“Delayed Gratitude” – May 22, 2005

Opening Words – ”Welcome Morning” by Anne Sexton


There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry, “hello there, Anne”
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks.
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The joy that isn¹t shared, I¹ve heard,
dies young.

Sermon

When I was little my parents and sometimes my sister would call me
“Markey Maypo.” This was only because coincidentally there was a
television commercial for this cereal called Maypo, which featured a cartoon
character named Markey. I only vaguely remember it, but it seems this
Markey did not readily take to eating Maypo. In fact, he met the spoonful
of oatmeal like gruel with clenched teeth and frozen lips. His parents had
to pretend that the spoonful of cereal was an airplane, and Markey¹s mouth
was the hangar. They would dance the spoon before him with such tantalizing
enticements as, “its loaded with delicious, its maple flavored, its . . . .”
.but before they could say Maypo, he would snap his jaw shut. All the
airplane sounds in the world could not bring him to eat, which shows this
Markey was not like the real life Mark, who to this day, will eat most
anything. Perhaps I am remembering for sermonic effect, but it seems to me
after many failed attempts, the parents left him alone, and then he took a
spoonful of Maypo down his gullet, and belatedly discovered that he actually
liked what he was heretofore rejecting. This response reminds me of the
more recent television commercial where the little boy, Mikey eats the
cereal and his sibling responds, “He likes it.” It is a surprise to
discover we like something belatedly, after we have rejected it, been
cajoled into trying it, and then finally succumb. Think of Dr. Seuss¹ Green
Eggs and Ham. We may feel sorry that we did not try it sooner, or that we
were so difficult and now seek forgiveness from those we were so obstinate
with, but the important thing is that we finally made the discovery. We
realized, this is good.
The crucial thing is not to be weighed down with regret that it took so long
to realize what we were missing, or how good the seemingly bad thing really
turns out to be. What we need to realize is delayed gratitude.
Delayed gratitude is often something that happens with children. When my
boys were small I often tried my own version of the airplane and the hanger
feeding trick. In my case the spoon became one of Thomas the Tank Engine¹s
friends, and the boy¹s mouths became the roundhouse. While I tried to chug,
chug vegetables into their mouths, they kept swinging the roundhouse doors
shut. I don¹t know if they have come to a realization of gratitude yet, but
I expect it any day . . . or year now. I am sure when they realize how much
they like broccoli or peas, I will hear words of gratitude It is true that
children and adults often don¹t want to try something that is new or they
are unsure of, or worst of all, is actually good for you. They expect the
event will be boring or the food will taste bad, but when it is over, they
often come out saying, “that wasn¹t so bad,” or “I liked it.” What they
expect to be miserable turns out to be good.
How do you convince someone that what you want to undertake will be a
good thing in the end? When it involves changing lifestyles, or spending
money it becomes even more difficult. Many years ago Andrea¹s Aunt
developed a scheme whereby she wanted to buy some property in Maine, two
doors down from Andrea¹s grandmother¹s home. The larger scheme was to
develop the property and eventually build a house on the site, a beautiful
home on the ocean. Andrea¹s Aunt was determined to do this, but found that
her husband was a less than willing participant. In fact, I am told he
thought it was all kind of harebrained, and refused to assist in any
material or physical way. Yet Andrea¹s Aunt persisted. She cleared much of
the land herself, and did much of the planning and building herself. Slowly
the house began to take shape. As her dream was brought into fruition by
the sweat of her brow summer after summer, and the wild scheme to build an
ocean front home began to be actualized in all its splendor, her husband¹s
attitude began to change. Slowly but surely this outlandish plan became
something quite positive. What was hers that he scoffed at, became his as
well. Soon it was “our” beautiful house that all “our” friends should come
see and stay at. She was no longer crazy, but rather, an ingenious planner
of great foresight who provided the opportunity for many years of family
gatherings and wonderful memories. Now he is grateful that he has this
home, but whether he expressed his gratitude to her is unknown to me. But
his support for what became an amazing project was delayed and belatedly and
grudgingly given, only to be swept up in the end with complete affirmation.
The perfect example of delayed gratitude in religious scriptures is
probably the story of Joseph. We learn in Genesis that Joseph¹s brothers
are jealous of him partly because of preferential treatment by their father,
including the gift of that infamous many colored coat. So the brothers sell
Joseph into slavery, and he is shipped off to Egypt. The next thing we know
Joseph has proven himself a very successful slave, and eventually ends up as
governor. He is especially revered for his ability to interpret dreams.
Wouldn¹t you know it but his brothers end up starving and need some grain.
They come to Joseph to rescue them from the famine, but do not recognize
him. We could characterize this story as one where the perpetrators have
deep regrets about the choices they have made. They feel immense guilt, and
ask in Chapter 44, “how can we clear ourselves?” Joseph soon makes himself
known to them, but begs them not to be distressed, or to be angry with
themselves. He says it has all worked out for the best. Joseph says that
God has sent him there before them to preserve life.
The goal is to preserve life despite what trials and tribulations have
brought them to this point. Now they must go on. Joseph feels what¹s done
is done, and the brothers clearly feel some degree of remorse. The best
solution is for all to celebrate with delayed gratitude. And so Joseph
embraces his brother Benjamin, and sends the brothers back with wagons to
bring Jacob down into Egypt. It is enough to know that Joseph lives, and
life will continue with new opportunities for love.
Delayed gratitude has much to do with how we feel about our decisions to
trod certain paths and not others. Some of the major life decisions I am
most familiar with revolve around marriage and divorce, children and
step-children. When parents become divorced it is hard for a child not to
feel that their world has been shattered, and thereafter will shift forever
