My Mother used to say of her Grandmother, my Great-grandmother, “I never knew anyone with so few of the world’s goods who lived with such a great sense of being thankful for what she saw as her many blessings.” Granny Ingle would often say, “The Lord blesses me so richly.”
She lived to a ripe old age and didn’t die until I was about 20 so I got to know her fairly well. I never knew her to have a place of her own to live; she was shuffled between the homes of her three children and her first-born grandchild, my Mom. Two homes in Ohio, and two homes in Tennessee. She was treated well by almost everyone, including her bevy of great-grandchildren. Mom absolutely adored her both because she was a lovely, positive person and because, when Mom was a little girl and her 17 year old, unmarried mother was often away from home for chunks of time trying to figure out life, Granny took care of Mom. Living with her son, Mom’s uncle, Granny cooked for her, did her laundry, got her to school and back, lovingly tucked her in at night, and got her to Sunday School and church almost every Sunday.
When Mom was about 7 years old, her appendix ruptured. By the time Granny and Uncle Leon could get her to a hospital, the doctor told them that it was too late, that too much poison would have spread through her system by this point. Granny Ingle, who was entirely unassertive in most cases, spoke up and said, “No, doctor. You find a surgeon who can get inside and repair the damage. God will guide him.” The doctor did as he was asked, and Mom, near death according to the surgeon’s assessment, was taken into surgery.
This was some 71 years ago. You can imagine how primitive the operating room was in a small town in the mountains of north Georgia. The surgeon nonetheless operated, and Granny prayed, believing in the best possible outcome. It took Mother a long time to get well, as Granny waited on her hand and foot, but she did, indeed, get well with only one sign of that terrible trauma: a horrendous scar across the length of her abdomen and running up to the base of her rib cage.
Mom never forgot who was at her bedside day and night while she was getting well, and when Granny was at our house she was treated like a queen. Though Mom worked outside our home, she insisted on cooking for Granny. Granny had no chores at our house. She could use her time to read her Bible, watch a little television, pray, and rock. Granny was half Cherokee and, in keeping with that part of her cultural experience, took pride, the good and appropriate kind of pride, in her long hair, which Mom delighted in combing and braiding.
Granny prayed beautiful prayers when Dad called on her to say the blessing before a meal. As Mom said, Granny believed that she was rich in what really mattered to her in this world, and her profound gratitude influenced everything about how she thought and talked and lived.
My world does not push me to live with a thankful heart; it would have me focussing on what I don’t have rather than what I do have, and I’m not speaking exclusively about materialism though that is the first love of modern First World societies across the globe. Sometimes, the world gets the upper hand, and I’m caught up in a preoccupation with what I don’t have, leaving no energy for pondering what I do have–again, not speaking from an exclusively materialistic point of view. I understand why many people, all over the world, can’t find a reason when they awaken day after day to give thanks for the danger or the hunger or the emotional pain through which they will have to live until the next round of sleep gives them a slight reprieve.
More often, however, I can hear Granny Ingle whispering in my ear some kind of way, “Ain’t God good, honey? The Bible says that all the good gifts and all perfect gifts comes from God. Don’t ever forget that.” (If she used correct grammar, I’d know it was someone else whispering in my ear since Granny only had a third or fourth grade education.) She had that Bible verse from the King James Version of the book of James in mind a lot; this is how the translators of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translate James chapter1, verse 17 today: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the God of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” I’m sure you’re almost as impressed with my theological sophistication as I am, and I want you to know that what I’m about to tell you does not take away from my progressive theological outlook. I believe that God is in or behind all good in some kind of way. Whether or not we recognize or acknowledge it, I believe it is nonetheless true.
By no means am I diminishing the place of humanity in bringing good to fruition, but I am persuaded that God lures us toward what is good–whether that is going on in a scientific research lab or in a seriously broken relationship that, against all the odds, gets mended. Keep in mind that I believe God is the Life-force and the Life-source, not your fairy godmother.
