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Sermons at First Parish Church

The Gratitude Project

Sunday, January 26, 2014
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Thoughts Before the Service Begins

…the mind always
wants more than it has —
one more bright day of sun,
one more clear night in bed
with the moon; one more hour
to get the words right; one
more chance for the heart in hiding
to emerge from its thicket
in dried grasses — as if this quiet day
with its tentative light weren’t enough,
as if joy weren’t strewn all around. (Holly Hughes)


Among other wonders of our lives, we are alive
with one another, we walk here
in the light of this unlikely world
that isn’t ours for long.
May we spend generously
the time we are given. (John Daniel)

This is a good time for giving thanks for everything we have, for the face and voices of the people we love, for warm beds, for breakfast and the fact that we are here together on this gray morning. We hold in our hearts all who are in need, who are cold or hungry even as we give thanks for all that we have. Let us sit for a moment in gratitude This is a good time for laying down the burdens and regrets of the past week, the words spoken in anger, the words left unspoken, the ways we have fallen short and not loved well. Let us sit for a moment in compassion for ourselves and one another.

The Gratitude Project

Meister Eckhart, the 13th century German theologian and mystic, wrote, “If the only prayer you said in your life is thank you, that would suffice.”

I have been immersed in gratitude this week, knowing I was going to speak to you about gratitude this morning. I have been studying up. It is probably fair to say I am always interested in gratitude but my interest perked up last November when I noticed a number of people on Facebook were doing something called the Gratitude Project during which they they shared one thing they were grateful for each day of November. People were grateful for the most dizzying and gorgeous array of things, from their sisters to airbags and chocolate and weather and technology and wine. It was lovely to read and someone wrote to me and asked me if I was paying attention. I assured them I was. So I went looking for the Gratitude Project this week to learn more about it and realized, to my delight, that gratitude projects are everywhere — there are multiple gratitude projects out there.

There is a Gratitude Project created by group of photographers residing in different parts of the world who have, as they put it, “joined together to look through the lens of gratitude.” They take photographs of the things and people that inspire gratitude within them and post them on their website ( There are Gratitude campaigns whose purpose is to express and share thanks for women and men serving in the military (

There are gratitude challenges of various lengths in which people commit to sharing something they are grateful for every day. There is the Gratitude Graffiti Project which began in Maplewood New Jersey and then spread to nearby towns. The purpose of the Gratitude Graffiti project was to engage the residents in the practice of appreciation of life through interactive art. The project provided blank cards and chalk and washable markers all around town so that people could go around writing down what they were grateful for — on the sidewalks or written in washable marker on the big glass windows of stores around town or on index cards, which were then posted on bulletin boards in places like the library and bank and gas station. The goal was to paint the town in gratitude — such a wonderful idea, just waiting to be repeated.

There are even a number of Gratitude Cafes whose mission is to both serve delicious food and also to do business through a practice called “Sacred Commerce They write, “We view our restaurants as environments to not only serve healthy food, but also training grounds to practice seeing our lives from a perspective of gratitude.”

I also found the father of gratitude this week in rediscovering the work of Brother David Steindl-Rast a Benedictine monk and scholar of philosophy and Buddhism, a teacher and prolific writer and now founder of A Network for Grateful Living (ANG*L), which is a worldwide community dedicated to gratefulness as the core inspiration for personal change, international cooperation, and sustainable activism..

The purpose of A Network for Grateful Living is “to provide education and support for the practice of grateful living as a global ethic.” They have a wonderful website at, with articles and poems and videos and stories. They also offer workshops, retreats, and local groups that teach people to cultivate gratefulness.

According to Brother Steindl-Rast, the practice of gratefulness moves people in four directions. In our personal lives, gratitude has both an inward aspect, restoring courage, and an outward aspect, inspiring generosity. In our social lives, gratitude can be focused one-to-one, reconciling relationships, or it can be focused more broadly and used as an instrument for healing the entire world really, through reverence for nature, intergenerational respect, interfaith dialogue, and awareness of opportunities to serve.

