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November 13, 2011: “When Thanks are Running Thin”

Opening Reading

When giving thanks comes hard for you
and things are running grim,
And hope runs thin, Recall:
Despair’s a door to pass on through,
And not a home for living in.
When thanksgiving fills your cup,
And those you love are all about,
Look at your blessings, count them up,
and give back something to the world without.
Go in peace.
Go for peace.
For all who seek God,
May God be with you.

For all who embrace life,
May life return your affection.
For all who seek the right path,
May a way be found…
And the courage to take it
Step by step.         -Robert Mabry Doss 

            Back in the 1980s when the stock market seemed to be on fire, an elderly man decided to risk it all and become rich. He decided to invest all the money he had in the market just before the crash of October 1987. His entire life’s savings were wiped out. Somebody called him and asked him how he was doing.  “I’m sleeping like a baby,” he replied; “I wake up every 3 or 4 hours and cry.”  That man was dealing with his thanks running thin by using humor; it’s often what keeps my sanity as well.

Another story-  Two children found a bag containing twelve marbles. They argued over how to divide the marbles and finally went to see the Mulla. When asked to settle their disagreement, the Mulla asked whether the children wanted him to divide the marbles as a human would or as Allah would. The children replied, “We want it to be fair. Divide the marbles as Allah would.”

            So, the Mulla counted out the marbles and gave three to one child and nine to the other.  This story was recently told on our minister’s chat line and caused some discussion. I said it reminded me of another Muslim saying, “If you see a blind man, kick him; why you should be any kinder than God.”

            Both these sayings, of course, are NOT from the Koran, but more likely folk-sayings, probably because they are, well, somewhat cynical about Allah or God, and just how fair HE really is. Indeed often the folk sayings make fun of the mullahs as well, the ministers, the holy men, the traditions, the religion, especially around fairness and perhaps even being thankful. When your thanks are running a little thin, it’s sometimes hard to face that dreaded day of Martha Stewart Optimism, THANKSGIVING. Just put out that sign I saw somewhere that says “Martha Stewart doesn’t live here; don’t expect much.”

            But let’s go back to that first story, the one where Allah seems to favor one child over the other, giving one nine of the marbles and the other only three. How could that be fair? The first question we must ask is whether we have all the information needed to judge, all the evidence if you will. After all, if we are to accept for a minute that there is an Allah, then we must also accept that HE (in this tradition) may also have reasons we know nothing about. Perhaps one child has two other siblings and the other had 8; that might be seen, then as an equal share for all children involved. We just don’t know, but on the surface we DO know that some people sure seem to have a lot more than others, and that the OCCUPY WALL ST movement is trying to make that clear to us.

            But life is NOT fair and it never has been; some of us were given the three marbles and others nine. Some inherited great wealth; others were born into abject poverty. Many of the Eastern religions believe that we have many reincarnations or many chances of getting it right, we come back and come back until we finally become enlightened and are then released from this everyday life and become part of the universe and stop the cycle of having to relive out teen years over and over.  That’s an over simplification, but it helps us understand why some Eastern people can adjust to their abject poverty or terrible circumstances- they can believe it’s something that they have done in a previous life, and they will have many more to straighten it all out, so be patient, and another life will be coming along soon.  They tend NOT to believe in a single Supreme Being like the Western God Almighty, but in Being itself, timeless and without intent of good or evil, for instance. Generally, they would not believe that God is punishing them for being evil if they are suffering, but that they themselves have lived unenlightened lives before and are currently trying to live out this one the best they can, following various beliefs, and practices.

            For most of us Americans, for instance, Thanksgiving is what is called a Civil Religious Holiday, or perhaps an American Religious Holiday; it is not supposed to be specifically or primarily Christian, but of course, since the Pilgrims were, well, you know the rest. The term, “civil religion” has been used by sociologists and historians to describe the governmental use of religion and “In God We Trust” might be the best example. It is an interfaith term, like, supposedly, “The 10 Commandments.” It is the use of the Bible for swearing in in court, Presidential inaugurations, hang Billy Graham attended the last 50 or so inaugurations, etc..  It is, in a sense, like a third religion, between Christianity and Judaism, and, of course, unofficial, based on patriotism and the American way and flag. Its artist is Norman Rockwell.

