“Gratitude: More Than a Feeling” (2 of 4)
Luke 17: 11-19 ~ Northwood United Church – Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook – September 22, 2019
Well, we may have missed celebrating it in the past; however, this year we celebrated “World Gratitude Day”…only one day late as we began our fall focus on gratitude. In all fairness, World Gratitude Day is relatively new, birthed in Hawaii only back in 1965. And over the last 54 years, a growing number of countries have taken the opportunity to lift up gratitude. So, last week, on September 22nd, we began to do just that: to lift up gratitude and consider this as a part of our faith expression and experience.
We began recalling how history has not been kind to gratitude, slowly shoving it into the corner reserved for pleasant attributes held by well-behaved school children, and perhaps lifted up on days when the family gathers around a turkey dinner. At one time, however, gratitude was the currency used for proper order in civil society. Gratitude was about reciprocity as appreciation was returned to the benefactors in our lives. Kings and Emperors would offer gifts of safety and provision and loyal subjects would gratefully express loyalty, taxes and other measures of gratitude. Back in this era, ingratitude was not merely a case of poor manners, it allowed rule and order. Things have shifted over the last 300 years, however, as laws increasingly replaced the gratitude exchange. And gratitude increasingly lost its profile in society. Gratitude, today, seems to be an increasingly optional social nicety that we seek to nurture in our children, is quickly becoming optional in social interchanges, and is something whose future is in peril. Yet…long before gratitude suffered its decline…long before it was an essential component in maintaining social order….it was profoundly powerful. Gratitude was a powerful, overwhelming emotion that had the ability to overcome people’s lives. As we explored last week’s text of the wise men, we were reminded that gratitude was the overpowering emotion that led them to follow the brightest star; it was the overpowering emotion that led them to offer their priceless gifts; it was the overpowering emotion that led them that fateful night; it was the overcoming emotion of gratitude.
We closed last week, encouraging us all to continue pursuing, or begin developing, our personal gratitude practice. The goal with gratitude practices is one of reclaiming this beautiful emotion of gratitude that lies deep, and often dormant, in each of us. So, for those of us who like to journal, we are encouraged to spend some time journaling each day on gratitude; for our devotional prayer time, to include a moment spent on gratitude; for our mealtime grace to include a moment of gratitude. In all, to rediscover this powerful emotion of gratitude that we, as wise men and wise women each hold in our hearts.
Now, as we seek to reclaim this powerful part of our faith heritage, we cannot just stop at gratitude as being just a mere feeling ~ as powerful as that is. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Emotion is the foundation of gratitude; however, gratitude is ‘more than just a feeling’. The problem with anything that is ‘just’ a feeling is that feelings are unpredictable. Feelings such as joy, sadness, fear can be random and fleeting things. They are not predictable and can be like the wind that moves through our lives. The good news about gratitude is that it is more than just a feeling. This morning, we move on to consider how gratitude is also a powerful disposition, gratitude is an ethic, gratitude is something that can serve to guide our very lives. Last week, we considered how gratitude is a noun ~ an emotion. And this morning, we consider how gratitude can be a verb, an instigator, an ethic of commitment, that guides and motivates our actions of faithful living.
In this morning’s text, we revisit a well-known story of Jesus’ healing. Ten people infected by a terrible disease called leprosy. These ten were social outcasts, yet they seek Jesus out for the healing of their affliction, knowing that Jesus would greet them, welcome them, and offer healing. With our gratitude focus this morning, we notice some very interesting features to the story. Firstly, nine of the ten who were healed, seemingly, move on with their lives. We don’t know exactly what they do after the healing; however, their response does not seem to warrant anything memorable in Luke’s telling of the story. These nine seem to just go on with their day, no longer infected, seemingly returning back to the habits of normal life.
In his book “The Power of Habit”, neuroscientist Charles Duhigg notes how much of our activity is habitual. He suggests that 99% of the time we have an opportunity to be grateful for something; however, we don’t notice, let alone respond, in gratitude. The danger with our ‘autopilot tendency’ is that we can go through our lives in a daze, without noticing, without feeling gratitude, just like the 9 lepers. To be sure, creating a gratitude response will be challenging. Just like any other habit, it will need to be understood as a practice. We all know how difficult it is to create any new pattern, any new habit. We can all remember trying to change our lifestyle – changing our diet, exercise, emotional balance. How many of us tried a diet, lost the 10 pounds, only to fall back into old habits and gain those 10 pounds right back? We all have. It is profoundly challenging to change well-worn habits. In his book “Outliers: The Story of Success”, Malcolm Gladwell described the 10,000 hours of practice benchmark that experts undergo in order to become excellent in their field. In order for us to shift our patterns towards one of gratitude in our living and our being, we need to be patient and persistent. We need to acknowledge the challenge in adopting a habitual pattern of gratitude in our lives.
Getting back to the text, there was another character in the story, aside from the 9 passive actors who receive the healing. The other character was the one who returns to Jesus to say thanks. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’ I wonder…what made this one turn back to Jesus and praise God? As we look at this one curious character, we are given insight into what gratitude looks like when it is not just a noun. We see what gratitude looks like when it is also a verb. At a psychological level, gratitude is not just about passive reflection. Jesus will not allow this one to stop and worship at his feet. Having expressed his gratitude, Jesus tells the grateful recipient to ‘get up and go on your way’. Gratitude is not just about being thankful for the thing that has already occurred ~ though that is part of it. Gratitude is also about creating a way of being and living into the tomorrows that will have blessing and hope yet soon to be discovered.
When gratitude becomes an ethic guiding our actions; when gratitude becomes a verb, not just a noun, things start to change in our life. We start to see things differently; we start to live differently. The nine who were healed returned back into their regular lives; however, this one who went to Jesus had things changed forever. When you look for things to be grateful for in your lives, you find them. And once you start looking, you discover that gratitude begets more gratitude. Like all habits, gratitude builds upon itself. Gratitude is a habit of awareness that serves to reshape our self-understanding. It guides the moral choices we make in the world. In short, gratitude becomes an ethic. It is a coherent set of principles and practices of grace, gifts and giving that guides our very lives.
Some interesting wisdom comes from the Japanese art of Aikido. This is a practice that can be roughly translated as holding ‘soft eyes’. As one widens their periphery to take in more of the world, they gain a larger viewpoint and a greater perspective to view gratitude. When a threatening stimulus enters our world, our fight or flight response takes over and we take a more narrow viewpoint ~ the opposite of this viewpoint. The wisdom of Aikido challenges us to do the reverse, to adopt a wider perspective instead of a narrower one. To find other opportunities for thanksgiving, for gratefulness, for grace. The wonderful poet Maya Angelou wrote: “If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present….gratefully”. While the nine in the story go about their daily lives, the one who returns to Jesus goes forth with a new and renewed faith: he will be forever changed and go forth with an awareness of the gratitude and grace in his life.
What if we allowed gratitude to be an overwhelming feeling in our lives? A feeling that captured our lives and caused us to live in ways that are new, re-newed and changed. But even more than that, what if we worked towards allowing gratitude to be a guiding light in our living? Let us join with the one who returned in deep gratitude, and let us proceed to live in ways of gratitude for our faith has made us well.