Brother Steindl-Rast gave a TED talk in June 2013 which I recommend to you. His message is essentially incredibly simple. He says, “There is something we know about everyone — we all want to be happy. It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes up happy.”

What is gratefulness? According to Steindl-Rast, gratefulness/gratitude is what happens when we experience something that is precious to us being freely given. When something valuable to us, such as love or kindness, is freely given, gratefulness spontaneously arises in us. The key is that we can experience this over and over; this moment of spontaneous gratitude does not have to be an isolated incident. Steindl-Rast believes we can live gratefully by becoming aware that every moment is a given moment; every moment is something precious we are freely given.

Clearly we are not grateful for everything. Nor are s we supposed to be grateful for everything. We cannot be grateful for loss, grief, and violence for example. But, according to Steindl-Rast, we can, with practice, begin to see every moment as full of opportunity, even the very painful moments when we are challenged far beyond what we believe we are capable of. These moments give us the invitation to rise to the opportunity and learn something, patience for example or how to stand up for our own truth or conviction.

How do we do it? How do we learn to live gratefully moment by moment?

Steindl-Rast believes it is very simple. He says, “[We learn it] just as we learned to cross the street as children. Stop, Look, Go.” The first step is to Stop or Wake up. He writes, “To begin with, we never start to be grateful unless we wake up. Wake up to what? To surprise. As long as nothing surprises us, we walk through life in a daze. We need to practice waking up to surprise. I suggest using this simple question as a kind of alarm clock: “Isn’t this surprising?” “Yes!” will be the correct answer, no matter when and where and under what circumstances you ask this question.”

Step Two is Look, Look for the Opportunity. Steindl-Rast writes, “There is a simple question that helps me to practice the second step of gratitude: What’s my opportunity here? You will find that most of the time the opportunity that a given moment offers you is an opportunity to enjoy — to enjoy sounds, smells, tastes, texture, colors, and, with still deeper joy, friendliness, kindness, patience, faithfulness, honesty, and all those gifts that soften the soil of our heart like warm spring rain. The more we practice awareness of the countless opportunities to simply enjoy, the easier it becomes to recognize difficult or painful experiences as opportunities, as gifts.”

And finally, Step Three is Go or Respond. Once we are in the habit of being awake to surprises and being aware that each moment offers us an opportunity, it becomes possible and even easy to respond, especially when we are offered an opportunity to enjoy something. As Steindl-Rast puts it, “When a sudden rain shower is no longer just an inconvenience but a surprise gift, you will spontaneously rise to the opportunity for enjoyment….My simple recipe for a joyful day is this: Stop and wake up; look and be aware of what you see; then go on with all the alertness you can muster for the opportunity the moment offers. (Stop, Look Go information all from article: Three Steps in the Process of Living a Life of Gratitude)

Immersion in the study of gratitude had an impact on me too. I found I was grateful for a lot this week. Grateful that I actually caught the squirrel living in the basement before it systematically ate the entire house. Grateful I was able to muster up the courage to relocate him to Grotonplace even though he was not that happy about the ride in the car. Grateful for the electrician who came right over to deal with the chewed wires. Grateful that Jim Moisson stopped by with soup and bread and, not only that, showed me how to program my coffee maker so it makes the coffee before I get up. I have been drinking coffee for 30 years and probably I have been living with a coffee maker for about that long and I never programmed it. I would sometimes think, wouldn’t it be nice to wake up to the smell of coffee brewing. It just seemed too hard to accomplish. But now it is done, so I start the day in gratitude

I was grateful to sit in the sanctuary last Sunday and listen to the power and moving sermons by Sara and Brenna and Steve about how and why they engage in service to others. Sara started her sermon by saying, “You might be wondering what a kid would have to say about service — well, there is no minimum age requirement and I have been serving others since I was four.” I am grateful to have attended the story telling evening the night before where wonderful, funny, poignant powerful stories were told including one by high school senior Hannah, who told about surviving her middle school years. She ended her story by saying that she now knew she wanted to help other kids, especially the ones who are having a hard time or feeling alone, to be able to recognize their own value and worth; she wants to help because she is so grateful for those who have helped her. I am grateful for the ways this community is a place where people find their voices, where people can experience and see their own strength and capacity and have their true beauty, their souls’ beauty reflected back to them.

