Cultivating Gratitude

One of my earliest lessons in gratitude came from my high school Latin teacher, Dr. Laurie.  She was one of the most hardworking people I knew. Having emigrated from South Africa, she taught Latin at my high school. In her spare time she was an exercise instructor and volunteered as a docent at a local historic site.  She never seemed to rest.

One day we had that great and wonderful gift to students everywhere, a snow day. Back at school later that week, she asked me what I’d done on the snow day and I apologetically admitted that I’d wasted the day, getting no school work done at all, imagining her spending the day completing projects.

She looked at me quizzically for a moment and then said in her South African accent, “When the Lord gives you a holiday you ought to take it.”

It was a lesson in wholeheartedly receiving, and appreciating, a gift.

I love this story about the ten lepers.  On one level it’s kind of a simple story, the sort of thing you’d tell to children about how to behave. It’s pretty clear which leper we’re supposed to aim to be.

But I don’t think that’s all we’ve got to see in this story. I think there’s a danger in assuming that some people are like the nine who don’t give thanks and others are like the one who does.  We too easily separate the world into the good and the bad, strive to be good, and then we’re on our way.

In reality, though, I think we’re all more complicated than that.  I think I contain within myself all ten lepers. I am the person who gives thanks for the gifts I’ve been given. And I also am the person who neglects to give thanks, who forgets and runs off to the next thing before offering God praise for the blessings in my life.

What amazes me about this story, what rings so true, is that the gift is there whether the lepers give thanks or not. God isn’t like some small minded dictator, taking away the health and restoration from those who fail to give thanks. God’s good gift remains.

Christian thinker Richard Rohr writes:

“The people who know God well—the mystics, the hermits, those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator. God is never found to be an abusive father or a tyrannical mother, but always a lover who is more than we dared hope for. How different than the “account manager” that most people seem to worship. God is a lover who receives and forgives everything.”

Giving thanks isn’t about adding a task to our life. It’s not about meeting a demand from some tyrannical God, who’s ready to take it all away any given moment. Thankfulness is an attitude.

Do you want your children or grandchildren to be grateful or ungrateful people? Do you yourself want to be a grateful or an ungrateful person? I don’t think it’s a hard question to answer.

Being grateful means focusing more on what’s right than what’s wrong. It means genuinely giving thanks for the abundant gifts God has given each one of us.

And like any attitude, being grateful is the sort of thing we cultivate by practicing certain habits. Coming to church is one of the ways we remind ourselves that we are not self-made people. Here’s another exercise you can try: at the end of each day, write down what you’re grateful for. Just do it for a week. And at the end of the week, look back on what you’ve written. I imagine you’ll find that you have a lot to be grateful for.

At the end of the passage Jesus tells the leper to get up and be on his way, saying “your faith has made you well.” Now of course, Jesus healed all ten lepers. All were made well.

But if you look at the Greek, you could translate this text as saying, “your faith has saved you.”  All the lepers are healed. They are restored to life and can return to their communities. But this one who comes back. He’s healed more deeply, in his body and his soul. Jesus heals all their physical infirmities. But each person must participate in the healing of their own spirit.

And how is his spirit healed? By showing up, and giving thanks, by taking a risk. His spirit is healed by his willingness to be in relationship with the true and living God.  May we follow in his footsteps. Amen.

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