Now Thank We All Our God

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Now thank we all our God.”[1] Let me tell you the story of the Rev. Martin Rinkart who wrote the original German words to this hymn in 1636. I’m basing my telling of this story on a 2011 sermon[2] by the Rev. Ian Poulton, a priest in the Church of Ireland. I haven’t tried to verify the facts as Poulton presents them, but I do see that the same story is told in a variety of places. Even if the story has been exaggerated over time, even if what I share is only partially true, it still ought to make us pause and wonder what it means to have a grateful heart.

Martin Rinkart was born in 1586 in Leipzig, about 90 miles southwest of Berlin. At age 15 he began studying theology at the University of Leipzig. He became a Lutheran pastor in his early twenties. Poulton says he was regarded as a better musician than a pastor, but he persisted in the Lutheran ministry and held a variety of positions in the region early in his career. In 1617, at age 31, he became pastor at a church in the small city of Eilenburg to the northeast of Leipzig. If you know anything about this era in European history, you might know that 1618 saw the commencement of the Thirty Years’ War, a complicated and brutal war which ended in 1648. Rinkart died in 1649, having served for the duration of the war at the Eilenberg church. That is, he did ministry in a war zone for 31 years.

Here I am quoting Poulton directly: “The war was beyond the understanding of most ordinary people, all they knew was that army after army laid the countryside bare, having no regard for the welfare of civilian populations. Famine and disease became widespread; farms, livestock and crops had been destroyed and weak and hungry people had no resistance against illness. The war was to reduce the male population of Germany by almost half, in total almost a third of the people in the German states lost their lives, mostly through hunger and illness.

By 1636, Martin Rinkart was the only pastor left in Eilenburg. The walled city had become a place filled with refugees, who brought with them further infection to add to that already present, and who placed further strain upon the town’s desperately short food supplies.

The refugees brought plague with them and in 1637 8,000 people in the town were to die from it. The illness had no regard for wealth or age, the town councilors and many of the town’s children were among the victims…. In May 1837, he buried his own wife. He was to bury more than 4,000 people during the plague, which was followed by a severe famine that saw people fighting in the street over a dead crow or cat.”[3]

The most memorial services I’ve ever conducted in a year is eight—and that makes for an exhausting year. For a period from 1636 to 1637 Rinkart was apparently conducting an average of ten or eleven funerals daily. He was witnessing excruciating devastation, a total breakdown of the social order, not to mention the deaths of his wife, children, friends, colleagues, parishioners. I won’t call it unimaginable, because we can imagine it. We may not know about the Thirty Years’ War, but we have knowledge of other wars, of genocides, of the Holocaust, of slavery, of refugees streaming as I speak out of war zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan into Europe—many of them heading for the “promised land,” Germany. Even if we or our families have not been touched directly by these things, even if we cannot know what it feels like to live through them, we can imagine them. But what might be unimaginable, at least to some, is that in the midst of this devastation and horror, in the midst of relentless death, Martin Rinkart sat in his study, read his Bible, and wrote the words, “Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”[4] How was such gratitude possible given everything he was witnessing?

You might hear this story and get caught on questions about Rinkart’s theology. That’s always a risk with Unitarian Universalists. You might think or say, “Really? After all he went through, after what must have been terrible personal pain, he was thankful to God? Didn’t he understand God as all-powerful, wasn’t that his theology, in which case didn’t he hold God at least partially responsible for the devastation? Wasn’t he angry at God for allowing such suffering? Why didn’t he reject God, say ‘there is no God?’ Why didn’t his faith waver? Was he numb? Was he afraid?” If these are your questions, I urge you not to get caught on them. We don’t know what Rinkart’s spiritual struggle might have been, what his inner disappointment with and rage at God might have been. It doesn’t serve us well to get caught on his theology. I don’t believe in Rinkart’s God; I don’t expect you to either. But I want to share in his extraordinary gratitude. I want it in my life. I hope you do too.

It’s easy to feel grateful when our lives are going well. But can we still be thankful, can we still know and trust how truly blessed we are, when our lives are not going well, when things are falling apart, when the dream we had for our lives comes crashing down around us? Let’s get caught on that question. What does it mean to feel grateful even in the midst of despair?

