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Words to live by: Gratitude

In the first of three reflections, Major Barbara Sampson considers the life-changing, joy-bringing nature of gratitude.  

I long ago gave up making New Year resolutions. The last time was when I was about 12 years old:

•    I will read the newspaper every day
•    I will keep my room tidy
•    I will be kind to my sister.

All these mumble-mumble years on from that earnestly-made list I’m still struggling to read a daily paper, but being kind to my sister has not proved to be so difficult.

In the freedom of these reflective years I have swapped resolutions for determinations—values, words to hold close to my heart and to allow their force to mould my days and shape my living.

A few months ago, I came across a threesome of words: integrity, beauty and dignity. Mmm, I like that, I thought. I’ll take one of those words for each day. Not far into this practice I realised that I could come up with some threesomes of my own—words that speak of value and strength. I shared the idea with a friend. If Rick Warren could make his fortune with 40 Days of Purpose, then my friend and I could sail by the stars of 40 days of words, values, determinations.

Our list started with wisdom, compassion, generosity. It moved through the nine fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc) and on to understanding, justice and wonder. Each day we prayed, ‘Lord, please grow this quality in me today.’

When we ran out of words we found some more. It was interesting to look for examples of these words in our everyday lives. Even more challenging was to see how we might incarnate them—wrap the flesh of our daily living around them.

I would commend this practice to anyone who may be looking for a new way to pray and practise holiness. In this three-part series I offer three words—as a starter at least—to take with you into this year. See what you can make of the words. See what the words might make of you. See where you might find these words expressed in Scripture. Ask God to make them come alive and incarnate them—in you.

So here is my first word for this year: gratitude. What difference would it make for you if gratitude was the garment you dressed yourself in every morning when you got up? What might you notice? What might others notice about you?

Let’s look into a story from Scripture where we see this attitude of gratitude in action …

The Fellowship of the Afflicted

In Luke 17:11-19 we are told the story of Jesus entering a village, where he is approached by 10 men suffering from leprosy. These 10 know two things. They know they must keep their distance, and they know that Jesus can heal them. So they call out. All together now, in unison: ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’

This is the Fellowship of the Afflicted singing their theme song. They have spent months, maybe even years, cut off and isolated from other ‘normal’, healthy people, thrown together because of their common complaint. Their skin disorder has made them medically contagious and ritually unclean. So their lives are lived at a distance, on the edge, away from everyday social interactions.

Can you imagine what that does to a person’s self-esteem? To be one day functioning normally in a household, a parent perhaps with a task to do, responsibilities to carry out, respect to enjoy. Then, the next day, to notice that a little patch of skin on an arm or leg is discoloured and swollen. The outer change is a crisis. The inner turmoil is cataclysmic.

A gesture of gratitude

Maybe these 10 have heard about Jesus healing people like them. Maybe they have tried everything else and so come with a kind of despair, seeing him as their last resort. Whatever fragile hope they have, they cry out, begging for his compassion.

Notice the sequence of what happens next. Jesus sees them and tells them to go to the priests. He does not say a healing word, but the instruction to go to the priests anticipates that healing. And so it happens. As they turn to go, they are healed. At this point, one of them breaks from the group and comes back to Jesus.

I like this man. I am moved by his gesture of gratitude. I admire his grit for breaking away from the group that he has been part of for who knows how long. He and the others have shared their lives and their ostracism, becoming a community of their own, while every other community has shunned and shut them out.

But now he breaks away in a spontaneous, independent act of thanksgiving. ‘Thank you, Master,’ he whispers as he throws himself at Jesus’ feet. ‘Thank you.’ And Jesus, no doubt laying his hands on this man’s shoulders, as he was wont to do with such people, responds with a blessing.

What difference does this encounter make to the man who, just a moment ago, was an outsider and is now in every respect an insider? I believe that at Jesus’ feet, this man finds shalom—that is wellness, wholeness, salvation—added to his physical healing.

This 10th leper turning back, said German theologian Meister Eckhart, is a picture of worship. He wrote, ‘If in your lifetime the only prayer you offer is Thanks, that would suffice.’

When gratitude spills over

Author Terry Hershey tells the story of a young girl in an African village who, when she heard that her visiting teacher would be leaving their village, wanted to give her a special gift. The girl didn’t have any money to buy a present for her teacher, but she decided what she would do. 

She was gone for two days. When she returned, she was carrying the most exquisite shell anyone in her village had ever seen. ‘Where did you find such a beautiful shell?’ her teacher asked, amazed. The child told her such shells were found only on a certain faraway beach.

The teacher was deeply touched, because she knew that the girl had walked many miles to find the shell. ‘Why, it’s wonderful, but you shouldn’t have gone all that way to get a gift for me.’

Her eyes brightening, the girl smiled and answered, ‘Long walk part of gift.’

Gratitude always spills over, always finds a way to express itself. It becomes a gift in itself. It touches something beyond the surface, goes deep into that place of mystery where soul and spirit meet. Would the visiting teacher in that African village ever be the same again? Every time she looked at that exquisite shell she would remember the love of the girl who gave it.

Every time that man in Luke’s Gospel who was healed of leprosy looked at his clear skin, or embraced his wife or held his children, he would no doubt remember what Jesus did. And in remembering he would have felt his
own deep gratitude all over again.

Author Lewis Smedes wrote, ‘Gratitude dances though the open windows of our hearts. We cannot force it. We cannot create it. And we can certainly close our windows to keep it out. But we can also keep them open and be ready for the joy when it comes.’  

Next time | Homecoming

by Major Barabara Sampson(c) 'War Cry' magazine, 25 February 2017, pp20-21
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.