Sheldon Cooper is one of the world’s more brilliant scientists. As portrayed by Jim Parsons on the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory, Dr. Cooper is also a charming naif of a character who is socially tone deaf and nicely ensconced somewhere on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum. Sheldon generally dislikes being touched or touching anyone else. As revealed on a Christmas episode some years ago, Sheldon is also determined never to be in anyone’s debt. He’d rather not thank anyone or if he must say “Thanks” at some point, he wants it to be in a context where a reciprocal “Thank you” will be owed to him so everything ends up even-Steven. Sheldon makes his own way through life and desires never to think anyone has helped him in ways that would in-debt him somehow.
One Christmas Sheldon and his neighbor Penny are to exchange gifts. Sheldon has no clear idea what Penny may purchase for him and so goes to a store and buys half-a-dozen perfume-and-soap gift baskets for her, each costing varying sums. His plan is that once Penny gives him her gift, he will quickly look it up online, determine the price, and gift her with the basket that costs the same amount (returning the other ones for a full refund). That way there will be no debt outstanding, they will be even, and he will owe her nothing.
But then Penny does the unthinkable: she gives Sheldon a cloth napkin from the restaurant where she works as a waitress. It is a napkin autographed by Sheldon’s hero, Sheldon’s god figure, Leonard Nimoy who played Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek TV series and who happened to dine in Penny’s restaurant recently. The napkin even contains a smudge from Nimoy’s mouth, giving Sheldon access to his very DNA! This is a gift of incalculable value for Sheldon. He cannot repay it. Yes, he goes to another room and comes out with all six gift baskets and hurls them at Penny. It’s not enough so he breaks with his usual habits and gives her a hug. (You can watch a compilation of this scene here).
That won’t do it, either, of course. Some gifts just cannot be repaid. Indeed, for any number of gifts we receive in life, it is foolish even to try to pay it back.
Yes, some things can be called “even” by grace and out of deep love. Think of the last line in the wonderfully witty and poignant Billy Collins poem “The Lanyard.” But it’s not true. For instance, if you had reasonably good and well-functioning parents, you cannot even up your accounts with them. Mostly you don’t want to either.
I thought of all this last week at the Calvin Symposium on Worship when conducting a seminar on gratitude with my colleague Neal Plantinga. It was a summation seminar on a week-long event we held last summer (and about which I blogged some at the time). We noted that grateful people are truthful people: much of our lives comes to us as a gift in various dimensions and living in a constant state of thankfulness — and thus finding multiple ways to express that gratitude on a regular basis — is simply living truthfully and accurately.
Nowhere is this more clearly the case than vis-a-vis God. As our Creator and Redeemer, God has given us our lives twice: first as an exuberant gift of the original act of creation and then again as a cosmically costly sacrificial gift through the death and resurrection of God the Son. Whether we like it or not — whether like Sheldon Cooper we’d rather not live with a sense of abiding indebtedness — there it is. All those who are sure they are “self-made” individuals, all those who think they can get by in life with a minimum of needing to feel grateful are leading untruthful lives of self-deception.
This is not to say that those whose lives are genuinely hard, oppressed, or persecuted have no right to lament. It is not to say that on certain very hard days when we have lost loved ones or cherished jobs we may not feel particularly grateful. No one should try lightly to slap a yellow smiley-face sticker over-top of the suffering of another by saying “You ought to be grateful though, you know.”
Still and in general, gratitude is where we live.
This may seem like an obvious reminder. But with so much of our society and world in turmoil and with so many socio-political debates, fears, and concerns dominating the mental and emotional horizons for so many of us, I know for myself it is a good reminder that at the end of each day and at any given moment all throughout any given day, there is a debt of gratitude to our God in Christ that is properly outstanding. It is not going to go away. It is part of the very relationship we all have with God. We do not want it to go away even were it possible to even things up with the Almighty. Rather, we let that gratitude debt remain in place and, just so, we allow that sense of indebtedness to deepen daily our wonder, love, and praise.