Gratitude as a Path to Peace by Rev. Anthony D. Makar

Today my message is about gratitude as a path to peace, and I begin
with a story (adapted by me) from Mitchell Chefitz, the spiritual
leader of Temple of Israel of Greater Miami. The story is called the
Curse of Blessings.

There was once an Officer of the Law, a recent graduate, proud
as he could be in his uniform of blue with brass buttons and gold
epaulets. He wore a hat with a plume and a sword with a gold and
ivory handle. Every detail was perfect, in its right place-and
that’s the sort of thing he demanded from the world. He
demanded perfection from it. He walked around with a sense of
entitlement, and it oozed out of him in the form of arrogance and
callousness.

One day he was walking his beat and heard a commotion in an
alley. He ventured into the distance and saw a man in rags.
“Come forward,” he commanded, but the man in rags would
not. The man in rags just shifted his weight from one foot to
another and then said something quite strange: “I don’t
know what I’m going to do with you.”

“Do with me?” the Officer of the Law mocked. “Do
with me? You don’t do with me; I do to you! I am an officer of
the law, and I command you to come forward!” As he said this,
he pulled out his sword.

The man in rags said, “You really are a rude young man.
Now I know what to do with you. I put upon you the Curse of
Blessings. It means that every day you must say a new blessing, one
you have never said before. On the day you do not say a new
blessing, on that day you will die.” This is what the man in
rags said, with a twinkle in his eye, and then he vanished. He
disappeared out of sight.

The Officer of the Law rubbed his eyes. “It must have been
a dream,” he said to himself. “I must be imagining
things.” The time was late in the afternoon and the sun was
setting. Since the Officer of the Law was Jewish, it meant that the
day was drawing to a close. And as it did, a strange thing
happened. He felt his body growing cold and knew from the chill
that life was leaving him. In a panic he uttered a word of
blessing-awkwardly and self-consciously, since he was not a man
given to blessing anything. Yet panic drove him to stammer out,
“You are blessed, Lord our God, ruler of the Universe, who has
created such a beautiful sunset.” At once warmth and life
flowed back into him. He realized, with both shock and relief, that
his experience with the man in rags had been real-and so was the
curse.

Let’s stop right there. We’ll get to more of the story in a
moment, but for now, consider the figure of the Officer of the Law.
How easy it can be to carry oneself through life like this. It’s
as easy as making plans and expecting the world to conform to them, or
at least not to interfere. It’s as easy as wanting things to be
neat and tidy, not messy. We expect and we demand for the world to be
a certain way, and this attitude cloaks us in a uniform of blue with
brass buttons and gold epaulets. We wear a hat with a plume. Gifts may
come our way-gifts that could be as great and as undeserved as the one
Charlotte gave Wilbur in the reading from earlier-and the sense of
entitlement in us says, “Of course.” We don’t deign to
meet the world half-way but sit there and insist that the world to do
all the work and meet us where we are!

And when it doesn’t-when the world is like the man in rags and
stays put, just shifts its weight from one foot to another-we pull out
our sword with the gold and ivory handle. You see, the proof of our
capacity for peace is how we respond when we encounter resistance to
our plans and hopes and demands. That’s what the man in rags
embodies. The man in rags may very well be there in your living room
on Thanksgiving Day. The man in rags gets around during the holidays.
And in response, we pull out our sword. We can nurture within us a
resentment that is as hard and sharp as a steel blade. Or we can
externalize it and wave it around in the form of passive
aggressiveness, or fighting words, or worse. Just like the Officer of
the Law, we go to the sword.

It’s so easy to do. And it can’t go on like this forever.
There are consequences. The impact to our health, the impact to our
relationships, the impact to our souls-dragging us down until we hit
bottom. Someone once said that when we nurture resentment, it is like
drinking poison yourself and hoping that the other person or situation
dies. But the other person or situation does not die. We die, drinking
our own poisons. We stew in the toxicity of our grim demands that life
be fair as we define fair. Our unrealistic expectations eat us up from
within. And so we hit bottom, and the experience is a wake-up call. We
can carry ourselves through life like the Officer of the Law for only
so long. We have to find a way to take off the uniform of blue with
brass buttons and gold epaulets, and be in the world in a different
way.

