All About Gratitude

elizabeth hunterWelcome to the First Parish Gratitude Blog!

Throughout the month of November our congregation will be exploring the theme of gratitude together in various ways.  In order to expand that conversation, we’ve invited member of our faith community to share their thoughts and perspectives on our theme and we’ll be sharing one post here each day.

There has been a lot of research on gratitude published in the past decade.  Studies have shown that people who engage in a practice of gratitude feel happier overall.  Couples who make a habit of sharing their appreciation of each other report greater satisfaction within their relationships. Since 1966 people around the globe have been celebrating World Gratitude Day.

What role does gratitude play in your life?  What are you thankful for?  To what or whom are you grateful and how do you express it?  What evokes a sense of gratitude for you, and how do you experience that feeling on a spiritual level?  These are some of the questions our contributors will be touching on in their posts this month.  Some of the answers may surprise you.

We welcome your thoughts and comments throughout the month.  I will be curating and moderating the conversation and hope that it will enrich all of our perspectives.  I am very grateful for the many people willing to share their thoughts and I look forward to the new opportunities for connection that this project offers.

Thank you all for joining us!

~ Elizabeth Hunter

Ending in Gratitude

elizabeth hunterElizabeth Hunter

Our month-long conversation is over and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the many people who have made the Gratitude Blog possible.

Rev. Marta Flanagan, our settled minister, framed the project for me and asked me to take responsibility for recruiting contributors and curating their submissions.

Greg Friedman, our Communications Associate, set up the blog and gave it space on the First Parish website and then did the actual posting each day.

Tina Schultz, our incomparable Director of Religious Education, has provided support and suggestions and inspiration throughout the month.

So many amazing members of our community have shared their words and thoughts with us, showing us gratitude from so many different angles and perspectives, and inspiring comments and off-line conversations.

My own work in gratitude this year is inspired by this amazing profile of Stephen Colbert that I read this summer.  In it he talks about somehow coming to be grateful for even the terrible and untimely death of his father and brothers.  There are many wonderful passages—I encourage you to read the whole thing—but I keep coming back to this one:

He lifted his arms as if to take in the office, the people working and laughing outside his door, the city and the sky, all of it. “And the world,” he said. “It’s so…lovely. I’m very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people.”

His love—for life, for his family, for the wonderful and terrible experience of this crazy world—has inspired me to embrace the parts of my life that are difficult to celebrate, to open my heart and give thanks, even for the hard parts. Your posts and comments this month have reminded me of all the many ways that this love can manifest in our lives.

I am grateful to all of you for joining with me in community, for answering the call of love, and sharing how you live your faith through gratitude, this month and every month.

Thank you for being First Parish.

An Education in Gratitude

hand drawn chaliceReligious Education Committee

For our entry today, the Religious Education Committee submitted a wonderful list of their gratitudes. We decided to mix it up with some of the contributions to the Gratitude Jar from children and adults of First Parish, to include even more of the voices we’re grateful for this month.

We are the Religious Education (RE) Committee. Under RE Director Tina Schultz, we oversee and support a high-quality RE program, whose goal is to foster the religious growth and development of all children at First Parish.

  • scarlet maples and deep blue skies
  • my kittens
  • a supportive boss

We are grateful to be working with very young children and their parents for what is often their first experience with a church community.

  • walks in the park with my dog
  • my mom, dad, and stepmother, who help take care of me
  • access to abundant clean water

We are grateful to the families who bring their children to Sunday School, especially when it might be easier not to.

  • having a good home
  • snack
  • my Guinea pigs

We are grateful for the opportunity to get to know youth, through OWL and Coming of Age, whom we might not otherwise connect with, and to help them explore their own beliefs and values.

  • the ability to love
  • a larger community for my kids to grow up in that feels like family
  • BOOKS!

We are grateful for the excellent leadership and dedication of First Parish volunteers.

  • my computer
  • having plenty of money
  • old friends

We are grateful to be part of the RE Committee, where every month we learn how to be a deeper person and a better parent.

  • a country where we can disagree and the vote settles our differences
  • my family
  • the rainforests

We are grateful for the opportunity to introduce children and youth to the joys of Unitarian Universalism and being part of a church community.