One of the reasons I feel this is an important question for us is because there’s a connection between gratitude and one’s overall health and well-being. Spiritual teachers, theologians and philosophers have named this connection for millennia. So many prayers in so many religious traditions begin or end with the words, “thank you.” And, over the last fifteen years, psychological researchers have verified these connections through clinical studies. I’ll share one frequently-cited 2003 study conducted by psychologists, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough. I’m quoting here from a paper on gratitude and well-being in a Harvard Medical School publication. Emmons and McCullough asked study participants “to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.”[5]

There are many studies that show similar results. Some yield clearer results than others; some suggest not that gratitude is itself the key to well-being, but that people who report a consistent feeling of gratitude also exhibit a variety of behavior and personality traits that lead to greater well-being; and a few studies diverge and show little or no connection between gratitude and well-being.[6] The one result I have not found in my somewhat-more-than-cursory review of this science of thankfulness is a connection between gratitude and a decline in overall health and well-being. That is, no study has shown that gratitude is bad for you!

So, if gratitude is good for us, it makes sense that a practice of being grateful, of naming to oneself and others those things for which we are grateful, of cultivating a gracious spirit, of saying ‘thank you,’ will have a positive effect on our lives. And these might be the easiest of all spiritual practices. You don’t have to learn to quiet the mind in meditation. You don’t have to first puzzle through that pesky question of whether there is a God or not. You don’t have to be in a specific place at a specific time. You don’t need to pay a lot of money to study with a master. You just need a little time, perhaps daily, to name, either to yourself or others, those people and things for which you are grateful.

I confess I feel a bit redundant speaking to you about gratitude on Sunday morning. There are millions upon millions of articles, books, blogs, videos, TED Talks, inspirational speakers, Facebook posts, tweets and various memes about gratitude. This is not secret knowledge. This is not a mystery waiting to be revealed to the earnest seeker. Nancy Parker suggested I view a TED Talk by the Austrian-American, Buddhist-influenced Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast entitled, “Want to Be Happy? Be Grateful[7] I like his notion of what the practice of gratefulness might look like. He actually co-founded an online community called Gratefulness[8] which curates resources on living a grateful life. He counsels us to Stop, Look, Go” or “Stop, Listen, Go.” It’s very simple. Stop whatever you’re doing. Breathe. Come into the present moment. Then look or listen. What are you grateful for in this moment? He says, “Some of the most meaningful things to acknowledge are those we commonly take for granted. Examples include: our senses, a roof over one’s head, clouds, the ability to learn and grow, a pet, food, a friend.”[9] And then go, by which he means identify these things for which we are grateful not as ‘givens’ but as ‘gifts.’ And what do you say when you receive a gift? Thank you.

So many practices suggested out there in the blogosphere and on the self-help shelves are like this: simple, obvious and genuinely important to our health and well-being. But then I encounter a poem like W. S. Merwin’s “Thanks” which we heard earlier, and I perceive a deeper, less obvious, perhaps more urgent reason for gratitude. Recall Merwin’s words: “Back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging / after funerals we are saying thank you / after the news of the dead / whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you … / with the animals dying around us / our lost feelings we are saying thank you / with the forests falling faster than the minutes / of our lives we are saying thank you / with the words going out like cells of a brain / with the cities growing over us / we are saying thank you faster and faster / with nobody listening we are saying thank you / we are saying thank you and waving / dark though it is.”[10]

Merwin isn’t addressing the goal of health and well-being. His isn’t a survey of blessings at the Thanksgiving table. He’s speaking about resilience—how we stay strong in hard times, how we continue “dark though it is.” So much can happen that we don’t expect, can’t plan for. So much can throw us, knock us down, send us reeling, wake us up into sleepless nights and break our sense of connection to what matters. Our bodies betray us with illness and pain; we lose loved ones; sometimes we lose jobs, income, financial security; sometimes we struggle with addiction, mental illness, anxiety. Our culture feels angry and polarized, while poverty—both economic and spiritual—increases; while hunger—both economic and spiritual—increases, such that we stop trusting in abundance and assume scarcity. Wars break out; ideologues with weapons and no rules rampage across vulnerable lands; refugees stream across borders; desperate people stab strangers on the street and desperate police shoot back. The planet warms; the ice caps melt; species disappear; storms rage. Thank you? Thank you? When things break down, resilience is our capacity to repair whatever connections have been broken. Gratitude creates resilience.