I realized this week that just as this church is a compassion school it is also a gratitude school and we need that because it is gratitude that reminds of everything that is whole and beautiful and good, and gratitude that turns us away from our anxiety and worry and fear and helps us to be generous and kind. And we need this because we forget. As my colleague Kathleen McTigue writes:

We so easily count our deficits instead of our blessings, we so readily voice our complaints instead of our gratitude. We get pinched and indrawn, anxious about how to get what we need instead of how to give what is needed. We forget that the two are completely linked: that when we see our bounty and feel blessed, we give from that bounty; and when we give, we find abundance…Grace, gratitude and generosity are braided together. We forget. And this is a place of remembrance. Kathleen Norris writes, “My old friends were mystified when I would tell them how much I loved being back in church… [But] it’s the one place I know where I am allowed to sing in public, no matter what my voice sounds like, and where I receive a blessing just for showing up. Even more important, it is a place set aside from the noise and relentless commerce of the world for giving thanks for all that is larger than myself… for a loving and creative spirit at work in us, and in the whole creation. Like nothing else I know, it brings me to my senses.” (From Kathleen McTigue’s sermon, Gratitude at the Heart of Prayer, November 16, 2008)

Strangely I even had a moment of gratitude when I discovered my GPS was stolen out of my car this week during one of the many times I accidentally left the door unlocked due to having my mind elsewhere. I thought to myself, “Oh well, now that I don’t have a GPS I can start getting lost again and I have kind of missed that.”

Journalist Todd Aaron Jenson recently edited a book called On Gratitude in which he interviews various famous people about the sources of their gratitude. It is a lovely book but I found Todd Jenson’s introduction to be the best part. In it he tells this story:

Third Grade: Mrs. Bammel, pregnant with her first child, cracks open the math book. It’s time to teach negative numbers. It goes like this: You start at zero. If you move to the right of zero, you’re in the positive. Simple stuff: 1, 2, 3. If you move to the left of zero, you’re in the …wait? What? Negative numbers. Makes no sense: -1, -2, -3… you have to protest. “Mrs. Bammel, excuse me, Mrs. Bammel…. Why in the world would we count negative numbers? That’s counting what’s not there!”

Mrs. Bammel makes a decent mathematical argument, though at nine years old, you’re still scratching your head. Thirty years later, you are an expert in negative numbers, a master at counting what’s not there.

You count the things you’ve lost — the lack. It goes like this: You lost your marriage, your best friend, your house, your dog, all of your grandparents — and quickly. You lost your favorite shirt (the proverbial shirt off your back, one supposes). You’ve either lost money or a laundry list of dreams you had when you were a kid, maybe both, and probably a little faith, too. Your life is a veritable country-western song. And you don’t even like country-western music.

Except even when you think you’ve lost everything, you’re never without. In fact, this is the perfect moment to allow gratitude to be your (teacher), to whisper with grace small words of thanks for everything — anything — in your life. Begin like this: I am alive… To listen to and be moved by others’ gratitude, then more importantly, to share in turn, might launch a revolution of sorts… Your gratitude means as much as anyone else’s. And so I am listening. We are listening. The world is listening. Wherever you are, let it begin now, like this: I am grateful for…

John O’Donahue writes this prayer of gratitude for morning — may it be ours as well.

I give thanks for arriving
Safely in a new dawn,
For the gift of eyes
To see the world,
The gift of mind
To feel at home
In my life.
The waves of possibility
Breaking on the shore of dawn,
…..And all the furtherings
This new day will bring.


3 Powderhouse Road … Groton, MA 01450-4700 … 978-448-6307 …   …  

Created 2014-02-25