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"The Profound Truth of Simple Gratitude"

Based on Luke 17: 12-19

When we look at this passage we might at first think this is a simple message about gratitude. We teach our children that it's polite to say thank you when someone does something nice for us, perhaps even going so far as to send a special note to somebody for something extra nice. The main consequence of our not expressing gratitude, then, is we are guilty of violating a general rule of courtesy and might be regarded as rude by those around us.

But I think this story goes beyond that simple lesson, because I think gratitude itself is not simple. Let's think a bit about these ten men. They suffer from a disease for which there was no cure, and which resulted not only in physical pain but also social isolation. They have been turned into beggars with no family, no future, and no hope. We can probably easily imagine that their lives are full of trial and pain, and that the focus of their lives is trying to cope with the disease. Perhaps they wake up in the mornings with a psalm of lament to their God, spend their days begging in front of the healthy people who enter the city, angry and resentful that they themselves are so broken, and go to bed at night wondering what could possibly be the benefit of their life continuing. My guess is nine of these men might have felt exactly that way. Their whole lives were defined by the existence of this disease, their minds filled of what would happen if by some miracle the disease was removed from their lives. So when Jesus intervenes and they are healed, they do what probably makes the most sense - they rush back to their previous lives, eager to reclaim what they have
lost.

But for one man the reaction is different. What is it about the man who comes back to say thank you, who acts in gratitude? Recently I read a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. which said "Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude." I'm wondering if the same might be true about gratitude. If this is true, perhaps even though this man was struck by the same disease as the others, his response to it was different. Certainly he was aware of his physical and emotional suffering, but somehow he was able to nurture in his heart a life of gratitude all the same. Perhaps when he woke up in the mornings he thanked God for the blessing of the warm sun on his skin, which provided a bit of relief to his pain; when he begged at the gates perhaps he smiled at the young children who ran by, happy to see their young healthy bodies; perhaps he closed his day with a prayer thanking God for the chance to breathe fresh air and to experience the world's many beautiful moments. Although the disease must have been a prominent feature in his life, then, it didn't define his life. He didn’t wish and hope for the day when the illness would be removed, so he could return to his happiness; he claimed the happiness of his life as it was. So when Jesus intervenes and he is healed, his first response to his healing is the same one he has had while he was ill: gratitude.

Now gratitude begins to emerge in its truest form, not as a form of social etiquette, but as the necessary exercise of a healthy heart ready to receive and acknowledge blessing. Whatever our situation in life, there are always more blessings than struggles- that's just a fact. But it is only those with a real commitment to looking at life with gratitude, and who have exercised their minds in gratitude, who can see the world this way. When I was a child, one of the hymns we always sang in church was "Count Your Blessings." The first verse reads, "When upon life's billows you are tempest tossed, when you are discouraged thinking all is lost, count your many blessings name them one by one and it will surprise you what the Lord has done." I remember when I was young I thought this was kind of a silly thing to do, and boring. But, of course, at that time in my life I hadn't been tossed through many tempests so I couldn't appreciate the wisdom behind the exercise.

There is a quote from Meister Eckhart which says, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you that will be enough." For most of us "thank you" probably won't be our entire prayer, but it at least needs to make an appearance. And if we want to grow strong in our faith, it should be a prominent piece of our prayer life. But how do we cultivate an ongoing attitude of gratitude? How do we learn to count our blessings amidst the regular challenge and turmoil of our lives, not to mention the extraordinary suffering which we face? Ignatian spirituality offers us an amazingly effective tool to help, called the Examen. For the next six weeks I'm going to be providing you with an accompanying prayer exercise to our Sunday messages, for you to use at home if you wish. Each exercise can be done on your own, with a prayer partner, or sometimes with a group. The examen is a great tool for any of these, and we use it regularly in my own family with my small children. To make it simple, the Examen is a review you make of the events of the day, prayerfully examining how we felt throughout it, particularly when we are either very aware of God's presence with us or when it felt God was far from us. Usually in my family we try to pick one of each. Then we ask the question, how was God with me in this?

I think the brilliance of this exercise is that it is so simple, and yet its effect on the heart is profound. As we prayerfully seek how God is with us, when it is obvious to us and when it is hidden, we grow eyes of faith. Slowly we begin to fully realize how present God is with us, how much we are truly loved and attended to. Before long, we notice natural gratitude pouring from our hearts throughout the day, spontaneous praise arising from hearts full of seeing God all around us.

It helps us change from seeing ourselves as sick or broken or incomplete, to realizing that we are the beloved.  And, like the tenth man in our story, when we wake with our disease we will be thankful; when the disease is lifted we will be thankful. In all things we will be thankful, not attaching so much importance to the particular incidents in our lives, but rather focusing on our experience that that God is with us in all of them.

So amid the conflict whether great or small do not be discouraged God is over all.

Count your many blessings angels will attend, strength and comfort give till your journey's end.

Count your blessings name them one by one, count your blessings see what God has done.

Count your blessings, name them one by one and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.


 

The Examen

The Examen is a feature of Ignatian spirituality. If you'd like to learn more about it, there are many resources available on the internet. A great resource for children is the book "Sleeping with Bread."

It's often a good idea to practice the Examen at night before bedtime, to do a complete review of the day. But it can also be used as a mini-break for your day, at lunch time or during a work commute for example, whenever it works best for you. If you do the Examen on your own, you might want to use a journal to collect your reflections. If you practice it with a spiritual friend or in a group setting, make sure to give enough space to be reflective and prayerful, so as not to rush the process.

1.      Become aware of God's presence with you right now. Take a few deep breaths, either closing your eyes or focusing on the ground. Spend a few moments in silence, either visualizing the Light of God entering you with each breath, or surrounding you like a light pouring over your head.

 

2.      Beginning with the start of your day, review the day's events with gratitude. You might even say a simple gratitude prayer with each event, such as "Thank you God for the soft pillow this morning," "Thank you God for the coffee and toast," etc.

 

3.      Gently examine each event as you think through your day, looking for times in your day when you felt particularly evoked emotionally. This can mean you had a positive experience, like joy or peace; or a negative experience, like fear or despair.

 

4.      Pick one or two of these emotionally charged events to examine in depth. (In my family Examen, we usually share one positive experience and one negative.) Ask God to reveal to you how God was present and active in this event for you.

 

5.      As God if God has any guidance go give you through these events, any lessons which you can carry with you tomorrow. Pray a blessing on your rest tonight, and on the next day's walk with God. Record anything you want especially to remember in a journal.