Counting and Counting On Our Blessings
Sam Trumbore | May 16, 2016

Counting your blessings is good for your spirit, your emotional health and well-being. Counting on your blessings empowers you to be a force for good in the world too.

Now, I know that some of you may be uncomfortable with the term, “blessing” that is laden with theological baggage. Today, I’m defining it, as many use it, as “good fortune” or “luck” rather than “gift of God.”  We can’t know if a blessing came from God or not so it is far better not to assume divine favor or examine the gift horse too closely.  Let us just be grateful for any blessings in our lives without trying to justify them.

Using this definition, everyone reading this is abundantly blessed. Even if there are a few exceptions, just about everyone here:

  • Had a good breakfast or had adequate food and drink in the last twenty-four hours;
  • Had the opportunity for a hot shower or could wash using water that came from a tap;
  • Had a warm place to sleep last night with a roof over their heads;
  • Had a selection of clean clothes to wear and shoes to put on.
  • Had access to transportation to get here that involved wheels, a marvelous blessing all its own.

But the biggest blessing almost all of us have is American citizenship.  Say what you will about the problems in this country, one need only empathize with a Syrian refugee to grasp how fortunate we are to be part of a nation of laws, mostly enforced fairly, without internal violent rebellion.

This is just the beginning of the list most of us could make about the blessings of birth, education, opportunity and medical care that have eased our lives over the years.  Of course we could also make a list of our problems … but hold that thought for the moment.

What about the blessings this congregation enjoys?  They are many and worth naming a few:

  • We have over 170 years of history behind us here in the Capital of New York.
  • We have had distinguished members from early on like Millard Fillmore and Harmanus Bleeker.
  • For many, many years, the American Unitarian Association gave this congregation financial support to pay the minister’s salary.
  • The AUA bought and gave us the land on which the sanctuary and Channing Hall were built in 1926.
  • From early on, we’ve been involved in supporting social causes including the formation of Planned Parenthood, Equinox, the Honest Weight Food Coop, legislative advocacy for women’s reproductive rights in the 1960’s, fighting Albany’s Democratic machine and the five dollar vote in the 1960’s, for GLBTQ rights from the 1970’s, providing sanctuary for Nicaraguan refugees in the 1980’s, just to touch a few of the many actions and initiatives we’ve been part of.
  • Today we can celebrate nine years of using this beautiful space that has enhanced our Sunday morning experience and created space for all kinds of new activities to happen like our May Pole two weeks ago, we couldn’t do before.

Our congregation is on a sound financial footing, with a great staff and a well maintained facility that looks great. Whenever I give a tour to other ministers or church leaders, they are always amazed at the abundance of space we enjoy. Every time I walk into this space, I have to almost pinch myself to believe we were able to accomplish this building expansion successfully and without blood-shed.  And with the refinancing plan you’ll be approving at the annual meeting, affordably.

We also live at a blessed time of human civilization.  Reading Clara Barton’s biography, I was reminded of the bad old days when the streets of Washington DC were mud mixed with horse excrement and cow dung.  Doctors prescribed cocaine and opium as a medication often doing more harm than good. Surgeons didn’t wash their hands because they didn’t understand the theory of germs.  Tuberculosis, small pox, polio and influenza claimed millions of lives.  And of course those were the days of slavery and Jim Crow.  Yes we have problems today, no question, but when I hear the expression being used, “Make America great again,” I hear, “Make America backward and racist again.”  There aren’t any good old days to go back to for people of African descent and gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgender and queer people.

When I look at the abundance of fresh food in the grocery store, the amazing technological and inter-connective power in this smart phone I can hold in the palm of my hand, the relative peace we have in the world overall and the number of international agreements, the quality of life today is on average quite good.  But sadly, for the people in the developed world, it may not feel like it.  It is so easy to take for granted so much of the high quality of life we enjoy.

Part of the reason for this is how our minds work.  Rick Hansen has popularized awareness of the bias our brains have.  He talks about it as the carrot and stick problem. If I am walking along in the forest and see the distinctive green tops of carrots popping out of the ground, I may or may not notice and stop to enjoy this delicious root vegetable.  But if the limb of a tree breaks off and starts falling toward my head, if I don’t notice and step out of the way, I’m dead. Noticing potential threats preoccupies the mind far more than attending to potential opportunities for pleasure and enjoyment. (unless it has to do with mating and producing children.  In that case, sex usually overcomes the stick)

The problem with the negative bias of our minds is it limits our imagination of what is possible. It limits our willingness to take significant risks. It limits our ability to act in a creative and visionary way.

And watching for sticks all the time just doesn’t make our congregation very attractive.  We need to keep it in balance with our visionary work to implement our mission. It was visionary courage that helped us build this space to begin with. And Emerson Community Hall continues to be a source of positive inspiration.

Our beloved, dearly departed historian, Eva Gemmill, put together a record of that process in a book she called, a Space Odyssey. That Odyssey today has become our “Space Mission,” sharing our space with the community to support our mission and values.

That effort was in full force this weekend into tomorrow morning. Friday night we provided accommodations here for participants who came to protest Saturday against the Bomb Trains.  Saturday morning we hosted a workshop on Islam fostering better understanding.  Monday morning, we’ll be hosting Albany Promise, working on improvements in public education.

Here are just a few of the other ways we have used our space to help make a positive difference:

  • We’ve provided a meeting place for the Washington Square Neighborhood Association and before that A Regional Initiative Supporting Empowerment do community organizing.
  • Each week we host an Alcoholics Anonymous and a large Narcotics Anonymous group to assist people in recovery from substance abuse.
  • We regularly host learning, growth and development opportunities that are open to the public.
  • This fall we provided space for the League of Women Voters’ candidate debate for the County Council elections. We have had Ralph Nader use our space.  In the past, our building has been the platform for Zephyr Teachout, Sharon Salzberg and Gloria Steinem along with Albany mayors and local representatives and senators.

And I don’t think we’ve fully realized our capacity for our “space mission.” We could be more active in using our space as a home for community organizing. We could have more support groups to serve needs beyond these walls for people experiencing challenging setbacks and transitions in their lives.  We could have more learning and growth opportunities that serve people wanting to equip themselves to live more fully and fairly in an increasingly diverse society.  And as an election season approaches this fall, I hope we’ll offer the candidates an opportunity to present their platforms and respond to question.

Let us move from just enjoying the blessings that have accrued to this congregation and find ways to share them with the wider community.  Let us feed the virtuous circle that will lift up Albany along with this congregation to form a better tomorrow.

Benediction

“Despite all the darkness, human hope is based on the instinct that at the deepest level of reality some intimate kindness holds sway. This is the heart of blessing. To believe in blessing is to believe that our being here, our very presence in the world is the first gift; the primal blessing.” — John O’Donohue, from To Bless the Space Between Us