            So, I will suggest, Thanksgiving has become one of our most important civil religious holidays because it is also tied into patriotism; we should be Thankful to God because HE (in this scenario) has obviously blessed us and given us this Promised Land, making us his new chosen people. God and country intertwined all one people, happy and thankful. Well, you see, the obvious problems if you doubt either part of the concept.

            For most of us, however, Thanksgiving is a family tradition, far removed from civil religion; indeed, often far removed from civility at all!  Thanksgiving is ALWAYS a time when we think about those many blessings, as well as those, well, curses, we have been  given. It’s like the Xmas newsletters that seem to brag rather than inform and make the rest of us feel inadequate, our children stupid and lazy, our selves failures, compared to what some of these other folks and their children have accomplished.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes Thanksgiving is the time when it’s the hardest for me to be thankful!

            The poet, Wendell Berry, one of my favorites, says, “Be joyous, even though you’ve considered all the facts.”

            What do you do when “Thanks are running thin,” as the poem says on the front cover of the order of service? After years of studying behavior and devoting his life to mental healing, Freud’s student, the psychiatrist Carl Jung, who became almost as well known as his mentor, made a striking observation about how people are and are not healed. He wrote: “All the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble. . . . They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This “outgrowing” proved on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the patient’s horizon, and through this broadening of his or her outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.”

            We must grow through our problems, or perhaps even outgrow them.  It’s not so much that we solve them as learn how to live with them, and yes, even that is not easy.  I think of the story of JOB in the Jewish Bible in the part which is called, Wisdom Literature; I happen to think it’s a very universalistic story with many interpretations, but none of them easy or fitting into traditional doctrine. The suffering of  Job goes against all the traditional religious thinking, you see; he was a good man, following all the commandments of God. He had worked hard, become wealthy, and still was religious and good. By all logic, he should not, then, have gone through, all the terrible suffering that God and Satan put him through, seemingly, to test his faith! What kind of God does that? The kind that divides things up unequally, or perhaps, not really, God, but Life- Itself.

“move over, job” by Mildred Dodge

Move over, Job,/make room for me on the ground/under your olive tree.
My tears are its gray-green leaves/that fall in autumn winds,/my grief its bitter, wrinkled fruit.

I want to touch your cloak, torn in sorrow,/brush the mourning dust you heap upon your head,/put my hand in yours, to draw from touching,/some of your faith.

No great wind came and smote my house./I lost no camels, sheep or ox;/not seven sons/nor three sweet daughters./I lost love.

Three friends heard you curse your day,/heard the sighing that came before you ate, your roarings poured out like waters./They mourned with you, soothed your hurt with wisdom.

Their words do not touch my heart/nor help me in my grieving.

Your vengeful Yahweh cannot be my God.

Too many times the world has swung/deep in the firmament;/too many centuries have passed/with no relief from loss.

Shalom/Thank you for the visit./ I must work it out alone, old Job.

            I would advise Mildred Dodge NOT to work it alone, but to enlist the help of loved ones, friends, family, religious community, spiritual search. But I do agree, it’s up to each one us alone to figure out our own path to help through the spiritual thicket of despair or depression or unhappiness.

             One of the paths to recovering is networking, letting people know what you need, and what you don’t!  Finding out what kind of professional help might be available or helpful. Talking to trusted people about what you are going through, not necessarily for an answer or a solution, but sometimes just to vent, to get it off your chest, so that it doesn’t give you a heart attack!  Sometimes it is being willing to cry.  “Tears are not the pain.,” Dr. Annette Goodheart said, “They are the healing.”