Truly, in the end, we can take nothing for granted; because truly, in the end, nothing is simply a given; because truly, in the end, everything and everyone we care about, everything and everyone that matters to us, everything and everyone we love are gifts: gifts from God if you believe in that way; gifts from the universe; gifts from life’s enduring, animating spirit; or gifts out of sheer cosmic coincidence—but gifts nevertheless. Knowing this—believing this—can create resilience in us. Thank you. Thank you. Let us practice gratitude in good times, so that when hard times come, when challenges come, when illness and death come, when warming and war come, we may remain clear about the gifts we have received, about the blessings in our lives, and grow resilient in the midst of our despair. Whether he understood it in these terms or not, I have no doubt Martin Rinkart wrote “Now thank we all our God” at what was surely the lowest point of his life in order to stay resilient, and to encourage resilience in his community.

DSC_1921Friends, may we be relentlessly thankful for all the blessings of our lives, for all the gifts we receive, for the source of our lives, for the power that brought us and this world and this universe into being, for that fundamental creative energy at the heart of all there is, and for all the ways we are connected to each other, and to all life, and to each dry leaf decaying on the wet November ground, and to each blazing star gracing the heavens with its light. Thank you. Thank you. May we learn to pause and know that none of it is a given, and all of it is a gift. Thank you. Thank you. And may these simple, profound words speak in our hearts and on our tongues, again and again, even in our times of greatest despair: thank you, thank you.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Rinkart, Martin, “Now Thank We All Our God,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #32.

[2] Poulton, Ian, “An A-Z of Hymnwriters: Martin Rinkart,” For the Fainthearted, September 14, 2011. See:

[3] For another version of the story, see Oron, Aryeh, “Martin Rinkart (Hymn-Writer), Bach Cantatas Website, July 2008. See:

[4] Rinkart, Martin, “Now Thank We All Our God,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #32. Poulton says the Biblical inspiration for these words was Ecclesiasticus, Chapter 50, verse 22-24.

[5] “In Praise of Gratitude,” Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Health Publications: Harvard Medical School, November 1, 2011. See: Emmons’ and McCullough’s findings were originally published in Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M.E., “Counted Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003; 84: 377–389.

[6] Reviews of recent psychological studies on gratitude are at the following websites:

[7] Steindl-Rast, David, “Want to be Happy? Be Grateful.” TED Talk, June, 2013. See:

[8] Check out

[9] Check out

[10] Merwin, W. S., “Thanks, Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). See:

Being Thankful in a Thankless World

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In her meditation, “Saying Grace,” the Rev. Kathleen McTigue reminds us “wise women and men from every [faith] tradition teach that gratitude is at the heart of the spiritual life because it leads us to all the rest.”[1] This rings true to me. Pausing before a meal—even a brief pause—to be mindful of how the food actually arrived on the plate can lead us back through all those people who had some hand in getting it to the plate: the cashiers, the shelf-stockers, the grocery store managers, the truck drivers, the loaders, the processors, the pickers, the planters, the slaughterhouse workers—and then beyond the people, back further to soil, water, sun—and then further still to the insight that “everything hinges on everything else,” that we are fundamentally dependent, that we do not exist apart from a reality greater than ourselves. I think Rev. McTigue is right. A pause—even a brief pause—to express our gratitude can lead us to “all the rest.” Perhaps most importantly it can instill in us the desire to give back in some way, to live not simply as recipients of the earth’s abundance, but as people who actively engage the wider world, people who work for justice and peace, people who work for healing and repair, people who work to sustain the earth and all its creatures. Heart-felt gratitude ought to yield some kind of participation, commitment, action. Indeed, the final words of Rev. McTigue’s prayer of gratitude are that we may be strong for the work of our world.[2]

Similarly, in a 2007 article in the Unitarian Universalist World Magazine entitled “The Heart of our Faith,” the Rev. Galen Guengerich writes that where the central discipline of Judaism is obeying God’s commandments, and the central discipline of Christianity is loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and the central discipline of Islam is submitting to the will of God, the central discipline of Unitarian Universalism ought to be gratitude.[3] He says a discipline of gratitude—that is, integrating into our lives daily rituals that enable us to recognize and name the things for which we are grateful—inevitably “reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and the world around us for everything that matters.” And from this recognition of dependence flows what he calls an “ethic of gratitude” which “demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return.”[4] Heart-felt gratitude ought to yield some kind of engagement, participation, commitment, action. May we be strong for the work of our world.

