No Complaints

18 February 2007
Arlington Street Church
Mr. Barb Greve

SERMON:
A monk joined a monastery and took a vow of silence. After the first 10 years his superior called him in and asked, “Do you have anything to say?” The monk replied, “Food bad.” After another 10 years the monk again had opportunity to voice his thoughts. He said, “Bed hard.” Another 10 years went by and again he was called in before his superior. When asked if he had anything to say, he responded, “I quit.” “It doesn’t surprise me a bit.” Replied the monk’s superior. “You’ve done nothing but complain ever since you got here.”

It is easy to go the way of our monk and take all our opportunities to complain. Complaining can be fun, it can even become a way of life. Often it is easier to complain than to find the worth and goodness in every situation. Sometimes complaining is an important piece of the story. It is the beginning of what Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann would call “public processing of pain” – bringing into the public awareness injustices that otherwise go ignored. But this is not the type of complaining I’m referring to today. I’m talking about the every day annoyances that we choose to complain about. The things that either we can do something about but don’t, or wish others would deal with so we don’t have to.

I know how easy it is to complain, to find dissatisfaction with a situation or circumstance. I used to be that monk in our story. On my not-so-great days I still am. But on my better days I try to live differently. On my better days I try to find the pieces of my experiences I can appreciate rather than complain about. I was recently reminded (or perhaps more properly said, I was recently challenged) to again embark on a journey towards living without complaint when I went out to California last month.

While there, a colleague told me about the Reverend Will Bowen, pastor of Christ Church Unity in Kansas City, Missouri. Apparently, after reading Maya Angelou’s comment, “If you don’t like something change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.” the Reverend Bowen had a simple idea that he shared with his congregation, “Just stop complaining.” And to help his congregation remember, he offered each one of them a purple bracelet stamped with the word spirit. The challenge – go 21 days without mumbling a complaining word and no gossiping or criticizing either.

Why 21 days? Scientists believe it takes 21 days to form a new habit and complaining is habitual for most of us. As Mark Twain said, “Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” The bracelet then serves as a powerful tool to remind the wearer of how well s/he is creating hir life with positive intention.

Now, we don’t know what circumstances pushed Reverend Bowen to decide to challenge his congregation to “Just stop complaining.” And I certainly don’t want to make any implications about our congregation. But I do know that what started with a challenge from one pastor to his congregation is spreading throughout the religious world… and beyond. I also know that in the time since I have renewed my intention to not complain, my life feels more blessed.

When I first donned my purple bracelet I assumed that it would be easy to stop complaining. I thought I would just not say anything that might be construed as a complaint. That’s simple, isn’t it? Just hold my tongue. On the surface, it sure is. But the spiritual challenge isn’t to simply stop complaining; rather it is to begin to find new appreciation in our experiences.

Sometimes this happens by changing the dynamics of our experiences, as George Mikes writes in “How to be Decadent”(1) as he tells the following story:

In Budapest, a man goes to the rabbi and complains, “Life is unbearable. There are nine of us living in one room. What can I do?”

The rabbi answers, “Take your goat into the room with you.” The man is incredulous, but the rabbi insists. “Do as I say and come back in a week.”

A week later the man comes back looking more distraught than before. “We cannot stand it,” he tells the rabbi. “The goat is filthy.”

The rabbi nods and tells him, “Go home and let the goat out. And come back in a week.”

A radiant man returns to the rabbi a week later, exclaiming, “Life is beautiful. We enjoy every minute of it now that there’s no goat – there are only the nine of us.”

Sometimes things are not as easy as adding and removing a goat from our living quarters. Sometimes the shift from complaint to appreciation can be a difficult one. It takes effort to find appreciation, certainly more effort than it does to complain. It means that we embark on a life of recognition and gratitude for what we have, not what we are missing. The glass then becomes half full rather than half empty.

But how do we make such a shift? We seem to be living in a culture where complaining is not only the ‘norm’ but also a rewarded behavior. I learned this last year when dealing with my HMO. I was actually told by a nurse in the system that if I wanted better service from my doctors, my best bet was to become the “squeaky wheel.” I was astonished that I was being told that instead of being respectful and patient I had to be forceful and loud – only then would I get the care that we all deserve. What does that say about the values our society is placing on complaining and gratitude? And what happens to our souls when we embrace such values?

I believe that if we spend our lives constantly finding and focusing on what is not going well our spirits can become dejected and frustrated. We risk losing our connections to the sacred, to our families, our friends, and to our communities. The spiral downward is a short one. Before long we may not only be complaining, but also blaming others for that about which we complain. We may even stop taking responsibility for our own parts in the equation.

Thus, making the shift from complaint to appreciation requires spiritual discipline and growth. We can consider the act of making this shift a spiritual one. It requires of us a diligence and attention to our lives that perhaps we do not already have. It challenges us to live life more fully, with grace and gratitude.

