“The Spiritual Practice of Gratitude as an Antitdote to Fear” by Jesse

Recommitment_72dpi_72dpi_sermonOctober 24, 2010


The Summer Day
Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean–

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is is you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver


I so much appreciate how we Seekers work with the Word not only through the Lectionary  passages–but also view the lives of each of us as Living Scripture.  Or, as we would say in clinical pastoral education, each of us is “The Living Human Document”. In my experience, this is a major piece of why Seekers is so amazingly able to empower so many of us to find and follow our individual callings. I am tremendously appreciative!


It is not that my own story is so important.  As we EACH share the stories of our own faithful risk-taking, we empower each other to be faithful. There is a cumulative—even exponential—effect that I very much experience here.  This is the inspired genius of the Church of the Saviour model. Each of us is called.  Each of us is a minister of the Good News.   And Seekers’ unique take on the C of S model I have found to be particularly empowering!    I am amazed by the faithful witness that I see all around me in this community.  You are inspirations to me.


Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor writes of the time she was asked to preach at a friend’s church.  When she asked, “What would you like me to preach on?”   Her friend responded, “Preach on what is saving your life right now”.  That seems to be a good beginning guideline for any preacher…


I choose to share with you this morning some of what is saving my life right now: The Spiritual Practice of Gratitude As An Antidote To Fear.


Mary Oliver invites us, first of all, to stop totally; secondly, to notice; thirdly, to truly appreciate that which is right in front of us


I find it stunning to contemplate that it was President Abraham Lincoln who, in 1863, in the very midst of the horrific suffering of the “Civil War”, when there was no assurance that there would even continue to be a Union, proclaimed the first national day of Thanksgiving—for the fourth Thursday of November. Inviting the American people, at that perilous time, to stop; to notice; and to appreciate their many blessings, as difficult as that might have been for many.


In this liturgical season that includes our annual American holiday of Thanksgiving,   I am seeking to follow a conscious practice of gratefulness/gratitude. Monks in both Christian and Buddhist traditions begin and end each day with rituals of gratitude for whatever has come their way, whether it be joy, sadness, a sense of fulfillment or merely boredom.


A number of years ago at Pendle Hill Quaker Center outside of Philadelphia, I was going through a transitional time that was particularly difficult.  I was experiencing a sense of broken relationship and a sense of betrayal.  There I was introduced to the practice of the Gratitude Journal by arts teacher/master potter Sally Palmer.  This simple daily practice of ten to fifteen minutes a day was truly transforming.  It brought me out of my inner malaise and empowered me to be more fully present to the wonder of the given moment.


My strong internal pull had been to obsess and to spend all of my energy trying to figure what had gone wrong in my life.   I was stuck in victim mode.  I could easily have wasted the precious opportunity of living in that special community for ten weeks.  Instead, with this practice, I was opened to notice and therefore truly receive the bountiful gifts that were literally all around me. The payoff was immediate and substantial!


The 12 Steps talk about cultivating an “Attitude of Gratitude”.   The Gratitude Journal can be one way to stop and notice each day that which has graced our lives—and which we otherwise might walk right easily past!


As powerful as I have found this practice of Gratitude to be in the past, I forget about it for long stretches of time!    I am currently in the midst of major life change.  As I move into claiming a new call, it is a particularly rich time to once again be keeping a gratitude journal, which I write in a number of times during the week.  Noticing the grace in my day to day life, however tiny or mundane, provides a very powerful grounding in a time when it is easy to feel ungrounded.  Perhaps you already have an established practice for gratitude— in your daily prayer time or journaling…


Mary Clare Powell is a former member of Seekers Church.  After her father’s death, she interviewed her mother and took photos  and put together a wonderful little book called The Widow. In it, her mother Ruth Kocher Powell says:


An idea that I kind of like is this: “It is enough”.  Remember when we did that Passover Seder with the kids at Sunday School and that song we taught them, “Daiyenu?”  That Jewish song.  The word is repeated over and over, “Di-di-eyenu, Di-di-eynu”  It means, “It is enough.”    God has done enough.  Brought them out of Egypt.

I think that’s an idea that we Christians don’t have so much.  …(We)’re always asking for more.  More!  More!


Daiyenu–it’s a kind of a thanksgiving.  Maybe we don’t do enough real thanksgiving in our faith”.


We have already engaged in our wonderful weekly ritual of communal prayer, which includes our Prayers of Thanksgiving.     And yet:  I don’t think we can get too much time for gratitude practice—At least, I can’t!  I need as much practice at being grateful as I can get!!


I would like to invite you to join me for a few moments in this Guided Imagery—inviting you to get in touch with a few more places where you might feel a sense of “Dai-ye-nu” or gratitude today.


What is one thing you are particularly grateful for in your life right now—however small it may be?

One gift of the fall—one particular flaming maple or burning bush you may have encountered…?

