Saturday, 12 October 2013

Being changed by gratitude

I've been thinking this week about how mindfully aware am I of what I have.  In a culture where discontent is sown by advertising, it's easy to replace reality with hollow dreams.  First a piece from the Bible to show what I mean:
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, ‘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.’

Do you ever consider the grace simply of existing?  I know that sometimes life doesn’t seem worth living, and I know that there are bleak periods when some of us wish that life would simply stop.  But for the most part we are free, if we wish, to step outside, run our fingers through the damp grass and, if we wish, bathe our faces in our dampened hands.  We are free to love and to hold, to feel the rain on our hair, the sun in our face or the wind in our hair.  We can make friends, stroke puppies, read what someone else has written, pluck an apple from a tree, polish a conker or simply look deeply into someone else’s eyes and see the treasure of belonging.

We exist. 

But for any one of us it could have been so different.  When we look at the myriad things that had to fall into place in order for us simply to be here, the consequences are mind-boggling.  Take my own parents for example.  The first time they met there was no spark and no chemistry.  The timing was all wrong.  Had it not been that my father happened to go to the same school as my mother’s cousin it’s quite possible that they wouldn’t have met again.

But they did, and the second time was different.  This time there was a spark, an electricity, a certain something.  Within six weeks they knew they would marry.  That was step number one in place for my existence.  Even then it could have been different.  A bad day at work, an inopportune ‘phone call, a neighbour in need, any one of a myriad of things could have happened differently the night I came into being.  But they didn’t.  And so here I am.  And that’s just my story.  Every one of us have a similar tales in our ancestry.  Every one of us is only here because certain events happened at the right time.

When was the last time you thought about this?  When was the last time you recognised the simple grace in your existence.  It could have been completely different for any one of us.

So how often do we look for grace?  And how much of our lives are marked by gratitude?  Or do we take it in our stride, or think of it as chance, or even think it’s our due?

With that in mind let’s consider the story of the ten lepers.  For most of us it’s a familiar one and sadly, in polite England, most of us get the wrong message from it.  Many of us are brought up in a world of thank you letters, appropriate gratitude for presents and an in-born ability to look down at people who aren’t like us.  So when we see acted out the story of the ten lepers, only one of whom came back to say thank you, our first instinct is often to identify and say, ‘He’s like one of us.  He is a man who knows how to say please and thank you.  What a nice man he must be and so unfortunate to have contracted leperousy.’

But the story is far more rich and deep than that.  In fact St. Luke goes to great pains to show that the leper who said thank you is anything but a part of a group that could be labelled as ‘People like us.’  The bottom line is that the leper here is the ultimate outsider.

First, not to overlook the obvious, he is after all a leper.  He’s forbidden from taking any part in society.  But secondly, and more importantly, Luke says these words, ‘And he was a Samaritan.’  Now to get the gist of that you need to start thinking of the people who our culture, and maybe we ourselves, define as the outsiders.  Actually, I want to go further than call him an outsider.  He was that, but he was more than that; he would be thought of as dirty.  So who does that refer to in our society?  Who is on the current Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph’s most hated list?  Welfare scroungers?  Foreigners (especially ones who dare to get ill whilst they're here?)  Who do you think you might be tainted by coming into contact with?  Anyone of these could count, but the point I’m trying to get over is that the way you feel about that person is probably similar to the way the Jews of that time felt about the Samaritans.

And so St. Luke, in this passage, makes it clear that the one person who comes back to say thank you to Jesus is the one who is least like 'One of Us', however you wish to define that.  The other nine are all obedient to Jesus.  They all do what they are told, what Jesus told them to do.  But the tenth, the Samaritan leper, is overcome by joy.  We don’t know if he ever even got as far as showing himself to a priest.  In fact it seems that in his exuberance he disobeyed Jesus and came straight back.  He has truly seen grace and wants to come back and declare his overwhelming gratitude to Jesus for it.

He is alive!  He has his life back!  All the possibilities that had been taken away have been restored.  What would you give to have been there and seen the look on his face as his body was healed?  And the response that Jesus makes is very telling: Sadly the translation I quoted really doesn’t do it justice.  Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Your faith has made you well.’  The Greek is quite clear.  Jesus says to the man, ‘Your faith has saved you.’ 

The others may have been made whole in their bodies but he had been made whole in his whole self; body, mind and spirit.  He had seen grace and responded to it.  It is his response, from the depths of his being, that shows just how saved he is, just how changed he has become.  This isn’t politeness; this is a man overwhelmed by a tsunami of gratitude for what’s just happened.

So how about us?  Do we see grace?  That day when you went to bed and every bone in your body ached, but the day after you felt just well enough to get up and go.  Was there space there for a deep well of gratitude?  That time when someone phoned at just the right moment, did you see that as grace?  The very fact that your parents got it together at just the right time with just the right elements so that you actually exist - do you see that as grace?

Being grateful to God is not a matter of waiting for the big miracles - it’s a matter of seeing all life as a miracle.  Unfortunately I think we tend to be far more like the other nine lepers.  In fact I would go so far as to draw a comparison between the nine lepers and contemporary churchianity.  These were the people who followed religious practice properly.  They called out to Jesus and he told them to go and show themselves to a priest.  This was the proper action for someone who had been healed from a skin disease according to the Jewish law.  And they did exactly what they were expected to do.

They went to Jesus and then they went to see the priest.  Being healed didn’t make a difference.  They followed the law.  So they were healed on the outside but they weren’t changed by the experience, and this is what worries me sometimes about the experience of church.  It is horribly possible to attend week in and week out because of habit, because it is a part of our routine, and not ever to actually be changed by the experience of encountering Christ.  Our path shouldn't be simply ruled by dogma.

This is one of the reasons why I find it so important to try and make a daily (if possible) space for quiet reflection.  It is in encountering Christ, in sharing in the presence of God, that we can be changed as the Samaritan leper was.  Church going, or whatever spiritual practice we have, should be a response to the relationship we have with God, not the other way around.  If it isn’t, then we are likely to follow the path of the nine lepers. Outwardly we look better but are we inwardly changed?

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