• Fr. Peter Kavanaugh

Pursuing Gratitude

“Be filled with the Spirit; speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-20).

I once met an old polish man named Ernie. Everyone at his retirement home knew Ernie. Sometimes you’d find him on a bench, quietly singing a song by Frank Sinatra. Sometimes, you’d meet him at the front desk, as he dropped off his newest poem for all who showed interest. Still, at other times, you’d see Ernie sitting alone at a table, sipping coffee, enchanted by some train of thought or vivid memory.

When I sat down with Ernie he told me his story. A little before World War II, he married the love of his life. They shared good times and bad times together, and then one day, something changed in his beloved. She couldn’t remember the most ordinary tasks. She grew confused and hazy. The doctor said she had dementia. For years he labored to care for her, and he described the labor in great detail. Then she passed away. He fell into a depression, which lasted about a year. But finally a day came when he woke up out of it. Memories flooded him of all the good things in his life. He saw his past, his present, and eternity before him as all one gift. So he sat down and started studying the scriptures. The words struck him as overpoweringly beautiful, and so, when I had met him, he had spent the last ten years studying them daily and reworking them into poetry. His heart was overflowed thanksgiving. He couldn’t help but adore. “You see,” he used to tell me. “We old people are free to spend hours remembering. We remember, and as we remember we send up prayers of gratitude to God.”

What is gratitude?

Gratitude is having one’s eyes open. Gratitude is humility. Gratitude is work.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul told us to “be filled with the Spirit; speaking one to another in psalms…singing and making melody…giving thanks always…” When we hear these scriptures, we can sometimes wonder whether Paul was deft. What was he thinking? Didn’t he know people suffer? Are we expected to walk around with our head in the clouds, merely pretending we’re happy? Are these merely pious words and religious sentiments, or is Paul saying something very important and very urgent?

There is nothing sentimental or aloof about Paul’s advice. He knew something about life, like Ernie, which goes deeper then our pain and losses. Gratitude strikes at the very heart of our faith.

This morning, we read in the gospel of a group of lepers who were cured of their leprosy. Ten approached Christ. Ten begged Him for mercy. Ten were healed. But only one returned to thank Christ.

Here’s the story given to us: “As [Jesus] entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well’” (Luke 17:11-19).

Leprosy was one of the most hideous diseases in the ancient world. It attacks the nervous system, starts in the spinal cord and brain, and spreads out to the hands, feet, and face. It’s physically crippling and socially devastating. These lepers were the outcasts of society and a religious abomination.

With that mind, you’d think that to be cured miraculously from this disease would make anyone grateful beyond reason. But that wasn’t the case. All ten were healed but only one returned to give thanks.

But honestly, is this so surprising?

Stop and think for a moment…what have you been given in your life?

We aren’t that different from the lepers.

I want to take a moment to read a passage by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. It’s a long passage, but it says so much so well:

“At one time you were dead because of your sins. You followed the sinful ways of the world and obeyed the leader of the power of darkness. He is the devil who is now working in the people who do not obey God. At one time all of us lived to please our old selves. We gave in to what our bodies and minds wanted. We were sinful from birth like all other people and would suffer from the anger of God.

But God had so much loving-kindness. He loved us with such a great love. Even when we were dead because of our sins, He made us alive by what Christ did for us…God raised us up from death when He raised up Christ Jesus. He has given us a place with Christ in the heavens…It is not by anything you have done. It is a gift of God. It is not given to you because you worked for it…We are His work… Do not forget that” (2:1-11).

Imagine everything that you are and have. Now take God out of the equation. What’s left? Nothing.

You hear a lot about progress these days? We’ve sent rockets up to the moon. Modern medicine, science, skyscrapers and democracy all come to our minds. With so many accomplishments, some suggest we don’t need God anymore. But where, after all, did our genius to accomplish these things come from? Who gave us imagination and the minds and arms to follow that imagination? Who gave us our resources? Who gave us the earth and the moon, the laws of physics, and the span of life to enjoy them?

Everything we have is a gift.