Which leads us to the curse of blessings. Isn’t this intriguing? A
curse that essentially says, Unless you get proactive with gratitude
and find ways to actively extend it outwards in terms of appreciation
and thanksgiving, you are going to die. If you want to live, don’t
wait for the world to come to you-you go to the world. You meet it
halfway and even more than that. Meet it with gratitude. Ultimately
the curse of blessings is saying that the gratitude habit is not just
something nice to do; it literally saves lives-if not physically, then
emotionally and spiritually. This is the curse of blessings, and I
will tell you, I’m at a point in my life that I know the force of
this curse. At 40 years old, I know it. How many of you know it as
well?

But now let us turn to the second part of the story.

The morning after his encounter with the man in rags, the
Officer of Law woke up and did not delay saying a blessing. He felt
grumpy and self-conscious, since he was not used to blessing
anything, but he did it anyway. He blessed his ability to rise from
his bed. The following day he blessed his ability to tie his shoes.
Each time, the blessings felt awkward, but he did it anyhow.

And the more he did it, the more comfortable it felt. The
gratitude habit was growing on him and impacting how he felt about
things. Every new day of his life, there was a new blessing. That
he could go to the bathroom, that he could brush his teeth, that
each finger of his hands still worked, that he had hair on his head
and toes on his feet. Every day he had to look for something new to
bless, and he found that with a little imagination and effort he
could do it. The habit was growing on him. Joy was increasing in
his life. He blessed his family and friends, his fellow workers,
and those who worked for him. He blessed the mailman and the clerk.
He was surprised to find that not only did others appreciate his
words of blessing, but that the very same words opened his heart to
a greater feeling of appreciation for them.

Years passed, decades. His pursuit of new things to bless led
him to become more curious about the world around him. No longer
did he expect the world to come to him; he strove to meet it half
way. And so he studied geography, history, philosophy, theology,
biology, physics, literature, and on and on, and each one inspired
him to say many blessings. He traveled throughout the world,
encountering different ways of thinking and being, and he blessed
the wonder it all. The more he traveled and the more he learned,
the more there was to bless.

And with this, let’s press pause to consider what this second part
of the story puts before us: the issue of what blessings actually are,
and the how to.

Here’s the definition I’ll suggest: blessings are first and
foremost actions through which we extend our gratitude and
appreciation. I say “first and foremost” because, otherwise,
the curse of blessings would be impossible to survive. If the curse
was a matter of having the right kind of feelings at least once every
day, then the Officer of the Law would never have lived, for think
back to what he felt when he first realized that the curse was a true
one: panic. His very first blessing emerged out of a feeling of panic.
And then the second? Probably out of a feeling of resentment.
There’s no warm fuzzies in being forced to do anything on pain of
death. You hit rock bottom in life, you know the curse of blessings
first hand, and all that you’ve got to move forward with is a
heart full of pain and anger and fear. It’s just not a time when
people have “thank you” feelings. And yet we must move
forward anyhow.

And we do. It’s do-able. The curse of blessings is survivable
because it is primarily about action, not feelings, and action is more
within our control. All we have to do is find things to extend
appreciation towards and then say appreciative words, or behave in
appreciative ways. That’s it. That’s what will get us on the
gratitude path. And yes-over time, our hearts will be transformed.
Feelings of appreciation and joy and wonder will happen more
frequently. Over time, it will happen, as it did for the Officer of
the Law. But we don’t have to start out like that. Feelings of
gratitude follow gratitude behaviors.

The key is to establish the blessing habit first.

One way to do this comes from Sister Joan Chittister, an
internationally known peace advocate and scholar. “Try,” she
says, “saying the following blessing silently to everyone and
everything you see: ‘I wish you happiness now and whatever will
bring happiness to you in the future.'” That’s what
Sister Joan Chittister suggests, and she goes on to recommend that we
experiment with it for thirty days and see what happens. To be like
the Officer of the Law and breathe happiness into all kinds of things,
like the hair on our heads and the toes on our feet. Family and
friends, fellow co-workers. The earth around us and the spirit of
yearning within us. Breathing happiness into everything. Breathing
happiness into our worship time here and now. What would we find
ourselves compelled to stop, or to start, if we did this sincerely for
thirty days? How would we change?

