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Universal Thanks – 11/18/2012

When someone does something nice for you – when your dad makes you soup when you’re sick, or your mom helps you with your homework, or your friend cheers you up with a hug when you’re feeling down – what do you say? You say ‘thank you’! Because you’re grateful and you want to show it, because you’re glad and you want them to know it. And more than just saying ‘thank you’ with words, sometimes you get so happy that you want to say ‘thanks’ by doing something nice for them in return. Maybe you do it right away, or maybe you hold onto that feeling, and save it up. So the next time they’re sick, or sad, or just whenever the time seems right to you, to paint them a picture or tell them a joke, or give them a hug to remind them how grateful you are for the things they’ve done for you, and how much you like them.

But most of us can think of at least one person we’ve known who has done so much for us – given so much love, shown so much kindness, offered so much help – that we can’t imagine paying it all back to them. And there are plenty of things that we have to be thankful for, but that don’t come with some obvious person to thank or repay. Who do you thank for rain, or for bicycles or basketball, or a song that was written before you were born? The world isn’t perfect, but there is so much about the world that is wonderful, that our natural state of being when we’re really paying attention to life should be one of gratitude. But then, once we find that we are grateful, what should we do about it?

One simple answer I would point to comes from the Sikh

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religion, which began 500 years ago in India. One element of the Sikh faith is a practice called langar: providing food to the community. Every Sikh Gudwara – each of their temples – has a kitchen where people make food every day, and serve it to whoever comes to eat. By tradition, this food is always vegetarian, even though most Sikhs are not. Their religion doesn’t have a problem with eating animals, but there are a lot of vegetarians in India, where their religion began, and the purpose of langar is that anyone and everyone should be able to eat. And if the people can’t come to Sikhs, the Sikhs will go to the people, which is why you may have seen pictures of Sikh men in the news, with their distinctive long beards and their hair worn in turbans, handing out food in New York and New Jersey in places struck hard by hurricane Sandy.

The answer to what we should do with our gratitude, for the thanks we have for the gifts we have received, is that we should give back. Not just to the those who have done the most for us, or to the people right in front of us, but to give as much and as freely and as far as we possibly can. That is how we say ‘thank you’ to the universe, to the world, to this amazing place where we find ourselves.

One of the ways that we do that here, in our community, is with the annual practice we began two years ago, called Simple Gifts. Each year as the Christmas-Hanukkah-Solstice-New Year season approaches with all of its excitement about giving and receiving gifts, we take the time to reflect on what we’ve already received. We challenge ourselves to make the gifts that we give to the people we love meaningful because of the thought and feeling put into them, instead of the price tag attached to them. And with the money that we don’t spend on the very most expensive things, we make a donation, together, to some people we do not know, to some organization that does good work, helping people who need help.

Each year, our children vote in Sunday School to decide where our shared gift will go, and this year they have chosen for us an organization called Smile Train. Smile Train operates in 80 countries all over the world. Their work is to help children who need cleft lip or palate repair – who were born with a gap in part of their mouth or face. This problem that can affect their ability to eat or to speak, and that often leads other people to stare at them, make fun of them or mistreat them because they look different, can be changed with a fairly simple surgery when they are still very young. But those surgeries still cost money, and need doctors to perform them. Smile Train covers those costs, and provides training to medical professionals to make treatment more available. Our children have chosen this cause to give us something to do with our universal thanks. In the coming weeks, as the shopping season kicks into high gear, I invite you to spend time, by yourself or with your families, thinking of ways your gifts to each other can be less expensive and more meaningful, and deciding what sort of gift you want to make on December 23rd, when we’ll gather our contributions together, into one great, big, thank-you to the universe.


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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