Doug Smith: The upside is that despite my procrastination in writing, I did spend the whole week thinking about the topic Pastor Thomas put to me today. And that is, thinking of a time when I witnessed gratitude, or I felt gratitude.
Over the course of the last several days that question has drifted in my mind and flitted in my thoughts. I’ve talked to it, I’ve talked with people about it, and I’ve made time to think about gratitude and it’s place in my life. That in and of itself has been a great gift, not to be cliche, but i’m pretty grateful for it.
The most immediate thing that comes to mind when I think of an occasion of gratitude is my wedding. It was just two weeks and a day ago when I stood right there and had the best day of my life. I know for sure that my beautiful and wonderful wife Jen was grateful on that day, I hope you still are. And the only think I know more than that is that I was tremendously grateful. And I don’t really have words for that.
So that was the moment, right there, two weeks ago when I both witnessed and experienced immense gratitude. Gratitude for love and for commitment, and for the world being big enough to hold us both, but yet small enough for us to find each other. Gratitude for the amazing thing that is life and existence on this fragile and beautiful little corner of the universe.
As I got to thinking about the question Pastor Thomas put to me, I started to realize something. I started to realize that this gratitude that I see and that affects me the most is not tied to some huge thing like a wedding or a life changing event, the kind of gratitude that matters to me is not the stuff of grandeur, it is the stuff of the mundane. It is the grist of daily life. It is graced in small moments. It takes effort.
When I think about gratitude, I’m reminded of what David Foster Wallace said about freedom. He said, the really important kind of freedom (and I would posit here, gratitude as well) involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them. In a myriad of petty little unsexy ways every day. That’s the kind of gratitude I see every day.
It is strangers holding the door for each other. It is a smile and a hello from someone when they’re having a rough morning. It is any act of kindness no matter how small when dealing with the metro. And I’ve made a point this week to picking my head up out of my phone and out of my newspaper and out of my book to look around and see the acts of kindness and that gratitude play out in a dozen small ways every day. It happens, I swear, even on the metro.
I don’t mean to be diminutive of gratitude by saying it’s in the small things, that’s just where I see it most, and where it impacts me. When I started to pay attention to acts of kindness and to people’s gratitude, I started to realize just how much they fill the world around me. And as we head into a whole day dedicated to giving thanks and to football, it seems appropriate to take time to pause and to think not just about what we are thankful for, but about gratitude and the myriad of little things that go into it. Empathy, and effort, and caring, and love.
Cynthia Kneidinger: Good morning. Pastor Thomas has asked me to speak on a time when it’s difficult to express gratitude. Now, I want you to know that I grew up with wonderful thanksgivings. We would travel from our suburban, IBM community, to my Aunt Lois’ and Uncle Bob’s in upstate New York. Uncle Bob had built this wonderful house for Aunt Lois so she could entertain, and it was out in the country. There were lots of kids and dogs and cats – usually about 20-30 of us. Out back was a cow pasture. Out the front picture window you could see the foothills dusted with snow. We could always count on a snow storm on Thanksgiving. There were so many of us that Aunt Lois would cook two turkeys. My sister describes it as the gold standard of Thanksgiving. It was always a great time. I always looked forward to it.
Once Mark and I moved to Virginia because of the complexities of travel and weather, we needed to create our own Christmas down here. But, my clan still gathers every year at Aunt Lois’. My mother, my sisters and brothers, all my cousins, and that has continued even though Aunt Lois is now in her 80s. However, this year will be different. Last August, a year ago August, Aunt Lois’ youngest son, Jim, took his wife Debbie out for her birthday. They brought along their two teenage kids, pulled up to the restaurant. Debbie stepped out of the car, took a couple steps, and fell flat forward. She took none of the defensive and instinctive measures that some one would take when they are falling. She would have several more falls that month. And then a diagnosis would reveal she had ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease.
She hoped that she would be able to teach one more year. But three months into that diagnosis, she needed to take a medical retirement just before Thanksgiving. This year, the family will not gather at Aunt Lois’. They will all travel to Jim and Deb’s house, and they will have Thanksgiving there. Jim will serve Debbie. He will help feed her, because her arms and legs no longer serve her. It is not the Thanksgiving of our past. Although, we have seen death and cancer and illnesses come and go throughout the 60 years that I’ve experienced Thanksgiving, this one will be different. But we have all gathered in, we have made the effort to visit more, to stay in touch more, and that is the blessing in that. But it’s still a difficult diagnosis, and a difficult future to face.