One place in nature you have appreciated recently…perhaps in your own yard…where you have been able to scuffle through fallen leaves…

One bird or animal you may have encountered…

One special autumn fruit… or a yummy meal you have eaten….

One special moment of friendship or relationship….

One experience of music or poetry or a novel or a movie or a class or work of art that has moved you or touched your soul….

One place of creative opportunity in your life right now…In work or family or relationship….


I am deeply grateful for the last 6 & ½ years serving Holy Cross Hospice as chaplain.  Incredibly thankful for my hard-working colleagues.   And tremendously grateful for the priceless gifts I have received from patients and families while accompanying them on the intimate journey toward the end of life.   Claudia, Anna, Fred, Sylvia, Tom, to name only a few.   This is without a doubt the best job I have ever had!    Daiyenu!


I am unspeakably grateful for the miracle of my 12 week sabbatical, which began a year and a half ago.   There are many reasons why the sabbatical time just as easily might never have happened.   The way continued to open where there was no way!     And I continue to be transformed by the experience.   Daiyenu!


I am deeply grateful for the clarity of a new call to pursue my music.  I am grateful for no longer feeling split in two, between my call to chaplaincy and my musical calling, as I increasingly have over the last few years.   Daiyenu!


I am tremendously grateful to be part of church that truly values and names “call” as a valid basis for Christian discipleship, and does not merely provide lip service to the concept.   I am grateful to Marjory Bankson for lifting up for us, in her book “Call to the Soul” that call can happen a number of times in our lives, and is not a one time only event!    This is congruent with the understanding of the early Quaker movement, whose spirituality has deeply informed my path.  Daiyenu!

I am incredibly grateful for the ability to practice my music here, in this amazingly beautiful physical space at Seekers–and to be able to live on 3rd floor at Pat & Trish’s house.  Daiyenu!


I am very grateful to be working with Glen on the Carroll Café concert series, so many years after we first envisioned it.   We are finally following up on that vision, and it feels good and right.    Daiyenu!


At this moment I find myself in a wilderness time.   I have left the known and loved position of hospice chaplaincy.  In many ways, I am still grieving the loss of the old: the daily routine and the camaraderie of being part of the hospice team.  I feel as clear as I can be that this is the right move for me—and that I would always regret it if I did not explore this call.   And yet, six weeks into my new life, I am still struggling to find my new rhythm.


Hebrew Bible scholar, Walter Brueggemann, (in a speech to UCC general synod), said: 

“The world for which you have been so carefully prepared has been taken away from you, by the grace of God.”


It feels kind of like that!!!  I experience both a deep sense of grace and joy, and also, a deep sense of loss and grief, simultaneously.   I do not ever remember feeling quite this mixture ever before.


Our second hymn today, “The Summons”, composed by John Bell of the Iona Community in Scotland, contains the lines, 

Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name?                                            

Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?

My natural fall-back position in life seems to be to ruminate on the scariest possible thing that might happen, however implausible or over the top!    And a moment like this certainly brings that tendency to the fore!     Am I being foolish or irresponsible–Choosing to be artist in economic downturn?    Will I end up homeless, out begging on the streets?   In all honesty, it feels a lot different to be taking this step at age 55, as opposed to age 25 or 35.  And it feels a lot different to be freely choosing this and walking away from my position, as opposed to fifteen years ago when I was laid off from Children’s Hospital and was able to collect unemployment while I pursued music.


The reality is:  I live frugally.    I still have most of my sabbatical grant in the bank.      I have done somewhere close to 1000  musical programs for senior citizens over the years, and should be able to focus on that as one way to pay my bills.    I can follow this call for a year or two and find out if it is viable!


If I were to be honest, probably my deepest fear is in the NAMING/CLAIMING.    Stating out loud my inkling/hope that the gift of music I have been given might be able to touch people’s lives, might be able to make a small difference in the wider world.   Perhaps my deepest fear is fear of being shamed for naming this.    In the family in which I was raised it was not safe to show what one really felt or desired.    And even at this age, after a great deal of growth and healing, I still carry some of those old wounds, I guess!


It has only been six weeks.     And yet,   because my two feet are now firmly planted in music, I already have had a few doors open that otherwise would not have been possible.    I was asked to be on a panel at a health care conference in Baltimore with some nationally known plenary speakers.  The topic was “Stewards of Well-Being”.  They wanted me to speak from the chaplain’s point of view.    I was flattered to be asked.  Yet when I spoke to the organizer, I said to her:  “Well, actually, I am in the process of leaving my chaplaincy position in order to concentrate on creating music.  Your theme is about stewarding the well-being of health care professionals. How would you like to hire me to be musician for your conference, weaving together the energy of the day through music?”


This was totally out of the box–hiring a musician had never occurred to her.  However, as we explored together, she caught a glimpse of the vision, and decided to hire me.   They had a grant, and I ended up being paid as much as I have ever been paid to share my music, which feels tremendously affirming.    (P.S. It went swimmingly well!)


