Psalm 100; Philippians 4:4-7
The Rev. Tom Herbek
November 19, 2017
For some time now, there have been numerous studies on how feeling gratitude impacts our life. Grateful people don’t just naively ignore the bad things in life, but they make sure that they do notice the good things and the people whose journey in life inspires them. People who feel gratitude are more likely to feel and be compassionate, and are more generous. One recent study found that grateful people are more positive, have more energy and greater satisfaction in life and have less stress and less depression. (Emmons & McCullough)
This congregation strives to make a difference in so many ways. But Kim Tenreiro once commented to me that: “In addition to making a difference, I/we/people also need to cultivate the muscle that allows us to accept having made a difference.” Gratitude also means celebrating and being grateful for chances to make a difference. Sometimes our own journey in life inspires others, just as their journey can inspire us.
In September of 2006, following a desperately sad childhood that saw both drug-addicted parents murdered, and the care of her younger siblings left in her hands, sixteenyear-old Sacia Flowers decided to write to J.K. Rowling and thank her for creating Harry Potter, her “best friend” during the most difficult of times. This is her letter, followed by Rowling’s compassionate, encouraging response:
Sept. 2, 2006
Dear Mrs. Rowling,
I have so much I’d like to say, but I know you are a very busy woman, so I’ll try to keep it short and not take up too much of your time. Primarily, I would like to say I absolutely LOVE your books and have at least one copy of each on my book shelf, in addition to Harry’s school books for Comic Relief and several analytical and biographical ones related to Harry and you. With that, I’ll just go right into it. I first heard of the Harry Potter series when I was in fourth grade, but at the time I was not much of a reader. In the beginning of my fifth-grade year, I went out on a whim and began Sorcerer’s Stone; I was hooked by page three and have not been seen without a book on hand since.
I have never enjoyed a series as much as I have every one of your Harry books. I noticed, as I read each of the six books the first time through, I was the same age as Harry, which was quite coincidental. I have cried at least once reading every one of the six so far (several times during a few) and outright bawled at the end of Half-Blood Prince. Losing Dumbledore, empathizing with Harry and his friends, seeing their heartache, and feeling as though I had lost a grandpa myself was utterly overwhelming. The relationship that evolved and grew between Harry and Dumbledore from the end of book five and throughout book six increased the intensity of this for me.
This emotional reaction, I speculate, may perhaps be a result of the strong connection I feel with Harry. Not only do I wear glasses and have green eyes, thus sharing a bit of his physical appearance (I realize I speak of Harry as if he is a real person, but to me he is very real indeed, as I’m sure he is to you), but I’m also an orphan, both parents having been murdered when I was younger. In addition, I was always picked on before I went to my new school, as Harry was by Dudley and his cronies before he went to Hogwarts. So, I also have a strong emotional understanding with Harry and feel the severity of Harry’s loss of Sirius (I bawled here as well); for these reasons Harry holds a special place in my heart and he always will.
Being picked on most of my life, I never had many friends due to my own insecurities and fear of loss, but through the most difficult times in my life, Harry was my best friend when I needed him most and he lent me his world in which to escape my own grief and hurt, and for this I thank you from the deepest part of my heart. To me, it’s like Harry and I grew up together. I have grown a lot emotionally over the years and am now sixteen (as is Harry). Thank you so very much for lending me your hero and his world. He is my hero, and you are my heroine.
I do not expect a reply, as I know you are a very busy woman, mother, and wife, but I do hope you have a chance to read this letter (I understand you have a plethora of fan mail and there’s only so many hours in the day). I do not wish for you to read this or reply so I can brag about making contact with a celebrity or something ridiculous of that nature; in fact, my family will probably not even know that I wrote to you. Mostly I just really wanted to express my deepest gratitude and appreciation to you and Harry. I needed for you to know how important he has been to me.
Thank you, for everything.
Sacia (Say-sha) Flowers
She then received the following reply:
19th September 2006
Dear Sacia (beautiful name, I’ve never heard it before),
Thank you for your incredible letter; incredible, because you do indeed sound phenomenally like Harry Potter, in your physical resemblance and in your life experience. I cannot tell you how moved I was by what you wrote, nor how sorry I am to hear about your parents. What a terrible loss.
I know what it is like to be picked on, as it happened to me, too, throughout my adolescence. I can only wish that you have the same experience that I did, and become happier and more secure the older you get. Being a teenager can be completely horrible, and many of the most successful people I know felt the same way. I think the problem is that adolescence, though often misrepresented as a time of rebellion and unconventionality, actually requires everybody to conform if they aspire to popularity-or at least to “rebel” while wearing the “right” clothes!
