Returning the Gift

I Will Lift My Weary Eyes (Lange)
Ask me what I’ll do when the storm clouds open up,
And the flood waters cover the land,
Ask me what I’ll do in the time of tribulation,
With pestilence on every hand.
I will lift my weary eyes, I’ll lift them up unto the hills
And the help that I have needed will surely tumble down
I will lift my eyes unto the hills.
Ask me what I’ll do when the daylight starts to dim
And the night sky lays low o’er my eyes
Ask me what I’ll do when the music starts to fade
Into echoes of sweet goodbyes
I will lift my weary eyes, I’ll lift them up unto the hills
And the help that I have needed will surely tumble down
I will lift my eyes unto the hills.

“Returning the Gift,” Sermon    Listen to this sermon here.
Once there was a wise woman traveling in the mountains when she she came across a precious stone in a stream.

It was so beautiful. She treasured it, and was filled with gratitude.

The next day this wise woman met another traveler who was hungry. And so she opened her bag to share her food. As she did, the hungry traveler saw the precious stone, and asked the woman if she would give it to him instead of her food.

Without any hesitation, she gave him the stone.

The traveler left rejoicing at his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime.

A few days later, however, he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. “I’ve been thinking, he said. “I know how valuable this stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious.”

“What would that be?” The woman asked her fellow traveler.

“Please give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me this stone.” (Source)

What is it that allows for such a generous and willing heart, to give away the best of ourselves, our treasures – freely, easily? And do we believe as the traveling man said, that such generosity is more precious than the treasure itself?

I was telling my mom about this Sunday’s service, how we would be turning our attention to these questions about generosity.  My mom was in a particularly pessimistic mood that day – she responded sadly: I don’t know, Gretchen, I think you might have to be born with it.  You’re either generous, or you’re not. 

Oh great mom, that’ll really preach. 

Sometimes our culture makes it seem like my mom has a point.  Despite our faith’s orientation to see the good in people, we all can sometimes feel like though some are generous and kind and giving, others – maybe more of them, just aren’t. And there’s no changing it.  People are just naturally selfish and protective and small minded. Our culture underscores this worldview all the time.  Our culture makes selfishness seem natural.  That’s the trick of culture.  It takes what has been carefully constructed and manufactured and makes it seem like there’s no escaping it, as if it is our destiny.  As if it is human nature itself.

In his book The Generosity Path, Mark Ewert describes this cultural paradigm that normalizes selfishness as a get-and-spend culture, a culture where you get more so you can spend more, so you can get more so you can spend more, get-spend, get-spend. etc. etc.

In this value system, wealth signals freedom, because the more wealth you have, the more you can buy – way beyond what you actually need, which means you will no longer need to rely on anyone else to fulfill your needs. Wealth like this – we tend to believe – allows us to live as if we are self-sufficient, and self-reliant.  As if we are wholly independent.

Not only has American culture long held self-sufficiency up as an ideal – held up the myth of the self-made man (and I do mean man), and the dream of “pulling yourself up by your boot straps,” but these ideas have deep roots in our own faith tradition.

Next Sunday I will lead a two part class on Transcendentalism, so we’ll get into a lot more detail there about these ideas especially prevalent in the mid-nineteenth century.  But for today, I’ll just acknowledge that when we talk about what philosophers would call – the turn to the self – and the idea that an individual can be their own source of wisdom and goodness – our Unitarianism has been and remains an active conspirator in the glorification of individualism,independence, and so-called self-reliance.

I mean, one of ours literally wrote the essay, “Self-Reliance.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Unitarian minister turned essayist and transcendentalist, in 1841, proclaimed: be yourself, by yourself.  Use your intuition to figure out the truth.
Don’t look outside yourself, don’t rely on others.  Looking outside yourself would be risky, subject as it would be toinfluence.  You have everything you need within your own self.

It’s so seductive, isn’t it, to believe that we could reach some magical moment where we have acquired so much money or stuff or knowledge or physical strength or whatever – that we no longer have needs, that we have everything we need within our own “self,” which would mean we no longer have to “burden” anyone ever – especially those who care about us…..

No really – I have no needs, none at all.  I can help you, because I can see that you have needs – but I need nothing – never have, and never will, even as I age or change or as the world around me changes, nope, no needs at all.

Have you ever tried pulling yourself up by your bootstraps – or your shoelaces? Try it. It doesn’t work! It’s an impossibility.  Pull as hard as you want, though you may exert a lot of effort, at the most you’ll just end up exhausted.

Writer Margaret Wheatley reminds us, “independence is not a concept that explains the living world.  It is only a political concept we’ve invented.  Individuals cannot survive alone.  They move out continuously to discover what relationships are possible.”  This interdependent web we’re a part of owes its existence – we owe our existence not to some kind of ultimate independence, but to a complex set of relationships across time and space.  This is human nature.

And yet somehow our American upper and middle class and liberal religious value systems lead us to the conclusion that while it is fine for other people to have needs and its even good to help with those needs – we call this charity – we should consider our own needs as a source of shame, something to mask or work to overcome. Dependence – even when we call it interdependence – is vulnerable, after all.  Acknowledging and living out of a story of our dependence rather than our independence is vulnerable and risky.  Dependence means having our hearts broken, it means grief and loss, and it means the storm clouds will at one point or another open up, maybe open way up – and the flood waters will cover the land and what then?

