Say It Now
Two weeks ago today, at 2:45 a.m., the telephone rang at our house and my heart nearly jumped out of my chest. You come out of sleep at that ungodly hour knowing that it’s not the guy who wants to sell you siding for your house, and it’s not someone calling for a donation to the Sedgwick County Firefighters. Your mind tells you instantly that those people are all asleep — this has to be something bigger than that. And not big because it’s such good news that somebody just can’t wait to tell you, like Ed McMahon calling from Publisher’s Clearing House to say you’ve just won the jackpot. No, you think, as you fumble for the phone, when a call comes at this hour of the night it’s from someone in the family, or it’s about someone in the family, and it’s not likely to be good news. As soon as you hear the first scared word, you know it isn’t. “Dad…. “
The bachelor son in Colorado is so upset he doesn’t even sound like himself. “Dad, I’ve just wrecked the car. I’m not hurt much, just banged around a little, but I’m really worried about the car. I think there could be a lot of damage.” From the desperate tone of his voice I know what the last sentence means: to save money he has opted out of carrying collision insurance and is facing a total loss, but it isn’t the moment to mention how bad that choice was, so I say what you say when the warm wave of relief rolls over you and dissolves your worst fears: “Cars are expendable, son, you’re not — I’m glad you were not hurt.” When I asked how it happened, he said he had gone to see Jesus Christ, Superstar and on the way home had hit a patch of black ice and skidded off the road into a ravine. I began to understand why he was so badly scared he could hardly talk: a car off the road at 2:30 in the morning with the temperature below zero — if he’s knocked unconscious and nobody comes by on that country road, he can freeze to death. He has every right to shake!
I mention this personal moment because after we hung up, the one overwhelm-ing feeling I had was gratitude. There’d be some heavy expense for a kid who is one of Aspen’s underpaid servant class, and there’d be some long inconvenient bus rides while the car is being fixed, but what really filled my mind was a fervent thankfulness that it had not been worse. And this sermon springs directly out of my ever-growing conviction that there is almost always something to be grateful for, and that if you hope to be a whole and happy human being you had better find it, over and over — and express it as often as possible. I confess that this seems so important to me that if someone asked, “What single attitude, above all others, makes people healthy and happy?” I would say, “A constant sense of gratitude — not simply when all goes well and its easy, but the will to find, even in bad times, something for which one can be thankful.”
A poet named John Oxenham says it about as well as anyone: “Thank God for sleep! / And, when you cannot sleep, / Still thank Him that you live / To lie awake.” We have an interesting approach to life. When bad things happen, one on top of the other — when as Shakespeare puts it, the “sorrows come not single spies but in battalions” — we challenge the world’s justice and ask, “Why me?” But when good things happen, we simply take it for granted that this is how it should be. It doesn’t occur to us then to ask “Why me? Do I really deserve so much more good luck than some other fine people I know?” As the late great tennis star Arthur Ashe said once, “We have no right to ask ‘Why me?’ in our misfortunes if we have never asked ‘Why me?’ in our triumphs.” You don’t have to tell me, by the way, how out of sync that is with current fashion among many successful athletes and movie stars whose theme song is, “Why not me?” and consider it weakness to confess they are indebted to anyone else for their good fortune. Television and movies make people into stars overnight, and when that kind of instant fame and fortune come, they are not likely to ask “Why me?” Some do, of course. One of my old favorites among film stars was Spencer Tracy, who remembered where he came from and how lucky he was. “There were times,” he said, “when my pants were so thin I could sit on a dime and tell if it was heads or tails.” People with memories like that seldom forget to be grateful.