  • my two beautiful daughters
  • people who say I’m good, contradicting my inner critic
  • quiet moments

We are grateful for the broad range of people, ideas, and skills that our RE children are exposed to here at church that they might not encounter anywhere else.

  • the GLBT movement and the Windsor decision
  • parents who loved me
  • Blue’s Clues

Some of us benefited so much from our years in a UU RE program as children. We are grateful for the opportunity to help a new generation benefit from the First Parish RE program.

  • my partner’s kindness
  • that I still have a mom
  • not getting braces until after Halloween

The RE program is the reason that some of us joined First Parish in the first place: to introduce our children to church and to RE. We are grateful that something we did for our children ended up being a wonderful gift for us. Our gratitude for having First Parish in our lives is immense.

  • so many mentors who have never asked anything in return
  • my friends
  • my doggies

We are grateful for all the adults who volunteer to step out of the sanctuary in order to teach. As parents, we are grateful that our children have relationships with other adults that last for years — that they will grow up in a community that remembers them as difficult, silly, awkward . . . and then bloom to take on leadership roles in Youth Group. We are grateful for this distinctive gift that our community offers to its families.

  • tears
  • TOY!
  • church

As teachers, we are grateful for the opportunity to watch the children progress through each of these stages. We eagerly wait to see those children whom we taught in preK and kindergarten give their credos and participate in the arch of love.

  • maple trees
  • good food
  • my beating heart, my thinking brain, and my loving arms

We are so grateful for the entire RE program at First Parish.


Plowing Through

john andersonJohn Anderson

By the end of February, 2015, the weight of snow upon snow had changed the psyche for people in the Boston area.  It led to a summer that felt extra sweet to many who remembered lost days of work, narrow streets with no place to park, long and crowded rides on MBTA trains.

Throughout February, the snow pile at end of our little street grew and grew, creeping higher and wider, pushing against the six foot high chain link fence at the park edge and bending it askew.  Eventually the pile was more that heavy plows could push, and its girth stretched halfway across the entrance to our driveway.  Dutifully, we shoveled, heaving snow up and over with the hope of always having a bit more space to put the next storm’s load, trying to leave a space wide enough for our car to squeeze through.

One day, shoveling and sweating despite the cold and wind, I felt a deep sense of gratitude. I realized how lucky and privileged I am.  I was able to be outdoors.  I was able to shovel and work up a sweat.  My body was able, and I knew that will not always be the case.  Though, the aquarium where I work was closed, my income would not be reduced.  Despite a consistent feeling of being busy and behind in my work and in attending to family needs, I was able to take time to shovel the walks down to pavement that the next sunny day could dry.

On another occasion, I was able to talk briefly with a snowplow driver.  He was doing his best with a giant rig that had a fixed blade – the kind that always pushes snow to the right-hand side of the road such that it plows in our driveway even though there’s no driveway to be blocked on the other side of the street.  I watched as he tried several times to place the blade down and pull snow away from our driveway.  I hadn’t asked him to do that, but I waved to thank him.  His window was open, so I called hello.  Meanwhile a child was walking by on her way home from sledding, so he stopped to wait for her.  In that moment, I acknowledged what a challenging job he has.  He said, yes, that he’s been plowing for 23 hours and hadn’t had a chance to go home and shovel out his own driveway. And he said many people are pushing snow back onto the road after he’s plowed.  On another occasion, I watched a plow driver hop out with a small shovel to clear a front gate for a neighbor who I know to be elderly.  I don’t know whether he knows her or not, but I witnessed his act of kindness.

I’m grateful every day.  Moments like these, sometimes amidst conditions that could be a recipe for supreme frustration, can be triggers for appreciation and gratitude.

anderson driveway

A Double Shot of Gratitude

lynn rosenbaumLynn Rosenbaum

Early last June I took a class at my Buddhist meditation center on Generosity, and our first assignment was to find a “gratitude buddy” in the class with whom we could share daily gratitudes. Our teacher explained that generosity is closely connected to gratitude. Many in the class, including myself, felt that when feeling bereft or lacking in some way, it is harder to feel a generous spirit, but when we are feeling full and content, it’s easier to give. Appreciating what we have fills us up.

