The Rev. Tom Herbek
November 18, 2018
This church family has helped me to accept something that was always hard for me. Most of my life before coming here, I hated to be dependent on anyone. Perhaps it came from spending my first three months of life in the hospital as a preemie, willing myself to survive. My family used to tell stories of me learning to walk. It seems that I refused to hold anyone’s hand. Instead, I held a stick in my hand. As long as the stick was in my hand, I could walk just fine. It was only a short stick, little more than a twig, but if I dropped the stick, I fell down. But, I was not dependent on anyone else, just my stick! Even today, if you really want me to do something, just say to me: “Oh, you can’t lift that by yourself” or “You need to get someone to help you with that.” On the flip side of this, it is also hard for me to accept someone’s thanks for something I did. For me, it’s hard to hear a thank you for something that I am glad to do, and enjoy doing it and so, I feel we are already even, so to speak. However, I realize that being thanked is also hard for other people for another reason. In her book chapter, “The Book of Welcome,” Annie LaMott writes:
At the age of sixty, I finally realized that I had been raised not to say “You’re welcome,” and I began to wonder how this habit had reinforced my sense of separation. When I grew up, girls were taught to minimize how much they had given, how much time and hard work something had taken. It might not even be noticed at first, because people expected you to do things for them. They felt entitled to largesse. So there was a double abnegation – your possibly sacrificial act of generosity wasn’t noticed the first four times, and then when you were finally thanked, you were taught to respond, “Don’t mention it.” Or, “You’d have done the same.” Glad to do it. It’s nothing. If generosity is nothing, then what is anything?
Now I make myself accept gratitude. I look people in the eye, and say gently, “You’re really welcome.” I might touch their cheeks with the backs of my fingers. This simple habit has
I feel gratitude often in this church family. Expectations of kindness are constantly exceeded here. NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote about gratitude in this way:
Gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations, when it is undeserved.
Gratitude is also a form of social glue. In our society, debt is to be repaid to the lender. But a debt of gratitude is repaid forward, to another person who also doesn’t deserve it. In this way each gift ripples outward and yokes circles of people in bonds of affection. It reminds us that a society isn’t just a contract based on mutual benefit, but an organic connection based on natural sympathy -connections that are nurtured not by self-interest but by loyalty and service.
We live in a society that encourages individualism and utilitarianism, ambition and pride. But this society would fall art if not for another economy, one in which gifts surpass expectations, in which insufficiency is acknowledged and dependence celebrated.
Gratitude is the ability to see and appreciate this other almost magical economy. G. K. Chesterton wrote that “thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
People with grateful dispositions see their efforts grandly but not themselves. Life doesn’t always surpass their dreams but it nicely surpasses their expectations.
- The Way of Gratitude
Giving is something we might take for granted. But not everyone is able to give to others because they don’t’ have the resources to do it. Alexia Salvatierra tells a story about our strong desire to be able to give:
This reminds me of a moment during a Christmas party years ago, when I was co-coordinating a homeless drop-in center. One of our mentally ill homeless regulars, “Debbie,” came in to the party weeping. She had spent the day sitting in front of a department store in the cold. She had been watching people walking in and out all day buying presents for their families and friends. The deepest cause of her tears was not the painful truth that no one would be buying her a present but rather that she did not have any capacity to give a present to anyone else. She shared through gasping sobs that it was so terrible not to have anything to give that anyone wanted.
One of our deepest core human needs is to be valued. The greatest proof of our value is when people want what we have to give.
- What Did Jesus Ask?
Perhaps one of the most valuable gifts we can give is to want what someone gives us. How lucky we are when we can both give and receive. Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate both.
In his book, Letters to My Son, Kent Nerburn offers the following advice:
Giving is a generative act. When you give of yourself, something new comes into being. Two people, who moments before were trapped in separate worlds of private cares, suddenly meet each other over a simple act of sharing; warmth, even joy, is created. The world expands, a bit of goodness is brought forth, and a small miracle occurs.
You must never underestimate this miracle. Too many good people think they have to become Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer, or even Santa Claus, and perform great acts if they are to be givers. They don’t see the simple openings of the heart that can be practiced anywhere, with almost anyone.
Try it yourself. Do it simply, if you like. Say hello to someone everybody ignores. Go to a neighbor’s house and offer to cut the lawn. Stop and help someone with a flat tire.
Or stretch yourself a little bit. Buy a bouquet of flowers and take it to a nursing home. Take ten dollars out of your pocket and give it to someone on the street. Do it with a smile and a lilt in your step. No pity, no hushed tones of holy generosity. Just give it, smile, and walk away.
Little by little, you will start to understand the miracle. You will start to see into the unprotected human heart, to see the honest smiles of human happiness, and you will be able to see humanity in places you never noticed it before. Slowly, instinctively, you will start to feel what is common among us, not what separates and differentiates us.
Before long you will discover that we have the power to create joy and happiness by our simplest acts of caring and compassion. You will see that we have the power to unlock the goodness in other people’s hearts by sharing the goodness in ours.
And, most important, you will find the other givers. No matter where you live or where you travel, whether you speak their language or know their names, you will know them and become one with them, because you will recognize each other. You will see them in their small acts, because you will recognize those acts, and they will see you in yours. And you will know each other and embrace each other. You will become part of the community of humanity that trusts and shares and dares to reveal the softness of its heart.
Once you become a giver you will never be alone.
Giving is an opportunity to make a difference. Sometimes our gratitude for what others have done for us or our loved ones enables us to give in a special way. In her book, Grateful, Diana Butler Bass describes how a perspective of gratefulness helps us to see life in a whole new way.
A few years ago, I was being interviewed about a book I had recently written. The interviewer, a deeply spiritual woman, commented, “You have soft eyes. This entire book is an exercise in soft eyes.”
I felt a little panicked because I did not know what she meant. Seeing my distress, she continued, “The capacity to see widely, to view the whole picture.”
I nodded. We went on.
As soon as I got back to my hotel room, I did an Internet search of “soft eyes.” Sometimes called “wide-angle seeing,” the term comes from the martial arts and refers to awareness that reaches toward the periphery, the edge of what we usually see. The Quaker spiritual writer Parker Palmer describes it this way:
In the Japanese art of Aikido there is a practice called “soft eyes”- it means to widen one’s periphery to take in more of the world. If a stimulus is introduced to an unprepared person, his eyes narrow and the flight/fight response takes over. If the same unexpected stimulus comes to someone with “soft eyes,” the natural reflex is transcended and a more authentic response takes its place – such as thinking a new thought.
Soft eyes, it seems to me, is an evocative image for what happens when we gaze on sacred reality. Now our eyes are open and receptive, able to take in the greatness of the world and the grace of great things.
Taking in “the grace of great things” may well be an alternate definition of gratitude. Seeing with “soft eyes” alerts us to gratefulness in our present lives.
I had to look beyond challenges to find the larger “grace of great things” that sometimes seems to hide just out of view. I was learning a new perspective, orienting my life toward new horizons, and discovering that gratitude could guide me as I moved ahead. The widely quoted wisdom of poet
Maya Angelou became real: “If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present … gratefully.” Seeing with soft eyes opens a wider vision of present circumstances, lessens fear and anxiety, and alerts us to new possibilities for our lives.
On this Thanksgiving, may we see with soft eyes. May we not only give thanks for all these things going for us, may we also give thanks for caring and compassionate friends or family and this church family , who will be there with us when things go against us. May we also give thanks to God for the exhilarating opportunities that we have been given to make a difference in the lives of those around us, from Canandaigua, NY, to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and in so many other places and so many other ways. Happy Thanksgiving!