The Reverend Mark DeWolfe Sermon
THANKSGIVING IN A NORTHERN KEY
October 13, 1985
Autumn has become insistent. Yesterday’s wind and rain are the first, perhaps the gentlest reminders, that cold weather lies ahead. Autumn is a season of change, from the warmth of summer to the cold of winter. We meet this morning in the midst of that change.
Last week Helen Tucker told us we did not talk enough of our spirituality and she challenged us to speak more of our spirituality. Naturally enough in this congregation, she did not go uncontradicted. Members of last Sunday’s congregation did indeed begin to struggle with articulating just what the spirituality of this congregation is. And I promised, as your religious leader, that I would take up the proffered gauntlet (Helen, as a woman of peace you will have to forgive that metaphor) and attempt to articulate more clearly than perhaps I have the spirituality which this congregation embodies. It is something I am constantly trying to do anyway; I shall now be more public about it.
And this week, I realized early on, was a perfect week to begin being intentionally descriptive about spirituality. This week is thanksgiving, and I had announced that I would be preaching on a theme of thanksgiving in a Northern climate. I knew it would be an ideal theme for the articulation of spirituality. The theme could not have been better chosen.
Why? Because suddenly I was reminded of something one of my mentors once said to me. Perhaps it was a professor in a theological school; perhaps another minister; perhaps a lay person in one of our congregations or a patient in a hospital or even someone talking at a cocktail party, I have quite frankly forgotten whom. (If it was one of you, please identify yourself during the discussion period.) I have forgotten who said it, so it has to carry its own authority. I cannot footnote this quote, so it must stand or fall on its own, and on whether it describes your experience as it in fact describes mine.
This now forgotten wise person said that the beginning of spiritual growth was an attitude of thanksgiving. You did not begin to travel on the spiritual path until you were offering thanks for the gift you have received without asking, the gift of life.
Now that sentence may not stand on its own for you, for why must one begin with gratitude and not anywhere else?
One of my favourite Pogo cartoons shows the fey turtle, Churchy Lafemme, holding a newspaper in one hand, another arm upon his brow, his face wracked in anguish. The headline reads, “Sun will explode in sixty billion years, destroying all life.” Churchy cries, “Woe is me! I am too young to die!” To which the acerbic porky pine notes: Aw,shaddup. You’re lucky to be here in the first place.”
You‘re lucky to be here in the first place. A good statement of what theologically we call grace: the simple fact that the blessings of life come whether we will it or not.
Our individual lives are part of a great panoply of life. Life is a process which began long before our conception, and, with luck and if the bombs don’t fly, will continue long after we individually have ceased to be; and will continue long after our species has worn itself out, or has mutated into a form of life little recognizable to us. We are a small speck of a grand and magnificent process.
“I didn’t choose to be born!” the angry child proclaims. Not a one of us did. Individually we came to be without our having willed ourselves into existence, So life comes to us as a gift, unbidden.
The story is told of ah ancient and impoverished Zen monk who made a poor but adequate living copying old manuscripts. One prize possession was an ancient calligraphed copy of a sentence from one of the sutras, and it hung on a wall in the monk’s little house. One evening a young thief snuck into his little house and cleaned out the place of everything of value — while the monk just continued working, without even looking up! As he was about to climb back out the bewildered thief finally caught some response from the monk. “Stop!” cried the monk without even lifting his eye or his pen from the page. “Thank a person when you receive a gift.” “Thank you”, said the young thief.
As it would happen, an officer of the law was just passing by as he saw the thief, who was wanted in several districts, climbing back out the window through which he had originally entered,obviously carrying pilfered — goods from the home of the monk — including the old sutra. He lifted the thief by his collar, and dragged him inside. “I’ve caught this thief in the act of taking all your belongings,” the officer said. “Will you testify against him?” “Officer, he is no thief the monk replied. “1 made a gift to him, and he thanked me.” The bewildered policeman had no option but to let the thief go, and wandered away in bewilderment. The young man became enlightened.
Zen stories are intentionally perplexing, and often say more in the story than can be explained by someone like me doing exegesis — taking the story apart to reveal its meaning. But I wonder what the young man saw in this course of events that made him suddenly be enlightened. Was it that that Zen master was so unattached to things that the young man saw a different way of life? Or was it the two gifts the monk gave him — first the property, then the freedom to continue living? In both cases, giving the young man a gift led to his spiritual opening, to his enlightenment. Did his enlightenment not have something to do with his recognition of himself as a debtor? That is, recognizing that his life had been given to him through someone else’s actions?
Spiritual growth beginning with the perception, beginning with the recognition that we hold life as a gift, as something we didn’t ask for. The fundamentally Western concept of Grace matched by the Eastern story of the young thief who wasn’t a thief, but the recipient of a gift (or two or three).
Spiritual growth begins in the recognition that the self is not self—created, because this opens the eyes — enlightens one — to the world beyond the interests of the ego; it breaks down egotism, self-centredness. Egotism in its worst sense is undone by proper actions of thanksgiving. It is recognizing that we are part of an interconnected web of existence, that we are supported by networks of life, from the food chain through to our social connections, families and friendship networks and churches. The egotist as the person whose will is entirely tied up in his own concerns, whose eyes can see no further than the end of her own nose, who relates to the world entirely in terms of what it will get them. This is one form of spiritual blindness. To be egotistically tied up means that one does not see the great pageant going on all around one — one misses the forest because one is tied up to the tree.
