In the eerie glow of my laptop, sitting in a cheap hotel in Green Bay, Wis., I pulled up the file containing my last will and testament. It’s addressed to my beloved and my children, whose duty shall be to execute it, should I encounter the Proverbial Bus.
Funeral instructions are odd things, really. Strictly speaking, funerals are not for the dead; rather, for the living. I’m saying, in heaven, I suspect I won’t have a huge investment in my funeral proceedings, having moved on to more important things. (Pretty funny, really, to think of me looking down from eternity, all a’fluster, screaming: “Are you kidding! You actually sang ‘Kumbaya?!’”)
On the other hand, it is typically comforting for the brokenhearted to carry out a few wishes of the deceased. In this document, then, I make some specific requests because honoring those requests will help the people I love get what I want for them: a healthy and holy goodbye to me. The kind of goodbye allowing you to move on with your own healthy and holy journey.
I name the celebrant. I name the speakers. I spell out the music. And I smile, reading the instructions for the congregation to stand and sing the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God.” I demand my executors ensure it is not played in typical, Anglo-Catholic please-kill-me-now funeral dirge tempo. Rather, give it a lift. Sing that sucker! Sing it like you mean it.
Because I mean it. From the bottom of my heart.
“Now thank we all our God/ With heart and hand and voices/ Who wonderous things hath done/ In Whom His world rejoices/ Who from our mothers’ arms/ Hath guide us on our way/ With countless gifts of love/ And still be ours today.”
The hymn was written in the 1630s by a Lutheran clergyman, Martin Rinkart (1586–1649), and translated into English some 200 years later. Rinkart’s genius and inspiration for the spiritual discipline of gratitude was formed chiefly in gratitude’s most compelling classroom: suffering. War, famine, plague and pestilence — he is said to have presided over as many as 50 funerals in a given day, 4,000 funerals in a year. Including his wife’s.
Ironic, yes? Suffering is the precursor to such disparate conclusions: gratitude and bitterness. I assume Pastor Rinkart could just as easily have written a bar song called “Wish I Had a Nickel for Each Requiem.” Or “The Ballad of the Bavarian Bubonic Butt-Kicking.” Instead he wrote:
“Oh may this bounteous God/ Through all our life be near us/ With ever joyful hearts/ And blessed peace to cheer us/ To keep us in his grace/ And guide us when perplexed/ And free us from all ills/ Of this world in the next.”
I’m convinced gratitude is the most constant and accurate measure of spiritual health and wholeness. I have this keen memory of my maternal great-grandmother, all talcum powder and wrinkles, squeaky chalk-on-a-chalkboard voice, singing, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one …”
“What do you say, Steven,” was the constant, admonishing question of my childhood. “Thaaaank you,” I would say, obediently, eyes sullen. How did I know this teaching from my parents and grandparents would, 50 years later, be my most priceless possession?
Gratitude is humbling. Or maybe it’s suffering that, if honestly and courageously faced, humbles us sufficiently to carve out a place for thanksgiving. Gratitude finds little welcome in the swell of entitlement, pride or petulant diatribes about “what I deserve.” I mean, good for you if you worked hard and faithfully to earn or achieve something worth having. But even “gooder” for you if you can celebrate and say thank you for that which you have not earned. Could not have earned. The joys of life beyond earning.
I typed quietly. All three of my children were there with me in this two-bit hotel room. Sleeping. Yesterday, we sat, side by side, at Lambeau Field. Me and Jonathan in Fort Knox gold and Kelly green, and Aaron and Joseph in Metallic turquoise, black and white. My team lost. But I won. My heart is so full, it aches.
Now, thank me all my God. I tell my children, if the Proverbial Bus happens by, to know I was happy. Sappy with contentment. Enemies forgotten and irrelevant. Loved ones forgiven each, and cherished.
That I died drowning in gratitude.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.