February 26, 2017
I am sure as I invite you to do so, that you could close your eyes and imagine a beautiful part of creation. Perhaps in your mind’s eye, you can see the vastness of the Grand Canyon, or the rhythmic roll of the waves at the beach. Perhaps you are remembering Mr. Rainier at sunset shining in all of its pink-gold glory, or the view from Mt. Elinor looking down on Lake Cushman. Perhaps it is walking along the rocky beaches of Puget Sound, or a quiet path through the trees. In these moments, we might feel as though our hearts are bursting with gratitude at the beauty and vastness of God’s creation. The heavens, the clouds, the winds, the mountains, the valleys, the springs, the wild animals, the rocks, the moon, the sun, the smallest insect, are so beautiful and intricate. The trees, the water, the sheer abundance of beauty around us. Abundance and gratitude, the last two themes of Slow Church are before us today.
In our lives, we enjoy the abundance of creation, the abundance of friends and family, the abundance of food and clothing, overstuffed houses and in some cases storage units, and yet we still somehow get sucked into this myth of scarcity. Walter Brueggemann says that “the myth of scarcity ends in despair. It gives us a present tense of anxiety, fear, greed and brutality. It produces child and wife abuse, indifference to the poor, the buildup of armaments, divisions between people and environmental racism. It tells us not to care about anyone but ourselves, and it is the prevailing creed of American society.”
On a continent like ours filled with abundant resources, how did we ever buy into this myth of scarcity? I want to assure you that it is not all your fault. We swim in a culture manipulated on purpose to make us afraid in general and worried specifically that we will not have enough. Over the last 90 years the principles of Freudian psychology have been used by corporations and politicians to create a restive population. After World War 1, corporations that had grown rich and powerful churning out war material and other mass-produced goods grew concerned about over production, concerned that the American people would be satisfied with what they already had. If people stopped buying things the factories would grow quiet and the boom years would be over. Paul Mazur, a prominent banker who joined Lehman Brothers in 1927 said that “we must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, before the old has been entirely consumed.” For help, corporations turned to Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud. You should read about Edward Bernays! I read a number of sources as easy as Wikipedia. Berneys had been a member of the Committee on Public Information, a government agency that helped Woodrow Wilson convince Americans that the United States should join the war in Europe. He successfully sold the image of Wilson as a liberator, making the world safe for democracy. In 1928, he wrote a book called Propaganda. He later concluded that the word Propaganda had a negative connotation and began calling what he did “Public Relations.” Believing that human behavior was driven by irrational forces, Bernays manufactured discontent to sell people things that they really didn’t need and connected the consumption of certain products to a search for self. One of his more famous campaigns was breaking the taboo of women smoking in public on behalf of one of his clients: The American Tobacco Board. They, of course, wanted to double the sales of cigarettes. Bernays staged a rally of young debutantes smoking while marching in the annual Easter parade. The women were compared side by side with the Statue of Liberty and the slogan was that the women were lighting “torches of freedom” declaring their independence!
Bernays and those that followed in his footsteps took these skills to the political arena creating a culture of the “all-consuming self” a culture that is shaped by perpetual dissatisfaction. This is the culture we swim in, created by masters of “public relations” inundating us with the message that our lives will not be complete unless we have the latest technology, the best gadget, the slimmest most beautiful body, smoother skin and bouncier hair. These same experts have assisted those running for public office with campaigns of fear and loss so that we must “make America great again.” When reflecting on this last presidential race, it is pretty easy to see our created culture of dissatisfaction and fear.
This dissatisfaction as Brueggemann asserts, is at the root of a staggering amount of injustice. The idea that we don’t have access to everything that we need and everything that we think that we deserve can lead us to distrust, broken relationships, ruthless competition, war, hunger, poverty, gross economic inequality and destruction to our planet. To begin to change our culture of dissatisfaction, we have to affirm in every way that we can, that there is enough for all. Can you imagine the possibilities for our planet if we all start to believe that there is enough for all?
Practicing gratitude is the most important way that we can recognize that there is enough. If lack is the root of injustice then gratitude is the root of justice. Throughout the Bible time and again we see stories of gratitude where the idea that “there is enough” is recognized. Good examples are the feeding of the 5000 and the feeding of the 4000 that we find in the gospels. In each story, while people have been following Jesus, they come to a point in the day when it is time for a meal. In these stories the disciples are told to feed the people and they immediately panic because there is not a Costco up the street and they don’t have a wad of cash. They assess the crowds and decide that it would take a year’s wages to feed everyone and that people should be sent away to figure it out for themselves. In each of these stories, Jesus recognizes that there is enough, and urges the disciples to seat the people and see what they have. Then through the miracle of sharing, there is not only enough, but there are tons of leftovers. The disciples were focusing on what they lacked, Jesus was focusing on what they had.
Gratitude requires practice. As I thought about this during this past week, I realized that urging you to go out and practice gratitude in this culture of fear and scarcity, is like urging you to go out and eat healthy in this culture of fast food. It takes extra effort, but it will change everything.
What can we do as individuals and as a church community to begin to practice gratitude? Some here begin every day with praises, thanking God for all of their blessings. Others keep a gratitude journal, writing down at least three things a day to be thankful for. Perhaps in your family groups you can begin each dinner time with everyone at the table saying two or three things that you are grateful for that day.
If it isn’t enough for you to start practicing gratitude just to stand in opposition to the culture, or to turn around injustice, or just to be thankful for all the abundance that God has poured upon us, do it because you will be happier. Social science researchers have found that the happiest people are the most grateful people. They are happy because they have cultivated a habit of gratitude.
What would it look like to incorporate gratitude into our lives as individuals, families and as a congregation? How might we be different if we stop complaining, giving into despair or thinking that we don’t have enough?
We are abundantly blessed. I have a friend who has been losing her vision for years. A year or so ago, we were at Dairy Queen, having stopped for a goodie while we were on our way to a conference. She ordered a chocolate dipped cone and I ordered a peanut buster parfait. We sat across from one another while we ate our ice creams. She asked what I was eating, and I said “a peanut buster parfait.” “Oh” she said “Where was that on the menu?” I looked back over at the menu board and said “it’s at the top.” “Oh” she replied, “I can’t see that part of the menu.” She has very limited peripheral vision and I had forgotten this when I blithely ordered what I wanted. She could only see a very limited portion of the menu. I asked her how she copes with this constant and ongoing loss and she said she always “goes to gratitude.” Instead of thinking about what she can’t see, or can’t do, she expresses thanks and praise for what she can see and what she can do. By contrast, I am such a whiner. Friends, as we enter this season of lent this week, I urge us to develop a daily practice of gratitude and celebrate the amazing abundance that God has put befor us. Amen.