With Grace and Gratitude

18 March 2007
Arlington Street Church
Mr. Barb Greve


There was a man who set out on a long journey. The day he set out was very hot, and the sun was blazing down. It wasn’t long before the man began to feel hot and thirsty. He said, “I must find some water,” and before long he came to a well. He ran over to the well, but it was dry.

Now he felt thirstier than ever. The sun blazed down and he continued walking, saying to himself, “I will find another well.” Before long he saw another well, but it too was dry. He was getting worried and he was getting weak. He knew that if he did not find water soon, he would die. He gathered all his strength and kept walking. After a long time he found another well. As he looked down into the well—way, way down—he saw the sparkle of water. “Allah be praised!” he said. He looked at the well, searching for a bucket and rope to lower into the water to get a drink, but there was no bucket and no rope either. There was only one way to get the water.

He climbed into the well and began to inch himself down, down, deep into the well. Finally, he reached the cool water, cupped one hand and drank and drank until his thirst was quenched. He thanked Allah again for the life-giving liquid and then began his journey up the well, inch by inch. Eventually he climbed out of the well and prepared to continue his journey.

As he was about to leave, he heard a soft whining sound and there was the most miserable creature he’d ever seen. It was a dog and it was panting with thirst. The traveler looked down at the dog and remembered all he had been taught about dogs. They were filthy, begging creatures and utterly without value. It was even said that an angel would never enter a home where a dog was present. “What should I do?” thought the traveler. “If I don’t do something, this dog will die.”

After much thought, he said to the dog, “Stay here. I will get you some water.” He climbed back into the well and began the long descent. Down, down, down he climbed, until again he reached the water. But how was he going to get the water back to the dog? He took off a boot, filled it with water, and put it between his teeth. Then he did it with the other boot. Then he put his hands on the sides of the well and inched his way back up. It was a harder trip with the heavy boots in his mouth and he slipped several times. But eventually he reached the top and gave the water to the dog, who drank and drank. When he had drunk his fill, the dog wagged his tail and said, “Now neither of us will die of thirst.” It was at that moment that Allah was so pleased by the man’s kindness that he forgave all his sins.

This is a good story to remind us that sometimes voicing our gratitude is not enough. Had the man left the well satiated and grateful, he would not have experienced the full power of his gratitude. His own thirst and its relief enabled him to see past his prejudice and feel compassion for the dog’s suffering. His gratitude moved past the words “Allah be praised” and on to “I will get you water.” Until his words were transformed into action, his thanksgiving was incomplete.

Grace was present when the thirsty man realized that he had the power to quench the thirst of the dog and then despite all that he had been taught about dogs, he went ahead and did what he could. I believe that grace is present at that moment when knowing our own gratitude moves into empathy for others…when we can take our own experiences and transform them into guidance for our actions.

In my sermon a month ago I invited you to join me in efforts to create a “complaint free world.” The movement is modeled after 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 challenge is to go 21 days without complaining. To aid in your efforts, a purple bracelet was provided which could be moved from one wrist to the other as needed if and when you found yourself engaging in complaints, gossip, or criticism of the things you could change.

Shortly after the Sunday I preached that sermon, the “Complaint Free World” idea was given instant fame through printed and televised media. I have been shocked by the amount of people and companies who have contacted the church office and me in hopes of getting their own purple bracelet – these are people who are hoping to change their lives. And I have been gratefully awed by the stories some of you have shared with me about your struggles and joys in working towards less complaining in your daily lives.

Some of you have embraced this idea so much that you give me daily updates on how things are going – updates I am happy to receive. Some of you have come to me to confess that you have chosen to remove the bracelet because the act of switching it from one wrist to the other was too discouraging. ‘Though I must admit that I have been amused that some of you who have chosen to remove your bracelets have also shared with me that despite the bracelet being gone, you still find yourself thinking often about whether or not what you have just said is a complaint. Realizing, of course, that the bracelet is but one tool to help us refocus our mindset and live with renewed intentionality; but it is not the only way.