When I first donned my purple “spirit” bracelet I was constantly moving it from one arm to the other as each time I complained I reset my count towards 21-days of no complaining. I even found myself complaining about the fact that I was complaining.

Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.” I had to pull out not only my skills at self-restraint in talking, but also any and all ways of reframing my understanding of my experiences if this bracelet was going to stay on one wrist.

One of the tools I find most useful as I now enter my 18th day of no complaints is that of appreciative inquiry. Designed as a tool for organizational development, appreciative inquiry is sweeping through the non-profit world.

It provides a framework with 4 points:

1. DISCOVER: processes that work well.
2. DREAM: of processes that would work well in the future.
3. DESIGN: and prioritize processes that would work well.
4. DELIVER: the proposed design.

So while Appreciative Inquiry was developed and is used to help organizations evaluate their strategies and effectiveness, I believe the steps can be modified to help us focus on gratitude rather than complaint. Reframed to apply to our daily lives, here are my 4 suggestions:

1. DISCOVER: what in our experiences we wish to appreciate.
2. DREAM: of how we might replicate the experiences we appreciate.
3. DESIGN: ways in which we can share our appreciation.
4. DELIVER: ourselves from the temptation to complain.

And what better time to begin a life of appreciation, than today – the first day of the Chinese New Year? In case you have fallen by the wayside at keeping any New Year Resolutions you may have set at the turn of the Gregorian calendar, here is a chance to reconsider. Or perhaps today can just serve as a new beginning, for today begins the Chinese New Year of the Golden Pig.

Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, starts at the beginning of spring and is China’s biggest holiday. Its origin is ancient, but many believe the word Nian, which means “year”, was the name of a beast that preyed on people on the eve of a new year.

In one legend, the beast, Nian, had the power to swallow up all the people in a village in one big bite. One day, an old man came to the villagers’ rescue, offering to subdue Nian. The old man said to the beast, “I know you can swallow people, but can you swallow other beasts of prey instead of people who are by no means your worthy opponents?”

Nian accepted the old man’s challenge and swallowed the beasts that had harassed the villagers and their farm animals for years. Afterwards, the old man then disappeared, riding off on Nian. But before the old man left, he told the villagers to put red paper decorations on their windows and doors at each year’s end in order to keep Nian away, for it is believed that Nian is afraid of the color red. The custom of putting up red paper and lighting firecrackers to scare away Nian continues today.

According to this legend, the old man turned out to be an immortal god. In the end, Nian is gone and the other beasts of prey are scared into hiding in the forests. The villagers can once again enjoy and appreciate their peaceful life.

The Chinese New Year is a time for reconciliation, for old grudges to be forgiven. It is a time when people are warm and friendly toward one another and peace and happiness are wished for all.

Seems to me that this is as good a time as any to invite you to engage in a life of grace, gratitude, and appreciation. So…

… in a couple of weeks we will be handing out purple spirit bracelets at the back of the sanctuary. I encourage you to consider taking one at that time and embarking upon a complaint-free life.

The suggested rules are simple:

1. Begin to wear the bracelet, on either wrist.

2. When you catch yourself complaining, gossiping or criticizing (it’s ok, everyone does), move the bracelet to the other arm and begin again.

3. (my favorite) If you hear someone else who is wearing a bracelet complain, you may point out hir need to switch the bracelet to the other arm; BUT if you’re going to do this, you must move your own bracelet first!

And

4. Stay with it. It may take many months but when you reach 21 days you will find that your entire life is happier, more loving, more positive and more blessed.

The Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings be upon he and his family) said: “There are two qualities which a wise person could readily appreciate: kind words and generosity. Both demonstrate kindness and care for others. When people are well received and offered food and hospitality, they are grateful. Offering these when one is able to do so does not only earn people’s gratitude, but it earns reward from God. When these become normal characteristics of a person, they ensure admission into Paradise”(2)

I invite you to take a purple spirit bracelet when they arrive and embark upon a complaint-free life, so that we may bring Paradise into being here and now.

May it be so.
Amin. Ashé. Blessed Be.

ENDNOTES:

(1) George Mikes, How to be Decadent, (London: Andre Deutsch, 1977).

(2) Safar/Rabi-Ul Awwal 1422 H, (www.islamicvoice.com, May 2002 Volume 15-05 No: 185).

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Published in: on 18 February 2007 at 21.57  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Dear Rev. Greve,
    Thank you so much for the inspiring sermon. It has touched me and truly made me examine my own behavior.

    How do I get a purple bracelet? I’d appreciate being able to wear one to remind me to be grateful for everything I have and not to critize others.

    Thank you in advance.

    Kind regards,
    Susie Lenhard

  2. I really like the bracelet concept, can you tell me where I could get some of the bracelets? Thanks Vicki Peckens

  3. Thanks for information.
    many interesting things
    Celpjefscylc

  4. Hi i would like to know where i can get a braclet? Thank you paul Draben


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