I should remind you, I suppose, that although I am using a great many illustrative stories this morning instead of quoting passages of Scripture, this is a profoundly Biblical topic. Over and over, in one form or another, someone in the Bible is saying “Let us be grateful….” [Heb.12:28] and words like “thankful” and “thankful-ness” show up in nearly 200 different places. Gratitude, in Christian scripture, is usually about relationships rather than things, an idea celebrated in a poem I came across last summer and kept for a sermon like this one. It’s called Praying for stuff, and my guess is that the words of it will hit home for many of us:
“Sometimes I forget to consider the lilies of the field which neither toil nor labor for their keep. Part of me is always searching for stuff instead of seeking ways to improve the merchandise of gratitude and prayer. Some mornings, rather than fall to my knees to give praise, I scan the want ads for stuff. Cheap stuff. Stuff for nothing. Stuff enough to crowd out the emptiness I know it brings…….. [I] spend my time gathering glitter. Once I had a dream. I stepped before the throne of God. He asked only one question: “Did you become who you were supposed to be?” “I’m not sure,” I told him. “But when I died, I had so much stuff, it took three days to find me.” [Fredrick Zydek, Christian Century, July 16-23, 1997]
I was intrigued that the poet had God ask only one question: “Did you become who you were supposed to be?” as if the only ultimate issue has to do with integrity. Taking that seriously, of course, is like playing around with dynamite. I thought, when I first read the poem, “Well, I’ve got quite a bit of stuff, but have I become who I was supposed to be?” I kept hearing the line: “Part of me is always searching for stuff instead of seeking ways to improve the merchandise of gratitude……” and for one who thinks there’s hardly anything in the world more important than gratitude, those words are quite a challenge.
There is something else to be said about being grateful. One reason some of us find it so hard is that we suffer from the grass-is-greener syndrome. In one of the more poignant Peanuts cartoons, Lucy says to her brother Linus, “I’ll tell you something I’ve never told anyone before….Do you see that hill over there? Someday I’m going over that hill and find the answer to my dreams….Someday I’m going over that hill and find happiness and fulfillment. For me, all the answers to life lie beyond those clouds and over the grassy slope of that hill.” With the innocent wisdom that so often upsets his sister, Linus takes his thumb out of his mouth, points toward the hill and says, “Perhaps there’s another little kid on the other side of that hill who is looking this way and thinks that all the answers to life lie on THIS side of the hill.” Lucy doesn’t catch on that her expectations may be unrealistic, that we take ourselves along no matter where we go, and if we’ve overlooked the good in where we are we will probably overlook it on the other side of the hill as well. So the Apostle Paul, in letter after letter, tells people in the churches he has planted to see how many reasons they have to be grateful….and then, over and over, to say so. It becomes an opening and closing theme song for him: dwell on every good you can find in life, and give thanks for it until gratitude becomes the very air you breathe!
Paul, of course, had mainly in mind the giving of thanks to God, but let’s think for a moment about how much happiness we create simply by thanking one another for all sorts of reasons. One stormy night well over a hundred years ago a side-wheeler steamboat was rammed by another boat out on Lake Michigan. When the crippled steamboat sank just offshore near the village of Winnetka, Illinois, around 275 people drowned. Some strong swimmers made it to shore on their own, many were helped by others. Among the heroes of that tragedy was a young student at Northwestern University by the name of Edward Spencer who had trained himself to be a superb swimmer. He plunged into the lake, swam out to the drowning people, towed one of them to shore, and then went back over and over until he finally managed to bring 17 to safety. His heroic effort in the cold water so exhausted him that he contracted an illness — polio, perhaps, before we knew about polio — that left him a wheel-chair invalid for the rest of his life. On his 80th birthday someone asked him to relate his most vivid memory of that dreadful day. It turned out to be a painful memory: He said, “Not one of the 17 came back to thank me.”
There are many different ways to say “Thank you.” I have never mentioned an incident that impressed me years ago. A country doctor told about one of his patients, a rancher’s wife whose husband was one of those strong, silent types not given to saying how they feel. The woman, who had always been frail, suffered a ruptured appendix and was rushed to the nearest hospital where, despite a successful operation and several transfusions, she did not do well and seemed to have no strong will to get better. The doctor tried to challenge her: “I thought you would try to be strong, like John.” Her response was rather oddly indirect. In her exhaustion, she said something she might never have said otherwise: “John is so strong he doesn’t need anyone.”
