The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



It would not be unreasonable to consider Thanksgiving the High Holy Day of Unitar­ianism. After all, it was our direct ancestors, the Pilgrims, who are given credit for first celebrating it in America. In fact, the First Parish Church in Plymouth, Massachusetts is a Unitarian Universalist church. The story of the pilgrims is the central myth of the Thanksgiv­ing celebration. Nevertheless, unless we celebrate it as a purely secular holiday, commemorating our past and celebrating the good food and friends and family who gather on that day, it can have some theological difficulties for their modern-day de­scendents. The Pilgrims believed with great sincerity that God had guided them to that land to build a country under his rule, that he was watching over them and was the ultimate source of their survival and their success. Nowadays, we suspect that had they consulted the American Indians who first helped them to survive and whom they then displaced, they would have heard a different point of view. In ad­dition, God’s direct participation in the well- or ill-being of his/her/its servants is something that we tend to doubt. We find ourselves sometimes asking, thankful to whom for what?

It is not that we are at one on this issue. There are several strains of thought about God’s role in our lives among us. There is a lecture given every year at General As­sembly, a lecture that dates back to the founding of the American Unitarian Associa­tion. William Ellery Channing had been the first lec­turer. It was given for years at the chapel of the Federal Street church in Boston which fronted on Berry Street, and though that chapel and that church were gone long ago, and General Assembly doesn’t even meet in Boston any more, it is still called the Berry Street Lecture. The lectures may be on any topic that the lecturer feels has significant religious meaning. I remember few of them, one I remember, primarily because of its responders. A few years ago the lecturer was Carl Scovel of King’s Chapel. It was heavily theological, and his conclusion was that there is a benevolence at the heart of the universe. There are sometimes responders to the lec­tures, and one of these at that time was my friend, Dean Starr, who died a few years ago from AIDS. His son had died of the same disease some little time before then, and he had just been diagnosed as being HIV positive. His response was indignant. He did not impute malevolence to the universe, but he said that to describe it as es­sentially benevolent was to close your eyes to the facts of unmerited suffering.

It seemed to me that it was necessary to agree with Dean. Even to describe the uni­verse as indifferent is to over-anthropomorphize the reality. Despite the mysticism of many theoretical physicists, the universe is matter and energy, bound by inex­orable physical laws, but value-free, will-less, material. Even though matter seems merely to be intersecting lines of energy, when you get theoretical enough, there is no need to identify that energy with God, and there is no evidence that I can see that the universe qua universe is even able to care about the living things within it, much less that it does. Dualism is very unfashionable these days, and certainly the kind of all-or-nothing thinking of black and white, good and evil, god and satan, without any admission of the reality of our experience which is mostly shades of gray, can be very dangerous. On the other hand, the monism of pantheistic think­ing, if it is consistent, leaves no room for value judgments beyond mere survival needs at all. If god is the same thing as the universe then whatever is is good, or, al­ternatively, god is not good, and if that is the case, why should we bother about it? The truth of unmerited suffering, of disease and death, of pain and loss, is real. There are ways of thinking that make all those things really good, or at least just, if you can truly understand everything about them as God must, but it seems to me that such thinking must start with an assumption that I do not share, that there is benevolence — good will — at the heart of the universe. 

Sometimes I am asked to pray publicly. Once I got a phone call from a lovely young woman who was organizing a day of prayer in support of environmental issues. When she asked me to be involved in it in some capacity, I said that I would be pleased to, since I strongly believe in responsibility and justice in regard to those issues, but, I continued, there might be a problem, since I do not believe in petitionary prayer. It is not a matter of interpreting or using more tradi­tional language, but a real, ethical, religious objection to such kinds of prayer. If there is the kind of God to whom prayers can be addressed with an expectation of some level of communication and response, it seems somewhat arrogant to think that human reminders or persuasion would be either needed or efficacious. If such a god is not intentional about what it is doing, and is open to having its mind changed by human prayers, how did we figure out that we know the right decisions for God to make? I don’t think a God who rules the universe could possibly need our help in deciding the proper thing to do, and if such help is needed, I think we’re in more serious trouble than a compromised environment. Or perhaps the people who pray this way think that God knows what to do but just isn’t paying attention and needs a wake-up call. Either way, I think it’s downright disrespectful. The only kind of praying I could do, I told her, would be prayers of praise and thanksgiving. Not for the sake of God, mind you, who, I should think, would need our gratitude and celebration as little as our reminders or advice, but for the sake of our own souls.

