They Came My Way
Gratitude: Life’s Biggest Lesson
“A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue,
but the parent of all other virtues.”
It was 1965. Lyndon Johnson was President. US life expectancy was 70.2 years; its population was 194.3 million. Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford aboard Gemini VI performed the first rendezvous with another spacecraft, Gemini VII with Frank Bormam and James Lovell.
My Fair Lady won the Oscar for Best Picture while Hello! Dolly! was the Grammy’s Song of the Year. ABC paid 32 million for a four-year contract with the NCAA to broadcast Saturday afternoon football games. Bill Cosby became the first African-American to headline a television show, I Spy.
Robert Woodward from the US won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry while Alex Haley released his new book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the Black activist who was murdered in Harlem in February. Winston Churchill, Nat King Cole, T. S. Elliot and Adlai Stevenson passed on.
I was a nineteen-year-old Freshman attending USC. In the afternoons, Monday- Friday, I drove to Arcadia from downtown LA to perform duties as the PE Coach at the Santa Anita Day School, a private K-8 school run by The Santa Anita Church.
In the early Spring, I met Martha Van de Verg, a church member who became an enduring elder friend and life mentor to me until her passing in 2004.
My 1964-65 school year was the first of four different employment roles at the church and school culminating in 1990 when I became the third Senior Minister in the history of The Santa Anita Church.
Before exploring the mentoring relationship Martha offered me for many years, let me share a rather remarkable yarn she told me on the first day of my tenure as Senior Minister in January, 1990.
Martha was in the congregation for that momentous first Sunday. After the service, she stood in line to greet me. When it was her turn to say Hello, she had an unbelievable message…one I was hearing for the first time as she stated, “Russ, one day in the Spring of 1965, I went out to lunch with Dr. Ethel Barnhart. (Dr. Barnhart was the founding pastor of The Santa Anita Church and the individual who hired me to be the PE Coach.)
“We drove back onto the church parking lot where you were doing jumping jacks with the school kids. We slowed down. As we did, Dr. Barnhart said to me, ‘Martha, that young man leading the children will someday be the Minister of this church.’ ” Wow!
What was it about Martha Van de Verg that left an indelible impression on my life? Said simply, Martha lived a life of gratitude.
The operative word in my statement is lived. She did not think gratitude when convenient to moments when things were going well. Rather she marked gratitude in every corner of her life…in the good times and in the bad. Martha knew gratitude when she was healthy and when she was not; when her work was profitable and when it was not; when her husband and she hiked the hillside of Sierra Madre and when he no longer was there to walk beside her.
It was in my third round of church employment, 1973-1978, when I captured the great divide between my life of ingratitude and Martha’s life of abundant gratitude. In those years 27-32, I knew so little about gratitude. Like most people my age, gratitude was an appreciation for something that had arrived in my life. Gratitude was a bank account to record what I had acquired but more so, what I had not. Bank account gratitude always operates with a ledger of debits and credits. It always seemed my account was too low. I knew it when I was in the presence of Martha and she exuded gratitude in all of its variety. I bristled at Martha’s pollyanna foolishness about gratitude. Yet, constantly her bottom line would be expressed, no matter what was going on in her life… “The Father is good; and I am grateful.”
Just how do you get your mind and heart around that awareness? I was too green in life to get it. Yet, I was attracted to the vibrancy of Martha’s well being with her life mantra. Her words came to life in a steadiness and a constant appreciation for what was right in front of her. I remained curious.
Fast forward to 1990 and my fourth round of employment as Senior Minister. I was forty-four; Martha was in her late 70’s. She was a well-seasoned soul of gratitude. She was in charge of the prayer ministry. I had climbed a couple of rungs on the gratitude ladder. At least now I knew that the light of gratitude shines in the mind and heart when things are good and not so good. Every Thursday morning Martha could be found in the church office paying attention to many prayer requests. Weekly, I watched the steady knowing she brought to her prayer work anchored in that simple knowing, The Father is good and I am grateful.
No longer were those words hard to hear. I welcomed them; I did not retreat from wanting to know more about them. Martha knew those words were her Truth and her anchor. Could they become mine?
I watched the steadiness at work as Martha experienced her husband’s final illness. Nothing changed; gratitude was the constant. The Father remained good. More and more I welcomed gratitude as a teaching and Martha as its voice and face.
That mentor-mentee relationship never ended. Even today, nearly a decade since her passing, when Thanksgiving rolls around and we in the US turn our attention to a day of Thanksgiving, I am forever reminded of my gratitude teacher of Thanks Living…who got it right…who embodied it and lived it and encouraged its presence in others who were open to its life transformative message…The Father IS good and I AM grateful.
She came my way to prod…gently and persistently. Martha’s message was not a kick in the butt. She knew gratitude was not a harsh lesson to learn. It arrives to stay as Knowing after the nudging and after the nurturing.