in new and unforeseen directions. Yet even the children often realize in
retrospect how much they have suffered under parents who have fought
bitterly or have differences that cannot be resolved. Then when a
remarriage occurs there is the strong likelihood that the child will resent
the new parent, and sometimes will reject any overtures to develop a new
relationship. We see the child is very unhappy with that which has unfolded,
but that may change when the child sees how much of a confidante or
supporter the new person can be in their lives. We discover a deep felt
gratitude for this new relationship that we once thought was the worst thing
that ever happened to us. So many times this is true in life, something we
thought would be horrible or at least less than desirable turns out to be
exactly what we needed. The person we plan to hate is most helpful to us.
The job we lost turns us in a new direction. The extra burden we didn¹t
want to take on becomes the newest passion in our lives.
It is hard to comprehend we will ever feel gratitude when we are going
through something. We may feel like nothing will ever be the same or as
good again once a life change has enfolded us. We feel nostalgia as a common
expression of wishful thinking about the past. In his poem, “Nostalgia,”
Billy Collins reminds us that everything about the past appears better
because it is a dance we are familiar with or seems good in retrospect. We
want to return to that idyllic moment we remember when the job was going
well or the family was getting along, but some of that may be false memory
recall. Often we feel like we are in a holding pattern, or in the delayed
stage of life, before any possibility of gratitude even exists. In his book
A Box of Matches, Nicholson Baker, writes about a fire he had set up with
paper so he could strike it with a match when he woke up, but some old coals
ignited it, and burned it down during the night. Start building, he says,
recalling the words of Alex Trebek in Jeopardy. This is when in playing the
game you have bet everything and lost, or you do not turn out to be as smart
as you thought you were, and now you have nothing, and it seems like
everyone else is in the thousands. That is when Trebek turns to you and
says, “Start building.”
It is hard to feel any sense of gratitude, delayed or not, when things
seem to hit bottom – divorce, sold into slavery, lost all your Jeopardy
money. Yet this is the time to start building- make new friends, discover
your talents, take it as a first step in a new journey rather than the dead
end of the old. The ancient story of Job is the classic hero who seems to
have no chance to feel gratitude because everything is taken from him. This
story is retold in the play, J.B. by Archibald MacLeish. Like Job, J.B.
finds that all his work, all his tasks, all his family have been
obliterated. Bildad reminds us that no one said life is fair. People who
are innocent, who live right and true, may suffer. God is simply the march
of history, and has o time for innocent individuals. Justice is found in
the flow of history, and not in individual lives. Job¹s suffering is not
for a reason, it is simply paying for bad luck with a few licks, as MacLeish
says. In the end there is no justice for J.B., only love. He says God does
not love, only “is” The wonder is that humans love, and have that chance
again. Finally, J.B. meets up with Sarah, who has left him, but now
returns. Now together, she says there is the opportunity to “blow on the
coal of the heart.” We choose to love life in spite of life¹s pain. Our
love is the answer to the injustice of the universe.
Delayed gratitude asks us to take the long view of life. When we are
undergoing some great pain it is hard to feel gratitude. Our life feels
threatened – something has not worked out, there is illness, a gross
injustice, and we suffer. Gratitude in the midst of injustice reminds me of
the one year celebration of the legalization of same sex marriage in our
state. Here we had thousands of loving couples who have given their hearts
to each other, and yet couldn¹t have and hold the other in any sanctioned,
enduring way. Think how long this gratitude has been delayed with the only
hope for justice, the enduring love of these couples. And for me this has
been about the remarkable stories within the story – 20, 30 , 35, 40 years
together enduring injustice, prejudice and pain of rejection, and now at
least in this time and place, love has broken through and said let us have
gratitude for this opportunity for love that we are given in the midst of
all this injustice and pain. In Hebrew the word for gratitude is hoda¹ah –
the same as the word for confession. We offer thanks, we offer gratitude in
the midst of confessing how much we need one another, how dependent we are
upon each other, how we often make choices we regret, are foolish, misguided
or have events forced upon us by unjust circumstances. We don¹t want to
have to make this painful choice, but we do. It leads us down a new path.
Some day we will look back and say, this is the choice I felt I had to make
at the time with the resources I had. May we say we made that choice with
all the love we could find in our hearts. It was a choice we made for
ourselves, for our children, for our integrity, for what we felt passionate
about. My life is what it is now because of the choices I made. When
Czeslaw Milosz turned 90, like our own Mary Schlivek, he wrote “Late
Ripeness,” where he shows us how the heart finds gratitude for all past
lives we have lived and lost, ready to be “described better than before”
because they have opened the door on the possibility of love today.

Not soon, as late as the approach
of my ninetieth year,

I felt a door opening in me
and I entered

the clarity of each morning.

One after another my former
lives were departing,

like ships, together with
their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens,
the bays of seas

assigned to my brush came closer,

ready now to be described better
than they were before.

Delayed gratitude asks us to rejoice in those choices, for good or ill, for
regrets we now let go and for wonders that were uncovered. Now we must
confess our gratitude for the choices that we made, and live into the future
knowing that while we live, the choice to love is still before us.

Closing words- ”The Healing Time” by Pesha Gertler
Finally on the way to yes
I bump into
all the places
where I said no
to my life
all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain
carved into my skin, my bones,
those coded messages
that send me down
the wrong street
again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misdirections
and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say holy
holy.