Our ministry theme for October is gratitude. It’s an obvious theme for this time of year. The thanksgiving season is beginning. Farmers are bringing in the final harvest here in New England and throughout the planet’s more northern reaches. Harvest festivals and thanksgiving celebrations are common in many parts of the northern hemisphere at this time of year. Being a father of elementary school students I can anticipate assignments related to gratitude and thanksgiving. My boys will create adorable, little booklets about the things for which they are thankful. They will trace their hands to make turkeys. And many ministers preach sermons on gratitude at this time of year. I become a bit squeamish when it’s my turn to preach that sermon since there are only so many ways to name the importance of gratitude in our lives. Yet we keep preaching it. I’ve yet to find a colleague in any faith tradition who thinks gratitude is overrated.

So this is the message I want you to take with you today: a discipline of gratitude—finding some way to regularly call forth a feeling of gratitude for all that is good in our lives—reminds us of our dependence on a reality larger than ourselves and ought to inspire us to give back to our communities and to the world in some sustained way. While I’m convinced no controversy surrounds this message; and while I’m utterly confident that you already know this, that gratitude is a no-brainer, that we should be grateful for all the blessings of our lives, the fact remains: gratitude is never as simple as it sounds. We don’t always come to it easily. We can’t just make ourselves feel a certain way. For most of us, gratitude takes practice.

Most of you are parents. Some of you are actively parenting. Others have raised their children into adulthood. I suspect most of you who are parents—and even those of you who aren’t parents but who have been around children in that elementary school age range—have had the experience of doing something nice for a child—taking them to a movie, buying some toy they’ve asked for, taking them to their favorite restaurant—something slightly out of the ordinary and very nice—only to then watch the child behave like a selfish, impulsive, entitled little demon. When it happens, you the parent can’t imagine this is the child you’ve been raising. It’s mystifying. You didn’t teach them to act like this. You didn’t model this behavior for them. You’ve spoken clearly to them, many times, about appropriate behavior, especially in public places. You try to shut it down with your own polite reasoning, but it doesn’t work. The child escalates. You begin to get angry. The next words out of your mouth—your tone bordering on sarcastic—are some version of “a little thanks would be nice,” or “How about ‘thank you’?” Does this ring a bell? I can’t recall my parents ever saying this to me, but I remember being a selfish, impulsive, entitled little demon and I’m positive my ears heard some version of those words. “A little thanks would be nice.”

I suspect there are exceptions to this rule, but I’m pretty sure we aren’t born grateful. We may be born with the capacity to feel gratitude, but expressing it doesn’t come naturally. The phrase “thank you” doesn’t roll off our tongues once we’ve learned rudimentary speech, at least not as quickly as “I want,” “gimme” and “mine.” Of course children are more complex than their selfish impulses. Most children seem inherently trusting, loving, joyful, filled with awe, creative and truthful in the sense that they don’t naturally censor themselves. But “thank you” is not one of their inclinations. Not at first. They need to be taught.

I also suspect that even once a child learns to say “thank you,” we still haven’t taught them to recognize and name the feeling of gratitude when it rises in them. What we’ve actually taught them is how to be polite regardless of how they feel. That is, we might hear them say “thank you,” but it’s only because we’ve told them to, not because they actually feel it. I suspect our ability to recognize and name feelings of genuine gratitude develops as we age and mature. I suspect we’re not able to feel deep and abiding gratitude—and name it—until we stop taking our living for granted, which most children do unless they’ve experienced some kind of loss or struggle and they’ve have had to grow up too fast. I suspect we’re not able to feel truly grateful “for all that is our life,”[5] as the hymn says, until we’ve had the kinds of experiences that move us out of childhood, experiences that enable us to gain perspective on our lives, to view our lives from multiple angles, to compare our lives to other lives, to recognize how hard life can be at times, to recognize that it means something when someone else does something nice for us unbidden, when someone else lends us a hand when we’re in need, when someone else supports us in our times of crisis and struggle, when someone else notices our good work. I suspect we’re not able to feel truly grateful and name it until we’ve gained some sense of what’s at stake in our lives and in the world; until we’ve had the experience of making difficult, life-altering decisions; until we’ve experienced suffering and loss; until we’ve come to understand our limits, our fragility, our dependence. We feel genuine gratitude when we finally recognize our lives and the lives of others as precious, as sacred, as holy, and as unlikely, mysterious, miraculous gifts.