            And you know one of my favorite Jewish sayings is “If three people tell you you’re drunk, lie down!” In other words, listen to your friends and loved ones who you trust (that’s right-you don’t have to listen to all of them!), especially the ones who keep telling you what a good person you are, or perhaps when you hear something you should do differently in your life from more than one person!

            Find out what gives you spiritual nourishment, what makes you feel positive about yourself and your place in the universe, find out out what it is that makes you laugh, and for God’s sake, have some fun in your life.

            Family systems are powerful dynamics and they seem to be hyper activated during the holidays or perhaps just the opposite; the lack of family seems like a giant black hole out of which you cannot climb. 

Sometimes it helps to remember that we are all characters on a stage called life, and we all get handed a script by our families, but we all have the freedom to alter that script, to change our parts, or even to refuse to play along!  And what characters are in that play with us, all around us. In fact, sometimes it helps us put up with difficult people if we start to realize that they too have been given their script, and probably don’t even know it. By the way, do not tell them, either; this could disrupt the balance of the universe as we know it.

            Because I do NOT believe in predestination, I DO believe that we can change our script and our lives and that we have a responsibility to find out who we really are and what we really want out of life, then what life wants out of us.

            As I begin to get ready for my next journey of change- of place and people and who I am always becoming, I will bring part of who I have been and become while here, part of all of you who I have loved and who have loved me, and yes, all the characters have become a part of who I am as part of my history now of ministry as well as personal history. As I have struggled to stay positive, and I apologize for the times I have been unsuccessful, I realize that the power of love, the call of the religious dimension of beloved community which we have here is fractured slightly now and will need repair, but is not broken. I want my legacy to be one of loving one another and building up the beloved community, and hope that my leaving may help strengthen that. So as my last time I will spend the holidays with you I share: ways of getting through the holidays when Thanks are running thin:

The Ten Commandments For Making it Through the Holidays

Remember that while pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.  Accept this at the beginning, no matter your actual physical condition, that there will be a variety of kinds of pain from physical to mental to spiritual- all connected, by the way-depression to headaches to heartaches to anger and so on.

Express yourself clearly. Talk about how you’re feeling to someone who will truly listen.  Remember what happens when we ASSUME we know what someone is feeling?  Remember that the minister reminds you to call him if you feel the need to talk!

Beware nostalgia and comparisons! Don’t let comparing the past ruin the present, especially because no one can ever bake a pie like grandma use to bake when we were children! At the same time, let yourself enjoy the positive parts of basking in the glow of warm memories. Just don’t expect the present to measure up to your idyllic childhood!

Drop a $20 bill in the Salvation Army bucket; find a way to help out another family over the holidays.  If there is one way to make you feel better, here it is. Help someone else!

Take it easy on yourself; lower your standards. Martha Stewart doesn’t live here and isn’t likely to visit! Don’t compare yourself to the family favorite, success story, or best cook; be glad for who you are.

Cry as much and whenever you feel like it; tears are therapeutic and crying is good for you. Don’t tell other people not to cry or that everything will be all right; encourage them to cry and ask if you can help or if they’d just like to talk.

Laugh as much as possible, too!  Bring out the child in you. Laughing is even better therapy; rent some comedies for holidays along with the tearjerkers!

Spend more time with “energy-givers” and less time with “energy-drainers.”  Be around people you love! (and yes, that may NOT be relatives)  If you can’t, or don’t want to, be with family, get with friends,  go to church, or volunteer somewhere, but be around people who “lift you up” and make you feel good!

Reach out and touch someone (and be touched)! We need the human touch; we need to be hugged and touched on a regular basis. We’ve all heard about the studies about babies that were held and babies who weren’t…

Go to church! Cultivate your religious/spiritual dimension that is in community with others and that sense of the divine, however you define that. Relationships are at the core of all religion! Don’t  try to theologically analyze the xmas carols, just sing them and pretend the words are in Latin if they bother you!

May this holiday season bring you joy But if it doesn’t, may you find a way to bring joy to this holiday  season…      All my love…