratitude that can heal us, inspire us, bring us to a place of restoring what has been lost, overcoming despair.

I had such an experience yesterday.

Several people have recommended that I take a hike, … around Alpine Lake.
So in the amazing sunlight of yesterday afternoon, I took by dog, Coco, my camera, a bottle of water and Snickers candy bar and headed up Hiway 4.
Well I assume you have all been there so I don’t have to tell you how beautiful it is. How relaxing. How easy it is to be in a place of gratitude, of resting in the grace of the world, as you take in the beauty of the lake, a fisherman catching a fish, people of all ages, and other dogs, all of them friendly walking around the lake. I even saw an eagle perched on top of a scraggly tree.
What was most amazing was when I was coming back down Hiway 4, filled with the beauty of Alpine Lake, filled with the wonder that comes from being in the Sierras, and grateful for a wider perspective of life and the resulting sense of joy, calmness, and presence of God that I experienced, I felt that I had a new perspective on my own life. I could see things differently.

So there I was driving down Hiway 4 and the beauty continued. As I was approaching a turn in the road I was enjoying this stand of trees that looked like they had been arranged by an artist. There was one tall sequoia on the left, and then a variety of other heights and varieties of trees that completed this perfect picture. Here is the amazing part.
Someone else must have had the same sort of epiphany some time earlier that I was having yesterday. They must have that the same mixture of beauty, and grace, and gratitude and insight that I was having. Why do I say this? Because the person had had time to make a sign. I don’t know how long it had been there. It looked pretty new.
It had a yellow background, it was attached to a tall wooden post, black lettering, square shaped but turned on its side like a diamond. Whoever it was didn’t have enough room to write out the entire sentence that would explain their revelation so they just wrote three letters…
I see why!
I see why Jesus called us to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as a way of knowing what it means to live in the kingdom of God, the kin-dom of God while we are alive.
I see why the poet Wendell Berry was able to overcome the fear for his children’s lives by becoming a child again resting in the grace of the world.
I see why my friend, Ray Gathlian was able to gain strength to work against racism in Oakland by practicing saying gratitudes all day and night long.
I see why the prophet Isaiah was able to speak the God’s word of hope to a fallen nation, “for I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (67:17)
I see why the stories of the Bible are all about resurrection. “God delights in taking bad news and creating good from it, Crisis calls forth creativity, Breakdowns lead to breakthroughs, wandering in the wilderness is followed by entering the promised land, Good Fridays are followed by Easter Sundays." (from Michael Dowd's new book, Thank God for Evolution)
I-C-Y I must pay attention to the road that I am on at all times, it is always filled with invitations to what is holy and healing. And each invitation to health and holiness, whether it be a place of beauty or a place of pain, is potentially a place of gratitude. We can see the world from God’s point of view. We can rest in the grace of the world.
And for this, we can be eternally grateful, for a moment.
Like this one, here, now, and always.

Resource Types: Sermons.

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