Gratitude and Faith

Religion begins in gratitude, it has been said. It is the first and most basic spiritual practice and spiritual virtue. What separates a purely secular view – of life, of the universe – from a religious view is the infusion of sentiments of thankfulness. The difference between a secular and a religious orientation is not about what entities or supernatural powers do or do not exist – it’s about the attitude we have toward what exists, whatever it is.

Psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, Robert Emmons has conducted a study in which he asked people to make journal entries once a week. He randomly assigned subjects to one of three groups. The first group he asked to list in their journal five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the last week. The second group he asked to describe five hassles or annoyances that week. The third group, the neutral group, was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, and they were not told to accentuate the positive or negative aspects of those circumstances.

In the first group, typical samples of things for which people were grateful were: The generosity of friends; The right to vote; The God-given gift of determination; That I have learned all that I have learned; Sunset through the clouds; The chance to be alive; My in-laws live only ten minutes away.

In the second group, typical samples of things which people found to be hassles or annoyances included: Hard to find parking; Messy kitchen no one will clean; Finances depleting quickly; No money for gas; Our house smells like manure; Burned my macaroni and cheese; Did favor for friend who didn’t appreciate it; My in-laws live only ten minutes away.

In addition to this journal listing, he also asked subject to give an answer each week to two questions: one about how they felt about their life as a whole during the week, on a -3 to +3 scale, with -3 being “terrible,” and +3 being “delighted.” Second, he asked participants to rate their expectations for the upcoming week on a scale from -3 (“pessimistic, expect the worst”) to +3 (“optimistic, expect the best”).

At the beginning of the ten-week study period, the three groups were about the same in terms of how they felt about their life as a whole and what they expected for the upcoming week: about the same range of responses and about the same average response. That’s because the groups were random, and there were people of various temperament and life situation in each group. By the end of the ten weeks, however, the gratitude group was scoring much higher on both how they felt about their life as a whole and on what they expected out of the upcoming week than either the hassles group or the neutral group.

It was remarkable, reports Emmons, how much difference it made to take just a couple minutes once a week to list five things one is grateful for. In a follow-up study, Emmons asked subjects to journal every day about what they were grateful for that day, or what annoyed them that day, or, neutrally, five events that affected them. He found that the differences were even more pronounced, that the gratitude practice made even more of a difference to people’s perception of the quality of their life.

Gratitude takes practice. The gratitude muscle, to become strong, requires regular exercising. And the people around you can tell. Emmons writes:
“Remarkably, not only did the reports of participants in the gratitude condition indicate increased positive feelings and life satisfaction, but so did the reports of their significant others. Spouses of participants in the gratitude condition reported that the participants appeared to have higher subjective well-being than did the spouses of participants in the control condition.”
My own daily gratitude list extends beyond five items, and every day it includes Unitarian Universalism. Well, almost every day. I’m grateful that there is such a thing in this world as us. I feel the spirit of Thanksgiving in this fellowship whenever we gather. There is this amazing fact. There exist people – over 220,000 thousand of them in the world and about 200 or so of them, counting the kids and teachers in the classrooms, right here today – people who, for historical reasons stretching back many generations, go by the name Unitarian Universalist – and who gather together into groups that, for more historical reasons, go by various names: fellowship, church, congregation, community, society. Every service we have washes us in the wonder and joy of that fact. It does me, anyway.

I have spent, it seems, a large portion of my life in transition. From womb to world – oh, that was a biggie. Starting school, starting high school, starting college, starting graduate school, starting another graduate school. Starting a family, entering parenthood. Starting a career as a professor. Starting divinity school. Starting a second marriage. Starting ministry. Starting, with LoraKim, as a co-minister in Gainesville in 2006. Starting in 2010 as the full-time and now senior minister. A lot of challenges came along the way – and they were not always nobly met, I'm sorry to say. That I managed as well as I did was because I had a lot of crucial help and support from certain people who happen to identify with that name Unitarian Universalist, and from certain communities that went by the name fellowship or church.

The Lord of the Rings, which I first read in seventh-grade, has been one of my sources for wisdom through the years. Gandalf the wizard said to Frodo the hobbit: “There will be dangers we cannot foresee, but also help will come unlooked for.” And so it has, for me: from Unitarian Universalist places much like this one – congregations in Atlanta, Georgia, in Waco, Texas, in Charlottesville, Virginia, in Nashville, Tennessee. Those were places where I was a lay member, places that saved my life during difficult transitions, by . . . having me, and by not offering any easy answers. They are the places where I learned what ministry was long before starting divinity school, and I learned it from the lay folks in the pews more than from the minister in the pulpit. They are the places where I learned religion and the foundation of the religious orientation: gratitude. They are the places where my heart found itself born by a tide of thankfulness.

When work is going well, we can neglect the need for faith community. I did. During the years I was a professor, I was a very sporadic church-goer. Yes, I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist all my life; I’ve been more-or-less continuous in my attendance only since about 1997. When I showed up for worship one Sunday in January 1997, it had been more than two years since I'd been to any UU gathering. I always knew where to go when things got obviously rough. What I started to learn, or remember, over the subsequent months is how much richer life is with this community than without it even when things aren't obviously rough.

So I have a lot of gratitude. I want to express it where appropriate, and carry it with me silently everywhere else, as private gladness of knowing that my world has, after all, such goodness in it.