Gratitude does not come easily to me. I’m a “half-empty” kind of gal or what in Buddhism is called the “aversive type” – immediately seeing what’s wrong in a situation. A friend of mine once aptly explained it: if I focus on what’s positive, it feels like I’m not being a good critical thinker. Indeed for many years I resisted the approach of positive thinking as a kind of Pollyanna  approach which glossed over the harsh reality of how things really are. I also had a rather harsh attitude toward myself, feeling like I “should” be grateful for all I had. Not surprisingly, this didn’t help me very much.

In that first class on generosity, I did find a gratitude buddy – a young woman whom I had not met before. We started emailing each other daily 3 things we were grateful for. I actually looked forward to sending my posts and reading hers – it was like a double shot of gratitude every day. And I almost always felt uplifted by the practice.

I know some people just name 1 gratitude per day, but I think that’s too easy! 3 things makes you dig a little deeper, especially on days where life doesn’t seem so good.  When the external conditions are not going well, I usually land on the basics: I have friends who care about me, I am part of several loving communities, I am able to walk, I live in a comfortable apartment, the air outside is relatively clean etc.  Sometimes I resort to what I don’t have: I don’t have cancer, I don’t have a grueling job, I got over my cold. Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Buddhist teacher is famous for sharing his gratefulness for “a non-toothache.”

In the past, I have gone through short periods of writing down what I’m grateful for in a journal. This was helpful, but it often felt like a chore, and eventually the practice would peter out. Having a gratitude buddy makes it so much easier! My class on generosity has long since ended, but 6 months later, my buddy and I are still writing every day. Sometimes when I’m feeling down, I look through the older emails to remind me what is going well in my life and it lifts my spirits. And during the day, I more often notice something I’m grateful for, thinking, “Hey! I could write that in my gratitude email.” Occasionally one of us will miss a day or two of emailing, but then we just make it up by writing extra gratitudes the following day. Knowing that we are accountable to each other keeps us both on track

Gradually, I have come to see that gratitude is a way of re-directing my attention to what is good, without negating what is bad. Through mindfulness, I have seen that when my thoughts focus on what’s wrong, it makes me feel bad. When I feel bad, I think more negative thoughts, and on and on the cycle goes.  For a brief period, this approach may lead me to try to make things better, but ultimately I just suffer more because there are a lot of things I can’t control. There will always be things wrong in my life and the world, but I have a choice about which thoughts to feed and where to focus my attention. A gratitude practice is proving to be a more sustainable route to happiness and generosity.

The Sum of the Moments

tina silbermanTina Silberman

As children, we are taught or told to be grateful, to be thankful, and to appreciate all that we have.  As adults, we know the importance of gratitude, but we ponder, what does it mean—not just to say we’re grateful, but to actually BE grateful—to live a life of gratitude?

When I think about gratitude I think about living in the moment, being present, pausing to appreciate what is good.  I suppose in my search for clues and inspiration, I often find myself reading obituaries and other writings on life as death draws near. In these readings, people frequently write of feeling grateful, enormous gratitude for the life they had, the gift of that life.  Upon finding out he has terminal cancer, Oliver Sacks wrote in the NY Times:

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

For me, he captures the essence of gratitude so well.  Perhaps the culmination of a life well lived is the sum of many grateful moments; savoring those moments, but also of giving back, of giving thanks to those we love, to that which has inspired us: this beautiful planet, the beings we share this planet with, these moments that add up to a grateful life.

As Annie Dillard put so simply, “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives.”

A Thanksgiving Prayer

Cynthia Tavilla

God of love and mercy, on this special day of gratitude, we thank you for this food, and for the ability to feed ourselves and our children.  May we also be mindful of and pray for the 870 million people worldwide who are unable to do so.

Thank you for the freedom and opportunities that we take for granted.  Let us remember and pray for the 21 million people in our world who are victims of human trafficking and forced labor.  May we never deem that acceptable for our brothers and sisters.

Thank you for peace in our every day lives, which we take for granted.  Let us commit to work for justice for young men of color in our own country, who are victims of violence perpetrated by those that are meant to protect and serve.  Let us never be so comfortable in our own circumstances that we lose our sense of outrage over injustices in our time.  We pray for peace in our world.