In any case, I knew what Granny meant when she said it out loud as she lived in this realm, and I know what she means when my memories of her cause me to recall her words, as if whispered in my ear right now. With that understanding of the source of all goodness, it is also sensible and meaningful for me to be influenced by what Meister Eckhart, the German philosopher and mystic, said in the early 1300’s: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.”
November 4 was the eleventh anniversary of Dad’s death, and on that day I was thinking back to our last moments with him after the life support equipment was turned off. After he took what appeared to be his last breath, the nurse came in and said, “I’m so sorry, but he’s gone. The doctor will be here in a second to confirm it, but I wouldn’t have said it if there was any doubt about it.” Shocking, debilitating words even when you expect to hear them and think you’re mentally prepared to do so. My sister, Kim, was the first of us gathered around his critical care bed to be able to speak. After near silence and many tears for what seemed like a long time, she pointed to Dad and said, “Just think how we’ve been blessed.” No truer words.
I think it was in 1946 that Ethel Merman debuted Irving Berlin’s lyrics in the Broadway show, “Annie Get Your Gun.”
Got no diamond, got no pearl Still I think I’m a lucky girl
I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night
Got no mansion, got no yacht
Still I’m happy with what I’ve got
I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night
Sunshine gives me a lovely day
Moonlight gives me the Milky Way
Got no checkbooks, got no banks
Still I’d like to express my thanks
I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night
And with the sun in the morning
And the moon in the evening I’m all right
Got no butler, got no maid
Still I think I’ve been overpaid
I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night
Got no silver, got no gold
What I got can’t be bought or sold
I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night
Got no heirlooms for my kin
Made no will but when I cash in
I leave the sun in the morning and the moon at night
And with the sun in the morning And the moon in the evening they’re all right
Here is a biblical reference that I think is unintelligible to most people around the world today–not all, but most. The words come from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Church at Philippi, and they are not unintelligible because Paul is off on some obtuse theological rabbit chase, but because we cannot practically comprehend what he is describing, much like our response to Jesus telling his followers to pray for their enemies. Nonetheless, I’m going to read this brief testimony from Paul to the Philippians:
I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through the One who strengthens me.
See what I mean?
How many people do you know, yourself included, who could say with Paul, and mean it sincerely, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have”? This is not intended to be a confession of concession, meaning that if I’m homeless I will give in to my plight and remain homeless for the rest of my life. What Paul meant was that, until the rough stuff takes a vacation and what is unpleasant to me can be turned around, I’m still going to try to find ways to affirm that life is worth holding on to. When I’m sitting in the lap of luxury I’m not going to act like there’s little fun or enjoyment in it, but I won’t, however, let myself be duped into believing that materialistic abundance is required to make life worth living.
The wife of my major professor in seminary and I ended up in his office at the same time, waiting for him to return one day. He was busy hosting one of the great preachers of the day who was the guest of the seminary for several days–preaching in chapel, lecturing in preaching classes, and so on. To be such a prominent person in those days, he was exceptionally warm and approachable, and not all the big time preachers we hosted through the years were either friendly or tolerant of students.
This preacher, after an illustrious career that included preaching and other speaking opportunities around the world, ample writing opportunities, and wide affirmation as a pulpit master, was recently retired from his very affluent congregation. Given the congregation he served along with the abundance of opportunities that came his way, he had grown wealthy without a mega congregation or a television show. Imagine that! Anyway, he had told Mrs. Cox the previous evening at dinner that he’d gotten to an odd and unexpected and unwanted place in life. He’d earned more money than he ever thought possible. He’d invested well. He told her that he’d bought everything he ever wanted or could dream of wanting. He’d been all over the world a number of times and couldn’t think of any place he wanted to see that he hadn’t already seen. Rich and famous as a preacher for his time, he retired near the age of 65, which people in that time in most careers were pretty much expected to do, and he was bored with his present and his prospects for his future. Mrs. Cox thought that was very sad, and I agreed. Tragically, there was no internet in those days, or his problems would have been solved!
