Friday, October 17, 2008

Gratitude and Grace

A few weeks ago I wrote in this blog about my daughter’s “Ariel sighting” in a splat of bird poop, and I used the incident as a chance to reflect on the significance (or lack thereof) of Virgin Mary sightings. The job of preparing a sermon on gratitude, which I’ll be delivering this Sunday in my role as chair of the Stewardship Committee, has given me the opportunity to think again about such “miraculous” sightings—but this time in a way that connects to the question of what it means to live one’s life in a spirit of gratitude. While the full sermon is too long to reproduce here (and probably too long to read on Sunday morning—but, well, they’ll live), I wanted to share here a core section of that sermon. The excerpt appears below:

Now, I don’t want to debate the plausibility of interpreting such images as signs from God. That’s not my objective here this morning. What I want to think about instead is what happens to our relationship with God when we become obsessed with finding the stamp of the divine in such things as toasted cheese sandwiches, or in chocolate drippings (as happened in California a few years ago), or in a swirl of marble on a chapel wall (as happened not long ago in Ghana).

And I don’t want to limit my attention to this fixation on Virgin Mary sightings and the like—because something very similar is going on with what’s come to be called “Intelligent Design” or “ID” theory. ID theorists are determined to find evidence of the divine in biological structures that are supposedly “irreducibly complex” and hence can’t be explained in Darwinian terms. And when they find something that they think fits the bill, they hold it up and declare, “Must be God!” These ID theorists are really doing the same kind of thing as those obsessed with Virgin Mary sightings: They’re scouring the world, sifting through the ocean of human experience, looking for miracles.

As if life itself weren’t a miracle. As if every breath I take isn’t a miracle. As if the astonishing fact of existence weren’t a miracle.

The poet and scholar, Frederick Turner, puts the point this way: “It is easy to deceive ourselves that something strange, something supernatural, is happening, as we know well from accounts of flying saucer enthusiasts, superstitious cultists, and ghost hunters. But perhaps our greater danger, our greater credulity, lies in deceiving ourselves that something strange and marvelous is not happening.”

In fact, I think that the first sort of deception contributes to the second. When we begin to fool ourselves into thinking that this unusual chocolate dripping or that complex molecule is a special revelation of God, we magnify the risk of losing sight of the miraculous character of what’s always there, all around us.

As Kahlil Gibran puts it in The Prophet,

…if you would know God be not therefore a solver of

Rather, look about you and you shall see Him playing with
your children.

And look into space; you shall see Him walking in
the clouds, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending

You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving
His hands in trees.

In this passage, Gibran isn’t trying to prove God’s existence by arguing that clouds and lightning, flowers and trees, can’t be explained in scientific terms. Rather, he’s saying that if we open ourselves up to the fullness of life and reality all around us, we’ll experience the divine moving in it all.

The quest to find God in distinctive images burned onto toasted cheese, or in biochemical systems that can’t be explained in evolutionary terms—such a quest is a distraction from the religious life as Gibran describes it. When we get caught up in such a quest, we become “solvers of riddles,” rather than children of God living in the light of God’s grace. We become so focused on finding fireworks in the night sky that we lose sight of the sky itself and the beauty of the scattered stars.

And so we forget to be grateful for the miracle of existence that surrounds us and fills us up at every moment. The constancy of the sky leads us to ignore it, and we attach our hopes and joys to the ephemeral bursts of colored sparks that splash for just a moment across our vision and are gone. The sky’s very constancy, which should magnify our gratitude, leads us instead to take it for granted.

Part of what it means to live in a spirit of gratitude is to resist this tendency. It means seeing and taking joy in the deep and abiding miracles: life; our capacity to love and to be present in the world; the spray of stars across a blue-black sky.

But there’s something else as well. As the mystic philosopher Simone Weil points out in today’s meditation, the universe is filled to the brim with everything we have ever thought to wish for. But because I don’t possess this thing at this moment, I curse the universe. I define the good as my good, and all the wonders of the universe therefore count as nothing unless I hold them in my clutches.

But I don’t need to make the universe as small as I am. I can, instead, expand myself so that my sense of self sweeps outward across the heavens, and every good that exists can be for me a source of joy. When I do that I’ve left the confines of my narrow ego and chosen instead to abide in the dwelling place of the living God (Psalm 84).

In this place, gratitude and generosity are part of the same whole. To be grateful is to feel the grace of God flowing through you. To be generous is to let it flow, unimpeded. In this place, authentic gratitude has no contact with its dark pretender, that burden of indebtedness Kahlil Gibran warns against when he tells us to “assume no weight of gratitude, lest you lay a yoke upon yourself and upon him who gives.” In the dwelling place of God, generosity is a gift that makes no demands on the receiver. Gratitude is a joyous response, not the burden of reciprocal obligation. The grateful are generous, not out of duty, but because possessiveness would amount to leaving the dwelling place of God behind. It would mean a return to that lonely little universe, as tiny as a single ego.

My sermon goes on to exemplify what it means to live a human life in this spiritual space of gratitude and generosity by (no surprise here) looking at the life of Friedrich Schleiermacher. More specifically, I look at the words he spoke at the graveside of his youngest son, his beloved Nathaniel. But a discussion of that heart-wrenching sermon will have to be the subject of a later post.

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