Thank you for our families.  Let us take a moment of silence to remember those who are not at this table today.  We pray for those separated from their families, those at work, those at war and those in prison.   We pray for those who are alienated from children or parents or siblings.

Thank you for new babies, new chances and new opportunities to begin again.  Let us pray for those who have lost children, and those who have never been able to have children.  We pray for babies born to those who cannot parent them.  Fill us with compassion for those whose lives are void of hope and meaning.  Grant us the determination to offer kindness to every stranger we encounter.

It is relatively easy to be thankful for things going our way, for prayers answered the way we want them, for bounty and health and abundance.  Help us to remember to be grateful for the experiences that don’t go our way.  Help us to see disappointment as opportunities to grow in compassion, humility and patience.  May we extend more grace to those for whom life hasn’t worked out the way they wanted or expected.  May we be slower to anger and quicker to forgive, and may we see ourselves and You in all people.


Connecting with the Current

sue mapleSue Maple

For me, gratitude is like a current…sometimes hidden, sometimes visible, but always there.  I try to connect with it every day, which is easier some days than others.  Many things help with this, one of which is music.  The following song is remarkable in its ability to capture gratitude for this beautiful life. I learned of it when a First Parish friend told me about it during a covenant group earlier this year.  This song itself has been a blessing in my life.

May I Suggest
by Susan Werner

May I suggest
May I suggest to you
May I suggest this is the best part of your life
May I suggest
This time is blessed for you
This time is blessed and shining almost blinding bright
Just turn your head
And you’ll begin to see
The thousand reasons that were just beyond your sight
The reasons why
Why I suggest to you
Why I suggest this is the best part of your life
There is a world
That’s been addressed to you
Addressed to you, intended only for your eyes
A secret world
Like a treasure chest to you
Of private scenes and brilliant dreams that mezmerise
A tender lover’s smile
A tiny baby’s hands
The million stars that fill the turning sky at night
And I suggest
Yes I suggest to you
I suggest this is the best part of your life
There is a hope
That’s been expressed in you
It’s the hope of seven generations, maybe more
And this is the faith
That they invest in you
It’s that you’ll do one better than was done before
Inside you know
Inside you understand
Inside you know what’s yours to finally set right
And I suggest
Yes I suggest to you
Yes I suggest this is the best part of your life
This is a song
Comes from the west to you
Comes from the west, comes from the slowly setting sun
This is a song
With a request of you
To see how very short these endless days will run
And when they’re gone
And when the dark descends
Oh we’d give anything for one more hour of light
And I suggest this is the best part of your life.

A Note of Gratitude

bonnie zimmerBonnie Zimmer

“Write it down”  “Tell them how you feel”  “Send them a letter” “It’s too seldom that people tell each other what they mean to one another”

I have only a few memories of my father that I look back on with pleasure and pride.  From my earliest years if I told him a teacher had done something thoughtful he’d say, “Did you tell her thank you?”   When a store clerk was especially helpful my dad would say “Get his name and write to his manager”.  Helen, the crossing guard, should get a thank you at least once a year.

As a child this was , of course, a chore.  But now it is a pleasure and a joy.  And I’m lucky to have friends and loved ones who learned this lesson as well, so that I can be the recipient as well as the sender of such sentiments.

A few years ago, just a few years after our father died, my goofy older brother sent me something that he said was in honor of our dad.

The heart shaped wooden plaque reads:  “I smile because you are my sister.  I laugh because there’s nothing you can do about it”.

But I knew that he really meant “thanks for being my baby sister.”  I knew too that he had likely heard a voice urging him  “Tell her how you feel”  “Send her something”  “It’s too seldom people tell each other what they really mean to one another”.

When I look at this plaque I feel my brother’s love, and smile at his humor.  And I feel pleasure and pride to have had a father who taught me this important lesson.  This one’s for you Dad!

Grateful Memory

christa kelleherChrista Kelleher

It’s not like giving flowers will do it. Or sending a card with a heartfelt message.

How is it that such a compelling reason to express gratitude leads me to a quandary about what such an expression of thanks would actually entail?

Perhaps it’s because it feels like there just isn’t an easy, concrete, or even sincere way to express what it means to have been fortunate enough to have children….or to bring them into one’s life.