Counting our many blessings, as one of the hymn writers urged us to do, does not or should not mean loving that fat bank account or relishing vast real estate holdings, multiple residences, and a fleet of automobiles. We should be able to count blessings and give thanks without any thought of material advantage. Shame on the growing number of prosperity gospel preachers around the world who try to convince their hearers that divine rewards are tangible rewards, and shame on those hearers who have the sense to know better than to believe what their prosperity pastor is preaching to them but who let themselves believe it anyway. The prosperity gospel preachers wouldn’t still be around if they any difficulty building followings.
Just ahead of the passage from Paul about contentment at all places along the continuum of materialism along with whatever plight in which one found oneself, he had said this to the Philippians:
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus, the Anointed One.”
With thanksgiving. At the heart of communing with God is thanksgiving, at the heart of affirming life is thanksgiving, and at the heart of contentment is thanksgiving. Without some sense of gratitude embedded in our depths, there is no possibility for enjoying and embracing life. Here’s one example: “If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if the simple things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice for your soul is alive.” Insights from Eleonora Duse.
I’m a great fan of a modern martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant theologian, ethicist, and pastor who openly opposed Hitler and eventually was sent to a concentration camp for his lack of patriotism and his companion opposition to the movement to create Hitler’s “super race.” Just a handful of days before the Allies won the war and began freeing captives as quickly as they could, Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging in the camp where he’d been imprisoned. He died, still a young man, but nonetheless left us many powerful lessons about values and how to live. In relationship to our subject today, he said, “In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.” One compound sentence, two powerful life-changers.
We most of us hurry through life, and if we are givers at all, we casually assume that we are giving more than others; the truth, most often, however, is that we are gifted more often than we gift. That fact should alter our attitudes and our appointment books. His second eye-opener, already alluded to in ways today, reminds us to take in the reality that no one is really wealthy in this world who lives without gratitude, and there are surprisingly large numbers of people who, for all sorts of reasons, lack the capacity to be grateful about anything or anyone.
My all-time favorite person from the Enlightenment era is Voltaire who detested religious intolerance more than anything in the world and who believed that anyone, however highly or widely regarded, attributing tragedy to God was an idiot if not a spokesperson for evil. This brilliant playwright, historian, poet, essayist, and activist said of gratitude: “Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”
As you heard, Proverbs 79 in The Humanist Bible reads as follows:
Do not cut down the tree that gives you shade. Praise the bridge that carried you over. Mere words are empty thanks. Most people’s gratitude is but the hope of receiving more. Gratitude soon grows old and dies.
Five sentences, thoughtful, telling, and subtly challenging. Three of them stand out most to me.
Let’s think a little more about the one that that seems the most self-evident and easy to demonstrate. “Mere words are empty thanks.” Words are certainly not worthless. No, no, no, no, no! Words well-chosen and correctly used are astounding tools for communication. They can certainly zing us and sting us, but they can also teach us and help us feel love and concern from others. So, the teaching from this Humanist proverb is not that words lack significance. Hardly! Words unaccompanied by actions consistent with the words, though, make the words worthless.
To commit to faithfulness and monogamy in a marriage or in a civil union ceremony can be a very powerful promise and a sign of the depth and power of love. If, however, the person who made that promise has a cyber affair or an in-person sexual affair, all of those beautiful words of promise dating back to the ceremony of union mean nothing. They mean nothing now, and their presumed meaning all the way back to when they were first spoken crumbles as well.
I’m not saying a marriage or partnership is or should be over if one or both parties “cheat,” that’s the subject for another sermon or a series of therapy sessions with a crackerjack marriage counselor. What I am saying, though, is that the act of unfaithfulness made the words originally spoken empty words; yes, new promises can be made, but actions spoke more loudly than the first promises of faithfulness. Words charged with meaning and inspiration became empty, useless, pointless.
