A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 20, 2011
I would like to begin with a story; a true story about a boy named Ronnie. Ronnie grew up in impoverished Graham County, North Carolina, and was taken to Meadow Branch Primitive Baptist Church. As you might imagine, it was an extremely conservative environment. Ronnie’s physical limitations didn’t help matters any. For, you see, Ronnie was blind. Ronnie’s blindness caused him to be a castoff. His grandmother and step-grandfather agreed to raise him after his other family members thought he was “cursed by the devil” and didn’t want anything to do with him. So at the Meadow Branch Primitive Baptist Church, they would pray over him that his blindness might be healed. When he wasn’t healed, they would tell him it was his own fault that he was he blind.
Curiously, Ronnie had a talent for singing. And in spite of his bleak circumstances, at church he learned to raise his voice in song as he sang old-time gospel favorites like “Softly and Tenderly,” “Amazing Grace,” “Rock of Ages,” “In the Garden,” “Precious Memories,” and others. And there was another thing about Ronnie—he had faith—religious faith and faith in himself.
Well, Ronnie was guided to a school for the blind in Raleigh, North Carolina, and then to Memphis, Tennessee, where he befriended someone by the name of Elvis Presley. And then he later moved to Nashville where he became a musical superstar. Ronnie Milsap has had 40 number 1 hit singles, has received six Grammys, and has four wins as the Country Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year. A few months ago, Milsap released his first-ever gospel CD titled Then Sings My Soul. But the point about Ronnie Milsap that is pertinent for today is his attitude. In spite of his life-long struggles with blindness, Milsap says, “I look at every day as a real blessing. Every day is a gift.”1
You know, that’s not a bad philosophy to adopt—to see every day as a real blessing, as a gift. Such was what someone by the name of John Kralik did. Which leads me to another story, of course. A few years ago, John’s life was falling apart. He was going through a painful second divorce, his best friend had left him, his law firm was failing, and he was growing apart from his children. So one day John decided to focus not on what he didn’t have but on what he did have. To express his gratitude, John wrote a hand-written thank-you note every day to someone who had shown him a kindness—a relative, friend, someone who waited on him at Starbucks, and so on. The story goes that immediately after starting this practice of writing daily thank-you notes, positive developments began to take shape in his life. And so, he put together a book about his experience titled 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life.2
As you probably already know, handwritten thank you notes is almost becoming a thing of the past. Wedding and baby gifts, being taken out for a nice lunch or dinner, something very special someone does for another—handwritten thank you notes are just not sent like they used to be. And many of us fit into the category of those who no longer, or at least not as often as we used to, write them. A short e-mail saying thanks, occasionally. A text message, possibly. A telephone call, maybe. But handwritten thank you notes—not nearly as prevalent as they used to be.
A daily devotional that I receive from the United Church of Christ denominational office in Cleveland, Ohio, pointed out this past week that sometimes it is good to write a thank you note to people we wouldn’t normally think of sending them to. A journalist who exposes scandal, or greed, or other injustices and inequities in the world. Or a thank you note to a therapist who pries and supports and listens and challenges. Or a thank you note to a preacher or friend who has told an honest, but perhaps uncomfortable truth. The occasions to write a daily thank you note are many and varied for all of us.
It was Bob Kesling, the Voice of the Vols, I think, who said, “Two of the most powerful words in the English language are thank you. None of us,” Kesling observed in a speech a couple of months ago, “got where we are by ourselves.” Many others helped us on our way. So it is only right that we take time to thank those who helped make us who we are.
And then when it comes to religion, there are some, like the German theologian and Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, who contend that when it comes to prayer the most important ingredient is thanks. In what has become a famous quote, Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you,’ that will be enough.” For, you see, from a truly thankful heart flow all the other virtues necessary for living a spiritual life. Even Cicero, the famous first century B.C. Roman philosopher, said, “A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all the other virtues.”
And so, for those people who feel they do not know how to pray or do not know what to say when they do pray, that makes it pretty easy. If you can pray no other prayer, just saying a prayer of thanks may be enough. It is, at the very least, an excellent start. Thank you for the new day. Thank you for the sunrise. Thank you for the beautiful sunset. Thank you for the beautiful, full moon. Thank you for the food I just enjoyed. Thank you for the family and friends who love me. Thank you for a church community that cares for my well-being. The opportunities to say a short prayer of thanks are abundant.
Now, if truth be told, we all have days when we’re not feeling very thankful. Right? When we look at our lives, or look at the world, and things seem to look pretty grim. We all have days like that. But do you suppose that approaching life and faith in the way that Ronnie Milsap and John Kralik do, and approaching religion and prayer as Meister Eckhart did, could have the potential of changing our outlook on life? Do you suppose that if we looked upon every day as a blessing, as a gift, in spite of its challenges; and if we took time to say thank you to at least one person a day who blesses our lives; and if we took time each day to say at least one prayer of thanks, that it would change our lives for the better? And that positive developments might begin to occur?
Well, there’s no way to guarantee that it would, since religion deals in faith and not in certainty. But maybe this Thanksgiving week would be as good a time as any to give it a whirl and see what happens if we said thank you to at least one person a day and each day whispered at least one prayer of thanks. Maybe it could change our lives. Amen.
2USA Today, Dec. 8, 2011 and Christian Century, Jan. 11, 2011.