I came of age in the 70s, when Unitarian Universalism was more rationalistically oriented than it is today. If someone had told me then that a UU church was really a secular humanist social club, I would have just shrugged. Of course, I was a teenager, so I shrugged a lot. We've come a long way as a denomination in the last forty years. We still cherish the Unitarian trinity: reason, freedom, acceptance of one another. But reason doesn't quite mean the same thing as it used to. Back then, many of us assumed there was some method, which, if properly followed, guaranteed arrival at truth. Now we understand reason more as not being unreasonable, and about the only thing that is unreasonable is blocking the path of inquiry, shutting out different voices, rigidly refusing to hear. Reason has become redundant with freedom and acceptance of one another. Including reason in our trinity, along with freedom and acceptance, adds only emphasis.

Once in Nashville, in the late 1990s, during one of her sermons, Reverend Mary Katherin Morn said, “I love being a religious liberal.” It was not an instant revelation for me. It was one of those things that doesn’t seem particularly meaningful or important at the time, but stays with you. It stayed with me. And I began to notice how much I love it too. And how thankful I am for Unitarian Universalists, and for this faith and this community that we have built, this path we travel together, the principles we share, this fellowship.

“There is no one but us. There never has been,” says Annie Dillard. But then she also says, “Nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.” No one but us. But that’s all that's needed to have a congregation. And a congregation is all that's needed to have God’s unending mercy -- for we ourselves become that mercy when we become a fellowship constituted around such principles as these.

I talk a lot about our seven principles. At the various congregations I have been a part of or have served, when I talk with newcomers who were thinking about signing the membership book, might I ask for their impression of what it was they were getting into. Often they indicated these principles – speaking almost with a tone of awe. I’m so used to these words:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The danger is we’ll become inured to their power.
"Inherent worth and dignity" (right, right).
"justice, equity, compassion," (uh huh).
"acceptance of one another," "search for truth" (gotcha -- and to the Republic for which it stands).

But see the faces of certain people for whom these words are sinking in for the first time, and you will be reminded how powerful the ideas are. Our shared lives around these principles -- and our denomination had similar implicit principles long before approving these particular explicit principles -- offer a community of faith, a community of friends, of mutual support, of laughter and love, warmth and acceptance, sharing the faith that life is good, that justice is attainable, that caring redeems us, and that joy is one another’s company. We worship: in the sense of acknowledgment of that which is of highest worth, worship, as the active process of renewing and strengthening our connection to that which is of highest worth; worship as the quiet centering of our selves wherein we find peace. We are not, after all, a secular humanist social club. We are a religion, with rituals and principles and a spiritual path that leads us toward greater and greater depth in our capacity for gratitude. These things are possible: Worship, religion, a community of faith. And you don’t have to give up your freedom to have them, you don’t have to turn over the authority of your individual conscience to the priest at the door, you don’t have to turn off your brain when the sermon starts, you don’t have to suppress the impulse to ask discomfiting questions, you don’t have to shut up and believe what you’re told. You can have your cake of freedom, and reason, and acceptance, and also eat of the cake of faith community, and worship, and religion. The dilemma of having to choose between church and conscience, between faith and freedom, is a false dilemma. It really is possible to have both revelation and reason. No one need feel forced to choose between salvation without tolerance and tolerance without salvation. We can have religion, worship, and the spiritual support a faith community affords without having to swallow the horsepill of dogma and accept the undemocratic rule of the clergy on matters of theology as well as church policy and practice. We can think and believe what our lived experience directs that we should believe without having to stay away from churches, and forego the worship services, forgo the loving fellowship, maybe even forego having religion at all.

And more than that: as the Unitarian theologian Francis David said in the 16th century, 'We need not think alike to love alike.' You can be in religious community with lots of people who have very different outlooks. Not only are you free to believe as your heart, mind, and conscience dictates, but the wonderful thing is, so are all the people sitting around you. Our gospel – our “good news” -- is the model that we embody of living together, enjoying the stimulation of diversity, the strength of diversity, the impetus to personal and institutional growth of diversity – and magnifying the advantages of diversity through our democratic commitments that allow those diverse voices to all be heard -- while at the same time living together in harmonious community. OK, so the harmony isn't perfect, but we do about as well as denominations with a lot less diversity of belief.

These principles, we strive to exemplify. I say these words, and I mean them. But aside from their meaning as words, to me they mean faces. They mean ideals to live by, and they also mean: the people who live by them. The sounds of these words conjure up faces from my childhood. (These specific principles were not adopted until the mid-1980s, some time after the end of my childhood. But the principles have been a part of me for long enough now that they remind me of my whole life in our denomination’s congregations.) Faces of my R.E. teachers, and classmates. Faces of guests from church my parents had over to dinner. Faces of ministers I’ve had, of congregation presidents and committee chairs and leaders and friends. Gazing at the paper with these principles written, if I let it come, my eyes go blurry and I can hear, swirling around the typeface, the sounds of their laughter. Behind and between the words, I see faces of the people that I knew then and there and that I know here and now, flitting from one to another or fading slowly in and out, jumping backward and forward in time. And in those faces as they go by, I see thoughtfulness. I see passion. I see pensive concern. I see smiling warmth. I see there the love that is our capacity to unify the fragmented, to strengthen with quiet hope, to sustain one another. My profound thanks for all of those along the way whom I have known as one Unitarian Universalist can know another: "Thank you for having me. Thank you for letting me have you."