A pilgrim went to Mount Athos to learn about the spiritual life. Mount Athos is a small Greek island, quite difficult to get to, but one that is home to something like twenty monasteries. As the pilgrim approached the island by boat he noticed sun-bleached bones on the rocks above the level of the high tide. “What are those?” he asked. His guide replied, “Those are the bones of monks who thought themselves to be so holy that the laws of nature no longer applied to them. They jumped from their cells high on the cliffs.” Some ancient Egyptian monks would tell a similar story. The temptation seems not to be limited by geography.
If this story sounds otherworldly, that’s alright. In fact, that’s my point. I doubt that any of us have contemplated the possibility that we had reached such lofty heights of spiritual perfection. This is not a problem for most of us. But here’s the important thing: those strange Christians of Mt. Athos and the ancient Egyptian desert may have been far too obsessed with their supposed spiritual achievements, yet they still remind us that the pilgrimage of faith involves each of us growing toward spiritual maturity. As Paul writes to Timothy (II Tim. 2:15), “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed.” We are not meant to stay as we are; we are meant to grow in Christ.
My suggestion is simply this: gratitude is a part of our growth. Gratitude is key to our enjoyment of the world and it is a key to our breaking free from things in our own past—things we have done and things that have been done to us—things that bind us and constrict our hearts.
There are lots of characters in II Kings 5:1-15 and Luke 17:11-19. Let me remind you of them: in Old Testament passage we have three key people: the kidnapped servant girl, the general named Naaman and Elisha the prophet. In the gospel reading we have Jesus (he always seems to be involved in the gospel readings) and a group of lepers, one of whom, a Samaritan, returns to thank Jesus and to praise God.
Taking the lead from our calendar, I want to draw our attention to two anonymous characters: the servant girl and the Samaritan leper. Neither person is named. Both are foreigners in some sense. Both are lifted up by the ancient biblical writers as examples of Godly virtue. To put it in Pauline language, neither has anything to be ashamed of. I wish there was more to say. I wish we knew more about them, but we don’t.
What I believe we can presume, though, is that both the servant girl and the leper had a right to be bitter. They had a right to a deep bitterness—not just the sort that we conjure up when someone takes ‘our’ parking space or when someone books holiday time in ‘our’ week. They had a right to a deep bitterness—the sort that comes from a life destroyed. Naaman’s servant girl had been wrenched from her home by an invading army. She was abducted and enslaved. The leprous man had a disease that was not only debilitating but also stigmatizing. There was a reason that the ten lepers were together; the text says they “kept their distance.” It was mutual. Nobody, not even their own families, would touch them, or even touch what they had touched. The servant girl and the leper had a right to be bound by what had happened to them. They had a right to carry bitterness in their hearts. For some reason, though, neither seemed to do that. The servant girl wants the best for Naaman. The leprous foreigner is moved to gratitude when none of his companions are.
We already have a handful of characters to keep track of, but let me add a couple more: their names are Terri and Rosanna, two people who are our contemporaries. Every week Terri, a woman in her sixties, visits a girl, a young woman really, named Rosanna. Terri reads to Rosanna, she helps her bathe and combs her hair. Despite this, Terri isn’t sure if Rosanna knows who she is. What Terri means when she says that is not that she isn’t sure if Rosanna knows her name. She isn’t sure if Rosanna really knows who she is. You see, just about ten years ago Terri’s son viciously attacked the school were Rosanna went, a small one-room Amish school in Pennsylvania. You might remember hearing that story in the news. I will spare you the details, but it was a horrific series of events.
When I heard about it I was living in an apartment I shared with a fellow student in Toronto, just off St. Clair W. Despite the distance, I could picture the area where the violence took place: rolling green hills, pastures for dairy cows and partly-harvested fields all edged with hardwoods that probably hadn’t yet begun to turn color. It was not far from where I grew up.
Terri and her family held a private funeral for her son. They held it less than a week after the attack. I don’t know what was said at that funeral. I can only imagine it was difficult to put together the right words. And, yet, as Terri tells the story, the most significant thing that was communicated did not involve words. As the family went to the grave site to lay their son in the ground a group of their Amish neighbors appeared. They were family and friends of the victims. They came not to show anger or to bar Terri from burying her son in those hills. They had simply come to stand with the perpetrator’s family. With the presence of their bodies these Amish Christians acknowledged that Terri’s family had experienced loss too. I can remember listening to the news from Toronto as the story turned to that act, to the forgiveness extended by the Amish community who had themselves lost so much.
