Read by Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
I Thessalonians 5:18
I have a memory of my 5th-grade teacher asking us to write a short paragraph describing the things in our lives for which we were thankful. I don’t recall any of the specifics of that assignment, but I do recall having a terrible case of “writer’s block.” I sat for the longest time just staring at that piece of paper. I couldn’t think of a thing for which I was thankful.
Recalling it now, it seems shocking to me that a 5th-grade boy growing up in suburban America, with plenty of food and warm clothes and a comfortable home and a loving family, couldn’t think of anything for which he was thankful. I was surrounded by gifts, but I didn’t recognize them as gifts, and so I couldn’t begin to express my gratitude for them. I suppose I naively assumed that everyone had food and clothing, a loving family and a comfortable home. I was unaware of how privileged I was to enjoy these things on a daily basis, and simply took them for granted.
I remember that incident when I read this story from Luke’s gospel. Here, Jesus meets a band of lepers, who beg him to have pity on them. He does, and they are miraculously made clean. But of the ten who receive healing, only one returns to give thanks. Only one is aware that he has received a gift that will forever change his life, and only he pauses to acknowledge the giver of this gift, and to praise and thank God for his restored health.
There are two things in this story that I would like to comment on. The first is to note that there is a moment of awareness, a moment of awakening, in which this man discovers the gift he has been given. “As they went, they were made clean,” the gospel writer tells us, “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back…” (v. 14-15). We can imagine him looking down at his hands and his feet, seeing the restored and now healthy flesh, and suddenly realizing that his terrible affliction was gone! “When he saw that he was healed…” When he saw that he had been made whole and realized his disease was gone, when he understood how radically different his life could now be, he turned back to give thanks.
Gratitude is the awareness that we have been given a gift. Often it is an awareness that comes upon us in sudden and unexpected ways. We are walking along, and suddenly our breath is taken away by the beauty of the autumn leaves, or the rays of the sun piercing through the clouds, or the feel of the wind on our face, and we’re caught up in the giftedness of the moment. Or we’re talking with a friend, and suddenly we realize the gift this person has been to us and the tremendous treasure this friendship has been for us. We’ve been given a gift.
Gratitude, then, arises out of the awareness that we have been given a gift, that something has come to us from outside ourselves – something unexpected and even undeserved – and our lives have been enriched by it. We feel grateful.
This awareness can rise in us suddenly and unexpectedly, but it can also be cultivated. We can develop our awareness, and learn to practice gratitude. Abraham Heschel, a Jewish rabbi and well-known author, talks about cultivating an awareness of the wonder of life. He writes,
The profound and perpetual awareness of the wonder of being has become a part of the religious consciousness of the Jew. Three times a day we pray: ‘We thank Thee… for Thy miracles which are daily with us, for Thy continual marvels…’ Every evening we recite: ‘He creates the light and makes the dark.’ Twice a day we say, ‘He is One.’ What is the meaning of such repetition? A scientific theory, once it is announced and accepted, does not have to be repeated twice a day. (But) the insights of wonder must be constantly kept alive. Since there is a need for daily wonder, there is a need for daily worship.
Learning to see with eyes of gratitude, becoming more aware of the gifts that surround us on every side, is an ability that needs to be kept alive through constant practice. “The insights of wonder must be constantly kept alive.”
There is not much in our culture that encourages this sense of wonder or that leads to gratitude. More often, we are seduced into thinking that we need to acquire more in order to be truly happy and fulfilled. Instead of encouraging us to give thanks for the gifts we have been given, the advertising that assaults us each day encourages us to be greedy for more gifts. A steady stream of messages tells us of the many things we could own, but don’t. Our neighbors or co-workers describe to us their latest purchases with a sense of pride and satisfaction, as if these things were proof of their personal importance and worth. If we listen to these voices, we won’t feel much gratitude. Instead, we’ll start thinking we don’t have enough and that we need to get more…and more…and more. To nurture a spirit of gratitude and to resist the lure of voices that tells us we don’t have enough, takes courage and determination. Practicing gratitude is a radical act, and can be very counter-cultural.
Gratitude is the awareness that we have been given a gift. But to become aware of the gift is not enough. Gratitude moves beyond the recognition of the gift to the recognition of the giver. And that is what distinguishes the man in our story from the others who were healed; that is what earns him Jesus’ praise. Not only does he become aware that he has received a great gift (surely the others must have come to a similar awareness), but he acts upon it. He returns to seek out the giver of the gift, to express his gratitude, and to offer God praise.