Sister Joan Chittister’s happiness blessing takes the form of
words, but words aren’t necessarily required. Blessings can also
take the form of physical attitudes. Author Peter Mattheissen speaks
to this when he talks about his first Zen teacher, who always made a
little bow of gratitude to the world around him. That’s the
blessing right there-the bow. A way of thanking the things in our
world. A way of appreciating the moment. Bowing to it.

Blessings can take many forms, and can happen in many different ways.
The example that comes from the story is that of a more traditional
prayer directed to God. “You are blessed, Lord our God, Ruler of
the Universe…” Blessing here becomes a way of extending
appreciation to a thing and then linking it to a Divine Source. Yet
even prayer blessings can come in diverse forms. Prayer can work
wonders even if there is no God to hear the words, because, first of
all, the words of true prayer are words of love, and second of all,
even if God is not hearing the worlds, WE hear them. Words of love and
encouragement open our hearts just like sunshine opens up flowers.
They work on us and into us, sparking conscience and creativity and
community, and it happens no matter what kind of metaphysics we
believe in. Prayer is soul poetry. It can go down deep just like a
good poem. It’s a powerful form of blessing not to be
underestimated.

And this said, now it’s time to return to the story and finish it.

Traveling to and fro across the world, the Officer of the Law
passed the age of one hundred. Most of his friends were long gone.
He spent his time searching for the purpose of life and the Source
from which all blessings flow. He had long since realized that he
was not the source but only the conduit, and even that realization
was welcomed with a blessing that sustained him for yet another
day.

As he approached the age of one hundred and twenty, he
considered that his life had been long enough. Even Moses had not
lived longer. So, on his birthday he made a conscious decision to
utter no new blessings and allow his life to come to an end. He
uttered no new blessings, and so, when the sun began to set, he
felt a chill taking over his body. Life was leaving him, and he did
not resist it.

He was almost gone when a figure from many years earlier
appeared. The man in rags! “You!” the Officer of the Law
exclaimed. “I have thought about you every day for a hundred
years! I never meant to be so obnoxious towards you. Please forgive
me!”

In reply, the man in rags said, “You don’t understand.
You don’t know who I am, do you? I am the angel who was sent a
hundred years ago to receive your soul, but when I looked at you,
so pompous and proud, there was nothing there to harvest. An empty
uniform was all I saw. So I put upon you the curse of blessings,
and now look at what you’ve become!”

The Officer of the Law grasped in an instant all that had
happened and why. Overwhelmed he said, “You are blessed, my
God, ruler of the universe, that you have kept me alive and
sustained me so that I could see this moment.”

“Now look what you’ve done!” the man in rags said
in frustration. “A new blessing!” For life had just
flowed back into the Officer of the Law, and he would live another
day. They both looked at each other, neither of them knowing quite
what to do…..

And here the story ends-with supreme irony, which is at the same time
a powerful insight: that gratitude can take on a life of its own. If
the blessing habit is firmly established in us, and it becomes second
nature to extend appreciation to the world by wishing it happiness, or
bowing to it, or praying our thanks, then gratitude takes on its own
momentum and sweeps us into a Larger Life. The heart has its own
reasons. Gratitude has its own reasons. Let it work in our lives, and
it will plug us into something larger than ourselves, larger than the
fear of death. “There is joy in all,” writes poet Anne
Sexton. “In the hair I brush each morning, / in the Cannon towel,
newly washed, / that I rub my body with each morning, / in the chapel
of eggs I cook each morning, / in the outcry from the kettle / that
heats my coffee / each morning, / in the spoon and the chair / that
cry ‘hello there, Anne’ / each morning…” The world in
all its aspects cries hello there, hello there, to each of us, each
morning, each afternoon, each evening-and even the man in rags is more
than he seems. There is joy waiting to be discovered, a peace that
passes all understanding, if we can learn to find a way in.