And when we finally arrive there, when we finally arrive at that feeling of being blessed in some way, perhaps by someone else’s kindness or the by recognizing the opportunities we’ve had—whatever it is—that deeply felt “thank you,” more often than not, also instills in us a desire to give back in some way. Heart-felt gratitude leads to some kind of engagement, participation, commitment, action. May we be strong for the work of our world.

But it still takes practice. I’ve given this sermon the title, “Being Thankful in a Thankless World.” I trust you all know I am not as cynical and hopeless about the world as this title suggests, but I do observe trends in our culture—behavioral trends—that drive a wedge between us and our capacity to feel gratitude. In doing my research for this sermon I was drawn to a blog post entitled “The Thankless World of the Conscientious Science Writer”[6] from Cynthia Closkey,[7] who who runs a web design firm called Big Big Design.[8] Closkey’s post led me to another post entitled “You’ve Got Mail, You Idiot,”[9] by an independent science writer named Christie Aschwanden,[10] who says that after twelve years of science writing she has learned the hard lesson that if you “tell readers that they’re wrong about something they know in their heart to be true … they will send you hate mail.” For example, she wrote an article stating that what determines whether cancer progresses is tumor biology, not a person’s attitude toward their cancer. She received a letter in response stating, “You are no scientist. You should not write. You are a foolish person.” Her article on climate change elicted this: “Get beyond your pathetic left-wing angst over the envirofacist lies.” An article contending that “taking a multivitamin won’t make you any healthier,” brought forth this gem: “You call yourself a ‘science writer’??!! Your article was all lies.”[11]

What Aschwanden is describing is not unique to her. It’s actually a widespread mode of social interaction in our nation. It’s the ‘gotcha” mentality, the red-state blue-state mentality, the liberal vs. conservative mentality. It’s road rage. It’s the phenomenon of negative political ads and this idea that a political debate can now be won not on the strength or veracity of a candidate’s arguments but simply by how frequently they interrupt their opponent, as if their belligerence and rudeness reveals some measure of their fitness for leadership. At the end of Thursday evening’s Vice Presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz asked a question submitted to her from a decorated war veteran, something along the lines of “aren’t you embarrassed by the volume of negative political ads? Why can’t the candidates refrain from tearing each other down and start to build the country up?” In their responses, both candidates thanked the veteran for his service and proceeded to tear each other down. I found it not only embarrassing, but infuriating.

I’m naming this particular kind of behavior because it has become so ubiquitous in politics, journalism, religion, and so many areas of public life. We can lean away from it and observe it and lament how common it has become—I can name it and critique it right here in this sermon—but it seems to be increasing. And I admit I get caught up in it from time to time. There is something seductive about it. I think it speaks to us at a pre-rational level. It grabs our emotions before we have time to think. It’s reptilian. It’s childish. It reminds me of my kids fighting in the back seat of the car over who touched who or who crossed over onto whose side. But for them it’s developmentally appropriate. For adults it’s not. In adults it invites us to close ranks, close down, lock in, box in, shut out, ignore, dismiss, interrupt and even, at times, attack. These are precisely the behaviors that prevent us from gaining perspective on our lives; from viewing our lives from multiple angles; from remembering how hard life can be at times; from remembering what it’s like to experience suffering and loss, and that there are far more important things at stake than belittling someone with whom we disagree—all of which we need in order to feel genuine gratitude.

