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First Parish Sermon Archive » Blog Archive » “got gratitude?”

“got gratitude?”

by Rev. Ken Sawyer ~ November 29th, 2011 Options |Print This Sermon Print This Sermon

“got gratitude?

Sermon by Kevin Tarsa, ministerial intern

First Parish in Wayland

November 27, 2011


Reading: “What Song” by Victoria Safford




If such a universe existed and you noticed it, what would you do?

By the way, that’s a true story – about the universe.

I know, it sounds crazy, but apparently such a universe does exist. 

Noticing it? Now that sometimes requires a reminder, at least it does for me.


It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and of course gratitude is the topic du jour, our annual reminder to pay attention to all that we have in our lives and in this extraordinary universe. The sermon title “got gratitude?” is inspired by the “got milk?” advertisements produced, originally, by the California Milk Processor Board. In print form, the ads show famous, attractive people sporting milk mustaches, and the ads portray milk as wholesome and vital for every health-desiring American. For some reason the ads fail to mention lactose intolerance.


When I told someone that I was planning to preach on gratitude today, the person said, “That’s a stupid subject!” I know, it is easy to get too sweet about gratitude, and I’ll do my best to stay on this side of that line. I’ve long thought of gratitude as a simple staple in our diet, one of those unassuming but important items to include in our meals every day, something we don’t want to be without.


You may remember the very first “got milk?” television ad:

A history buff who is surrounded by Alexander Hamilton memorabilia gets a radio quiz call and will win $10,000 if he can name Hamilton’s duel opponent. He’s surrounded by the answer but he has just stuffed a sticky peanut butter sandwich in his mouth and he can’t get the answer out clearly. He reaches for his carton of milk to come to the rescue, but it’s empty! He cries out in anguish, and time runs out. Then, on a black screen, the words appear and a voice asks, “got milk?”


“got gratitude?”


It’s not a fancy dish to place on a feast table, but gratitude is sustaining and nourishing in my experience. It’s good for us, in whatever form we can digest it, good for strong psychological, emotional and spiritual health, something many of us know from experience, and an understanding supported by a growing body of research.


To cite probably the most often-cited study: In 2003 researchers Robert Emmons and Mike McCullough, who study forgiveness as well as gratitude, reported that people in their studies who kept a daily diary of things for which they were grateful, increased their levels of happiness and life satisfaction within just two weeks. They were less depressive, less envious, and less anxious, more willing to part with possessions, more optimistic and more energetic. They exercised more, got more sleep, had fewer illnesses, and had made progress toward personal goals. After more studies, a push by positive psychologists and an endorsement from Oprah, keeping a daily gratitude log became a popular, even trendy, practice.


It is deceptively simple.

Each day, perhaps before brushing your teach in the evening or first thing in the morning when you wake up, write down up to 5 things for which you are grateful that day.

That’s it.

You may have today’s list in mind already, from your “thankful” list earlier in the service. Writing it down, however, does seem to make a difference.


As simple as that is, I have found it helpful, in general, yes, and especially in challenging times, like when I cared for my mom as she was dying. I recommend it to you.


Based both on ongoing research and my personal experience, I would suggest to you that you make a gratitude list every day for the first two weeks and then once a week after that, depending upon how it’s feeling. Try it. Like the proverbial “apple a day,” keeping a gratitude log is good for you.


Galen Guengerich, Senior Minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in NYC, claims that gratitude is not only good for us, it is the heart of our faith. In a 2007 article in the UU World he wrote that gratitude ought to be the center of Unitarian Universalist theology, and Unitarian Universalism’s defining discipline, not the appetizer or the dessert in our spiritual meal, but the main course!


I’m going to use Guengerich’s own words mostly, but will do a little rearranging here as I attempt to carve out the essence of his main points. Bear with me …


Guengerich believes that religion’s role is to help us find our place in the universe, this awe-inspiring universe in which “everything that exists is made up of parts that are borrowed from, shared with, and related to others,” a universe in which nothing exists in isolation. “The first principle of the universe is not independence,” he writes, “but its opposite: utter dependence.” (That’s utter dependence…not udder dependence) Guengerich quotes Alfred North Whitehead: “we are dependent on the universe for every detail of our experience.” “We’re dependent on parents, …plants, …animals, …trees, …sun[light], [earth, minerals, atoms] - in every respect we are utterly dependent,” Guengerich writes.


