Monday, November 5, 2012

"Taking Stock" - Sermon

The former UU minister and author, Robert Fulghum tells a story about a box with the label “the good stuff,” that he keeps on a shelf in his office. Inside of that box is a small paper bag, a lunch bag. (Robert Fughum, “It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It”) The top of which is sealed with several stables and duct tape, though a large tear in the side of the sack allows the contents to be seen. The paper sack was originally his daughter’s, but now he kept it as a reminder of “the good stuff.”
         As a young child his daughter took delight in making sack lunches for herself and the family. One morning his she handed him two bags for lunch. When he asked about the second bag, his daughter told him it was just some stuff, and said, take it with you.
         So off to work he went. When he finally got a break, he tore into his lunch and of course looked in the second bag, the mysterious bag his daughter had given him. In it were two hair ribbons, three small stones, a plastic dinosaur, a pencil stub, a tiny shell, two animal crackers, a marble, a used lipstick, a small doll, two chocolate kisses, and thirteen pennies. It was a somewhat strange though charming collection of childhood objects. After looking at the stuff he hurried through his lunch and swept all the lunch trash and the trinkets into the trash can by his desk.  And he hustled off to what seemed to be a very important business meeting.

That evening, his daughter asked, “where’s my bag”
“What bag?
“You know, the one I gave you this morning.”
I left it at the office, why?”
“I forgot to put this note in it.” She said, as she handed him a folded piece of paper.
“Besides, I want it back.”
“Those are my things in the sack, Daddy, the ones I really like – I thought you might like to play with them.” As tears begin to well up in her eyes, “You didn’t lose the bag, did you, Daddy?”
“No,” he lied. “I’ll bring it back tomorrow.”
The note, or course read, “I love you, Daddy.”

         Finally realizing he had been entrusted not with trinkets, but with treasures, he rushed back to the office to dig through the trash, with the help of the janitor. Having children of his own, the janitor understood the importance of this mission and gladly lent a hand
         After finding all the lost pieces and deodorizing them with a little breath spray,  he put them carefully back in the now crumpled bag. The next night he returned the bag to his daughter. And she offered an explanation of each of the items inside. One by one, everything had a story. Fairies had brought some of the things. And he apparently he had given his daughter the two chocolate kisses that were held in keeping until they were needed. The bag was returned and all was right with the world.
         Several days later, the same bag of the same little treasures was offered again. So he took them to work and dutifully brought them back home. And this happened every now and then for some time. It was a sort of occasional offering for being a good Daddy. For his daughter, the game, and no doubt the contents of the bag became less and less interesting. Eventually he was left holding the bag. She gave it one morning and never asked for its return. And he still has it.
         Fuulghum writes, “Sometimes I think of all the times in this sweet life when I must have missed the affection I was being given. So a worn paper sack is there in the box. Left over from a times when a child said, ‘Here – this is the best I’ve got. Take it – it’s yours.’”

         As we approach the holiday of thanksgiving, as we embrace the Fall season of ingathering, it’s time for us to take stock. Sometimes we know it, more often I fear we are completely oblivious to the fact that our lives are filled with treasures. Our lives are filled with unearned gifts. And so we take this time, every year, to open our eyes a little wider to the gifts in our midst, and fill our hearts a little fuller with a sense of gratitude for what we have.
         Unitarian Universalism is a very optimistic faith. We believe in the inherent worth and humanity of every person. We generally believe that creation is good. The natural world is beautiful and we are blessed to be a part of it. It follows naturally then, that gratitude is a natural response to all the goodness in the world around us.
         And we are not alone in that. Later this month we will host the Interfaith Council’s Thanksgiving worship service as we come together to share our different understandings of gratitude. This sense of gratitude, this Thanksgiving, it is serious stuff. For that reason I want to be sure that we embrace a genuine sense of what we are each thankful for in our own particular life.
         Let us embrace a real gratitude then, not one of hallmark cards and platitudes. As we prepare for Thanksgiving, I want to be cautious. Gratitude is a wonderful way to greet the world. Life is in deed good and every single one of us has cause to be grateful. But sincere gratitude often gets devalued with pretty sappy sentiments. I had planned on singing the song to day, “For all that is our life.” The song has the refrains, “For all that is our life, we sing our thanks and praise, for all life is a gift, which we are called to use, to celebrate our lives, and build the common good.” I used to love this hymn. But, for some reason, probably from reflecting on my own life recently, I really turned on this hymn, and this sense of blanket gratitude.
         Not all of life is a gift. Not every piece of our life is worth singing our thanks and praise for. Don’t let anyone tell you that you should always be able to take lemons and make lemonade, or that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. Oh, or the one about really hurtful people being angles in disguise. That’s nonsense. It may make someone feel a little better in the moment, but the truth is some pieces of life are simply bad. And we have no reason to be thankful for them. That’s okay. You don’t have to be thankful for everything.
         And while we are at it, trying to hone in on what we ourselves are thankful for, lets get past the generic stuff. We often talk about being thankful for the food we eat or having a safe home or a supportive family. It’s true, not everyone has those things, but they should. There are some things that we, by the virtue of being human are entitled to. We are entitled to a safe home, food, and basic loving support. To feel thankful for these vague things, I think distracts from a much more important sense of gratitude for the particular treasures that have shaped our own particular lives.  