Well, dependent as we are, we will lift our weary eyes to remember all the gifts we have already been given, the chance to love and connect in the first place – and give thanks.  For all that is our life.

Life, if we are to really live it, is risky. Life is grief and gratitude; love and loss.  You can’t avoid one without missing the other.  As researcher Brene Brown would say, you can’t numb pain without also numbing joy.

Galen Guengerich – some of you may remember I preached about his book God Revised over the summer – he’s the minister at All Souls in New York City – advocates what nineteenth century Unitarians might have considered heresy. He says, our faith shouldn’t strive for independence, but to recognize our utter dependence.

As Mark Ewert puts it, “When we recognize that sooner or later, we all will rely on the generosity of others and in fact have unmet needs most of the time.  We realize we are all joined in a common neediness, even if the specific necessities differ.”

Living out of our shared dependence and our common neediness – as well as the ways that we all are the beneficiaries of the generosity of others – we begin to see all of us as givers and receivers, we begin to acknowledge that it’s ok to have needs because we all have needs and so receiving doesn’t – can’t impact our value, or our worth, because in fact we have already all received so much – by grace and by luck, from forces beyond our control or our work or even our awareness, forces that will continue to carry life forward long after we are gone.

What other response can there be to to all these gifts than gratitude, and awe?

It is the time of year where we talk about giving thanks.  Not just because our monthly theme calls our attention to gratitude, but because of the season and the upcoming holiday.  This holiday where as an expression of gratitude – we consume a lot of food.  Now, I like eating, and I really like eating at Thanksgiving, but I am starting to wonder if there are other ways we could respond to these feelings of gratitude and awe not just in November, but all the time.

Because feeling grateful is good beginning, but it won’t get us out of the get-and-spend cycle if it is not embodied, if it isn’t practiced, if it doesn’t become what Galen Guengerich calls a “discipline” of gratitude.

Which brings me back to Mark Ewert.  Ewert’s going to be the keynote speaker next April at our District Assembly in Denver – which is what led me to his book initially.   We should read the book so we can go to his keynote with some good questions, but also we should read it because it’s a great and practical resource for exploring a way to live out a discipline of gratitude that I am calling – Returning the Gift.

Ewert describes how at some point, we might begin to realize that our greatest treasures are not inherently ours, but are simply a gift, given by forces beyond our control.  This is perhaps what motivated the wise woman in our story. Recognizing her giftedness, she experienced gratitude.  And then gratitude expressed as generosity – returning the gift, back to the grace of the universe that was its source in the first place.

Ewert talks about generosity not just in giving but also in receiving.  He invites us to consider how we can be more fully present to those who are giving to us, rather than simply being absorbed in our own anxiety about having needs, for example, and instead to see giving and receiving as an expression of our common neediness.

As we receive, again we experience gratitude, which allows us to repeat the cycle – giving, receiving, feeling grateful, giving, receiving, passing it all on.   As the gift is returned into the greater web of life, it grows.  It evolves, we grow and we evolve – we are blessed and we are a blessing.

Throughout November, and as one of our 5 invitations of a meaningful membership all the time, we are all invited to practice this cycle of gratitude and generosity.  In the month ahead, we have a few particular opportunities.  We’re offering a 3-class series- the Wi$dom Path – that starts this Tuesday, which is about our relationship to money and and how it relates to our value and faith.  We’ll be hosting Faith Family Hospitality again starting November 16th, and we’re still looking for 4 overnight hosts to give generously of their time and care for families experiencing homelessness.

We’ll also continue to invite generosity in our Share the Plate program – which the last two months have generated nearly $3,000 for good across Northern Colorado.   And, we invite you to look again at your giving to this church, and if you aren’t yet pledging at 3% of your income to see if you’re able get there, if your gratitude and its expression in generosity can align with that level of giving.  And if you are at 3, does your gratitude inspire you to try 5?

Generosity looks differently to all of us at different stages of life – but we all have the capacity to be generous.  This congregation’s mission – to further the reach of love – is a direct response to all that we have been given.  And so our shared giving is gratitude made manifest.

I know sometimes we get shy or embarrassed to talk about money or giving, but my theory is – these feelings are connected to that limiting belief that none of us should have needs, or that some of us have needs but others don’t, or shame about our place in the giving and receiving dynamic.

But for the month ahead, and far beyond that, let us envision that our faith community could be a place that liberates us out of this shame, liberates us out of the give and spend cycle, the haves and the have nots cycle.

And in turn liberates us into a cycle of gratitude and generosity, liberates us into<span “font-size:=”” 18.0pt”=””> a new confidence and faith, a faith that we are held in a web of deep relationships, a courage to risk going even deeper into these relationships, to trust that they will hold us in our utter dependence, trust that though we may be living awake to this dependence, living awake to how the music will at some point fade into the echoes of sweet goodbyes, we are also living awake to the help that will surely tumble down from sources beyond ourselves, awake to how we are a part of giving and receiving this help, awake to the help that has given us life, and awake at how all of this life, all of it is a gift.

Grief yielding to gratitude. Gratitude practiced as generosity, bringing us back to life, reviving us, breathing with us, through us.  Gratitude expressed as generosity allowing us to lift our weary eyes and with faith say, I will love again.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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