But even then, does the world really have so much to boast of. The twentieth-century was the most violent century in human existence. Today, the sanity and balance of society rests on the pin of a needle, or the push of a button. Are we so evolved? We aren’t so different from the ants who spend their days building an ant hill, which will only be wiped away by one flood.

Without God, we have nothing.

What about morality? Can we boast in that? Anyone who knows himself knows that he’s capable of committing any sin fathomable. Perhaps we’ve been lucky. Some are born in circumstances that protect them from carrying out the thoughts that fill our heads. Others are not. In the end, any good that we do also comes from God.

Perhaps, we aren’t so different from the lepers after all.

But the gist of the story isn’t about the leprosy. It’s about our response to God once we meet him.

Will you be the nine lepers who didn’t come back? Or will you be the one who returned?

He fell on his face in gratitude and offered up unceasing worship. That too, is what we have to do.

So what is this gratitude? What was it that Paul, Ernie, and the leper figured out?

Gratitude is simply having your eyes open to reality around you. In the 1970’s, a young woman named Annie Dillard moved out into the woods and described her experiences in a little book called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She notes how many people in the world are chasing about big things – the highest mountain peaks or the tallest waterfalls – but all the while they end up passing by the equally marvelous little things all around. She writes, “There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But…who gets excited by a mere penny…if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get."

This is what Ernie discovered. He had suffered like all of us. He lost his wife to dementia long before he lost her to death. He knew depression all to well. But then a light bulb turned on in his heart. His eyes opened up to the gifts around him. He became a child. He discovered the gift of a robin at springtime and a warm cup of coffee in the morning, and that’s why he could spend his final days “singing and making melody with his heart to the Lord.”

Gratitude is humility.

What I said earlier about humanity might sound pessimistic to some. It’s not nice, but its true. My generation has grown up hearing all kinds of silliness about self-esteem and “the awesome you.” But deep down, everyone knows that’s a lie. I may not be awesome, but that doesn’t really matter, because God is awesome. The Christian can do something no one else can do in the face of sin. We can look at our brokenness, and then lean back and laugh. We can say, “I am small,” “I am foolish,” “I am a donkey,” all the while with an unshakeable joy. Why? Because when we give ourselves over to God all of our smallness and ugliness gets swept up in His bigness and beauty.

We don’t need to chase after self-esteem. We need to chase after God and He will give us self-esteem.

The world thinks that humility is to beat your chest and cry for your sins. Most of the time, that’s really just pride. The humble person is the person most capable of laughing at himself.

He knows that he is nothing and that God is everything, and so he’s free to worship.

When you know that you deserve nothing, then you can begin to feel gratitude for everything.

Finally, gratitude is work.

You know, when I meet someone like Ernie, I admit, I’m sometimes tempted to become a little jealous. Was his joy a matter of personality, chemistry, predisposition or circumstances? Maybe these did play a little role…but I doubt that role was very significant.

Gratitude doesn’t come from nowhere. You have to work at it.

Ernie spent his lifetime creates habits of gratitude. Little by little, he taught himself how to look at the world and to give thanks to God for it.

Gratitude is the star in the sky that you have to sail towards. We may never arrive, but the journey is worth everything.

I think it’s easy to forget how serious it is to be ungrateful?

Paul doesn’t tell us to “be filled with the Spirit; speaking one to another in psalms…singing and making melody…giving thanks always…” because he had his head in the clouds. Paul was aware of something at the heart of human existence. Grumbling is a state of the soul. To be discontent is to have your eyes closed off to reality…and that state doesn’t automatically change when you wake up in the afterlife. Some have suggested that if we can’t be grateful here on earth then we will neither be grateful up there in heaven...You take into eternity what you cultivate here and now.

If we are discontent with our gifts down here then we may very well be discontent with our gifts above. In that case, paradise itself will become an eternal hell. But if you learn to find paradise in the little parts of life now, how much greater will you find paradise when you face it in all it’s glory.

This is our chance, right here and right now, to start learning to be grateful.

“When he saw that he was healed, [the leper] turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him” (Luke 17:15, 16).

And so must we also do.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

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