Our congregation had a retreat last week where we talked about what it means to be Mennonite. Well, one thing it means is that we have spiritual relatives who can do that: stop the world with the power of their forgiveness and grace. In a recent interview Terri said, “I will never forget the devastation caused by my son. But one of the [victim’s] fathers the other night, he said, ‘None of us would have ever chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it, you can’t put a price on that.’ . . . And their choice to allow life to move forward was quite a healing balm for us. And I think it’s a message the world needs.” Those were Terri’s words, words from a community who had a right to let their hearts be forever held hostage by violence.
Notice the glimpses we get here of gratitude—Terri’s and the Amish community’s. There’s something biblical about this. The Scriptures encourage us to praise God, to be thankful. In Paul’s listing of the products of the Spirit’s work he puts joy right after love and just before peace.
Gratitude is not naivety. It doesn’t require us to say that terrible evil things were not really all that bad. It doesn’t require us to say that God had everything planned all along. It does not require us to believe that God orchestrates every little thing that happens: a school-house attack, a Syrian civil war, the terrorizing of Mennonites in Russia or Ukraine, the abduction of an Israelite girl, the illness of a Samaritan man. Gratitude does not require us to gloss over those things.
What gratitude requires—and here we must dive below the platitudes of our Thanksgiving holiday—is the inward attentiveness of a monk. What I mean is that gratitude requires us to recognize the state of our heart. Our heart is the part of us that makes us more than a body. ‘Heart’ and ‘spirit’ seem more or less interchangeable in Scripture. (I’m relying here the philosopher and spiritual writer Dallas Willard.) The heart in biblical terms is that part of us where our decisions are made. It includes our will. It is the heart that which makes our lives more than just the product of our situation. Jesus says simply, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” That’s from Matthew 12.
Without purposeful, inward attention, that is without prayer, our hearts can be bound tightly by poor decisions we’ve made or by evil done too us. That is what Scripture means when it says we are in bondage or enslaved. Whole communities can be constrained in these ways too. Mennonite thrift is not just a studied theological position, it may also be a worry about poverty handed down from one generation to the next. Without prayerful attention our hearts can be constrained in ways we don’t notice. What makes all of this more challenging, is that we think that perpetuating our current state is being ‘authentic’ or ‘true to ourselves’.
Here’s a metaphor that will probably be lost on an urban audience, but I wonder if you’ve ever fed hay to livestock by hand. I’m thinking of the hay that is stored in those tightly bound rectangular bales stacked in a barn. The binding is good for stacking. It is part of a valid defensive strategy for a time—defense against chaos in the haymow. However, for livestock to really get at the hay you need to cut the bailing rope and sort of fluff up the dried grass. The air needs to move through it. The hay needs to breathe to be most useful. I think you see where this metaphor goes.
Somehow the servant girl from the story of Namaan reveled in the healing power of God despite the injustice she experienced—and it certainly was unjust. Isn’t it interesting, though, that she still believed and that she wanted the best for her enemy? I wonder if she didn’t cultivate gratitude somehow, even in her situation. Of course we can’t know for sure but something let her be a witness to God’s healing power. Somehow too the leper—that man who was a “foreigner” in Jesus’ words, maybe an ‘outcast’ in ours—somehow he noticed traces of grace and responded with praise.
As I’ve said more than once, I’m ambivalent about Thanksgiving as a holiday. I love the food and the celebration of a harvest completed, but really every day, every Sunday especially, is a time of thanksgiving for Christians. It’s usually the theme that undergirds our worship. Anyway, I suppose if our culture gives us a reminder of the importance of gratitude we should take it. So why not? Why not accept the wonderful gifts of this life—the delight of a feast, the beauty of changing seasons, the love of friends and family—with a deep, conscious gratitude? Why not? Why not revel in being God’s beloved children? There is no way to put a price on any of this. The best response is wonder and gratitude.
Of course, and we must mention this before we close, let’s not make the mistake of the ancient monks and think we can become as holy as to fly. If that’s a risk. More relevant, though, is this: let’s not make the mistake of thinking that who we are is limited by what we have received. This is the danger of our contemporary obsession with authenticity. We might be authentic to our worst selves, to our wounded or wounding selves. Gratitude makes that less likely.
Gratitude is a tool we’ve been given for loosening the ties that constrict on our inner selves, those ties that keep us contorted and ashamed. Our hearts can do us and others good when they cease to be bound by the evil of circumstances. It’s gratitude that lets our hearts breath. It’s gratitude that takes account of the way the world is—so awash in God’s grace that grace shows up, even in tragedy, even in suffering and even on the lips of the foreigner.