That is, the contentious, polarizing, sound-bite craving, zinger-worshipping aspects of our culture lead us toward petty conflict and away from gratitude. I actually don’t believe we live in a thankless world, but in the midst of this cultural nastiness, gratitude takes practice. Gratitude requires discipline. It’s not the discipline of politeness, for while children need to learn please and thank you, our politeness is not an indication of how we actually feel. Perhaps this discipline of gratitude begins with saying grace, with finding ways to name all we’re thankful for. But I think gratitude arises ultimately from a discipline of deep self-reflection, a discipline of bearing witness to all that is our life and allowing ourselves to fully grasp our limits, our fragility, and our dependence on one another and the world around us. Grasping these things, I believe, leads us in turn to the recognition that our lives and the lives of others are indeed precious, sacred, holy. Grasping these things, I believe, leads us to the recognition that our lives and the lives of others, in the grand scheme of things, are unlikely, mysterious, miraculous gifts. Such recognitions make it possible for us to feel thankful in a thankless world.

Earlier we spoke together words from the poet Denise Levertov that capture for me the heart of this self-reflection I’m calling for. She says “an awe so quiet I don’t know where it began. A gratitude had begun to sing in me.”[12] As the thanksgiving season begins in New England, my prayer for each of us is that we may find ways to keep our hearts and minds above and beyond the fray; that we may find ways to reflect on all that is our lives; that we may experience awe in response to the gift of life; that gratitude—deep and abiding gratitude—may rise up in us like a song; and that we may be strengthened for the work of our world.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Saying Grace,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 68.

[2] Ibid., p. 69.

[3] Guengerich, Galen, “The Heart of Our Faith,” UU World Magazine, Spring 2007. See:

[4] Ibid.

[5] Findlow, Bruce, “For All That is Our Life,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #128.

[12] Levertov, Denise, “An Awe So Quiet,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #479.


Something Simpler Than I Could Ever Believe

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

Friends, once again, we arrive in the brown season, a season between seasons, the time before winter. As we sang, “Now light is less …. The haze of harvest drifts across the field …. The walker trudges ankle deep in leaves …. The blood slows trance-like in the altered vein; our vernal wisdom moves from ripe to sere.”[1] Words of the poet Theodore Roethke. Our vernal wisdom, our spring wisdom, our green wisdom, our buds blossoming on branches wisdom, our wisdom rooted in that annual March-April experience of rebirth and renewal—that wisdom moves now from ripe to sere. Sere, meaning dry, dried up, withered, cracked, bare, barren, threadbare, worn thin. We arrive in the brown season.

So many shades of brown: the last color of autumn before winter’s grey days and white snow; the endmost color of leaves; the color of empty fields; the color of dry grass; the color of “cornstalks finally bare”[2] and the remnants of apples in the far corners of orchards. Brown: the color of wheat gathered into sheaves and waiting; the color of pheasants gathering the fallen grain;[3] and my favorite, the color of pumpkins rotting on front steps, the light of their Halloween eyes long since extinguished, their once frightening faces now slowly, even comically, sinking into themselves. Brown: the color of soil, the color of dirt, the color of earth. After autumn’s beauty has shown forth, after its grandeur has lifted our spirits and taken our breath one final time, after its fanfare has inspired us one final time, it all gives way to dark, brown earth. No more pageantry. No more glory. Only dry brown leaves decaying on floors of New England woods, settling into dust and dirt, growing silent, growing still, growing receptive; receiving the cold; receiving the first, tentative snows; receiving the lengthening nights; settling down; becoming part and parcel of the dark, brown earth.

Yes, the sun does rise and shine in this season and we will see it as long as we hold our gaze in a southward direction. Yes, the blue sky does present itself in this season and we will see it if we are patient. But the prevailing color, especially the color of the land, the prevailing hue, the prevailing feeling is brown. Life moves now from ripe to sere.

The poet W.S. Merwin writes, “In the morning as the storm begins to blow away / the clear sky appears for a moment and it seems to me / that there has been something simpler than I could ever / believe / simpler than I could have begun to find words for.”[4] If I may grossly reduce these lines to a cliché, he’s talking about his experience—and I read it as a mystical, spiritual experience—of the calm after the storm. After the winds, after the rains, after the thunder and the lightening, after all the tumult—there in the breaking day, in the clear sky he encounters “something simpler than I could ever believe.” He doesn’t name this something other than to say it is “no more hidden / than the air itself that became part of me for a while / with every breath and remained with me unnoticed / something that was here unnamed unknown in the days / and the nights not separate from them.”[5]

