Stewardship Resource

Getting to Gratitude

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  • Author: Rev. Bruce Sanguin is pastor at Canadian Memorial Church, Vancouver, B.C.
  • Updated: 09/16/2010
  • Copyright: Rev. Bruce Sanguin
    1825 W. 16th Ave Vancouver, BC  V6J 2M3

Getting to gratitude requires time in a time-sick culture. Busyness is the mortal enemy of gratitude. It takes time to notice our life, this planet, our loved ones as gift. It takes time to allow the beauty of a fall rose to take us to our knees. Gratitude is born of a child-like fascination with the world.

From Sermon, "Getting to Gratitude"
by Bruce Sanguin


Getting to Gratitude

Luke 17: 11-19
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he 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, "Where not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Were 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."

Ten are healed but only one returns to give thanks to God. This one ends up flat out and face down in the dust at the feet of Jesus in a posture of deepest gratitude. Isn't it interesting that our bodies want to move in the direction of the earth when we feel genuine gratitude? Muslim people pray on their knees, bowing toward the earth. Buddhists and Hindus sit in a lotus position. Somewhere along the line in the Christian tradition of the West we became deeply suspicious of the body and so we mostly check out bodies at the door of the church before we come in. We require worshipers to sit in hard pews and we no longer have to teach you to keep your bodies very still. We allow our people to stand up every once in awhile, but we'd prefer it if you'd abstain from swaying to the music. It's a shame because if we trusted our bodies, they would lead us into deep praise and gratitude.  Like the leper we just might end up prostrate before Christ giving thanks.

This just might explain why the others either forgot or refused to return to give thanks. And why we forget or refuse to give thanks. Think back to the times in your life when you were genuinely grateful. I once got a Koho hockey stick for Christmas which was what all the best players were using. It was from Santa Claus, but I knew my mom and dad knew that I really wanted it. I wanted to find a quiet moment to go to them, even as a kid, and say thank-you, but it felt too deep to risk saying it out loud.

I remember, as well, as a younger man, my last session with my counsellor. She had accompanied me into the terrifying landscape of my soul, tended my wounds when I allowed her to, and gave me back a heart I almost lost. It took me ten minutes just to get to a teary-eyed thank-you. 

Authentic gratitude is very humbling. It brings you down to earth. It is an acknowledgment of dependence. You have received something from another which you could not, by your own power, manufacture. When you think about it, this just about covers life itself, from birth to death and all that lies in between. It's all pure gift. We didn't do anything to deserve it. We just arrived, through no effort of our own, upon this spinning planet and it was all there for our adventure and enjoyment. This is not easy to accept or to know what to do with. We throw up all kinds of defenses against a deep gratitude.

It's as if modern humanity has said to God or to the Universe or to Chance, to whomever or whatever we believe brought this Universe into being, " we'll take it from here, thank you very much", except the thank you very much is a formality that's tossed off maybe once a year. We imagine ourselves to be creators of life; genetic engineering, space travel to Mars; ecological arrogance; anti-aging gurus tell us immortality is within our grasp. Gratitude dies with illusions of self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency recognizes no transcendent power to whom one would give thanks. We take because it's there for the taking and it's ours to do with whatever we please. In the absence of authentic gratitude the spoils go to the strongest, the most clever, the most aggressive. Empires emerge, religion which supports empire thrives, superficial rituals of thanksgiving are created in which thanks is offered for the "good life", with little awareness of the ways in which the good life may be connected to the plundering of the earth and the domination of other human beings. Is it just men, or is fear of dependence operative in women as well? Getting to gratitude requires surrendering our illusions of self-sufficiency.

Getting to gratitude is not easy.  Human nature gets in the way. Mary Jo Leddy has written eloquently about how difficult it is to be grateful in a culture of dissatisfaction. To keep the economy humming along in a consumer culture it is necessary for us to be aware of what we lack, not be grateful for what we have. Richard Layard, co-director of the London School of Economics' Centre for Performance described two separate processes; one he calls habituation and the other is just good old fashioned covetousness. We get used to what we have very quickly, and desire to have more than those around us. One study he quoted found that every 10 percent rise in people's income caused a five percent rise in the income they thought they needed. An article on Happiness in the weekend Globe described an experiment at Harvard University.

"The students were asked to choose between two scenarios: In the first, they would get 50,000 per year and everyone else half that amount. In the second, they would get 100,000, and others would double that. Most chose the first option; they were happier to be poorer, as long as that meant they were richer than others."  Chronic dissatisfaction cultivated by our consumer society and the tendency to habituate to what we have received combined with a desire to have more than others around us gets in the way of getting to gratitude.

Getting to gratitude requires time in a time-sick culture. Busyness is the mortal enemy of gratitude. It takes time to notice our life, this planet, our loved ones as gift. It takes time to allow the beauty of a fall rose to take us to our knees. Gratitude is born of a child-like fascination with the world. It's ironic and tragic that we've structured our lives almost as a defense against gratitude. When we tacitly agree that the meaning of life is the pursuit of affluence and further enter into agreements to give our lives in exchange for this goal we sacrifice gratitude. When we feel compelled to keep our children so busy with activities which means keeping ourselves busy transporting them to and from activities we have no time to sit down and write in a journal how our hearts practically burst when we saw the way a shaft of light rendered an ordinary fence a sacred object.

A once-a-year celebration of Thanksgiving can be used as a defense against genuine gratitude, or it can be a radical reorientation of one's life. We can use this holiday to make a decision to enter into a more sacred rhythm, to take more time, to be satisfied with what we have and what we are, to risk letting go of our illusion of self-sufficiency. I'm not saying it's easy. In fact, we may end up with our face in the earth and tears streaming down our face if we could even for one moment take in the gifts we have received freely. We may end up grieving for all the lost years and lost moments, grieving the very life-style we thought we wanted, and the madness of the world around us. Thanksgiving can be an opportunity to honour our longing for a more authentic life. Life in Christ offers this kind of authenticity. Perhaps this can be the Thanksgiving when we honour that longing and return to Christ to give thanks.

The poet e.e. cummings found his way back to gratitude as he penned his famous poem:
i thank You God for most this amazing day;
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes.
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth day
of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting, touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

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