I think it was the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen who said that the goal of the human journey is to be able at the end to say not “Please” but “Thank you,” not “I want” but “I am grateful.” Which of those words, I wonder, would you or I use to sum up our lives if this were our last day?
As I have thought about Nouwen’s words, I have been aware time and again what a long journey it is from please to thank you. As infants we survive only because we act on our needs and desires; they are instinctive and necessary. Parents have their work cut out for them trying to teach their children to say “thank you.” And it begins as a constantly repeated lesson in good manners. When someone does something nice for you, parents tell you to say thank you. “Pass the milk, please,” the child says. “Now, say thank you,” the parent says. “I’m going over to my friend’s house,” the child says. “Don’t forget to say thank you when you leave,” the parent answers.
I remember once wondering whether my wife Marguerite and I weren’t making little hypocrites of our children by making them say thank you when the thought of being grateful had never even occurred to them. But of course the reality was that the feelings of gratitude and appreciation actually came from being taught to say the words. We were teaching our children to be thankful by first having them act that way.
I remember a New Yorker article some time back about what the writer called the Sandwich Generation, those in their thirties through their sixties who are children of elderly parents, trying to live their full lives while becoming responsible for increasingly aging mothers and fathers. The emotional and financial burdens can become huge. “All of a sudden,” the author writes, parents, “people you thought were superhuman are dependent on you and you have to rescue them.”
How then do you focus on your career and your life with a parent who needs care? “We’re torn,” says the writer, “between our familial responsibilities and our quest for personal satisfaction—the yuppie Grail.”
Please was the most common word most of us addressed to our parents growing up. The time comes, though, to say thank you, and saying that, and living it often isn’t easy.
Some of us are much better at please than thank you and never seem to have gotten the hang of gratitude and generosity. I have even heard it suggested that there are two categories of people in the world, the Givers, who give back to life, and the Takers, who seem only interested in what they can get for themselves from any situation. It’s usually not very hard to guess who is which. Our churches, universities, museums, and our social service organizations would shrivel without the Givers. But it is the temptation especially of our age to be Takers, and in fact many are saying that the lessons of generosity of the older generations are not being replicated by a younger generation of successful people.
When we actually look closely at our lives we can see that we are receivers at every stage. There are countless teachers, coaches, uncles, grandmothers, doctors, mentors, janitors, and ministers whose names we have in many cases lost but who have—in ways so small as to be almost unnoticed, and so large as to have changed our lives—brought us to this moment. And what did we do to provide ourselves with the earth and the sun, with the talents and family support, with a free and prosperous nation in which to live, with the unpredictable lucky breaks and gestures of kindness that have enriched our lives? How is it then that people can sometimes sit so contentedly with their achievements and acquisitions and say, all this is mine, I did it, now, please, I would like a little more?
Winston Churchill once encountered a proud man who wanted none of the prime minister’s call to social responsibility. “Let me be clear,” the man said, “I’m very independent. I’m a self-made man. I believe in doing it all yourself.” “Well,” Churchill replied, “that certainly relieves your Creator of a great deal of responsibility.”
Let me read you part of a poem by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year.
Nothing’s a gift, it’s all on loan.
I’m drowning in debts up to my ears.
I’ll have to pay for myself
With my self, give up my life for my life…
I move about the planet
In a crush of other debtors…
Every tissue in us lies
On the debit side.
Not a tentacle or tendril
Is for keeps….
I can’t remember
Where, when, and why
I let someone open
This account in my name.
We call the protest against this
And it’s the only item not included on the list.
The journey from please to thank you is the journey of discovering your soul.
This evening we are giving thanks for all those in our life who have been faithfully on this journey of generosity and whose financial contributions make the life of the Cathedral possible. You all are here because you have made gratitude and open-handed generosity a part of your lives.
Of course, this Cathedral would not exist had not you and thousands before you become grateful givers yourselves. Gratitude and generosity are the National Cathedral’s lifeblood. They get expressed in many forms—dedication, hard work, skills of many kinds, imagination, creativity. They manifest themselves in beautifully arrayed flowers, in visitors warmly welcomed and guided through this majestic space, in the Cathedral Chapter and other governance committees that ensure the strength of our institutional life, in volunteers who assist in worship, music, our program offerings, in development and fundraising, in hosting dinners, and much more.
And it of course takes those tangible expressions of generosity in gifts of money and treasure. They are the essential lifeblood of our ministry.
And so in this evening offering of prayers and thanks to God, we give special thanks for all of you whose giving has fueled the essential work of this Cathedral in its ministry to the nation, the diocese, the city, and to the spiritual seekers who come into our life day by day, week by week. And we honor as well the two hundred fifty members of the Cathedral Founders Society, who are supporting the Cathedral through planned gifts that will sustain us in years to come.
As you know, the last year has been one of the most difficult in the Cathedral’s history—a painful time of trimming staff and closing much-loved programs. Weathering the economic storm has demanded the best from all of us.
I want to thank you for the ways that many of you have been to stretch your giving significantly to ensure that the Cathedral remains strong in this difficult time. Because of that, and in spite of expected contraction in some giving in this time, our annual giving actually increased slightly this past year—in a time when most non-profits experienced marked decreases.
Of course our financial challenges going forward are large. Our operating budget has been cut to the point that we are seriously understaffed for the work we are called to do. We now have only four clergy, not nearly enough for the ministry of this place. Important senior staff positions are going unfilled. And of course, there are needs all around us. Our beloved Cathedral building is in constant need of maintenance and repairs. Our music program urgently needs more adequate funding to maintain our remarkable chorister program. The Sunday Forums and our ongoing programs in faith and public life, interfaith dialogue, and reconciliation are all underfunded at the moment.
In short, this is a time of necessary constraint—but our calling as the National Cathedral means that we must move forward.
And so we turn to you, and to what we pray will be an expanding band of givers determined to ensure that the Cathedral remains a compelling witness to God’s love and purposes in the twenty-first century. Especially as we make our way out of this global recession, we count on your commitment and generosity. We cannot be the strong, faithful Cathedral for the nation we were built to be without continuing and expanding.
You know, there is something good about hard, demanding times. They help us to see what matters and what we are most grateful for. This hard time in our country and world is demanding that we keep our focus on these. And I believe that among the things that matter most is a church planted at the heart of this nation in these dangerous times, hovering on the skyline for all to see, its towers pointing like fingers to the God who called this earth, this nation, and you and me into being.
It’s a long journey from please to thank you. I give thanks to God this evening that so many of you have made that journey and are committed to this Cathedral’s ministry. May we continue to work and pray and give together to sustain this Cathedral’s vital work in these troubling, yet grace-filled times.