You’re now standing on the threshold of a very different phase in your life, one where you are much more likely to find kindred spirits, and much less likely to be subject to the pressures of your teenage years.
It is an honor to me to know that somebody like you loves Harry as much as you do. Thank you very much for writing to me. I will treasure your letter (which entitles you to boast about this response as much as you like!).
With lots of love,
JK Rowling (Jo to you!)
-The Way of Gratitude
We may never know that our journey in life may have inspired someone else, but if we do find out, it also enhances our own sense of gratitude. After the index cards and other comments made last month to me, I was deeply moved, and I feel deep gratitude for this church family.
And there is much to be grateful for in life. Barbara Brown Taylor says that this is also how we find God: “The unexpected sound of your name on somebody’s lips. The good dream. The odd coincidence. The moment that brings tears to your eyes. The person who brings life to your life. Maybe even the smallest events hold the greatest clues. If it is God we are looking for, as I suspect we all of us are even if we don’t think of it that way and wouldn’t use such language on a bet, maybe the reason we haven’t found God is that we are not looking in the right places.”
The places where we each find God may be uniquely personal.
And sometimes it is enough just to be thankful for a new day. As Maya Angelou once wrote:
“This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.” I really like that! What if we woke up each day with that thought!
One person whose journey has inspired me is Anne Lamott. She is able to be thoughtful, deep, inspiring, and funny- all at the same time. She recently wrote “Counting Our Blessings: Why We Say Grace”:
We didn’t say grace at our house when I was growing up because my parents were atheists. I knew even as a little girl that everyone at every table needed blessing and encouragement, but my family didn’t ask for it. Instead, my parents raised glasses of wine to the chef: Cheers. Dig in. But I had a terrible secret, which was that I believed in God, a divine presence who heard me when I prayed, who stayed close to me in the dark. So at six years old I began to infiltrate religious families like a spy- Mata Hari in plaid sneakers.
One of my best friends was a Catholic girl. Her boisterous family bowed its collective head and said, “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts….” I was so hungry for these words; it was like a cool breeze, a polite thank-you note to God, the silky magnetic energy of gratitude. I still love that line.
I believed that if your family said grace, it meant you were a happy family, all evidence to the contrary. But I saw at certain tables that an improvised grace could cause friction or discomfort.
My friend Mark reports that at his big southern childhood Thanksgivings, someone always managed to say something that made poor Granny feel half dead. “It would be along the lines of ‘And Lord, we are just glad you have seen fit to keep Mama with us for one more year.’ We would all strain to see Granny giving him the fisheye.”
I noticed some families shortened the pro forma blessing so they could get right to the meal. If there were more males than females, it was a boy chant, said as one word: “GodisgreatGodisgoodletusthankHimforourfoodAmen.” I also noticed that grace usually wasn’t said if the kids were eating in front of the TV, as if God refused to listen over the sound of it.
And we’ve all been held hostage by grace sayers who use the opportunity to work the room, like the Church Lady. But more often, people simply say thank you- we understand how far short we must fall, how selfish we can be, how self-righteous, what brats. And yet God has given us this marvelous meal.
It turns out that my two brothers and I all grew up to be middle-aged believers. I’ve been a member of the same Presbyterian church for twenty-seven years. My older brother became a born-again Christian but don’t ask him to give the blessing, as it can last forever. I adore him, but your food will grow cold. My younger brother is an unconfirmed but freelance Catholic.
So now someone at our holiday tables always ends up saying grace. I think we’re in it for the pause, the quiet thanks for love and for our blessings, before the shoveling begins. For a minute, our stations are tuned to a broader, richer radius. We’re acknowledging that this food didn’t just magically appear: Someone grew it, ground it, bought it, baked it; wow.
We say thank you for the miracle that we have stuck together all these years, in spite of it all; that we have each other’s backs, and hilarious companionship. We say thank you for the plentiful and outrageous food: Kathy’s lox, Robby’s buche de Noel. We pray to be mindful of the needs of others. We savor these moments out of time, when we are conscious of love’s presence, of Someone’s great abiding generosity to our dear and motley family, these holy moments of gratitude. And that is grace.
-The Way of Gratitude
The apostle Paul called on us to “rejoice in the Lord always, to let our gentleness be known to everyone,” and not to worry, but to come to God “with thanksgiving,” and it is then that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,” will be in our minds and in our hearts in Christ Jesus.
Let us say grace and think grace and feel grace and live grace on this Thanksgiving, thankful for all of those whose journey in life has inspired us!