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Archive for October, 2016

The Gratefulness Factor

Luke 17:11-19 [NRSV]

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus* was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers* approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’* feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

gratefulThe adjective grateful means “thankful.” Gratefulness is an abstract noun formed by adding the suffix -ness to grateful and therefore means the state of being thankful.

Being grateful is a practice that all of us should take seriously. Why? Because gratefulness positively affects our brain function, according to a variety of studies out of the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.[1] 

When you are grateful, your brain floods with reward chemicals. When your brain is experiencing gratitude focused on a specific person, i.e. thanking someone for how they have treated you, your brain fills with pleasure chemicals. It’s like eating chocolate—your reward center is activated and so your brain learns to crave that feeling again and again.

Secondly, when you are grateful, your anxiety and depression symptoms may lessen. Research shows that even something simple like keeping a daily gratitude journal has interesting effects on people suffering from anxiety and depression. Those who are anxious sleep better; those who are depressed experience more positive changes; their depressive symptoms rate better on regular mood tests. Gratefulness challenges and upsets the negative thought cycle that can send us into anxiety and depression.

Third, a grateful brain means that your hypothalamus is working better. Gratitude activates the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating all sorts of bodily functions, including hunger, sleep, body temperature, metabolism, and how the body grows. In 2009 studies using MRIs of brains showed that the limbic system [of which the hypothalamus is a part] is activated when we feel gratitude. Gratefulness actually makes our metabolism, hunger and other natural bodily functions work more smoothly.

Furthermore, when you’re grateful, you are more resistant to stress. Your body and brain, in a state of gratefulness, have the ability to bounce back from stressful events like trauma, homelessness, grief, or job loss.

I mentioned earlier that gratefulness helps you sleep better, and this factor contributes to you experiencing more positive emotions overall. When you are grateful, suggest some psychologists, your prefrontal cortex where memories are formed is being trained to retain positive information and reject negative info over time. Makes me think that practicing gratitude just might lead to increased happiness, right?

Absolutely, says David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar who gave a Ted Talk all about the link between gratitude and happiness.

Since 1953, Brother David has been a monk of Mount Saviour Benedictine monastery in New York, dividing his time between hermitic contemplation, writing and lecturing. He’s the co-founder of gratefulness.org, supporting ANG*L (A Network for Grateful Living). I invite you to listen to his Ted Talk or to check out his webpage. Some really good stuff there. To sum up some of his Ted Talk, Mr. Steindl-Rast says that “there are many things for which we cannot be grateful, but there is no moment for which we cannot be grateful, because in every moment, even difficult ones, we have the opportunity to do something.” He makes it clear that gratitude is not realizing that people are worse off than you. So pointing to be people going through tough times or those in horrific situations and feeling lucky or better off is NOT gratefulness. Instead, being grateful requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your life—not comparing your life to another’s. So you can be grateful by appreciating even the simplest things in your life. And you can be grateful when you show appreciation for another person, which is openly expressing gratitude. Finally, Steindl-Rast says that being grateful occurs when something valuable to us is freely given. We do not earn it; rather, it is a gift.

davidgratefulGratefulness is the theme of the Luke story about a Samaritan leper giving thanks. I absolutely love this story, because I think it speaks to people on a universal level and you don’t even have to be a religious person to be blessed by it. There are obvious clues in this story as to how this thankful person was seen by others. He was a leper, so he was untouchable and lived on the margins of society. And, he was a Samaritan, so he was hated for his nationality, ethnicity, and religious tradition. But Jesus of Nazareth didn’t care about those things. Jesus chose to heal this Samaritan leper; he made him clean, along with nine others. The now-healed Samaritan leper realized his new situation. He shouted out with joy. He turned back, approached Jesus, got on his knees, and he said thank you. And then Jesus sent him out—on a new path of gratefulness, a new life.

I think the story speaks for itself. Practicing gratefulness can change our lives for the better. So to close, how can we be grateful like the Samaritan leper?

  1. We have to stop and give full attention to the moment we are in. This means letting go of those future and past-focused thoughts.
  2. We need to look at our lives right now and ask: What am I grateful for in this moment? What opportunity is life presenting me, for which I can be grateful? Keep it simple. Consider your senses, the weather, your ability to learn something, a pet, food, a friend, your body, or nature. Think of each of these things as a gift as opposed to a given.
  3. Practice this gratefulness thinking especially in times of transition or when you feel particularly vulnerable to stress.
  4. For some, keeping a record of gratefulness is a very meaningful and powerful thing. Consider writing down your gratefulness in a gratitude journal.
  5. Lastly, express your gratitude to others. There are many ways to do that: short FB messages, a kind email, a phone call, even a text! Taking a risk to acknowledge someone’s kindness, patience, or character is powerful.

So find ways to start or to keep practicing gratefulness. Make grateful living your way. Become aware that every moment is a gift—you have not earned it or bought it. You don’t know if there will be another moment given to you. So this very moment is an opportunity and gift. What are you grateful for?