That night, when the doctor told the husband that he didn’t think his wife wanted to get well, John said: “She’s got to get well. Would another transfusion help?” His blood proved to be the same type as his wife’s, so the doctor arranged a direct transfusion. When the technicians got them properly hooked up, the husband’s blood flowing into his wife’s veins, the old rancher said: “I’m going to make you well.” Her eyes closed, his wife asked a question: “Why?” There was no way John could break the rhetorical habits of a lifetime, so his answer was as terse and simple as ever: “Because……I need you.” The doctor, who was standing by, said there was a pause, the woman’s pulse quickened, her eyes opened, and she turned her head toward her husband. “You never told me before.” She might have recovered anyway, but when the doctor wrote about the incident later he had his own conviction: “It wasn’t the transfusion but what went with it that made the difference.”
That is a faith statement, of course — there is no science by which the doctor could prove it, and he may have been wrong. But at least it reminds us of one unalterable fact: that at any moment it may be too late to express the gratitude we feel for having one another. As St. Augustine once put it: “God has promised forgiveness to your repentance, but He has not promised tomorrow to your procrastination.” Or, in less elegant words, Say it now! Things like, “I need you” or “You’re doing a great job,” or “I’m proud of you” — simple words that quite literally, over and over again, have changed people’s lives.
With a moment’s reflection, nearly everyone can remember how much a word of praise or gratitude meant one day. Here’s a single true example out of millions like it, this one remembered by a man named Sherman Rogers about the day he was made foreman of a logging camp in Idaho. It wasn’t long before he found himself wanting to fire a gloomy, spiteful worker by the name of Tony, whose job it was to sand Hill #2 so the giant logging sleds would not run slide out of control and run over the men and horses working on it. But before the new foreman could say anything, the owner of the camp came to him and said, “Whatever you do, I suggest you not bother Tony. He’s cantankerous and a holy terror sometimes, but I’ve never had a better sander. Not a man or horse has ever been lost on this hill.”
That morning, in subzero temperatures, Rogers watched Tony, who was heating sand over a small fire before throwing it on the icy hill. Then he walked over and said, “Good morning, I’m the new foreman. The boss just told me what a good man you are.” And then he told Tony what the owner had said. To his amazement, the workman’s eyes filled with tears. “Why didn’t he tell me that before?” He pumped the new foreman’s hand, saying, “Thank you! Thank you!” Then he grabbed his shovel and literally flew into his sanding job. That night as the teamsters washed up, all they could talk about was Tony. “He’s thrown enough sand today to cover a dozen hills. What hit him, anyway? He’s smiled and joked all day.” Only the foreman knew, and he had the satisfaction of seeing the sequel, 12 years later, when he came across Tony working as superintendent of railroad construction in one of the biggest logging camps in the West. They had barely exchanged greetings before Tony said, “That one minute you talked to me back in Idaho changed my whole life!”
I’d be a sceptic if I had not seen that happen so many times in the worlds of teaching and ministry. We all have moments of self-doubt, so that an unexpected word of gratitude may have consequences the one who spoke it never dreamed of. We wonder if the boss really appreciates us, if a colleague actually likes us instead of merely tolerating us, and it can make a big difference when the surprise note or phone call says, “It’s good to have you around.” Unfortunately, people who feel that way often think it must be obvious, that there’s no need to come right out and say it. But there is. Gratitude is always in season! And closely akin to congratulations felt but left unsaid is the block some of us have about saying thank you for things we take for granted: a wife’s wisdom in handling the children, a husband’s day by day fidelity to his job, a child’s running an errand, a friend’s long loyalty. Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard once made this profoundly true observation: “The door to happiness opens outward.” One of the ways to open it is as easy as saying “Thank you.”
We leave this lovely place, Eternal God, with gratitude in our
hearts for the friends we have made here, the inspiration we
find in worship, and the good things we are encouraged to do for
others in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.