Where do we come from

What are we

Where are we going? 

Where do we come from

What are we

Where are we going? 

The short answer is: it depends on which voice we’re listening to. 

Are we listening to the BIG VOICE of materialism which resounds in the echo chamber of our consumeristic American society? 

Or are we listening to the little voices which the Big Voice aims to drown out: little voices that say we are already wealthier than we had ever imagined? 

This drama of Big Voice vs. little voices is, for me, a key to understanding Robin Wall Kimmerer’s inspiring and transformational book entitled Braiding Sweetgrass. All year long we will see this drama playing out in any number of ways, and what’s at stake is indeed how we imagine who we are, what we are, and where we are going. 

Who we will be.

In the case of Robin Wall Kimmerer, her indigenous heritage as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation is constantly in battle with dominant American culture. There have been scars aplenty. Massacre. Forced removal from native lands. The rounding up of native children (including her grandfather) to go to government boarding schools whose purpose was to erase their culture, silence all the little voices of their Indian identity—to silence every one. 

Yet the little voices persist. 

One precious story of this is told in the section of Braiding Sweetgrass we are focused on today. It’s about her father’s morning ritual when the family would camp on the slopes of Mount Marcy, which is the tallest mountain in New York State. Indigenous folk call this mountain Tahawus. So, come morning time on the slopes of Tahawus, her father would make coffee. She tells the rest of the story present-tense: “When he lifts the coffee pot from the stove the morning bustle stops; we know without being told that it’s time to pay attention. He stands at the edge of camp with the coffeepot in his hands, holding the top in place with a folded pot holder. He pours coffee on the ground in a thick brown stream. The sunlight catches the flow, striping it amber and brown and black as it falls to the earth and steams in the cool morning air. With his face to the morning sun, he pours and speaks into the stillness, ‘Here’s to the gods of Tahawus.'” 

“I was pretty sure no other family I knew began their day like this,” Robin Wall Kimmerer continues, “but I never questioned the source of those words and my father never explained. They were just part of our life among the lakes. But their rhythm made me feel at home and the ceremony drew a circle around our family. By those words we said, ‘Here we are,’ and I imagined that the land heard us — murmured to itself, ‘Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.’ “

She goes on to say: “Much of who I am and what I do is wrapped up in my father’s offering by the lakeshore. Each day still begins with a version of ‘here’s to the gods of Tahawus,’ a thanksgiving for the day. My work as an ecologist, a writer, a mother, as a traveler between scientific and traditional ways of knowing, grows from the power of those words. It reminds me of who we are; it reminds me of our gifts and our responsibility to those gifts. Ceremony is a vehicle for belonging – to a family, to a people, and to the land.”

And that’s the story. 

Happily, Kimmerer as a child seemed not to have been as possessed by the Big Voice of materialism and commercialism as Mountain Girl in the story that we heard Scott so ably perform for us a moment ago. If Kimmerer as a child had been, then she might have criticized the family’s campsite, as in “Why are we camping when we could be glamping—or even better, staying in a luxury hotel?” She might have fixated on the dents in the coffee pot and complained that it was ancient and needed replacing with something more up-to-date. She might have charged her father with being unambitious. Her constant refrain might have been, Why can’t we have nicer things?

But Robin Wall Kimmerer was saved from that, and her father’s ritual of gratitude is no doubt one reason why. His ceremony which drew a circle around his family. Circle of protection and health. 

That’s what I really want to talk about today—rituals of gratitude. Ceremonies. Everyday practices of coming to see that, despite bad luck and disappointment and loss, we are actually rich beyond words. 

Do you have a gratitude practice? Do you have your own version of saying, with Kimmerer’s father, “here’s to the gods of Tahawus”? Or, a version of what Mountain Girl’s parents did, when they assigned dollar amounts to the kind of things that really can’t be bought or sold yet provide incredible value to life, as when we get paid in sunsets, or the ability to work outdoors, or to sing out loud and no one will mind, or to see far away mountains that change color about ten times a day, or to be in relationship with people we love… 

Do you have your own gratitude ceremony of belonging – to a family, to a people, and to the land?

I didn’t–before writing this sermon. I did not. And to give you some sense of what my feelings have been about this, let me tell you about all the times I’ve gone to places like Marshalls or Target and seen pillows on the shelves with words like “Thankful” or “Grateful” stitched upon them, and it would make me just want to throw up. It felt ridiculous. It felt so cliché. It felt simplistic. It felt cheesy. 

This is me. It’s the Big Voice within me. Maybe it resounds within you also. 

And—I’m curious. What’s the deeper story? 

I think it’s more than just American consumerism and materialism. Not that this isn’t a huge part of the Big Voice. But as I bring awareness to it, I find more. 