[1] Alex Korb Ph.D. PreFrontal Nudity: The Grateful Brain, The neuroscience of giving thanks, Posted Nov 20, 2012.

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Called to Be Unique, All Invited

John 17:20-23; 26

uniquesuess

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we see each other and treat each other.Sure, it is an election year and so that tends to contribute to all the crazies coming out. But it is disturbing just how many people right now [including the Republican candidate for president of the U.S.] say things against certain groups of people simply because of the way they look, what language they speak, and what religion they do or don’t practice. This is unacceptable and dehumanizing. Most people agree that this is true. If so, then there is no way that one can support any politician, leader, or person who participates in such harmful activity, using hate speech and subtle + not-so-subtle prejudice to separate people. This isn’t about “agreeing to disagree”–this is about humanity. We can disagree about politics and social issues, but we must be unified when it comes to our humanity and the humanity of those around us. If we don’t stand up against the hateful rhetoric and prejudice, then we are no better than those who are doing it.

What I’d like to focus on is uniqueness and unity. How do they go together?

The thing is friends, we focus a lot on our differences in this world—what we disagree on, how we look or act differently, the unique ways we dress or eat or talk or vote or live. Differences are good; they really are. We are ALL unique. We think differently and act differently. This is how we are made. Christians in particular have historically focused on difference. If you are not Christian, you are over there. If you are Presbyterian, or Methodist, or Catholic, or Evangelical, or Baptist—you are over there. Denominations, sects, and classifications. And even more so when it comes to those who do not identify as Christians. Are you Muslim? Hindu? Jewish? Jain? Sikh? Buddhist? Baha’i? You are…over there. And if you are agnostic or atheist, well, you are far over there.

But I don’t see this as the vision of Jesus of Nazareth. The person that people based an entire religion on [the most prominent one in the world to this point] did not see difference as a problem or a separation. Oneness was possible for Jesus.

But oneness did not equal sameness.

Jesus felt the presence of the Divine in his life and that presence informed his world view. God, the Abba, was in Jesus. Jesus was in God. And Jesus had a vision that all people, regardless of background and status, could also be one with this God. The “glory” that Jesus speaks of in this John prayer is quite amusing. Glory? I mean, what type of glory did Jesus of Nazareth really experience? Right. Not much. Humiliation? Check. Isolation? Check. Torture and death? Check. So what is this glory that John’s Gospel speaks of? The way I see it [and it’s just my view] is that Jesus’ glory was in realizing that all people were children of God, and that especially included those who were always left on the outside of religious institutions. In Jesus’ time, it was the poor, the widows, the lepers, the tax collectors, the blind, lame, and the Samaritans. In every era the names change, but the issue doesn’t. Did Jesus give the glory he had to others so that they could start more churches, conquer land, and gain power? No. He gave glory to people so they could be one.

Completely one. This oneness is not ignoring difference or uniqueness. This oneness doesn’t mean we have to agree all the time, look the same, pray the same way, eat the same foods, speak the same languages, practice the same religions. This oneness means one thing. That the Divine loves us and loves Jesus. That this is the name of God—Love. And that the love between Jesus and this God is in people. In us.For me, this is our humanity. This is what binds us together.

I was raised a Christian, and so, Communion is a very familiar ritual for me, and for the most part, it has been a positive experience. I was raised in a tradition in which everyone could receive Communion. As a kid, I saw it as a fun event. As a youth, I saw it as a chance to eat and drink with others like a great big family. Then, as a young adult, I saw it as a community-building event in which people of all kinds could do something together and embrace each other as they were. Now, I see it as an agape feast. An invitation to everyone, no matter what, to be at the table, as they are. Bring your uniqueness. Bring your brokenness. Bring your doubt. Bring your enthusiasm. Bring your sadness, your skepticism, your pain. Bring yourself. And you have a place. As. You. Are.

At the end of the day, Communion, as any religious tradition, needs to mean something in our lives. For me, I still embrace Communion because it challenges me to open my table. It moves me to set a place for those who disagree with me, don’t look like me, don’t act like me. And it also reminds me that no matter how I feel or what kind of difficulty I am going through, I also am welcome at this table. I am accepted. I have a place here.

If we come to the table as we are, there is healing; there is wholeness; there is love.

If we accept and affirm all people as they are, there is healing; there is wholeness; there is love. So friends, be your unique selves and embrace the uniqueness of others. Anyone or anything who tries to make us all the same or disparages certain groups of people because of what they look like, their sexual orientation or gender identification, their religious tradition, nationality, language, etc–anyone or anything that does that, WE HAVE TO TAKE A STAND AND SAY NO. With our honest and bridge-building words, with our kind and grateful actions. May it be so.

diversity2

Seeing People

Luke 16:19-31

 Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”  ― Confucius

Last time I talked a bit about empathy—how it can be defined and how in most people it is an innate quality, though something we have to cultivate and choose to do. We’ll keep going with that theme, but we are going to explore a side of empathy that, for the sake of this discussion, I’ll call “seeing.”

