Good morning. And Happy Father’s Day to all of our dads as well.
Will you pray with me?
Most giving God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be found acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
When I was a kid growing up in Duluth, Minnesota, not far from our own Stacy Swain, I never enjoyed doing tasks that I was asked to do; I preferred instead to secretly do helpful things around the house and then receive the approval of my parents when I had done something right all on my own. Cleaning my room, making my lunch, taking our dog Chipper out for a walk , it was easier and much more rewarding to do my good deeds in furtive fashion so that my mom and dad would be impressed by me rather than having to scold or remind me.
In one area of my young life, however, I was never able to gain this sense of satisfaction by doing my assigned task ahead of time, and that was in the arena of writing thank-you cards. While I would have been thrilled to write them all out behind closed doors and then send them off in the mail with my parents none the wiser, I could never quite bring myself to do it. Like Greg Heffley, the protagonist of the ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ series, I would have relished saving time on this chore by creating a quick, one-size-fits-all thank-you card to those who had given me gifts; as Greg finds out, however, thankfulness cannot be distilled into a page from ‘Mad Libs’. Here’s what happens when he tries to apply his ‘automated’ thank-you card to his aunt’s gift of new corduroys:
Dear Aunt Loretta,
Thank you so much for the awesome pants!
How did you know I wanted that for Christmas?
I love the way the pants look on my legs!
All my friends will be so jealous that I have my very own pants.
Thank you for making this the best Christmas ever!
But unlike Greg Heffley, I never even got this far in my writings of thank-you notes. I would instead demur and procrastinate and fret while the blank cards and envelopes mocked me from our office desk as my mom tried not to remind me – again – to write and send them. (although I could feel her holding back from saying anything about it, which was of course worse than her actually saying anything about it.)
So why was writing a thank-you card so hard for me? Well, it turns out that it may be at least a little difficult for everyone, and for several reasons. The first is best summed up by the English writer and critic Samuel Johnson, who detected the inherent resentment that comes from being in someone’s debt. “There are minds so impatient of inferiority,” he wrote, “that their gratitude becomes a species of revenge, and they return benefits not because recompense is a pleasure, but because obligation is a pain.” No one wants to owe another person anything, for it makes him dependent in a world that trades in independence – hence, my desire to do my chores myself in anticipation of praise rather than in response to command. Obligation can indeed be “a pain”.
And speaking of pain, another reason we may put off thank-you cards or other more direct expressions of gratitude is that the intimacy of saying ‘thank you’, with the love that necessarily attends it, can prove to be what teenagers today might call an “awkward” moment. To look someone in the eye, or take a hand, and offer thanks can feel a bit risky because the act is always a bit beautiful. Henry Ward Beecher, the legendary first preacher at the Plymouth Church in New York City, once noted, “Next to ingratitude, the most painful thing to bear is gratitude.”
A final reason that thankfulness can be hard is how our brains are wired; a friend of mine at St. Sebastian’s who teaches Biology and advises the Neuroscience Club – and I trust her word completely, having been too lazy to find any other evidence to support this assertion – told me that “gratitude is hard because the brain defaults to the negative. It’s way easier to whine or complain or see the downside of something than it is to praise someone or take the time to thank them.” And she finished her thought with this point: “The brain needs to work harder, to take a little leap, to really thank somebody. It doesn’t come naturally; it’s more of a choice we have to make consciously.”
So. Gratitude, maybe surprisingly, demands deliberate work on our part. Of course, the worse option, as Henry Ward Beecher expressed, is “ingratitude”. When I worked at the Harvard Admissions Office in the 1990’s, my colleague David Evans had a keen way of describing Harvard’s annual applicant pool, albeit in rather unflattering, tongue-in-cheek terms; he would say, after we had admitted just under 10% of the students who had applied, “In our work, for every 10 applicants we have nine enemies, and an ingrate.”
“Ingrate”: what a terrible word. To be labeled as an ingrate, especially for a young person, is truly an insult, even today. My favorite writer Will Shakespeare put it well way back in 1606 through his aging, raging King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” Yeesh. Hard to imagine, isn’t it, that his kids wouldn’t be thankful for a dad who would drop things like that on them. Suffice to say, that although it may have taken a while when I was a kid, I eventually got those thank-you cards done. Tardy, yes – ingrate, no.
So we know we need to respond against the “pain of obligation”, if only to do what’s expected of us. But what of a truer sense of gratitude? Does it get easier for our brains to turn the switch and give thanks more readily over time? What I’ve found to be helpful in achieving this more graceful form of gratitude is to see others modeling what my colleague called the “choice” to be thankful as the sometimes difficult but only correct response to the gifts that God and other people have seen fit to give us – as Shakespeare once put it in the words of the good man Sebastian in ‘Twelfth Night’ when he’s presented with a gift he can never repay, ‘I can no other answer make, but thanks” – and to see some more of these kinds of models, we need look no further than our two Scripture readings for today.