Proper thanksgiving undoes all this. To offer thanks means to recognize that one has received a gift, and that the giver is outside one. For the egotist I described above, it means recognizing the needs of the ego are small, too small to be one’s whole world. Existence is about something much greater than the tiny concerns of an individual soap opera.
There is the reverse of egotism too, which is a similar trap for those who would make the spiritual journey. I have watched people try to give up an ego they don’t have. They debase themselves, keep themselves lowly, and lose sight of the fact that they themselves are a gift to the world. Those who have no view of their own self worth — those who are caught in the reverse egotism of “I’m no good” — become so tied up in maintaining that self image that they are likewise myopic. They spend so much time struggling to stay in the one-down position because it’s climbing out of the pit of worthlessness that they are not yet ready to offer thanks for the gift of their life. They cannot give up the ego, as the other kind of narcissist must, because they have no ego to give up.
For the reverse narcissist,the recognition of her own self worth is essential. He must come to value himself for what he has to offer the world. Psychotherapy is often helpful in this regard. But once again, the offering of thanks is crucial to those who are raising their own self-image. A spiritual director I know suggested to this kind of person that he or she rise every morning and say, “Thank you, God, for the gift I am to the world.”
“Thank you, God, for the gift I am to the world.” Magic words, in my opinion, words of transforming power. First of all, they force the person saying them to recognize that they are a gift to the world, they have things to contribute, talents and skills at loving, doing, creating, being, which make the world a richer place. Those who seek all value outside themselves must find what they have to give to the world that wells up from the springs within them. And in offering thanks for it, they recognize it as a thing of value.
But prayer is magical in another way, too. It also leads attention away from the self to the world. One is not just a gift to oneself, but a gift to the world. So the marvellous miracle which is existence is again called to attention. And spiritual growth, from attention focussed narrowly on one’s own existence, is directed to the existence of the world, from one’s own life to the life of the world: a larger framework for marvel and spiritual growth.
Now so far this is all basic psychology of spirituality stuff and not what I promised you in the newsletter — a sermon about Thanksgiving particularly for Canadians. But I intend to move to that theme now and talk about what makes our thanksgiving special.
Our Northern climate gives Canadians, I believe, a unique spirituality, and people who live here and come to love it pick it up. It is a spirituality reflected in Canadian literature and especially in painting. It is sometimes reflected in theology, though there Canadians have succumbed to the colonial temptation to take one’s cues from abroad, whether over the oceans or over the lakes.
The core of that spirituality is the recognition that nature is far vaster than we are. That we will not succeed in taming it, but will seek instead to live with it and among it. And the attitude of gratitude is a vital tool in such living.
Why should we be different from other peoples in this way? Especially those who so resemble us, our cousins to the south? It is true that we share with them much of our cultural heritage, and we share with them the continent. In the histories and contemporary politics of both countries are efforts to create a better world, to eliminate all that is negative, to build a New Jerusalem or the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, and to do this technologically and politically. Theologian Douglas Hall of McGill describes this dream in North America this way: (Douglas Hall, Canada Crisis , p. 66—67)
Hall does not intend to declare all attempts at building a better world as futile. What he does condemn is the excessive optimism that we can do this through technology alone, or through a single political philosophy alone; human existence is too complex. And Canadian experience reminds us that the world is more complex, more vast, more awe—full and more wonderful than we fantasize; it will never be completely under our dominion.
Canadian history and Canadian experience contradict each other on this point. I recall from some NFB history of Canada film a scene in which the Fathers of Confederation are choosing how they will name this new country; they choose “Dominion” because from the King James Version of the Bible, where they read, “And man shall have dominion over the earth.” And so they went out and began to build railroads to bring the resources of the land to the markets.
But the land is greater than we are, and Canadians have learned this by experience. And our people are more complex than would fit into the simple bibliomancy of dominion and dominated. And so our historical mission and our experience as a nation contradict each other.
We stand in awe before a nature more wonderful than we can imagine. The vastness and the cold whiteness of the North, the heights of the Rockies, the great Shield with its autumn glory; Canada remains a vast, sparsely populated country, whose people huddle in cities, gathered together in human communities facing the open country. A country which will not be reduced to technocratic planning, but which belongs to a reality greater and wider than we can even name.
So what does all this have to do with thanksgiving? It is the context for our attitude of gratitude. And surprisingly, the Bible resounds with this attitude more often than it speaks of dominion: More often it tells us in its own language — language we might avoid — that “The Earth is the Lord’s!” Let me return to Douglas Hall: (Douglas Hall, Lighten our Darkness, P.)
So Thanksgiving in a Northern Key is not sung praises for what we humans have accomplished. It can be that, of course, but it can also be more than that. It is gratitude for the gift of the earth, for the gift of life, for the wonder of the beasts and the plants whose lives nurture our own. It is gratitude for the gift of other people, for those friends and family with whom we gather who make gifts of themselves to us. It is recognizing that we are indeed, in the words of that wise Porky Pine, “Lucky to be here in the first place.”
Reverend Mark DeWolfe