Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Thankful Heart Changes Everything

Last night I delivered the sermon at our Westborough Interfaith Thanksgiving Service.  It was a charming evening that brought many from the town together.  This was the 40th year that the town has held this service.

A prayer of gratitude… attributed to Homer.  No, not that Homer – Homer Simpson.  It goes like this: 
Dear Lord: The gods have been good to me. For the first time in my life, everything is absolutely perfect just the way it is. So here's the deal: You freeze everything the way it is, and I won't ask for anything more. If that is OK, please give me absolutely no sign. OK, deal. In gratitude, I present you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, give me no sign. Thy will be done.” (Homer Simpson, as written by  Dan Castellaneta).

Of course, despite being quite funny, the requisite response to Homer’s words, is ‘Doh!’  The only thing in this world that stays the same is change. So if we can only express gratitude when we are coasting on the peak experiences of life, we are likely to feel quite ungrateful for substantial periods of time.

But can we really muster up an attitude of gratitude when life isn’t plain sailing?  How can we get there, and why does it make a difference?

Now, I’ve only been in town since July but in the 5 short months that I’ve been at B’nai Shalom, my congregants have already learned that I’m not so much of a morning person.  I tend to burn the candle at the other end of the day. But it takes me a couple of hours each morning to get up to full speed.  When the alarm goes off at the quite respectable time of 7am, I’m more inclined to turn it off with a groan.  But the Jewish tradition invites us to utter a sentence in prayer each and every morning, the moment we are aware of gaining consciousness again.  That prayer begins, Modah Ani Lefanecha… thankful am I before You.  Thankful am I before you! Not, ‘urgghh, do I have to get up already?’  Thankful am I before you.  And even though I may not literally recite the blessing, my awareness of its message helps refocus me on the days that I am reluctant to get going.

The prayer functions as a mantra for daily mindfulness.  We find that many faith traditions have similar ways of placing an attitude of gratitude into our hearts and minds.  And what they all particularly have in common is their attachment to the ordinary, every day events of our lives. 

It is not at the peak moments of life that our spiritual traditions ask us to bring gratitude to mind.  While we may well take those moments for granted when we should not, it is not those moments that faith and spiritual practice provide support and help with.  Rather it is the moments that are so mundane that we take them for granted almost every single day.  And so Jews have a blessing for waking up.  Christians and Jews utter brief words of gratitude before eating a meal. 

Buddhist and Vepassana meditation begins by bringing attention to the simple act of breathing in and out, bringing to mind an echo at the end of Psalm 150, ‘Let each and every breath be a praise to God.’  During the five daily prayers in Islamic practice, a Muslim may utter words from the Qu’ran: Worship Allah, and be of those who give thanks. (Quran 39:66)

But while it is quite clear that every spiritual tradition prods and pokes us into mindful awareness of all the simple and quite ordinary things in life we could be grateful for - and that’s before we come to the Jewish Bathroom prayer – yes, we really do have a daily prayer of gratitude that is traditionally recited to give thanks that all the plumbing down there is working just fine - what changes when we adopt these spiritual practices and let them guide our daily consciousness?

A grateful heart does, quite literally, change everything.  Even in the midst of the most challenging periods in our lives, if we can bring awareness to the briefest moment of blessing, it can provide a spark of hope and light in dark times. I’m struck when I visit families after the death of a loved one that, even in the midst of the sorrow of loss, the ability to tell stories and share sweet memories can bring back smiles; sometimes even laughter.  While the pain of loss can be enormous, somehow it can coexist with these moments.  And the truth is, the pain only exists because of our capacity to love.  It is the blessing of the multitude of moments we shared that makes the loss so acute.  But we would not choose to give up one of those precious memories to avoid the pain of loss.

In recent weeks, as many of us have directed resources to help those most affected by Hurricane Sandy, in the midst of the loss and the extreme discomfort, we have all heard heart-warming stories about the moment a volunteer reaches the 25th floor of an apartment building in the Rockaways by foot to be greeted by an ever-so-grateful elderly resident as they hand over blankets and food. The places of worship that have opened their doors to provide shelter and hot meals to so many who are grateful that they have not been forgotten.  Each moment, a spark of light offering hope in the midst of darkness.

I’ll end with a story from the Hassidic Jewish world of the 1700s:

Some students of the Maggid of Mezheritz came to him. "Rebbe, we are puzzled. It says in the Talmud that we must thank God as much for the bad days, as for the good. How can that be? What would our gratitude mean, if we gave it equally for the good and the bad?" The Maggid replied, "Go to Anapol. Reb Zusya will have an answer for you."

The Hasidim undertook the journey. Arriving in Anapol, they inquired for Reb Zusya. At last, they came to the poorest street of the city. There, crowded between two small houses, they found a tiny shack, sagging with age.

When they entered, they saw Reb Zusya sitting at a bare table, reading a volume by the light of the only small window. "Welcome, strangers!" he said. "Please pardon me for not getting up; I have hurt my leg. Would you like food? I have some bread. And there is water!"

"No. We have come only to ask you a question. The Maggid of Mezheritz told us you might help us understand: Why do our sages tell us to thank God as much for the bad days as for the good?"

Reb Zusya laughed. "Me? I have no idea why the Maggid sent you to me." He shook his head in puzzlement. "You see, I have never had a bad day. Every day God has given to me has been filled with miracles."

Imagine the power of such a positive orientation to living each and every day, whatever it brought with it. Ask yourself, how would Reb Zusya’s life, or even his state of mind, benefit from bringing his attention to things that he might have wanted and he lacked? What is the impact of his answer on his visitors? They may be amazed, but they are also inspired. If such a man, living such a simple and encumbered life, is able to taste the sweetness of each day, oriented to life with an attitude of gratitude, recognizing the daily miracles that continue to exist even in the midst of hardship… would not such a man inspire them toward a positive orientation to all that they are blessed with in life?

May we be so inspired and may our hearts, filled with gratitude, guide our hands and our communities to act so as to raise each other up, ever providing more for one another so that, turning to one another and seeing there the face of God, we can truly say to each other, ‘Modah Ani Lefanecha – thankful am I before You’.


  1. Beautiful. Happy Thanksgiving Rachel & Suri. <3

  2. It was a wonderful service, and I really enjoyed your sermon. Thank You!