I mentioned in my sermon last month that the act of embracing a complaint free world for me was serving as an opportunity to refocus my life on gratitude rather than frustration. As the days pass by and I find myself doing less and less complaining, I also find myself appreciating more of life with grace and gratitude.

Gratitude for all the beauty around us: For the warm days last week and the fresh snow this weekend. For the sunrises I often see on my way into the city and the moon slivers that light my way home. For the warm smiles and hard stories many of you have shared with me in the past few months. For the easy laughs and deep conversations about thea/ology, life, church, and all the many things that we have talked about. And for each and every one of you just being yourselves.

The Reverend Sean Dennison writes, “It is clear to me that gratitude is necessary. In our private lives, gratitude counters despair and cynicism. In our relationships, gratitude and appreciation for those we love helps deepen our commitment and ease our disappointments. In society, gratitude is a foundational part of civility—helping us balance our desire to acquire with a recognition of how much we have been given. Gratitude is important, yes. But I can’t join the chorus of voices in pop culture that have recently been touting gratitude as the next path to health, satisfaction, and riches.”

A quick surfing of the Internet can land on websites claiming that, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life…It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” I can only say, I wish it were that simple. I do believe gratitude is important and that it can improve our lives.

But gratitude itself is not enough to sustain us through all of life. Sometimes we need something deeper, more meaningful. Sometimes we need grace to enter into our lives. Sometimes we need to know that the actions of others will help make the world a better place.

A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was called by adoring New Yorkers ‘the Little Flower’ because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself.

Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor.” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.” LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions–ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying: “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.” So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.(1)

LaGuardia’s decision to use the power of the bench to provide this grandmother with some money so that she could feed her family is a great illustration of grace. He did not have to be there that night. Nor did he have to do anything more than follow the letter of the law. But LaGuardia recognized the opportunity for what it was and took advantage of it to help out someone who was in need. Grace – that inexplicable force that seems to be present when the right thing happens at the right time.

Grace is also present in the moments when our gratitude can fail us. When we reflect upon our experiences and realize that we are not living up to our ideals. Or when we feel like life is giving us an unfair challenge. I believe grace is that component that helps to hold us up when we can’t go on – it can be a personal extension of the power of a church community.

But for some, Grace can be a hard word to use and a harder concept to accept. Our Universalist heritage was all about grace. Our Universalist heritage taught that God had unconditional love for humanity, and this love was described as Grace.

The Reverend Lillie Mae Henley, minister of Universalist National Memorial Church writes, (2)

“The culture in which we live embodies the antithesis of grace. In our society, it seems we must earn everything—including forgiveness. It is hard for us to accept grace-filled actions.”

… there are still those who cannot embrace the concept of grace or the belief in God’s unconditional love for everyone. Our Universalism calls us to live out the grace that Jesus brought to [the religious story of Christianity and] human consciousness. It calls us to implement unconditional love in our lives for each other. No matter what the issues, we are all challenged to live out the principles of our religion.

What would it look like if we intentionally saw every person we meet as a person worthy of unconditional love, a grace-filled person? … after church, at work, at play—a stranger we meet in line at the grocery store? Would the conversation be any different if we asked them, “What in your life brings you blessings?” or “joy;” instead of “What do you do?” or “Where do you live?”

Wouldn’t our lives be different—better—if we could see every person we meet, including those with whom we disagree, as an opportunity to spread God’s grace and unconditional love?

Grace, living out unconditional love [in] the world. Is it possible?

With Grace and Gratitude on our side, we can live out an unconditional love in the world. And we can help to bring it into being for others.

Amin. Ashé. Blessed Be.


(1) Manning , Brennan. The Ragamuffin Gospel, Multnomah, 1990, pp 91-2.

(2)  http://www.universalist.org/archives/000356words_by_rev_lillie_grace.html#more

Published in: on 18 March 2007 at 15.07  Comments (1)