First the Psalmist, who despite fearing that his God has “forgotten” him, nevertheless cannot forget what God has gotten for him: “These things I remember,” he says in the wilderness of his doubt as he “pours out his soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving.” And recalling all of this, he ends with a question not to God but to himself: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I again shall praise him.”
If “Gratitude is the memory of the heart,” as Jean-Baptiste Massieu once wrote, the Psalmist remembers what God has done for him, and what God will surely do again for him in the future. We see a similar faithful thankfulness in the man called Legion, who was infested with torturous demons before being cleansed by Jesus’ healing powers. After the miracle has occurred and Legion is returned to himself, he wishes to accompany Jesus in his travels, but Jesus, Luke reports, prefers that his gratitude travel by another road: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So [the man] went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’ Are we not Legion as well? Should we not follow his example and Jesus’ command to declare with gratitude everything that God has done for us?
Well, since I have the floor, let me emulate Legion, for my reflection this morning, if nothing else, will be my thank-you card to God and to some of those people through whom God works who have blessed me in my life. But in listing the recipients of a lifetime of thanks, where does one begin? Once I started writing down the possibilities for people I wanted to thank, I felt like the lawyer and judge turned author Jon Kralik, who was in a similar predicament, but on a much larger scale; at a dark moment in his law career, Kralik decided that one way to meet his challenges was to write 365 thank-you notes over the course of one year.
Afterward, he wrote a book about the experience called ‘A Simple Act of Gratitude’ in which he credits his grandfather’s words about thank-you cards as his inspiration. His grandfather used to give his grandchildren silver dollars as a gift, and Kralik writes that ‘He promised that if I wrote him a letter thanking him for the silver dollar, he would send another one. That was the way thank-you letters worked, he told me.’ Although as a child Kralik only wrote one letter for one additional silver dollar, as an adult he forced his brain to change his thinking about the role that thankfulness was playing in his life. ‘If my grandfather was right,’ he hoped, ‘I would have a lot more of what I was thankful for by the end of [his year]’ authoring these notes.
Inspired but a bit overwhelmed by where to begin writing so many of these, Kralik decided to start with his oldest son in response to a Christmas gift. Unlike him, however, I don’t want to start with family, but rather to end with them as befitting their importance in my life. So instead let me begin with a few other names that even my wife Sarah may not fully recognize as having had an influence on the person I am today. With a warning that this list will be criminally and woefully incomplete, who am I grateful for?
For Charlie Hoff, my only real friend between first and sixth grade, the guy who was always willing to play with Star Wars action figures, read Marvel comics, or play with super-hero dolls like Iron Man and the Fantastic Four whenever I called him up to join me in the backyard for some fantastic adventure (I even remember his phone number: 218-525-3038).
For Michael Geving, a classmate of mine in the sixth grade who introduced me to table-top roleplaying, which at that time was known only as the game Dungeons and Dragons, a version of which has continued always to bring me joy and, for the past seven years, the chance to write stories for my own company of players.
For Robert C. Mix, the Duluth East A’Cappella choir director who, in the same spirit of generous professionalism that we have here in Bill Merrill and Bethany Worrell, inspired in me a true enjoyment of singing and of Christian spiritual music in particular (that’s foreshadowing, by the way, for a later segment in this service, which I’ve begun referring to informally as the ‘Drummond Variety Hour’)
For Professor Marjorie Garber and then-graduate student John Norman, now a full professor at Ohio State, who helped inspire my love of Shakespeare at a time I was in desperate need of some academic inspiration.
For Bill Fitzsimmons and Marlyn Lewis at Harvard, who both taught me the importance of having a boss you can respect.
For Rosie Lyons, the Head of the Upper School at the University School of Milwaukee who called me up the summer after I had accepted a job as Director of College Guidance there to say, ‘We really need someone to teach one section of ninth grade English next year. We were hoping you could do it.’ Sixteen years later, I am still teaching freshmen. I thank Rosie for teaching me the truth that we cannot see all ends, and even the gifts we are handed that we don’t want – or don’t think we want – deserve far more than an eye-roll or a callow complaint. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Doesn’t matter what you get, because it’s all a gift.”
For Stacy Swain, whose sincere and capacious love reminds me without hyperbole of what I imagine Jesus’ own might have looked like; for Amy, who carries the same love in her; for Adam and Christy, for Bill and Bethany, for Kent and Mark, for Alicia and Annie, for Kathy and Karen, and for all of you here at Union Church who have taught me so many lessons about kindness, and inclusivity, and the care that only a community immersed in like-minded grace can offer.