One additional thing I find comes from the human body’s evolutionary journey. You’ve heard me talk about this before. Our bodies contain within them something called “negativity bias.” Our nervous systems are naturally tuned to be on the lookout for anything that appears threatening. Of course—our ancestor’s survival depended upon that. Our species would not be around these days without that fine-tuned capacity to spot danger. But for us today, it means that it’s just easier to grumble than it is to feel grateful. This doesn’t mean that grumbling is inevitable. It just makes it easier. 

Something else I find in my Big Voice that dismisses gratitude is a tendency to be “all-or-nothing.” In other words, if my life isn’t all good, then it’s bad. If there’s trouble in Ukraine, I have no right to enjoy my life here in Cleveland. 

Do you know what I mean? Can you relate? 

This is also a part of the dominant Big Voice in me and maybe in you. How dare I draw a circle of gratitude around my family when other families are suffering? How dare I celebrate all the ways I am paid in the joy that my two tabby cats give me and Rachel, how I am paid in the beautiful colors of autumn leaves, how I am paid in the wonders of the first snow of the season–how dare I, when the Senator that the great state of Ohio just elected is a 2020 election denier, is against reproductive justice, and has called Donald Trump “the best president of my lifetime.”

But, as with the tendency to grumble, the tendency to be all-or-nothing is not inevitable. It’s easier, yes. But awareness, coupled with intentionality, can literally re-wire our nervous systems so that, eventually, old tendencies lose the grip on us they once had. 

That’s what I’m holding on to today, as I come before you as a very human Senior Minister who is learning and growing alongside you. I’ve got that dominant Big Voice of materialism + negativity bias + all-or-nothing thinking in me–and this is the part of me that wants to throw up when I see pillows at Target saying “grateful.” But that’s not all of who I am. I am more than that. I also have parts which speak in little voices of genuine and heartfelt thankfulness. 

Grumbling does not have to be my destiny, or yours.

And, you know what? In the exact same moment I say this, the Big Voice within me shouts: Great. Enjoy your “genuine and heartfelt thankfulness.” But it will make you complacent. And there is work to be done. There is justice to be won.

What do you think? Does an every-day gratitude practice of belonging—to a family, to a people, and to the land—have to lead to complacency? To apathy? 

Or, is this yet another tactic of the dominant “all-or-nothing” Big Voice to maintain its dominance?  

Why can’t gratitude go hand-in-hand with doing one’s part to heal a hurting world? 

Why can’t savoring the world and saving the world go together? 

Why not? 

Yes they can go together. 

In fact, it’s best they do. Science has shown that gratitude practice offers a great defense against burn-out. According to a 2018 study, male firefighters in Korea who reported greater levels of gratitude experienced less exhaustion and cynicism. The researchers concluded: “These findings suggest that gratitude acts as an independent protective factor against stress and burnout.” 

And then there is a 2015 study, in which health care professionals reported less stress and depression after they wrote down what they were grateful for twice a week for a month.

Of course there are fires in our world to be put out! Of course there is sickness aplenty! And as we do our firefighting and health care work (whether figuratively or literally), gratitude makes the hard work sustainable. 

It’s just not either/or. It’s both/and. 

Let the Big Voice be softened. Turn up the volume of the little voices. 

So—back to the question: Do you have your own gratitude ceremony of belonging?

Here’s what I plan on doing, moving forward. 

First, I’m going to write about three things I’m grateful for in my daily journal, every day. I’m going to do this even if I’m not feeling grateful. I am told that gratitude is not so much a feeling as a choice, so I’m going to live into that and see what that means. 

Second, I’m going to make it a rule to say thank you to someone at least once each day. Maybe a family member or friend. Sometimes the sweetest moments are when you say thank you to a stranger. The happiness of that can feel so good. 

Third, I will make sure that the gifts I am given keep moving, keep circulating. Others have opened their hands and hearts for me, so in turn I will extend an open hand and heart to others. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book is a blessing to me, so let me share that blessing far and wide. 

This is how I’ll start, and I’ll see where it goes. Maybe you will join me and find your own rituals. Helen Russell, writing for the Tiny Buddha website, says, “So do it. Sit down with pen and paper or at your computer and start ‘I am grateful for …’ Maybe you will have to stop there for a minute and wait because you just can’t think of anything. But just wait. Surrender to the moment. Something inside you will shift. The words will come. This force that you are tapping into is bigger than you and it is bigger than your problem, no matter how big that is. That tide of fear that is overwhelming you is not all there is. There is so much more to you than that. Your gratitude list is a bridge across those troubled waters to a resting place on the other side.”

Yes it is. 

It will be so. 

So may it be.