We are the ones who need to be reminded that the universe exists outside of us, that we did not create the wonderful and beautiful world we live in, that we are small and finite, and that the world existed long before we did and will continue to exist long after we are gone. We need to be reminded too that in our smallness and fallibility we receive gifts of grace that give our lives meaning. There is unmerited suffering indeed but there is unmerited joy as well, and though there may not be a benevolence at the heart of the universe there is benevolence throughout our lives and grace as an ever-present gift. Through praise and thanksgiving we are reminded of that gift, and the ways it is manifested to us.

This time of year there are tiny lavender flowers growing in the grass on our septic tank hill. Earlier, in the autumn, there were yellow stars in the grass by the garage, and the beautybush has fruited, though not so beautifully this year as last. The sun shines by day and the clouds make formations of surpassing beauty, while at night the moon and stars spangle the night sky for our delight. They would do it without our observation, but for the grace of recognition of the beauty of this world of ours, we are thankful.

Some time ago I went to a concert to listen to Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” Stravinsky’s composition reveals the very bones of music. The complexity of the tones as each instrument takes its appointed place, becoming one glorious sound of beauty, cre­ated just for the joy of making something wonderful, demands our deepest grati­tude for human genius, for the call of creation, for the desire to be more than sur­vivors. For the grace of human genius and creativity, we are thankful.

The other day I went to the store to buy some cookies for a particular occasion, and when I pulled out a bag of them, a coupon for a discount fluttered down. Some thoughtful soul, not needing it, left the coupon for the next customer to find. I don’t know where the term, “random acts of kindness” comes from — I suspect that it’s from one of those human potential groups that I find so embarrassing — but it’s a lovely thought and a lovely deed. For the grace of thoughtfulness, we are thankful.

Autumn is the time of fruitfulness, of hope fulfilled, of ripened corn and wheat. Thanksgiving is often celebrated as an observance of the material blessings of our lives, the harvest, a time when we are safe and satisfied. Better, I think, to celebrate the planting and the harvest of hope, the human spirit which thinks to the future, which provides for our physical well-being, which continues despite the setbacks and failures and disappointments, the floods and the droughts, bad luck and good. For the human spirit of hope and mature fulfillment, for wise planting and rich har­vesting, we are thankful.

Sometimes I reflect on the numbers of people in our congregation who regularly work without pay for the good of others in need with no reward but the satisfaction of knowing their usefulness. We have people who build habitat houses, who tutor children in Immokalee or immigrants learning English, who feed the homeless, who volunteer for Planned Parenthood or other organizations that serve those in need. We are thankful for the service of those who know the world can be better tomorrow than it is today.

The gifts of grace are not always so pleasant. Sometimes they are sad and sometimes rending, but they are gifts nevertheless, as they give our lives meaning and purpose, as they enhance the life of the spirit Some years ago one of my children endured a terrible tragedy, an accident, his own fault, in which his passenger was killed. We talk glibly of the power of love, but the love that we felt for one another was impotent to help in any way. It increased his pain to see mine, and my inability to take his responsibility and sense of guilt on my own shoulders, to get beyond the ultimate isolation of the human condition was more hurtful than I can describe. Yet in that experience I could learn that the love that redeems us in the most searing kind of sorrow and suffering, can do nothing to help us, and yet, somehow, still redeems us. We give thanks for the redeeming power of love in its powerlessness and isolation.

One of the greatest gifts of grace is the knowledge of our own imperfections, an un­derstanding of our littleness. We did not make the world and we are often power­less to change it, even powerless to change ourselves, and always unable to live up even to the standards we set ourselves. We are often self-absorbed and self-justify­ing, or filled with the notion that we are in control of everything that affects us. It is a gift when we are reminded that the universe does not depend on us and even if it did, we would probably manage to mess it up.  It is good to remember how often we do wrong so that we can try harder to do and live the right. We are thankful for the redeeming power of atonement and contrition.

  Thanksgiving should indeed be our high holy day, in part for the opportunity to look again at the beginnings of our free faith in the strictures of the Pilgrim religion, but more to remind us of the ways in which our lives gain meaning in gratitude for the gifts of grace. I have done a litany of thankfulness this morning, but I have only scratched the surface of the many things for which I am thankful, not to an arbitrary god who gives and withholds gifts at will, nor to a benevolence at the heart of the universe, but to a benevolence that informs and elevates all things that are open to it, all beings that can understand the gifts of grace and accept them with gratitude and humbleness.