Because I didn’t grow up going to church, I didn’t really learn about “saying grace” until later in my life. Once we started going to the UU congregation, we had a few different things we would do to take a moment of gratitude before eating. Sometimes we used the short poem my sister had learned in nursery school: For song of birds, for hum of bees, for all things fair, we hear and see, we thank you! Sometimes we had a moment of silence. After a while, we got a chime that we rang at the beginning of dinner, waiting to start eating until the ringing died away entirely. As an adult, I confess, I am often in a hurry or eating alone, and I don’t take the time unless it is a major holiday!
But I have one friend with whom I always say grace. It started when I first met her. Her son was seven, and they were practicing things like praying, and waiting for a few moments before you eat. So when I ate with them, which was not infrequently, I joined in. And it became our habit, no matter where we were. Expressing something religious in public was not something that came easily to me (I’ve gotten over that!), but the first time I went out to eat with my friend and her son, it was just the most natural thing. After the server set our plates down, we held hands, bowed our heads and took a moment to be grateful – for the food, for the people and the plants and the animals that made it possible, and for the gift of the time together.
How often would you imagine that you say the phrase “thank you” in a day? I would guess fairly frequently. Perhaps when someone holds the door for you. When you are handed your coffee or your receipt. When someone pays you a compliment or passes the butter upon request. Hopefully it’s a reflex. If it’s not, there’s a great place to start with a practice of gratitude. The practice of being conscious of saying thank you to those around you is a first step to being aware of your gratitude on a deeper level.
“There was once a billionaire who was asked, “What’s the secret to wealth?” He said, “Gratitude. If you don’t have gratitude then no matter how much you have you’re poor, because you are always looking at what you don’t have. If you have gratitude then you are never not wealthy.”” 
I saw this first hand when I was in Mexico a few months ago – I believe that the profound sense of hope expressed by the deported migrants we met grew directly out of their focus on gratitude, even when they had only a few possessions to their name, and had lost touch with their families. Finding hope is how we human beings survive.
Like any spiritual practice, cultivating gratitude requires both intention and preparation. Our lives move quickly, and it is easy to get swept away by the larger culture, into the world of constantly assessing and judging and wanting more. In our day to day lives, gratitude helps us to stay in the present moment, appreciating what we have. And practicing when we are not in crisis helps us to prepare for the times that are more difficult.
To be sure, when you are going through a struggle, cultivating gratitude can be one of the hardest things to do. Sometimes we don’t see the gifts in an experience until we can look back on them. And I do not suggest that you ought to be thankful that you have a bad illness or are being bullied at school. Sometimes we can get to that place of being grateful in the moment that we are suffering, but no judgment if we can’t!
What I am suggesting is that in the midst of experiences that are heartbreaking and painful and difficult, taking a moment to make an “I’m thankful for…” list can help us to reframe, refocus and re-energize. The important thing is to keep your perspective. We don’t have to be thankful for bad things – though sometimes in hindsight we become thankful for the experience they brought us – but cultivating an attitude of gratitude can change our perspective and help us to approach our lives in a different way, no matter what is happening.
When things are really bad, my gratitude lists are pretty convoluted. Like the only thing I can come up with for my list is that it was raining outside and my shoes did not get wet. Or you could be grateful that one of the ER nurses made a fresh pot of coffee so you didn’t have to drink the burnt sludge coffee that had been there since mid-afternoon. But I find that just spending a few moments to make a gratitude list is a wonderful way to refocus. It doesn’t negate the difficulty, but it can shift your perspective.
The most important thing about gratitude, perhaps, is that it is a choice. A choice of emphasis, a choice of outlook… “Whatever one can muster at these points as a prayer of gratitude—okay, I’m still breathing, or I have friends who care about me—tips the experience from being immersed unmindfully in one’s suffering to moving into the present moment with a more holistic perspective. We see that there is suffering, but there is also this gratitude, and we can hold them together.” 
“It’s like the Zen story of the hermit monk living in the mountains. While he’s out gathering wood and roots a robber comes and strips his cabin, “everything” is gone. As night deepens he sits at the window and looks out at the evening moon, thinking to himself, “If only I could have given the robber this perfect, white moon.” He’s still wealthy.” 
There is a growing body of research that suggests that people who make gratitude a daily practice have a higher quality of life, even in the midst of great stress and suffering. “When you practice gratitude, you become more optimistic. That, in turn, makes you healthier and happier, boosting your personal and professional life. Gratitude… makes you feel even more connected, resulting in clearer thinking and more decisive action.” 
And saying thank you to the people around you helps to shift the larger consciousness, too. How does it feel to be looked in the eye and thanked? How does it feel to find a small hand-addressed card in among the stack of bills? “Thank you” is so simple, but can be profoundly impactful in our rough and tumble world. It’s an acknowledgement of another person’s action or sacrifice, and a simple way to connect.
And so, today, we offer our love and gratitude to three of our staff who are leaving their positions with us: Asher, Melissa and Linda. I understand that none of them will be going too far, but their roles in this community will be changing, and so it is important that we acknowledge their service and their hard work among us…
I have made each one of you a special box. And all of you will find paper hearts in your pews/bulletins. We invite you to write a few words or a message to each of these folks expressing your gratitude to them. What did they bring to their work that you will miss when they are gone? What do you wish for their future? During the musical reflection, you will have an opportunity to write your messages, and you can leave them in the baskets on your way out – or if you have someone sitting near you who might be ready to get up for a moment, you could have that person bring the hearts to the basket up here. Please be sure to write the person’s name on the heart so we can sort them and distribute them properly!
Musical Reflection “The Lullaby” (I’m Thankful)
Asher, for your positive attitude, compassionate spirit and musical spunk, we are grateful!
Melissa, for your patience and perseverance, your gentle care for our children, and your sweet smile, we are grateful!
Linda, for your exuberant welcome, your tireless service and your gift of seeing others’ talents, we are grateful!
Photo credit: Infrogmation of New Orleans / Foter.com / CC BY-SA