For all my fellow teachers at St. Sebastian’s School, for nurturing my teaching career and especially to its Headmaster, Bill Burke, for always reminding me that my family life comes before my work life – rarely does a conversation go by with Bill that does not include him asking not about my piles of grading, but rather about my “beautiful wife and daughter.” And speaking of whom.
For Sarah. What can I possibly say to thank her for all she’s done for me? Probably wiser at this moment to let our refrigerator magnets that we have at home speak for me instead. We have many of them, but two in particular stand out. The first is completely tongue-in-cheek, as it reads, ‘Opposites attract – and then they drive each other insane.’ but the second, less snarky magnet reminds us, ‘Happiness is being married to your best friend.’ With our nineteenth anniversary coming up this Tuesday the 21st, let me extend my love and gratitude for my best friend who is never afraid to, as she puts it, throw some dynamite down the rabbit-hole when necessary to ensure our continued sense of togetherness. I possess no greater greatness, have no greater gratefulness in my life, than for Sarah.
For JJ. Not even Sarah has cracked open my heart to the truths of love – and therefore to the truths of God – more than JJ has over the past 13 years. From a distant dream buried in adoption paperwork to our first hug half a world away in China to a bossy-three-year-old who refused to nap to the hard-working, generous, and supremely funny teenager she has become today, JJ’s map of becoming who God will have her be has been my map for growing up as well. She is my timeless joy.
And finally, for my own parents. For my mom Judy, who somehow embraces and avoids life simultaneously while she smokes her cigarettes on a couch in Two Harbors, Minnesota, the woman who pushed me as a kid to always be honest, to try out for the basketball team in 8th grade, and yes, to write thank you notes, the woman who after divorcing my dad and then marrying again happily for the past 26 years, gave me this advice on my wedding day: “Just remember. The first one’s the hardest,” I give my unrepayable love and appreciation.
And on this Father’s Day, for my dad, Robert Drummond, a man who was very much like Legion, tortured by demons but saved by God. In 2003, my dad wrote a memoir about his youthful indiscretions under the playful pseudonym of ‘Andrew B. Muckingup’ – because he was always ‘mucking up’. He introduces Andy (himself) in the story this way:
‘One of Andy’s earliest memories is that of a bird crapping on his head. Not even the birds seemed to like Andy. He felt like he never quite fit in anywhere, regardless of whether he was alone or interacting with his peers. It was that feeling of being different that haunted Andy most of his life.’
My dad’s feeling of isolation – which is reflected in his use of the third person in his memoir (“he” rather than “I”) — stemmed from his status as an ACA – an Adult Child of an Alcoholic – and then later as an alcoholic himself. He was a man beset by demons. Enter God, or what my dad would call “the higher power”. In 1974, when I was 5, he overcame his family tradition of a drinking life when he came to make his big choice, the one that I have always been most thankful for: his decision to stop drinking forever.
Through his example, and through his gradual appreciation of “the program”, AA, of the higher power who laughs at your plans, and the wisdom of the serenity prayer, my dad, after many years of “mucking up”, became the man who could break a terrible cycle of addiction and therefore model for his two sons a more healthy way of living.
By doing so, he and the higher power conspired to save his life. No further evidence of this is needed beyond the example of my father’s father, Howell, who was never able to make his ‘prison break’ from depression and alcoholism; in 1987, when I was 18, my grandfather drove his car out to a lonely field and took his life. Thus ended his long battle with demons, one of which was the broken dream of how he wished he could have lived his life. My grandfather had worked all his days at a textile mill in Pueblo, Colorado, but it turns all he really wanted to be was what my brother and I have both become as adults — a teacher.
As I said, this list is hideously incomplete. Maybe if I wrote 365 thank-you cards over a year’s time I could hit a decent percentage of people whom I truly need to thank. But I guess it’s a start. And perhaps it can be a fresh start for you as well. I encourage you to find a way to follow the Psalmist and to follow Legion in pursuing your gratitude, this “memory of the heart”, to its fullest extent. Overcome your brain’s reluctance, our fear of intimacy, the pain of obligation and, by giving thanks, go out like Jon Kralik and get a lot more of what you are thankful for. What small, blank cards are resting on your desks at home, waiting to be written? Which ones lie in your hearts, waiting to be told? What word, what act, what grace, what gift, what relationship, what teaching, what entire life deserves your glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving?
Go and start; make a list, if you haven’t got one going already. Then follow Kralik’s two pieces of advice about thank-you cards from his book: first, keep them short, generous, and hand-written. Second, as he puts it, ‘write a lot of them’. Be like Shakespeare’s good man Sebastian, whose humble response to the gifts that cannot be repaid I now quote in full and which echoes my own feeling on leaving this church as we begin our new adventure: ‘I can no other answer make, but thanks; and thanks; and ever thanks.” Amen.