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A Grateful Spirit

Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson: Any God who would do something as gratuitously tragic as the recent earthquake in Japan, or last year’s in Haiti is no God to believe in, or, if to believe in, then not to worship. Why do the innocent suffer – because they do. There is no reason. Read Job.

The images have been stunning – it is hard to get exactly the right words. Stunning, awesome, awful, tragic, moving. Two have stayed in my mind – the one is of a young woman sitting on a concrete slab, surrounded by the ruins of buildings. She is crying. The second is of about six relief workers, standing in a circle around a body wrapped in blue plastic, their heads bowed in prayer.


The young woman sitting surrounded by ruins – her world lost, sitting alone. Nothing in that picture offered hope, only loss and devastation. And the single body surrounded by survivors, rescuers, paying honor to the dead.

Our lives are filled with such scenes over and over again, and I keep remembering a paragraph in Jane Smiley’s short story ‘The Age of Grief.’

I am thirty five years old, and it seems to me that I have arrived at the age of grief. Others arrive there sooner; others arrive there later. I don’t think it is years themselves, or the disintegration of the body. Most of our bodies are better taken care of and better looking than ever. What it is, is what we know, now that in spite of ourselves, we have stopped to think about it. It is not only that we know that love ends, children are stolen, parents die feeling that their lives have been meaningless. It is not only that, by this time, a lot of acquaintances and friends have died and all the others are getting ready to sooner or later. It is more that the barriers between circumstances of oneself and the rest of the world have broken down, after all; after all that schooling, all that care. Lord, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me. But the cup must come around, cannot pass from you and it is the same cup that every mortal drinks from. My eyes fill during the evening news. Obviously we were grieving for ourselves but we were also grieving for them. I understand that later you come to an age of hope, or at least resignation. I suspect it takes a long time to get there.’

It is more, Smiley writes, that the barriers between oneself and the world have broken down. Tragedies occur every day. A year ago the earthquake in Haiti; six years ago Hurricane Katrina in the US; seven years ago the tsunami in Indonesia.

People die here in Pasadena, or in LA, every day from random events. A car crash, a drive by shooting, because of inadequate or unaffordable health care, from abuse, from violence. A tree falls, a tire blows, an accelerator sticks, rains rush down the mountains filled with mud and boulders, the earth tears apart.

Ask not for whom the bells tolls, John Donne told us, it tools for thee. We are woven together, Martin Luther King said, in a single garment of destiny. We are a part of an interdependent web. I am you and you are me and we are all together, sang the Beatles. Goo goo ga joob.


Our theological theme this month is gratitude. Being grateful, thankful, appreciative for everything we have. We say a grace each night at our house – have done so since our daughters were little, ‘We are thankful for everything we have, and we promise to take care of it.’ My Mom would sit me down when I would pout or complain and tell me to count my blessings. I couldn’t get up until I came up with three. It is an obvious theme for our Canvass time – asking everyone here to think about this congregation and the gratitude we might feel for this place, and so support it.

Gratitude – perhaps gratitude that so many of us are spared terrible tragedy in life. Gratitude that so many of us have so much, and so many blessings. Gratitude that we live in a relatively free society, a relatively prosperous one, that we live in a society where, slowly to be sure but certainly nonetheless, freedom and equality are being extended to more and more people. It was just 100 years ago that California gave women the right to vote- one of the first states to do so. Just three years ago [already – three – it seems like forever and it seems like yesterday], we, for a brief but phenomenal time, celebrated relationships in the sacrament of marriage regardless of gender and will do so again sometime in the hopefully near future, but sometime in our lifetime for sure. Two hundred years ago children were chattel and African Americans were slaves.

My daughters have possibilities their mother did not have. An African American sits in the White House. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed. For these I am grateful. Things have gotten better – there is so much to be grateful for.

The world is filled with beauty and joy. The ability to make music, use language, draw, sculpt, play think. The joy of skin touching skin, lips touching lips, the beauty of the human body, the wonder of moving through space, of running and jumping, dancing and singing, hitting a five iron, of holding the hand of someone you love, of not being alone, of sitting here with good people who care about each other and the world.

