Parson to Person November 2016

Indonesian Thoughts on Gratitude

Last month I wrote about some of the things I leaned in Indonesia when I spent several weeks there three years ago, thanks to a gift from the Teska family (and the gift of time from the congregation itself!). In a previous column (and sermon) I spoke about the Borobudur Buddhist temple site in Java. Today’s column is not about the temple itself but about our Muslim guide there, who did a very thorough job of explaining the history of the site and the teachings of the Buddha. (If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought he was a practicing Buddhist himself – that’s how much he made the story his own.) Afterwards we happened to be discussing with him some of the “science-of-happiness” studies that seem to parallel a good deal of Buddhist teachings about happiness – especially the demonstrable positive effects of gratitude journaling (i.e., writing down, or thinking about, the things you’re grateful for). Our discussion went on for quite a while and our guide told us that, as a result of our conversation, he had decided to make gratitude exercises a major part of his daily “salaat.” (Salaat is the prayer that observant Muslims pray five times a day, consisting of bowing and other rituals while reciting in Arabic: “God is great … All glory and praise is due to you … the entirely merciful …”)

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that what our guide had decided to do made perfect sense. And that’s because salaat is already a gratitude exercise, if you think about it carefully.

Now, most people (Muslims included) think of prayer as simply their daily duty – as Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc. (Which, of course, it is in those religions.) Or else they see it as their praise of God/Allah. (Which, of course, it also is.) But if you carefully peel away the layers, you see that salaat appears to be a gratitude exercise too.

I realize that we are not all theistic in our church, so the Islamic version of salaat might not work for a lot of us. But certainly the gratitude piece could. Whereas the theistic version might be to praise God for all that God has given us, the humanist version might be to simply remind yourself of all the good things in your life – to “count your blessings,” in other words. (It might even include reminding yourself of the good things that have sometimes come out of the bad.)

Now, I don’t want to simplistically conflate traditional prayer and modern gratitude journaling. There is, after all, a theological difference between giving thanks to God and giving thanks to “whomever it may concern.” But in terms of a spiritual practice that might enhance our lives, is it really all that different?

You don’t have to do this five times a day, of course – or even once a day. But as our nation’s official Thanksgiving Day approaches, I commend to you the practice of (at least occasionally) thinking about the things you are grateful for. Research has already shown us that this practice can make us happier. But I believe happiness and gratitude can be contagious – so this gift to yourself may be a gift to the world around you as well. In any case I wish you “Happy Thanksgiving” – with, of course, a little …

peace and unrest,
Tony Larsen

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