So what is the response of a faithful person to that kind of a future? Long ago I heard the story of Habbakuk. He is a prophet in the Old Testament. He lived at 600 BCE (approx), and he received a vision from God that showed him that Jerusalem would be attacked by the Babylonians, that they would sack the city, and many of the people of Jerusalem would be carried off the exile in Babylon. And Habakuk calls out to God and pleads with him, prays to him, that this plan will be averted. That what he sees in the future will not come true. And he and God talk back and forth, argue – Habakuk argues with God. And yet God will not avert this plan because he has something bigger in mind. Habakuk is in extreme distress, but finally he moves to a position of what I would call defiance of his circumstances. Though all is going to go wrong around him, he moves to this position and he proclaims this prayer. He says, though the fig tree does not bloom, and there is not a grape on the vine, though the olive crop fails, and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen, and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. And that is the place to stand. I don’t know why these things happen, but I do know that God loves us, and that he is for us. And so I stand in the place of rejoicing in my Lord.
Ed Lary: Good morning. Pastor Thomas asked me to speak for a few minutes about the topic of, “Name a time when gratitude changed me.” And unlike Doug, I’m retired, so I immediately went home and wrote the speech. In fact, I wrote it Sunday afternoon a week ago before Pastor Thomas asked me the question. I liked it so much that I told Wendy, I really like these thoughts, I really hope he asks the right question. I’m not sure I answered it, but I didn’t change it, so, I’m going to go forward with it.
Benjamin Disraeli was a British Prime Minister in the 1800’s. He said “I have this unusual sensation – if it is not indigestion, I think it must be gratitude.” I too had an unusual sensation a couple years ago, and I’ll talk about how we dealt with it.
Wendy and I retired 12 years ago. We’re born and bred New Englanders and love the seasons, but about 8 years ago, the winters were getting pretty old. So, we packed up our New England possessions and migrated south, like thousands of other retirees, to Naples, FL. It’s an idealistic, probably unrealistic lifestyle of playing golf and tennis, boating and sailing, hiking and biking, socializing, and all of us growing old together. A neighbor’s son calls Naples “God’s waiting room.” It’s a pretty accurate description.
We also spent over two years looking for a Church that felt right. Know what I mean? We met lots of really nice people; listened to a bunch of good sermons; but none ever connected to where that inner voice said “welcome home”.
We did, however, find opportunities to volunteer and give back a little to the community. I do tax returns for elderly and moderate income families. Wendy works at the Shelter for Abused Women and Children, where she puts her retail store management skills to great use. But after a while, we started to ask ourselves “Is this it? Is this all there is?” It wasn’t enough.
When Wendy and I talk about those very special times in our lives, invariably we end up talking about our three oldest grandchildren Hannah, Brianna and Cleo. Hannah and Brianna are 14 and 15 today, Cleo is nine. Hannah and Brianna spent their first four years living with us in Pomfret, CT. Cleo spent three days a week with us for her first three years in Franklin, MA. We have hundreds of memories of them growing up, all which feel like they just happened last week. We helped out their parents when they really needed us, and we developed a special bond with those girls that none of us will ever forget.
But now we have 10 grandchildren. And six of them live within 30 miles of this church where I’m standing. Catch my drift? We didn’t have the same close bonds with those other grandkids, and as Wendy likes to say “you don’t get do-overs in their lives.” So, a year ago we decided to change the name of the game. We decided that unusual sensation wasn’t indigestion!
Now, we’re here in Alexandria six months every year. It is without a doubt the smartest decision we ever made. Fergus and Nina, 3 & 1 years old, who live just 3.5 miles from here, nearly jump out of their skins when they see us walking up their sidewalk. Our six-year-old Shane who lives in Maryland says he wants to move in with Grammy and Grandpa. He doesn’t care where, but would prefer Naples because it’s a lot closer to Disneyworld. We were also here for the births of our last 3 granddaughters, Nina, Elle and Maren. It doesn’t get any better than this.
We also found a Church family along the way. We’ve felt at home here since the day we attended our first Sunday service in April. Pastor Thomas is very special, and we feel truly blessed to be members of this congregation.
So when I speak of gratitude, I guess I’m really thinking about what makes me feel thankful and most appreciative. For me, for us both, it’s family. Family brings our lives real meaning and a lasting feeling of joy. Being back here has changed both of us. We both thank God for helping us reach this decision. Disraeli was right! This sensation must be gratitude.