The ability to breathe, to take air in and let it out, the beating of my heart. For this I am grateful. The fact that so many of us escape tragedy in life. Not sorrow or grief to be sure, that we all experience. Not suffering or pain, that too comes to us all. But tragedy, not always. Carl Jung said that all neuroses were the result of our unwillingness to accept necessary suffering. It is a part of life.

But tragedy – not always. And tragedy, in one sense of the word, is something we cannot control. Tragedy strikes us; it befalls us. Like this earthquake in Japan – it was not earned, nor deserved, nor did it happen for any reason. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Hurricanes don’t happen because of a sexual orientation; earthquakes are not messages that our lives are wrong.

I wish that those who suggest God does these things would just shut up. Any God who would do something as gratuitously tragic as the recent earthquake in Japan, or last year’s in Haiti is no God to believe in, or, if to believe in, then not to worship. Why do the innocent suffer – because they do. There is no reason. Read Job.

Our lives are contingent. If anything demonstrates that we are not the masters of destiny, that we cannot control everything, it is an earthquake. The very foundations shudder and fall. The earthquake in Japan lasted for about 5 minutes. The Northridge Quake here in 1994 lasted about 20 seconds, the 1906 San Francisco quake about a minute, the Haiti Quake about 50 seconds. Five minutes. Our meditation was five minutes long. The earth’s axis was changed and the day is now shorter.

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So what does this all mean? What’s a preacher to do?

You should know that sermons come from lots of places. They grow and evolve and you have to be ready to catch them when they shoot by. Tuesday was the day it came to me. That morning was the picture of the Japanese young woman, alone and in tears.

Then I met with Stephen about the service. He reminded me that gratitude and grace come from the same root, and, as we talked about Japan, he said that everyone has some personal tsunami or earthquake in their life.

So what has shaken your foundation in life? What has been the tsunami, huge or small, that has washed over you in fear? The death of someone, a near miss, a lost job, a lost faith, a tragedy, illness? Has there been a time when it seemed as all around you was in ruins and you sat there crying?

We all have some sense of what it feels like to be that Japanese woman or those rescue workers praying over death – otherwise it would not affect us. We know when grief or sorrow or fear washes over us and create ruin in our living. The suffering in Japan is enormous – more than I expect has happened or will happen in any of our lives. But can we understand what they are going through?

Not easily, I know. But we need to try and it will take, I believe, acts of moral and emotional imagination to place ourselves there, to understand, and so better, perhaps know how to respond in our own lives.

My point is this: We all – every one of us – everyone of us – experiences sorrow and joy in our lives. We all experience loss and blessings. We all experience grace and pain. We try and keep our children from this but we know that we cannot. We all experience despair and hope. Everyone of us does. Even in the midst of sorrow, there can be glimmers of hope; even in tragedy there can be moments of grace.

And those moments of grace can create space in us – in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls – to become more generous and compassionate. Grace. The recognition of grace is strengthened by the practice of gratitude and this is what creates a life of meaning and worthwhile.

So here is a chance for all of us to ask: what is my life worth? Who am I and how am I to be in this world? If my life crashes around me – imagine being that young woman in Japan – what would save you? What would create hope in you in the midst of despair? When you are swept away in a tsunami of sorrow or pain or loss or grief, or whatever shakes the foundations – you know what I mean, everyone one of you has felt that – what will save you?

What has saved you? For what are you grateful?

jim nelson

You know don’t you? It is why you come here. It is why you count your blessings. It is why you reach into your pocket to be generous, why you reach out your hand to help someone up.

That saves you, that saves me.

Do this, I am telling you. For this next week, and then for the rest of your life, each night, at table, or before you drift to sleep, count three blessings in the day. It may be as simple as being able to breathe, to be touched or touch, to think, to hear a song, see a bit of beauty, or a chance to be generous.

And go to sleep grateful ready for the next day in your life. It is the beginning of Spring, after all – time to start new. Fall on your knees and give thanks. And then get up and lead the life you are meant to lead.


Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson
Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church