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.
When God’s Commands Do Not Fit
October 13, 2013
A number of religious truths are immediately apparent in today’s gospel. This passage tells us that we, like the ten lepers, can approach Jesus for healing. It also insists that, like the Samaritan who was healed, we should always be thankful. But there are other truths in this gospel passage that can be discovered, if we ask the right questions. Here is a question we can ask: Why did nine of the lepers who were cleansed not return to give thanks to Jesus? Were they simply dull or selfish? Why does it seem that they closed their hearts to gratitude?
If we were to ask those nine lepers this question, here is what they might say: “We were very grateful that Jesus healed us. That is why we chose to do what he asked of us. Jesus commanded us to go and show ourselves to the priests. When we were cleansed, we decided that is exactly what we should do. We did not return to thank him, because we thought it was more important to obey him.” Seen from this perspective, it is the nine lepers who follow Jesus’ command, and it is the Samaritan that sets his command aside and returns to give thanks. Jesus, of course, accepts the Samaritan’s decision. In so doing, he reveals a new meaning to this gospel: sometimes the best decision that we can make is one that is different from what God commands.
Now, of course, this truth needs to be embraced carefully. God’s commands are good and holy. The teachings of our Church are beneficial to us and should be respected. And yet, there are times when our lives do not fit into what God commands. In those times, we must choose what it is that we will do. The Catholic tradition, for example, highly respects the gift of marriage. We understand it as a sacrament and believe that the faithful love of husband and wife is a sign of God’s love for us. Yet, it is possible to find oneself in the midst of a marriage that is dead, a marriage without love and cooperation. Even though God asks us to be faithful for a lifetime and we have made a commitment to love another person as long as we live, we sometimes face the reality that that is a commitment we cannot follow. We understand in our faith that Christ asks us to live in a certain way and yet there might be people we love, our children or our friends, who choose to express their sexuality in a way that is contrary to Church teaching. We do not want to condone their decision, but neither do we want to break our relationships with them. Jesus commands us that we are to love our neighbor and forgive our enemies. We are told to turn the other cheek. And yet, there are times when our attempts to love someone only lead to manipulation and abuse, when the person that we forgive hurts us again and again. Even though Jesus commands that we love our neighbor as our self, sometimes we need to break a relationship to save our self. In circumstances such as these and in others, we may discover that our lives do not fit into what God commands us. When we find ourselves in those situations, we need to choose to save as much good as we can and then continue to live.
The Samaritan in today’s gospel is so filled with joy that he sets aside Jesus’ command and returns to give thanks. Jesus accepts his decision. In so doing he makes this story an assurance that he will treat us in the same way. When we find ourselves in circumstances where it is impossible to do what God asks of us, we must make the best decision we can. If we make that decision wisely and selflessly, we can trust that Jesus will understand and accept us. This story even dares to suggest that the compromised decisions that we make might in time give us reason to be thankful.
Distance and More
October 9, 2016
There are two things we learn about Jesus in today’s gospel, and both of them are important for our relationship with him. The first is this: Distance is no problem for Jesus. Today’s gospel tells us that when Jesus enters a village ten lepers met him and standing at a distance they called out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.” These lepers kept their distance from Jesus because that is what they were required to do. Infected with one of the most feared diseases of the ancient world, lepers were not allowed to mix in the general population. So these lepers could not run to Jesus, kneel before him and ask him to lay his hands on them to heal them. All they could do was to cry out from afar. But distance is no problem for Jesus. He does not have to touch the lepers to heal them. He sends them to the priests and as they are on their way their leprosy disappears.
Now whenever you or I are feeling in some way separated from God, we need to remember this story. Perhaps you normally don’t come to church but you came today and you are wondering, “Does God care for me? Will God help me?” Perhaps you are struggling with a habit of sin or carrying a heavy prejudice against others. Perhaps you know how many times you chose your own comfort rather than your responsibilities or your own desires over the needs of others. When these or any other factors make us feel separate from God, today’s gospel reminds us that God still cares for us and wants to heal us. Distance is no problem for Jesus. This is the first thing that today’s gospel tells us.
The second is even better. It tells us that Jesus gives us more than what we ask for. The ten lepers asked that they be healed, and their request is granted. But when one of them returns to give thanks he discovers that Jesus not only wants to cure him, he wants to save him, that Jesus not only intends to take his disease away, but calls him to be a disciple. Jesus says to him, “Stand up and go, your faith has saved you.” The same is true for us. Jesus wants to do more than simply heal us from our doubts, prejudices, and selfishness. Jesus wants to so fill us with his love that we become people of joy, energized to go out and tell other people how good God is. Jesus wants us to feel at home in a parish community, to love the people in that community, and to regularly praise God together with them.
Today’s gospel tells us that however separated we may feel from God, distance is no problem for Jesus. From where we stand we should cry out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on me.” We should believe that Jesus will hear us and heal us and draw us close. But then, we should be prepared. For Jesus has more in store for us. He is a healer who will call us to more than what we have asked for or imagined.