Ten days before my mother died on October 3, 2011 at the age of 101, I wrote on a piece of paper for her the following words: God has been with you throughout your whole life.
Mom was in her wheelchair and Jim and I were sitting on a bench in the little garden of the facility where she had been living for the past nine months.
Mom, whose hearing had been poor for years, but who could still read without her glasses, looked deliberately at what I had written. Although she was slowing down mentally, with effort, the synapses in her brain still connected.
“It’s true,” she said as she nodded her head and pursed her lips.
But she wasn’t finished. After another pause, she offered her final words, “Very grateful.” She never spoke again, but she didn’t need to; she had said it all.
Three weeks later at her memorial service her minister talked about gratitude as one of the cornerstones of Christian faith, and how Mom had taught him that. From the first time he met her, he was aware that it was the foundation of her faith and thus it would become an important cornerstone of his faith as well.
As we just heard, Paul was clear about gratitude. Giving thanks was up front and center in his letters. We have to remember that he wrote before the Gospels were written, so his letters are the first written record we have of what Jesus’ life was all about. Paul was working out the good news, just as we are doing today.
Jesus’ message about gratitude, on the other hand, is less obvious, more nuanced. Unlike Paul’s letters, Jesus wrote nothing down. Whereas Paul wrote in concrete terms, Jesus spoke in parables. Whereas Paul tells us to give thanks, to ‘just do it’, Jesus shows us how difficult it is to get to the point of gratitude. He seems to suggests that coming to gratitude is a life process and that our specific expression and understanding of it differs from everyone else’s, including, and perhaps most particularly our parents and siblings. Jesus also implies, I believe, that forgiveness is a sometimes a precursor to gratitude. Or to phrase it another way, we can’t be fully grateful if we have something we still need to forgive.
With this in mind, let us look briefly at the brother, son and father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. I refer to them in a different order than they appear in the parable as a way of emphasizing that coming to gratitude is a process.
First, the brother. We’ve all been there with feelings of jealousy and resentment that prevent us from forgiving. The brother really shows no gratitude, but perhaps the way the father speaks to him, and speaks of welcoming his brother, will lead him to forgiveness and gratitude later on. The brother’s story isn’t over.
The Prodigal Son. His journey indicates a process toward gratitude. Before he went off and squandered his fortune, he may have felt gratitude for being born into a family of wealth. In fact, some kind of gratitude may have been with him as he traveled home. But, in being willing to work as a farm hand for his father on the family homestead indicates a turn to humility and a desire to be forgiven, both harbingers of gratitude. His story isn’t over, either.
The father (metaphor for God). This parable doesn’t tell us much about the father prior to him seeing from afar his returning son, but I think that we can assume that as a human being he had experienced an array of negative emotions–disappointment, anger, fear, frustration, regret–leading up to that moment of gratitude. Here he reminds us that forgiveness frees us to be grateful. It isn’t always easy to get to that place but it is God’s will, regardless of life’s situations. God’s story has always been over because God has always forgiven us; God has always loved us. And yes, God is still speaking…because we are still learning this.
Forgiveness, however, isn’t always a key element in gratitude, as you will see in the following stories.
The other day I visited a long-time friend of MCC. Norma is housebound and has a very difficult time moving her legs. But she does her own house cleaning and cooking, and with the help of her son Joe who comes from Connecticut once a week to do the grocery shopping and little chores, such as changing light bulbs, Norma can remain in her home of many years. Without my prodding, she offered that every morning when she wakes up she starts with gratitude, gratitude for the beautiful day and for the fact that she can still live in her own home.
This starting the day with gratitude reminds me of Paul’s letters. It’s a given for him and it can be a given for us. Jim and I try to start the day what we’re grateful for. I must admit that they often center around the blessings and bounty that we have in our lives—health, family, a beautiful New England day. What a grateful way to start!
But it doesn’t have to be those obvious feel-good moments. Gratitude can also be found in the deep tragedies of life, and that is where lie our Christian challenge and Christian hope.
My friend Vicki, a UCC pastor, shared just this. Nine months ago her son Tyler he took his life. He was 32. It has been hard, oh so hard on Vicki, her husband, and their daughter. Here is the gist of what she told me over lunch a few weeks ago. ‘Our life will never be the same. But I am grateful that God has embraced me during this difficult time. And I am grateful knowing that Tyler is at peace and surrounded by God. I don’t know how, but I believe it, and I am grateful for continued hope.”
Early this week I emailed Vicki asking for permission to tell her story. “Of course you can talk about us—David and Laurent too!” And then she went on:
“Isn’t it interesting how the practice of gratitude actually is contagious? I often cite Meister Eckhart when he said, “If the only prayer you offer is “thank you”, it is enough.” And I smile . . . because I have had parishioners quote it back to me!
Practicing gratitude is so important to me even when I am in spiritual pain. In the wake of Tyler’s passing, the only thing I could think of to relieve the grief was to give immediate thanks to God for the time and space we shared. That is why I chose the song, “Thankful” for his service before anything else. It just helped beyond measure.
I find too that I thank God even when I am struggling to name why. It doesn’t matter why. What matters – and here is the blessing from my perspective – is that saying “thank you” pulls me closer to God. God is real and time and again, I have felt God’s comfort, embrace and peace that surpasses my understanding to be sure.”
Then there is this acknowledgment from my cousin Jack’s wife, Evelyn. She and Jack knew Mom well and had attended her memorial service and heard the ‘very grateful’ message from Mom’s minister. Thirteen years prior, within the span of five days, a rare virus took the life of their young adult daughter. A year ago January I received the following email from Evelyn.
Dear Bobbi: This is what happened to me yesterday as I was coming to grips with the fact that it has been 12 years since we lost Janie and how strong that pain still is. I decided to make myself feel better and went to my little Japanese hairdresser down the road where the gentle smiles and the massage of head and shoulders comes with the haircut. On the way home I drove behind a car and to my amazement noticed the license plate which said “Greatful” (that was the spelling). It was such a powerful reminder of dear Janet and of the importance of that word whether in pain or in the ups and downs of daily life, and so I am passing this on to you. Evelyn
My mother experienced pain and ups and downs in her life, but her Christian faith gave her hope. She knew that gratitude involved forgiving, letting go personal control and lifting it all to God. Her last words, ‘Very Grateful’, are testimony to her faith, and are a gift to me, my siblings and family, and to whomever I tell the story. And so, I pass this gift on to you. Our story isn’t over. God is still speaking….Listen and be grateful.
Bobbi Fisher 7/20/14