And, in these few weeks, I have also already experienced a big rejection!    A song of mine was being considered for inclusion on a compilation CD, which would have included some nationally known performers.   A local producer puts these together as a fundraiser for his charity.   It would have been a very big deal for me.   I think I sabotaged myself by telling him that what I submitted was not my best.


When the opportunity arose, I was just beginning to say my goodbyes at  hospice, still very much experiencing my energy as split in two.   I actually think that if I had had a manager who believed in me handling things, I would have gotten on the CD.   But I did not, and I did the best I could, and it was what it was!   As I embark on this new journey, I need to be willing to experience more rejections without taking them personally.    I commit to learning from the experiences, both positive and negative.   I also have much to learn about becoming more self-forgiving, when I am not perfect.


I love this quote from feminist theologian Mary Daly:   

 “Courage is…a habit, a virtue: you get it by courageous acts.  It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging.”


AND: It takes a village to practice courage on a regular basis!   I continue to be very grateful to be part of the Healer’s Mission Group at Seekers, where I have tested out this new call, engaged in a Clearness Committee for discernment, and where I continue to be supported & held accountable. Daiyenu!

I am grateful for having received a ribbon of blessing in Seekers service and been prayed for as I have begun this new journey!   And I am grateful for so many others, in Seekers and in the rest of my life who are touchstones of spiritual support & challenge as I tread this new path.   Daiyenu!


In our reflection paragraph for this Jubilee season, author Barbara Kingsolver says:  

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for.  And the most you can do is live inside that hope.  Not admire it from a distance but live right in it…”


Claiming my music at this moment is choosing to live inside my hope.   The thing that was so transformative during my sabbatical time—it is something I have never experienced in quite this way before—was this amazing sense that the very process of making music so often led me into the same space that I experience in a deep time of prayer, or when I have felt called to offer vocal ministry in Quaker meeting for worship.   Or I would feel literally moved to tears.


For me, this is the deepest internal affirmation of call!    I know that I could be following call as I understand it and still not “succeed” in worldly terms.   I could even be very wrong with what I am hearing.   AND, after all of the prayerful discernment and testing out:  I would regret on my death bed if I did not take this risk at this time!     Daiyenu!


Quaker author Philip Gulley says,   

I wonder if gratefulness is the bridge from sorrow to joy, spanning the chasm of our anxious striving. Freed from the burden of unbridled desires, we can enjoy what we have, celebrate what we’ve attained, and appreciate the familiar. For if we can’t be happy now, we’ll likely not be happy when.


I am sensing that a regular practice of gratefulness is one of the crucial bridges for me in this transitional moment.  I receive daily meditations from Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast  www.gratefulness.org.   I often find these daily meditations to be a nice touchstone into my own gratefulness practice.


Pat Conover brought a powerful Word at Seekers a few months ago, entitled “Dancing With Fear”.   As Quakers say, “It spoke to my condition” in an amazing way!  A few of his key points that particularly stood out to me:

1.  Just take the risks that are yours to take and accept the outcomes of following your chosen path.

2.  Getting Started is critical. Getting started over and over again is critical. Getting started before seeing the outcome of your caring and investments is critical.

3. And, above all: Accepting risks is critical!

4.   We don’t get a special deal from God that makes us immune from disappointments just because we are Christians

5.  Be thankful that your fears remind you of some things that really matter to you


What a radical concept—to be thankful for our fears!    A friend gifted me with this blessing from John O’Donahue.

For a New Beginning         (TO BLESS THE SPACE BETWEEN US)

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,                                                                 

Where your thoughts never think to wander,                                                            

This beginning has been quietly forming,                                                          

Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,                                                        

Feeling the emptiness grow inside you,                                                     

Noticing how you willed yourself on,                                                                             

Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety                                                            

And the grey promises that sameness whispered,                                                   

Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,                                                         

Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,                                                     

And out you stepped onto new ground,                                                                        

Your eyes young again with energy and dream,                                                             

A path of plentitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not clear,                                                                             

You can trust the promise of this opening;                                                                

Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning                                                                    

That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;                                                                                    

Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;                                                           

Soon you will be home in a new rhythm                                                             

For your soul senses the world that awaits you.  




Holy One,  I am so incredibly fortunate to be in this very place in my life!  It is not without its struggles.  AND: May I increasingly accept that these are the very struggles that are right for me at this moment!    May I learn to be as grateful for the challenges as for whatever fruits may be reaped from this path.


I am so fortunate to be in a faithful community that truly stewards call for its members and provides role models, guides and structures that support leaps of faith.


Help me to notice, truly notice, in each day the amazing gifts that You lovingly provide.  Bless each of us in our unfolding calls.  And bless all of Your beloved children who are figuring out what they hope for– and seeking to live inside their dearest hopes and dreams.   In You in whom we live and breathe and dance and praise! AMEN!

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