The poet doesn’t name this something—he doesn’t know its name—but at the risk of answering a question that isn’t seeking to be fully answered, perhaps this something is Earth’s sheer beauty, or Nature’s awesome force and Her equally awesome gentleness, or the vastness of the universe, or the smallness of human beings in that vastness. Perhaps for a fleeting moment the poet grasps his connectedness to the whole of life—“the air that became a part of me for a while with every breath”[6]—or perhaps for a fleeting moment the poet grasps the sacredness of life, or the movement of a Holy Spirit, or the love of a loving God, or the designs of a Goddess overflowing with creative energy. No matter what it is, no matter what its name is, he knows it is here, it is present. That is his experience. He says, essentially, it has been here all along, though often unnoticed, unnamed and unknown, and it is “simpler than I could ever believe.” He wants to know its name. He asks, “By what name can I address it now?” Why? Because he is holding out his thanks.[7] He wants to say “thank you.” Somehow this something simpler than he could ever believe generates a feeling of gratitude in him. In a different context he might shout, “Hallelujah!”

This brown season, this season between seasons, more than any other is spiritually akin to the calm after the storm. This brown season is so unlike blissful, joyful spring’s planting and birthing; so unlike clamoring, raucous summer’s growing and ripening; so unlike glorious, celebratory autumn’s abundance and harvest. This brown season, this bare and barren and threadbare season, this sere season, this season of the birds departing for warmer climes, this season of so much life returning to the earth, this season of decay, this empty season is so different from the tumult and the glory and the pageantry that precedes it. In this season the trees strip down to their bark; the farmland and the pastures strip down to their dirt; the red, orange and yellow leaves fade down to brown; the once proud stalks and vines and grasses lose their green, lose their moisture, dry out, bend or crack, and lie down with the fallen leaves, returning slowly to the earth. As the cold increases a new quiet pervades, a deep stillness rises, much like the calm after the storm.

In this brown season may we allow ourselves, like the trees, to strip down to our bark, to reveal our true selves, to remove all pretense, to hide nothing—no more colorful masks, no more splendid costumes—not in this season. Just our true selves, our real selves, our essential selves. No more holding our tongues when we ought to speak up, no more denials that compromise our values, no more shadings of the truth, no more unreasonable contortions for the sake of pleasing others. Just ourselves, stripped down to our bark—simpler than we could ever believe.

In this brown season may we allow ourselves, like the farmland and the pastures, to strip down to our dirt, to strip down to the ground in which we are rooted, to strip down to that which holds us, to that which nurtures and nourishes us, to that which, when the springtime comes, will cause us to grow and bear fruit; to strip down to that without which we would not be ourselves; to strip down to that without which we could not survive; to strip down to that without which we would lose all sense of meaning and purpose. Just ourselves, stripped down to our dirt, to that which holds us—simpler than we could ever believe.

In this brown season may we allow ourselves, like the majestic autumn leaves, to fade down to brown; to let the cycles of life be the cycles of life; to move and flow with Nature, not against her; to accept life as it comes and as it is, rather than force it into some shape, some pattern, some color whose time is over. Just ourselves, fading down to brown—simpler than we could ever believe.

In this brown season may we allow ourselves, like the once proud stalks and vines and grasses now losing their moisture, to lie down with the fallen leaves, so that we may remember and know and trust our oneness with the dark, brown earth; so that we may remember and know and trust our origins in the dark, brown earth; so that we may remember and know and trust that some day we too shall return to the dark, brown earth; so that we may be mindful of our ancestors, mindful of so many generations of human beings and their precursors who lived as one with the dark, brown earth and who, in their own time, returned to the dark, brown earth; so that we may be mindful of their gods and goddesses who were also one with the dark, brown earth; their divine names and their divine powers perhaps forgotten, but their spirit still infused in the dust and muck of the dark, brown earth. Just ourselves, laying down with the fallen leaves—simpler than we could ever believe.