         I want to know, and I want you to celebrate this year, what it is you are really thankful for. Not those abstract, mundane things that every human being is entitled to. What is it about your life in particular that has brought you joy and fulfillment. You can think of it as the sort of anti-bucket list. You know the concept of a bucket list is the list of specific things you want to do before you die. It’s specific to each person. Maybe one person wants to go skydiving, while another wants to read Shakespear’s complete works. One person wants to hug orphans in Somalia and another wants to eat caviar in Moscow. Our deepest desires are very different. And the treasures that have shaped our lives are also very different. I want you today to think of an anti bucket-list. Rather than the things you want most to do or to have before you die, what are the things, the particular things that you are most grateful for having experienced or possessing?     
         This is unorthodox, but I’m going to ask you to actually write these things down. I could ask you to answer these questions in your head, but you won’t remember them. And, writing an answer down forces you to make a choice, not a ho-hum general idea. So get your pencil or pen, and a piece of paper, your order of service will work just fine, and go on a little exploration of gratitude with me.

         Who are the two or three people in your life that you cherish? I’m putting this at the top of the list because most of us have the most reason to be thankful for the people in our lives. Who are the two or three people in your life that you are most thankful for. They are very likely the people you named earlier in our time of remembrance. Please write those names down.

         What two or three events are you most thankful for in your life? Each of us has either made choices or had things happen to us, that change our lives for the better. Which two or three defining events in your life are you most thankful for?

         Sometimes the greatest treasure we have is what is on the inside. What piece of yourself are you most thankful for? This isn’t a time to be shy or dismissive. What personal quality or skill has really empowered you or enhanced your life?

         And what in this great wide world has excited you about life? We have eyes to see, ears to hear, bodies to touch. Which experiences are you most grateful for? Maybe it’s mountains, great food, sex, the curiosity of a child, the joy of music. What two or things in particular have opened your eyes to life and moved your soul?

         And finally, what things, what material things are you most grateful for. It’s okay to like your things. We are animals after all. We need some material things, and we delight in others. Be honest about it. What are the few objects that you are most grateful to have in your life?

         Some of you know that I grew up as a Unitarian Universalist. Many people ask what I remember about our religious education program as a child. Honestly, the thing that I remember most is a particular Sunday that I got in trouble. I don’t know how old I was, but apparently old enough to be obnoxious.
         It was a huge church with a classroom for each grade-level. So, when we got in trouble we were sent to Ruby’s office, that was the woman who was the Director or Religious Education. The only thing I remember from her office was a big poster. At the time I thought it was offensive, but I have come to love it. It simply said “Bored people are boring.” It was a tremendous message for a young boy. “Bored people are boring.” It’s a great message about what we make of our lives. With countless opportunities to learn and explore, being bored is, in many ways a choice. And it’s a dull, boring one.
         The same, I have to say, applies for appreciating our lives. People who don’t appreciate their lives, who don’t see beauty around them, who don’t see grace, to a certain extent make that choice. I don’t believe all of life is sunshine and rainbows. As I said earlier, some terrible things happen in each of our lives, painful things that scar us. But just as surely, some amazing things happen in each of our lives.
         But just like that nine-year-old boy sometimes needs to go entertain himself, we also need to occasionally remind ourselves that life is good, that we are blessed, and that is enough. Sometimes gratitude is a choice. As the Fall settles in, as we gather with those we care about, let us make that critical choice to be grateful. Not for the hallmark platitudes. Let us be grateful for that unique list of people and places and things that have made our lives joyous. Let us be grateful for the treasures that have been entrusted to us.