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The Rev. Dr. Kate Kelderman in St. Joseph's Chapel at Kent School

Welcome Back! So lovely to see you all.

Now, this might come as a surprise to you, but this morning I am going to talk about gratitude!

And believe it or not, I decided to speak on gratitude before the launch of the new website. In fact, I was sitting on my front porch weeks ago, scribbling away, working on a draft, thinking of what I might share with you when I got the email about our new website. Curiosity and procrastination got the better of me, and I opened the website, and clicked play… I was in tears right alongside all the beautiful people in the video. Gratitude is contagious, and I felt it that morning. When we are grateful, others notice, and it spreads like laughter in a crowd or water on a parched land. Claiming gratitude comes naturally when we find ourselves in a soup of thanksgiving.

But claiming the power of gratitude is tougher when life is challenging. And truth be told, a challenging life situation is how I found my way to gratitude. Many, many years ago, I was called to serve as the rector of a parish in a small town in Pennsylvania, and our first months there were hard. It was nothing was like our life back in Minnesota. The parish I was serving was a bit more complicated (and conflicted) than I was led to believe in the interviews and parish profiles. Work was tough for me but non-existent for my husband Theo. Even my sons struggled with finding their groove in the new and very small school system. The only family member who didn’t mind the move was our blue heeler, Jack. (The new neighbors fed him treats all the time.) So, while Jack gained weight, the humans in the household were convinced we had made a colossal mistake.

As had been the habit our entire married life, an evening walk together with the dog was a daily ritual for Theo and me. Invariably our conversation would find its way to the challenges we were all facing. We would go on and on about how disappointed we were, and how things weren’t what we hoped… It didn’t take long for me to realize that these “complaint” walks were not making me feel better. In fact, I felt worse. So, I made a change. I told Theo that we could complain on the walk out, and let our anxieties breathe if you will, but once we turned back toward home, we had to shift the conversation to gratitude. It didn’t really matter what we were grateful for, we just had to give thanks….the strawberry harvest, the kind word from the neighbor, the boys' track meet, anything.

Now, I’m not going to lie, when we first started this practice, it was hard. We had to really reach for stuff. We were not in the habit of being grateful, so we had to exercise our gratitude muscles. Eventually, we got better at it, and before long the “complaint” part of the walk got shorter and shorter. The incredible power of gratitude changed our perspective. We were still there, in small-town PA, struggling to make ends meet, but we saw things differently. We changed and managed to find joy and happiness in those quirky five years.

My story is not unique, I’ve heard so many stories of people finding their way to gratitude through hardship. Over the summer I read The Beauty of Dusk by Frank Bruni. In this memoir, Bruni tells of going blind in his right eye due to a stroke that affected the blood supply to his optic nerve. The book details his medical, psychological, and emotional journey. But what struck me the most was his newfound sense of gratitude. Here’s Bruni:

“My story is the testimony of getting wiser it is also the testimony of a damned fool. I'm referring to my path to the point at which my eyesight faltered, to all the mental and emotional energy I wasted. I'm referring to all the good stuff, no great stuff, that I took for granted. From the vantage point of illegitimate misfortune, my past looked shameful to me because it was riddled with stupid resentments and pumped with pointless grudges. I squandered so much time on mapping the roads closed off to me rather than the roads wide open. I had countless complaints when really, I had none at all.”

Kristi Nelson is the Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living, and she found her way to gratitude through a cancer diagnosis. In her book Wake Up Grateful, Nelson talks about her awakening.

“Not dying changed everything. Not only did I not die, I actually got to live. And living offered me the chance to bring the most meaningful lessons I learned from facing death into my life and the lives of many others. What I have come to understand about taking nothing for granted has transformed my life.”

A life transformed… that’s kind of what we are trying to accomplish here at Kent School, isn’t it? One student at a time, transformation…But we don’t have to go through tragedy to get there. We can skip a step and jump straight to gratitude.

So, in Chapel this year we’re going to focus on gratitude, not just in January, but all year long. Actually, we’re going to teach, nurture, train, and practice grateful living this year. And there’s a subtle but powerful difference between gratitude and grateful living. Gratitude is good, but grateful living is better. When we are grateful to someone or for something, we are inclined to think of gratitude in transactional terms. We are grateful for external gifts and blessings, which, again, is good.

But grateful living comes from within. Gratefulness is the practice of love in action as we experience gratitude in every single moment. In grateful living, gratitude becomes the connective tissue that binds all of our experiences, encounters, and moments together. By living gratefully, we act from the knowledge that simply because we are here, we are essential in the world. Simply because we are here, we are essential in this community. Simply because we are here, we are essential to all the lives we touch.

Through gratefulness, we discover that what we celebrate with our attention thrives. Appreciation turns not enough into a bounty, it transforms a group of strangers into a community connected, and attention transforms struggling students into curious learners. Attention matters.

Kristi Nelson is going to partner with us this year to help us shift our attention. She will speak in chapel several times and help us cultivate gratitude practices that we can carry with us beyond St. Joseph’s Chapel.

I’d like us to begin our year together by developing kindness and appreciation toward ourselves. This will help reinforce this notion that gratitude is “an inside job.”

We are each a precious portal through which love and life are given, and received. This morning we are full and well rested and energized, which is a bountiful and beautiful place to be. But there will be times in the year ahead when things get hard. We’ve been in this business and indeed on this planet long enough to know that to be true. Gratitude doesn’t make the hard stuff go away, but it does give us an extra tool to weather the storm and even dance in the rain.

Pema Chodron said, “You are blue sky, everything else is just weather.”

Let’s take just a minute to think about the blue sky you.

Close your eyes and think about what makes you, you. Be intentional. Even those quirks that others might judge, quirks that are uniquely you.  Identify five things that you love about yourself.

Let yourself be struck with awe by the marvel of your unique constellation of gifts, gifts that have the capacity to transform lives, and transform this community.

Love yourself with abandon, and that love and gratitude you feel will spread…like laughter in a crowd or water on a parched land.

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