“The human tendency, however, is to assume the opposite,” he says. “We pride ourselves on being self-reliant and self-sufficient. This liberating emphasis on the [autonomy of] the individual” has accounted for some of our “greatest accomplishments” AND “it also represents our gravest danger.” The risk is that we may think that our “destiny [is] independent of others,” and that we can therefore “disregard our dependence.” According to Guengerich, gratitude is our salvation. “Gratitude,” he writes, “is the means by which we remember … our identity (in the universe]. “Gratitude reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and world around us for everything that matters.”


I have to confess, at this point, that recognizing my utter dependence doesn’t go down easily. In order to swallow the idea of utter dependence, I have to struggle against the powerful gag reflex of my desire for autonomy and independence.


You would think that Guengerich might mention interdependence somewhere, but he does not. And as I’ve chewed on Guengerich’s ideas I’ve become aware, reluctantly, that while yes, there is a layer of interdependence which is vitally important in our reality, underneath that layer of interdependence is a foundation layer which really is, in the end, complete dependence on things outside of my self. There is something freeing about that awareness.

But once we see how dependent we are, Guengerich believes, we also see our duty to all those people and things upon which we depend. It becomes our obligation “to foster the kind of environment that we want to take in, and therefore become.” Our sense of dependence calls forth “an ethic of gratitude” he says, “[that] demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return.  It becomes our duty [to work] for a future in which all [our] relationships … are [as] fair, constructive and beautiful [as possible].

For Guengerich, religion is made up of awe and obligation. He claims that “gratitude is the appropriate religious response to the nature of the universe” - a sense of obligation lays claim to us in response to our sense of awe at the grandeur of it all. That is THE religious response, he says. And “unless our faith is mere intellectual affectation,” he adds, “…the defining element of our religious faith must be a daily practice, [a discipline] of some kind. For Jews, the defining discipline is obedience: …[to] the commands of God. For Christians, the defining discipline is love: [of God and neighbor]. For Muslims, the defining discipline is submission: … to the will of Allah.”


While [Guengerich believes that] obedience, love, and even submission each play a vital role in the life of faith, [his] current conviction is that our defining discipline should be gratitude, a constant acknowledgement that “our present experience depends upon the sources that make it possible. Unitarian Universalists are called to be disciples of gratitude,” he says, and “to learn gratitude as a daily practice.”


And I thought I was just keeping a list of 5 things every day! “Disciples of gratitude.” Hmm…I wonder what we get to wear?

My encouragement to you to adopt practices of gratitude came from a slightly different direction, centered in the idea that the function of religion is to tie our sense of personal well-being to collective well-being and vice-versa. I am not yet certain whether gratitude is the very center of our UU faith, I’ll have to digest Guengerich’s ideas a while longer, but I do know that being grateful links my sense of personal well-being to the well-being of others, and that is important to me.

The people who kept the gratitude journals in the studies I mentioned earlier not only benefited personally from the effort, they were also more likely to help and to offer emotional support to others. Feeling gratitude, researchers have found, predisposes us to other positive states of mind, lifting us upward and priming us for prosocial behavior, so the effects of our gratitude ripple outward (Ladner). Another study found that when we express our gratitude, when we thank people for something they’ve done, not only are they more likely to assist us again in the future, they are also more likely to do things for other people.


None of this is surprising. What inspires me to speak of it today is my memory of a congregant who told me last spring that at this point in his life he doesn’t so much feel a need to know more, as to learn how to live what he already knows. The invitation here is simply to live what we already know, to practice gratitude consistently, even faithfully…to become disciples of gratitude and to develop a daily discipline of gratitude as Guengerich and experience suggest.


I expect that you may have all kinds of ideas and suggestions and practices to recommend. I think that the deceptively simple practices are the place to start: 

Pausing to surface gratitude each time we eat, or when we rise in the morning, or when we go to bed at the end of the day, for example.

Simple, ordinary, everyday fare – that can nourish us and others. The initial key is to learn to stop, to pause each day to notice what we have received.


Let me recommend a less well-known practice for challenging times:


It is the ritual practice called NAIKAN developed by Ishin Yoshimoto based on a form of Buddhist self-examination. It is rooted in awareness of “the compassion that is bestowed on us in life, and the inherent self-focus that permeates our actions and our thoughts. (13).” It is counterintuitive and I commend it to you.


You can use this in a general way any day to reflect on recent events or to reflect on any relationship, but it is especially helpful when you are faced with a challenging relationship. It is powerful way to call forth gratitude. (I do not recommend it to address an abusive relationship, however.)


