August 31, 2014, Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Every night when I get into bed, I say “tak for i dag,” which is Danish for “thank you for this day.” My Danish cousin said it to me years ago on his last night in our home before he and his wife returned to Denmark. The Danes have a lot of different levels of gratitude. A simple “tak” is what you say after the conductor punches your rail ticket. “Mange tak” is “thank you very much.” “Tussind tak” is “a thousand thanks.” You thank hosts for food, for drinks, for a good time…there’s a word that doesn’t translate well into English, “hygge.” It’s like the feeling of watching a football game with a bunch of close friends. In church we’d call it “fellowship,” but it’s really a stronger idea than that. It has been said that when Danish people get together they sound like a bunch of ducks “tak tak tak tak.”
Two years after my cousin and his wife visited us in America, my family visited them in Denmark. We visited a lot of important Danish cultural sites. My cousin took us to churches where my great-grandparents had been baptized. We walked through a lot of cemeteries and it was really interesting how different their burial customs are from ours. We learned enough Danish that we could read some of the tombstones. Perhaps the most frequent phrase, etched into the stones that we saw was “tak for alt.” Which means “thanks for everything.” I just love that! Here is a lasting message, carved into stone, the deceased’s last statement to the world, and it’s a prayer of thanksgiving! I found that I was always touched by this simple statement.
We’re going to have a special cake at coffee hour this morning. Deacons Mike & Shelly Cullom are celebrating their retirements, but also it’s a way they can express their gratitude to the support they have felt from this congregation. Mike & Shelly have helped me learn an important lesson and I want to share that lesson with you this morning. Simply put: gratitude multiplies. If you just remember two words from worship today, make them “gratitude multiplies.”
One of the tasks that deacons do is they stay in contact with our members who have difficulty getting to church. We have 12 deacons and each one is assigned a shut-in or two or three. Deacons try to visit their shut-ins at least once a month. And here’s a lesson that deacons learn over and over and over: they receive more from their shut-ins than they give. For years I’ve been hearing people say this at Deacon meetings, “Monday I realized that we had a meeting coming up on Thursday, so I raced to see my shut-in because I didn’t want to be embarrassed at the meeting…I am so glad I visited her! I felt so much better after I dropped by!” Repeatedly, deacons learn that in giving of themselves and their time, they receive great gifts. In giving, we receive. I have experienced this too.
Two weeks ago our congregation had a very sad, difficult week. Two pillars of this congregation, long-standing, faithful members, died. Wilma Bauer was 98 when she died and Marge Farrow was 81. Altogether they had been members of this congregation for 136 years! One of the things their friends and families said about these two ladies was how good it felt to be around them. I loved spending time with these ladies and one of the reasons for that was they were always so grateful, so appreciative of the people around them. Once I decided that I’d give myself a treat on my birthday, so I scheduled visits with both Marge and Wilma!
Wilma was our congregation’s oldest member. Her family and friends had hoped she reach her 100th birthday, but Wilma was content and satisfied with her life. She lived in peace. She had a remarkable memory and told me that her father had taken her to the celebration marking the end of the First World War when she was 3 years old. He told her “Remember this day.” And she did! Years ago I attended a meeting for people who wanted to plan their funerals. I have retained one bit of advice from that meeting. People facing death—and that is every single one of us—should give their blessing away. And that’s wonderful advice. Don’t wait until it’s too late to tell people what they mean to you. Share your gratitude for what they have meant to you. Be specific. Wilma did not attend this particular funeral planning event, but she did give her blessing away. Every time I saw her, she told me how glad she was to see me, how pleased she was that people from the congregation would visit her. Several times she looked me square in the eye and said, “I love you.” I know she meant that. And I loved Wilma too. But there was something striking about how boldly she said those three words. Wilma was a woman who was profoundly blessed, knew she was profoundly blessed and used her life to bless other people. I always felt better after visiting her. And, I believe, she always felt better after someone visited her too. Because we both gave; we also both received. And I don’t know how the math works, but there was more love and gratitude in the room when I left than when I arrived.
Marge Farrow had the same effect on me. Before her vision got bad Marge and I would go on communion visits together. It was good to visit our members, but it was great to spend an afternoon with Marge! One of my distinct memories of Marge is that every time after I dropped her off at her home in Winnebago, I would head back to town on County A and I’d find myself smiling. Not at anything in particular, I was smiling just because I’d gotten to spend a few hours with Marge. She was a blessing and, just as with Wilma, it seemed like there was more love, gratitude and kindness in the world after spending time with her.
I remember one visit in particular. Marge & I visited a member of our church who was in decent health, but didn’t get out of her apartment much. She had everything she needed; she was cared for and content, but she was blue because she just didn’t feel like she had anything to do. Here was a faithful woman who was simply sad because she felt like she didn’t have anything to give anymore. I would even say she was puzzled to have lived so long—she trusted that God would take her when He was ready—she just wondered what was taking Him so long. I asked her, when she feels that way to pray for me, and to pray for her church. She assured me she did. Every morning. Every night. I thanked her. Really thanked her.
I was talking to another of our shut-ins on the phone last week. We got to talking about gratitude. And she said, “Saying ‘thank you’ makes me feel better. Physically and mentally.” And I think that’s true for a lot of us. To stand still and look someone straight in the eye and say, “Thank you.” To say it in a way that they really understand and accept your gratitude, makes everyone feel better.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good//
His steadfast love endures forever.
What would it feel like to stand still and look God in the eye and say, ‘thank you’?
Our New Testament lesson is one that often gets dragged out at stewardship time, when we’re inviting people to support the church budget for the coming year. Paul uses seed as a metaphor, the more seed you plant, the bigger your harvest will be. That’s obviously true. But I am convinced it also applies to gratitude. One who is stingy with saying “thank you” will not receive many thank you’s in return. Or let me paraphrase Paul a little here, “Each of you must decide to express gratitude as you have made up your mind to, not because someone’s forcing you to. God loves it when the one saying ‘thank you’ delights in saying ‘thank you.’ [Here I drew on The Message.]
A habit of being grateful really will make us happier and better people. And experience tells me that there is no end to the good feelings that expressing gratitude creates. Last week I found this fact in The Christian Century magazine:
Numerous academic studies are underscoring what religions have touted for millennia: it is better to give than to receive, and satisfaction doesn’t come from extrinsic benefits like material wealth, but from intrinsic ones, such as better relationships with others. [Christian Century 8/20/14]
It is better to give thanks, than to receive it. And in giving and receiving thanks we strengthen relationships with the people around us.
And children should be taught to be thankful. And we can teach children to be thankful. And we desperately need to teach our children to be thankful. A study by Richard Weissbourd a
Harvard physiologist “found 80% of youth said their parents were more concerned about their achievements than whether they care for others.” I need to stop here, American parents are more concerned about their children’s achievement than how they care for others! Still ..”learning to care for others is like learning a sport: repetition helps. Dr. Weissbourd recommends a daily ritual at bedtime, dinner or while driving that expresses thanks for people who contribute positively to our lives.” Christian Century 8/20/14 p. 8 A daily ritual that expresses thanks for people. A daily ritual soon becomes a habit. A habit becomes an attitude. Maybe this ritual will grow into an attitude of gratitude. And you will see and experience that gratitude multiplies. Amen.