In this brown season, as the cold increases, as a new quiet pervades, as a deep stillness rises, may we sense, feel, intuit, grasp, perceive, know, imagine, dream the presence of something simpler than we could ever believe—something simpler than any words we might find, something emerging from the time before words, emerging at once from some place within us and someplace beyond us where words aren’t necessary, something that has always been there, that has always been present, no more hidden than the air, something with us but unnoticed, something potent but unnamed, something abiding but unknown, something, as the poet says, “in the days and the nights not separate from them / not separate from them as they came and were gone,”[8] something essential, something sustaining, something nourishing, something holy, something sacred, something of the earth’s sheer beauty, or something of Nature’s awesome power and her awesome gentleness, or something of the vastness of the universe, or something of the smallness of human beings in that vastness, or something of our connectedness to the whole of life, or something of a Holy Spirit, or something of a loving God, or something of a Goddess overflowing with creative energy, or something that is felt more than spoken, something that moves up and down our spines but never quite comes to mind, something of the heart that ultimately defies naming—something simpler than we could ever believe, but right here, with us, now.

May we come close to that simple something in this brown season and be filled with gratitude for the blessings of our lives, whatever they may be. May we come close to that simple something in this brown season and hold out our thanks. May we come close to that simple something in this brown season and mouth the words, “thank you.” As “the haze of harvest drifts across the field,”[9] thank you. As “the walker trudges ankle deep in leaves,”[10] thank you. As our vernal wisdom moves from ripe to sere,”[11] thank you. As the trees strip down to their bark, thank you. As the land strips down to its dirt, thank you. As the pheasants gather in the fallen grain,[12] thank you. As apples brown in the far corners of orchards and Halloween pumpkins rot on front steps, thank you. As dry, brown leaves decay on floors of New England woods and once proud stalks and vines and grasses join them, returning to dirt and dust and muck, thank you. As the cold increases, as a new quiet pervades, as a deep stillness rises and we come close to that simple something, thank you.

Thank you for this gift of life—this unimaginable, improbable gift of life—this life that contains so much joy and pleasure, so much pain and suffering—this exquisite life, this fragile life that is also resilient; this fleeting life that is also full; this fated life that is also free. This life—this one life we know we have—may we live it well.

And thank you for this gift of time—this unimaginable, improbable gift of time—this precious time, this sweet time, this fantastic time; our far-too-brief time upon this earth.  May we spend this time well.

And thank you for all that sustains us in this life, in this time—our families, our friends, our lovers, our partners, our neighbors, our mentors, our colleagues, and all those who serve in some way; the fields, the farms, the orchards that yield a bountiful harvest, the animals whose flesh becomes meat, the reservoirs that hold and give water, the green life that yields oxygen; the poets, the singers, the dancers, the artists, the writers, the preachers, the philosophers, the teachers, the healers—all those whose life-work and vision touch our hearts and our souls and make us whole; the inner resources we find when there is nothing else, the inner strength, the patience, the endurance, the persistence, the faith, the trust, the will to meet whatever challenges we must meet. May we use these sustaining resources well.

Friends, once again, we arrive in the brown season, a season between seasons, the time before winter. On this day of arrival, no matter what forces conspire to keep us distant from the earth, callous towards the earth, fearful of the earth and all its wild things; no matter what forces conspire to instill in us a desire to keep our hands clean, let us find some way to embrace the dark, brown earth; let us find some way to touch the dark, brown earth; let us find some way to offer thanks to the dark, brown earth; let us find some way to work and play in the dark, brown earth. Let us find some way to love the dark, brown earth. And let us come close to that something simpler than we could ever believe.

Thank you dark, brown earth. Thank you.

Amen and Blessed.

[1] Roethke, Theodore, “Now Light Is Less” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #54.

[2] Ungar, Lynn, “Thanksgiving,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House, 1996) p. 13.

[3] Ungar, “Thanksgiving,” p. 13.

[4]Merwin, W. S., “Just Now,” in Keillor, Garrison, ed., Good Poems for Hard Times (New York: Penguin Books, 2005) p. 289.

[5] Merwin, “Just Now,” p. 289.

[6] Merwin, “Just Now,” p. 289.

[7] Merwin, “Just Now,” p. 289.

[8]Merwin, “Just Now,” p. 289.

[9] Roethke, Theodore, “Now Light Is Less,” #54.

[10] Roethke, Theodore, “Now Light Is Less,” #54.

[11] Roethke, Theodore, “Now Light Is Less,” #54.

[12] Ungar, “Thanksgiving,” p. 13.