Now what do I mean by seeing?

Well, seeing a person is seeing them as they are—not judging their experience or trying to talk them out of what they feel, but seeing them as they are—even if accepting them and what they feel makes you uncomfortable. This has been on my mind A LOT recently. Maybe it has for you, too. I mean, if your eyes and ears are open, you have been noticing that there are a ton of people in the United States who are hurting, mourning, suffering. Many of them are Black. Why is this happening? Why were two more Black men’s lives taken away this past week? Their names were Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher. Why? I’m left with that burning question as my heart mourns with Charlotte and Tulsa. What’s going on with us right now?

I certainly don’t have all answers. I certainly do not understand what it’s like to be Black in America. I can only listen to what my Black friends and colleagues say; I can only sit with them in their anger, sadness, and fear. I can only see them. I can only see them. We all should decide to do this—to see them. We should stop trying to tell them how to feel or what to say or how to protest. If Kolin Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback, wants to take a knee during the national anthem to call attention to this issue, he should do it.

kolinkaepernick

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, kneels during the national anthem before the team’s NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

And if others want to stand with a fist raised, they should do it. They have a right to express what they feel.

And we have responsibility to SEE them.

We can reduce these issues so quickly to be about other things like patriotism and politics, but if you take the time to get the facts straight, and to truly see those who are protesting, you will discover that they are being more “patriotic” than I will ever be. They are protesting because no one is listening and nothing is changing. Kaepernick is meeting with police officers and lawmakers to try to open up a dialogue. We must see this. And we also must see the people of Charlotte, who have been protesting for days now, because they are angry, sad, and scared.

Friends, this isn’t about politics or patriotism. This is about people. We need to see this.

I’ve been asking why there are still far too many white people who refuse to even acknowledge the plight of Black people in the U.S. For a while, I couldn’t make sense of it. Why counteract BlackLivesMatter and the protests that challenge the overuse of police force and the killing of unarmed civilians? Why tweet or post in a scolding, condescending way, telling Black people to settle down, protest a certain way, or to get over it? I couldn’t understand. But I think now I do. Because they are choosing not to see. It would be uncomfortable for them to see, because then they would have to admit the uncomfortable truth that racism is systemic, a real, everyday thing for Black people, and they would have to admit that even police officers can be racist. That’s uncomfortable to admit in the country that many of us claim to be the best country in the world. Isn’t it? So they choose not to see the people in Charlotte and Tulsa and elsewhere.

Just like the rich man refusing to see Lazarus. See, Jesus of Nazareth told lots of stories, and sometimes his stories had really, really strong messages. This is one of those cases. The rich man chose not to see Lazarus and his suffering, even though Lazarus was right on his doorstep. To the rich man, Lazarus should just be quiet and also grateful that he got any scraps at all and that the dog licked his sores. Don’t complain, Lazarus. It would be way to uncomfortable for the rich man to see Lazarus, because then he might have to do something. Help him. Get him to a doctor. Find him some real food. Become his friend.

As everyone does, the two people in this story die. But don’t jump to the conclusion that Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man to hell. That’s not what the story says. Lazarus ends up in the lap of Abraham, akin to the reign of God. The rich man goes to Hades, the idea of Sheol [a place of isolation and desolation even on earth] in Jewish tradition. Now, the ironic twist. For the first time in his life, the rich man acknowledges that Lazarus exists. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool the rich man’s tongue. So, in other words, the rich man only acknowledges Lazarus because he’s now suffering. But it’s not possible. The chasm is too wide between were Lazarus is and where the rich man is.

It’s a harsh story, maybe, but I actually think It’s right on the money. Pun intended. The rich man refused to see Lazarus, but God most certainly did see Lazarus. He is named in the story, and the rich man is not. Now you may hear this today and think: “Well, I’m not the rich man, because I’m not wealthy, I don’t have poor people begging outside my property.” But look closer, please, and see with me.

Yes, any of us who refuses to see people—to accept them as they are and to sit with them in their grief, sadness, anger, or fear—we are the rich man. And we are in torment. Because we lose our God-given humanity when we don’t see people as people.

So see the man who has always identified as a woman, and who is considering surgery and asks you to call her she; see the person who asks you to use non-gender specific pronouns. See the Black woman who is angry over the loss of her son and protesting on the streets, asking for justice. See the Black teen who is scared to say or do anything on the street whenever a police officer is near; see the police officers who are meeting with people like Colin Kaepernick and protecting BlacklivesMatter protestors; see those who suffer and let them make you uncomfortable, because the world can be a painful place to live. It can also be beautiful, and it is beautiful when we truly see each other, when we decide to see the beauty in everyone and see them as equals.

The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me;
My eye and God’s eye are one eye,
One seeing, one knowing, One love.
–Meister Eckhart, Sermons of Meister Eckhar

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