Thankfulness in Growing Old
October 14, 2007
There would be many advantages to St. Noel parish if it had a younger pastor. He would have more energy. He would be more in touch with the cultural issues of teens and young adults. He would probably be willing to take more risks. There would be many advantages. But as it is, you’re stuck with me. That is not all bad. I can think of at least one advantage of having a pastor pushing sixty. He would be able to understand some of the issues that face people in the later stages of life, and he would be able to interpret to those issues in light of the gospel. This is what I would like to do today. So I apologize up front to all the teenagers and young adults, if the issues we discuss today are not your issues. Although I do believe that if you listen, you might find something of value. And I certainly believe that these issues will become more relevant, as you live another twenty, or thirty, or sixty years.
There are challenges to every period of life, but the challenges and the issues that face us in our sixties and seventies and eighties are particularly weighty. It seems that life is back-loaded with troubles.
As we approach sixty we begin to worry about our health. We used to face regular medical check-ups with ease. But now, as those dates approach, there is an increase in anxiety. We know that sooner or later the tests will not be good, and there will be issues which must be addressed. As we get older we must learn to say goodbye. We lose the people we love in death. It might start with an associate, someone our own age or younger, but we know that in time it will touch a spouse or a friend on whom our life depends. As we approach these later decades of life, time changes. We begin to realize that our time is limited. When we purchase a new car, we ask ourselves, “How many more times will I do this?” As we leave on vacation, we wonder, “Will I be able to travel in the future?” Even at holiday time, we begin to look forward. How many more Christmases will I celebrate? As we hit our sixties, the horizons of our life begin to shrink, and we can see on those horizons troubles which we know we will soon have to face.
Now clearly there are troubles at every stage of life. But troubles are different in your twenties and thirties. In those years, you face a crisis, push through it, and move on. You move through that difficult job, that economic downturn, that broken ankle. You get back to life as normal. In those years, normal life is a life with infinite horizons. There are no clouds in the sky. As you hit your sixties, the horizons begin to shrink. You realize that even as you deal with one particular trouble, there is another one waiting in the wings. You will soon cope with a death of a parent, the return of your cancer, the diminishing energy and enthusiasm which old age brings. You realize that this is the way that life is going to be from now on. You will not go back to those days when the horizon was infinite and there were no troubles to be seen. You must find a new kind of normal. Now, of course, there will always be new and exciting experiences. But as we age, our options shrink, and we realize that the cards we already hold are the hand we will need to play.
So how do we cope with these shrinking horizons? How do we live this new kind of normal? Only with thankfulness! In today’s gospel, Jesus criticizes the nine lepers who do not return to give thanks. He criticizes them not because he is personally offended or petty. He criticizes them because he knows that the only foundation to a joyful life is thankfulness. Unless we are thankful, we cannot be happy. Therefore we must be thankful in every circumstance and every period of life.
We can be thankful in every period of life, but we must realize that thankfulness changes as we grow older. When we are young, thankfulness is pure and immediate. We push through a problem and return to normal life with an infinite horizon and a blue sky. In later life, the clouds come in and the horizons shrink. Yet, even then, we can be thankful as long as we realize that thankfulness is different. In our later years, thankfulness is not so much a response as it is a choice. A choice to be thankful for the good things we have today.
I can choose to be thankful because today I have no pain, even though tomorrow might be different. I can choose to be thankful because today I can share a meal with the people I love, even though I will not have them forever. I can choose to be thankful because today I can share wisdom with a young person, even though I know I might not live to see that wisdom reach its fruition.
We cannot be joyful without being thankful. And we can be thankful even with clouds on the horizon. Our faith can help us here, because we believe that in every period of life God will continue to bless us, even as our horizons shrink. Being thankful in our later years is different than being thankful when we are young. But it is real thankfulness, and it can still bring real joy. In our faith we are confident that we can remain thankful people in our seventies, and eighties and nineties. We can remain thankful people to the end of our lives, because with God’s help we can choose thankfulness. We can identify with the Samaritan in today’s gospel. We can raise our voices and shout, “I give thanks to God because God has done great things for me!”
October 10, 2010
When we give thanks we are being selfish. But it is selfishness of a good kind. When we thank someone, we usually assume that we are doing it for that person’s benefit, to affirm them and let them know that we appreciate what they have done for us. And this certainly is true. But what is often overlooked is that when we say “thank you” we are doing ourselves a service. For giving thanks is the surest way of reminding ourselves that we are blessed. Giving thanks empowers us to claim the goodness that is present in our life even in a broken and difficult world. Giving thanks leads us to rejoice in the life that we are living.
Before I was ordained, I served as a deacon in Akron and one evening the pastor came in and said, “I have to tell you something. I received a copy of a letter that was sent to Harry Brent, and it’s really something. You need to read it.”Now, Harry Brent was one of our ushers, always present at the doors of the church welcoming people to Mass. Here is the letter that Harry Brent received:
My name is Gert. I hope you remember me. I’m the Gert that comes to the 11:00 Mass. I am writing to ask you a favor. I don’t know the priests in the parish too well and am not comfortable with them. But Harry, I’m comfortable with you. I don’t know how you learned my name but you did. Every time I come to Mass you smile, welcome me personally. Then we banter about some inconsequential thing like how bad the weather is or how much you like my hat or how I’m running late. I want to thank you for your smile, for your welcome, and for your kindness towards an old lady.
And now for the favor. You haven’t seen me in the last few weeks because I am now in hospice and I am dying. It’s time. I am 88 years old and I am ready. I don’t have much family. My husband died 16 years ago and my children are scattered throughout the country. And so Harry, it’s very important for me that at my funeral, when I come to church for the last time, that you are there. I want you to say to me,” Hello Gert. Good to see you.” Because if you do that, I have confidence that your familiar and warm greeting will be duplicated in my new home in heaven.
With love and gratitude,
Now this letter was, of course, a treasure for Harry. He did come to the funeral. But saying thank you was also a treasure for Gert. Because how easy it could have been for her to dismiss something as simple as a warm hello when she came to church. But Gert not only recognized Harry’s warm welcome, but she gave thanks for it and thereby celebrated a goodness that was present in her life. That giving thanks led her to trust and believe in the goodness of heaven.
Now something very similar happens in today’s Gospel. Ten lepers are cleansed. They are all blessed. But one of them gives thanks and returns. He is more deeply blessed because in giving thanks he comes to see Jesus and ultimately finds salvation.
The Gospel today invites us all to give thanks regularly not for the benefit of others but for our own sake. Spouses should regularly thank one another—not just as an expression of love, but as a reminder of how blessed they are to be in this relationship, to have this person as a partner for life. Children should thank their parents for the meals they prepare, for the clothes that they wash—not simply to let them know that they appreciate those things but also to remind themselves how fortunate they are to live in a family that cares. We should thank the people at work who we enjoy, the friends with whom we spend time—not simply for their benefit that they know we love them, but also that we might never take for granted the joy that they bring into our lives.
We are all surrounded by blessings but only the thankful see them. People who never give thanks turn into bitter people, people who are never satisfied, people whose life is never enough. But people who give thanks are able to find goodness in the strangest of places, celebrate the blessings that they have received, and hope and trust in the promise of life eternal.
So do not be afraid to be selfish. Say “thank you” often! And let your gratitude open your eyes to a world in which God is blessing you now and will bless you forever.