The process involves asking yourself three questions, and ONLY three questions


1. What have I received (from ___________)?

2. What have I given (to _______________)?

3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused (___________)?


I told you it was counterintuitive. You will have noticed the glaring absence of a fourth question: “What troubles and difficulties have people cause ME!”


You might fear that the third question - “What troubles and difficulties have I caused?” -would lead to a self-deprecating mea culpa, but that is not my experience. After answering the first two questions, answering the third question calms my heart, helps me to see more clearly and allows me to feel more positive, calmly assertive and present in the relationship. It is one of the most enduring ways I’ve found to deepen my compassion, and it all begins with gratitude. Perhaps gratitude is our salvation.


Three questions…What have I received? What have I given? What troubles and difficulties have I caused?


I have one final practice I would like to recommend, but first, a brief return to milk.                      


A story went around the internet claiming that when the “got milk?” ads rolled out in Spanish, the ads bombed because the translation of “got milk?” into Spanish meant, essentially, “are you lactating?” A search suggests that there is a double entendre possible there, depending on the context, but there is a more significant and serious translation issue, one of culture and life experience.


The “got milk?” TV ads end with someone who is in trouble somehow because they’ve run out of milk. Funny to many of us, but for immigrants from central or south America or Mexico who had migrated north, often at great cost and risk to find work in America, the empty carton of milk, the image of deprivation, was not funny, it was reality.


What about the practice of gratitude when our store of gratitude seems completely empty or inaccessible? When we don’t got gratitude? What about the practice of gratitude when things are really tough, and life is pain-filled?


Remembering my mother and her journey with cancer, I know that all the benefits and challenges of disciplines of gratitude remain, though though gratitude practices may require extraordinary effort. I know that gratitude is always available, though at times it can be masked by pain. I know that it is still possible to see some of what we have rather than only what we lack, but a friend of mine who lived his vocation studying and helping people through grief, taught me that sometimes the pain is so great, that we simply cannot hold our own hope, and someone else needs to hold it for us for a time. We have to feel a loss fully before we can really start to take stock of what remains in our lives.


For the difficult times, there is one last gratitude practice I might suggest. One of the most powerful ways to generate a sense of gratitude is to remember kindness we have received in the past. We can evoke our own feelings of love, generosity, and compassion by remembering the love, generosity and compassion that was once offered to us. Many people are affected most strongly, by contemplating kindness they received as children, especially from parents or caregivers (Ladner). 


So rather than my talking any more about practicing gratitude, let’s practice.


[relax body… take time…]


I invite you to call to mind someone who was very kind to you in the earliest years you can safely revisit in your mind and heart.


Remember a person who showed you deep kindness when you were young.

            Imagine as completely as you can.

Where are you ?


What do you see?


What do you hear?


What do you smell?


How did that person show you kindness?


What do you feel? (take time)


Hold that kindness, but gradually return your awareness and attention to this room, in this meeting house.


Notice the feelings in your body now. Notice the feelings in your heart now.


“Remembering [someone’s] love [kindness] and compassion for us can cause us to resonate empathically to such emotions, evoking them in ourselves (Ladner 167).” It’s one of the fastest routes I know to a feeling of gratitude and love.


May you carry that gratitude and love out into your day and to all those you touch.


Whether or not gratitude is the core of our faith,

let’s find ways to practice gratitude.


Find your song, your prayer, your praise, your whirling dance, your reverential gesture, to greet this world every day that you are in it.

Let’s make gratitude one of our daily disciplines

at home,

and here,

every time we are together.



So may it be.



Works cited/consulted:


Krech, Gregg. Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection. Berkeley, Calif: Stone Bridge Press, 2002. Print.


Ladner, Lorne. The Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004. Print.


Seligman, Martin E. P. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.

Seligman, Martin 2002  The Free Press (Simon & Schuster) NY, NY


Emmons, Robert and McCullough, Micheal. “Counting Blessing Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84.2 (2003): 377-389.


Guengerich, Galen. “The Heart of our Faith: Gratitude Should be the Center of Unitarian Universalist Theology.” UU World Spring 2007


Why ‘Thank You’ Is More Than Just Good Manners

(cites Grant, Adam M. and Gino, Francesca. “A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98.6 (June 2010): 946-955




And our Community Life Facilitator, Libby Schap, points out that if you are interested in keeping a daily gratitude journal/log, of course there is an app for that – “thankfulfor”

(Note that you need to “opt out” of the automatic posting of your list if you don’t want to share your list with the wider “thankfulfor” world.)