In my case, I gave birth to two vivacious boys after experiencing an early miscarriage before each one of them. The first miscarriage was particularly unsettling in part because it made me question whether I really could bring a child to life after having a first pregnancy end so abruptly.

I am immensely thankful for my body for making it possible to be pregnant and stay pregnant and do everything that it did for me to give birth. My body came through for me! I was “blessed in this way” and remember vividly Reverend Marta’s sermon several years back that referred to a woman’s not having “been blessed in this way.”

Yet I know that my body and the wonders of human reproduction are only part of the story here. On more than one occasion, Senator Elizabeth Warren has reflected on the often invisible and taken-for-granted ways in which “personal” success or desired outcomes hinge on something more than individuals themselves.

I know that giving life to children was not really about the alignment of biological stars – although that was part of it. Greater forces were at work. A loving partner. Wise, caring, and encouraging midwives. A health care system that functioned well. A capable and understanding obstetrician. Luck. Privilege. And more. But I’m never quite sure what it means to be grateful for this. It seems too big and unwieldy. And I don’t know how to direct my gratefulness. Or to whom. Sometimes I want to actively and in a tangible manner give thanks yet I retreat to thinking. To recalling.

Is gratitude simply about the act of remembering or is it more than that? Is it really enough to remember? I’m not sure it is even though it seems to be one of the key messages offered by Reverend Marta during her initial sermon on gratitude.

Whether it’s adequate or not, remembering offers a starting place and this may be what’s most important after all. Because flowers or a card won’t quite cut it.

Finding Our Gratitude

wendy fieldsWendy Fields

It is simple to be grateful when life is easy. However, perhaps gratitude is most important when life is not going the way we would like. Everyone has something to be grateful for, and sometimes the act of winnowing out what we do have to be grateful for is most essential when things are incredibly tough. Indeed, the act of focusing on finding something to be thankful for may, at the simplest level, serve to distract us momentarily from our troubles.

Take, as a model, the singular tale of Pollyanna, first published in 1913 and written by Eleanor H. Porter. The titular character is a young girl who, upon becoming orphaned, moves to Vermont to live with her aunt. With all the heavy handed manipulation that was standard for this time period, the author crafts a town filled with citizens who seem to be engaging in a high stakes contest for nursing a grudge the longest.

There is the lifelong invalid, Mrs. Snow, who has become embittered by her illness and is cruel to everyone who attempts to help. There is also the reclusive, wealthy man, who has a “skeleton” that haunts him and keeps him from engaging with his fellow citizens. There is also Nancy, a good natured woman who cringes at the hard, unrelenting nature of her employer, who happens to be Pollyanna’s aunt. Aunt Polly may, in fact, be the strongest contender for the gold medal in holding a grudge. She hated the man her sister married and, by extension, seems to hate her unsuspecting niece initially. It is only her sense of joyless, crushing duty that persuades her to take the girl.

Then, with all the cavity inducing sweetness of a Shirley Temple movie, Pollyanna waltzes in and teaches the whole town, person by person, a game her father had taught her. She calls this game the “just being glad game.” She shows grief at the recent loss of her father, but the reader constantly sees her circle back around to trying to find the good in everything. Her infectious optimism captivates the town and, one by one, negative attitudes and grudges are dropped as she shares her naturally joyful spirit.

The reader sees into her mind when she comes upon the minister in the woods. He is venting his frustration at the negativity and lack of gratitude and joy in his parish when Pollyanna stumbles upon him yelling denunciations of his parishioners at the unsuspecting forest. She asks him whether he likes being a minister and, when he isn’t forthright with an answer, she offers that her father (also a minister) once told her that he would have quit if it weren’t for the rejoicing texts. She says

“…it’s all those that begin ‘Be glad in the Lord,’ or ‘Rejoice greatly,’ or ‘Shout for joy’…There were eight hundred of ’em… He said if God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, He must want us to do it–some.” (189-190: CH 22)

Regardless of whether one believes in God or not, there is wisdom in the act of seeking gratitude. Is it not better to find joy than to become mired in despair? How has gratitude helped you? How will you find gratitude in this season of giving thanks?