Gratitude moves us beyond the recognition of the gift to recognize and thank the giver. In some ways, the gift itself is secondary in importance. What is more important is the exchange that takes place when we express our gratitude. The offering of the gift is only complete when we receive it with gratitude, and when that gratitude is expressed. Without the expression of gratitude, something is missing. “Were not ten made clean?” Jesus asks the man, “the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Don Postema, author of a book entitled, Space for God, tells of his experience of bringing a gift to a birthday party when he was a boy. “The birthday child met me at the door,” he says, “grabbed the gift without a thank-you, ran into the room, and threw it among all the other gifts.” “Why do I still remember that incident?” he asks. “Because the giving of that gift is not complete over all these years! I never received the thank-you note needed to close the circle and establish a mutual exchange.” True gratitude leads us beyond the gift itself and unites us with the giver, closing the circle and establishing a mutual exchange.
We Christians proclaim that GOD is the giver of all good gifts. We acknowledge that all that we have and all that we are are the result of God’s divine goodness and love. GOD is the giver of every good gift: the gifts of nature, the gifts we receive in and through others, even the gift of our own selves.
“To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us,” writes Thomas Merton, “and (God) has given us everything”:
Every breath we draw is a gift of (God’s) love, every moment of existence a grace… Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference…
We live in constant dependence upon this merciful kindness of God and thus our whole life is a life of gratitude – a constant response to (God’s) help which comes to us at every moment.
“Our whole life is a life of gratitude.” Even in difficult times there are reasons to be grateful. We are alive. We are loved. We are surrounded by beauty and wonder. And God is near, loving us and supporting us and making a way for us. We know that nothing can separate us from God’s love – no circumstance, no power on earth or in heaven, no trouble or hardship – NOTHING! We are and will be forever loved and held by God!
In addition, many of us can look back on hard times with genuine gratitude for graces received: perhaps we have become stronger through the trials; almost certainly we have learned from them something about ourselves or about life that will help us going forward. We recognize how these trials have changed us, or made us more sensitive to the suffering of others, or helped us to appreciate things we had taken for granted. There is always reason for gratitude, which is why we say in our Eucharistic prayer, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to You…” It is why Saint Paul instructs the Thessalonians to “give thanks in all things.” He does not ask them to give thanks FOR all things, but IN all things. Even in darkness, difficulty or despair, Paul found reasons to give thanks and praise to God.
There is a scene in the 16th chapter of the book of Acts in which Paul and Silas were attacked by an angry crowd, stripped and beaten by the magistrates, and finally thrown into prison, with their feet fastened in the stocks (Acts 16:16-24). And we read, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (v.25). What is it that keeps hope alive in such circumstances? It is an unshakable confidence in the goodness and power of God, which is the expression of faith. Expressing gratitude in difficult times is an expression of trust in God, and an acknowledgment that God is present and at work in every time and place, always bringing life out of death, hope out of despair, joy out of sadness – even when we can’t see it.
I cannot stress enough how counter-cultural and how radical this practice of “giving thanks to God in all things” really is. Nor can I overstate how completely it will change our perspective on life. It will not take away every pain or sorrow, but it will transform us in the midst of them.
Permit me one final word about the value of gratitude. The Book of Common Prayer tells us that “the Eucharist is the central act of worship” in the Episcopal Church, and rightly so, because the word ‘eucharist’ literally means “to give thanks.” In the Eucharist, we recall all that God has given us and all that God has done for us as a people. We recall God’s mercies in creation, in the calling of God’s chosen people, in the history of our salvation, in the life of Christ and his Church. And we give thanks, we offer “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” holding up before God our lives and our work, along with this bread and wine, to be taken up into the mystery of God’s plan for the whole creation.
Have you come to this Eucharist with hearts full of gratitude? Are you aware of the gifts that surround you on every side? Have you awakened to the gift of your own life, and are you prepared now to offer to God, the Giver of all good gifts, your “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”? Are your hearts so full of the wonder of life that you want to cry out with the psalmist, “What shall I render to the Lord, for all his bounty to me?”
This is the time, and this is the place. Come, let us give God our thanks.
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