Well, you know very well that the same is true of saying words of gratitude, but not living in such a way as to demonstrate gratitude. Your friend tells you, “I so appreciate your taking me to the stop smoking seminar. Thank you,” she says as she lights one up. “Oh. Don’t worry! This is my once a day drag; eventually it will go away too.” Sure it will–any moment now. President Kennedy said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
The second of those standout sentences from the Humanist proverb for me: “Most people’s gratitude is but the hope of receiving more.” Is that true? If so, it’s awful. Do I express my thanks to you when you have given me a gift only because I’m laying the groundwork for more such gifts from you? If so, I didn’t deserve the first gift. This kind of insincerity is not gratitude; it’s manipulation.
I don’t watch “The Simpsons” as much as I’d like to; the show really is a phenomenon. I do watch sometimes, though. Homer isn’t really a religious person, but like a lot of people we all know, he turns to religion when he’s in a jam or when he wants something badly enough that he will give prayer a try. I remember one of Homer’s prayers of gratitude to God. It went something like this:
“Dear Lord: The gods have been good to me. [That was an utterly stupid statement in a prayer addressed to the one God; I hope you caught just how rude and ignorant it was!] For the first time in my life, everything is absolutely perfect just the way it is. So here’s the deal: You freeze everything the way it is, and I won’t ask for anything more. If that is OK, please give me absolutely no sign. OK, deal. In gratitude, I present you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, give me no sign. Thy will be done.”
In a “Miss Manners” type of article, Anna North wrote a word about thank you notes:
People are so used to being thanked as an afterthought–or as a precursor to another request–that they’re shocked when you just want to say thank you. In college, I once had the job of calling up donors simply to thank them–not to ask for more money–and they were totally confused.
I’ve received two notes from car salespersons in the past thanking me for buying a car from them and in the same note telling me about a special sale coming up the next week or the next month. Talk about killing three birds with one stone: saying thank you, announcing the upcoming auto sale in which the car I just bought is less expensive, and losing me as a customer forever for using the pretense of gratitude to get something else out of me.
The third of those words from the Humanist proverb that grabbed me: “Gratitude soon grows old and dies.” To me this means gratitude that was real gratitude when it was new and fresh goes unexpressed long enough, gets stale, then old, and finally dies. Not only did the person who did something kind for me never know that I, at first, felt tremendous gratitude for the kindness, but also if I don’t express it in a timely manner the gratitude dies within me. The effect is the same as if I never felt any gratitude at all.
Most of us who care about giving gifts when we can and doing things that help others don’t do either because we expect any expression of gratitude in return. We do what we do out of love and/or concern. Nothing more, but if there is to be an expression of gratitude in response, let it come when I can still remember whatever it was that I gave you or did for you. For most of us, as we age, that means a month after the fact is much better than two years after the fact.
I’ve received a few notes through the years from former parishioners or former students or former contributors to one of the magazines I edited. Parishioners I have rarely forgotten, but a student who studied with me in one course or a contributor who contributed two pieces to Pulpit Digest in my 18-year run as editor, I have often forgotten. The notes will be too general for me to be able to piece the details together or, as I said, even the persons who wrote the very thoughtful notes. “Dear Dr. Farmer, I was looking back through some of my old school work the other day, and I was reminded of what you did for me that term that changed the whole course of my life. I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not stumbled into your speech course at one of those schools I attended–not sure which one. Gratefully, Sarah Palin.”
I must be, or at least have been at some point, a really wonderful guy! What in the world did I do? Of course, I’d never write back and ask so I put the note in my rainy day box where I put communications from folks who thought I did something that helped them along the way. I like to be reminded privately now and then that, probably without going out of my way in the least, I made a little difference in someone’s life, and someday I want my children and grandchildren to read those notes too so that they might understand why I spend my time the way I do.
The gratitude that others express to me–though never required or expected if I am where I should be emotionally and spiritually–pleases me, surprises me, lifts me up, but the gratitude I feel toward other people, toward God who is love, toward the Universe is what truly enriches my life. Why, then, would I be careless enough to let such gratitude die?