A young girl, maybe 7 or 8, refused to offer a memorized table grace. She insisted that she be allowed to pray extemporaneously for that specific meal. With hands folded, head bowed, and one eye scanning the table she prayed, “Thank you God, that Mom mashed the potatoes and made gravy. Thank you, God, that there are enough rolls for me to have two. I don’t thank you, God, for the beans. Amen.”
Well, that’s one way to stay in the moment and grounded in the ways of being grateful.
Fred Craddock tells the story of a student who came to seminary after teaching at a Nashville school for children with hearing disorders. Their ears were all right, they just didn’t make contact. He said that after eight years, “I just could not stand it anymore. I went home crying; I went to work crying.” He said, “One year, after the Thanksgiving holiday, there was this beautiful girl in school. Heather was her name. She was seven years old. We were out on the playground just after our holiday. I went over to Heather, took her by the shoulders, squatted down in front of her, and said, ‘Heather, what did you eat for Thanksgiving?’
Heather said, “My shoes are red.” He said to me, “I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Craddock didn’t have the heart to tell him he’s going to have experiences pretty close to that. Not long after, Craddock was in Dallas in a worship service where the music, the anthem, the prayers, the songs, everything jelled, and in the sermon everything was just right. He said, “I was in the presence of God. Standing there after the benediction, I didn’t want to move. I was immobilized by the presence of God in the service. Just a guest, I’d never been there before. A man in the pew in front of me—he didn’t know me, I didn’t know him—turned around and said, “Do you think Tom Landry’s going to coach the Cowboys another year?”
“Do you know what the man said to me? The man said, ‘My shoes are red.’”
We can become so familiar with our surroundings, the daily activities of life, our routine, that we are numb to it. Certainly we are grateful for all we have, but we often fail to stay in the moment, like the little girl’s prayer, and thank God for the details.
Jesus healed ten lepers. One thanked him for it. 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?”
It’s not really a fair question. Jesus knows exactly where the other nine are—they are at the temple, just as they were supposed to be. Just as Jesus told them to do. But here is this Samaritan, this outsider, causing all sorts of ruckus giving thanks to God.
Jesus says simply, “Your faith has made you well.” Which is a bit confusing, since all ten lepers were healed. They were all made well. At least in a way. But this is a deeper kind of well-being that the tenth leper received. Jesus’ word also means “saved.” So he told him, “Your faith has saved you.” Ten are healed, one is saved. All are healed, all are thankful. But one is so thankful he can’t control himself.
Gratitude is a funny thing. For one thing, it is invisible. I can’t tell when you’re grateful. Gratitude becomes visible only when we give thanks. I’ve always been tempted to oversimplify this story and say, like the old gum commercials, “Surveys show nine out of ten lepers were found ungrateful.” But that’s not what the story says. I have no doubt the nine were thankful. How could you not be grateful for getting everything back? They got their health, their community, their family, all back.
I have no doubt they offered sacrifice in the temple, told all their friends and family what Jesus had done for them. They were grateful. Frankly there is no etiquette for miraculous healing. Jesus heals another leper earlier in Luke, and we’re not told that he ever came back to say ‘thank you.’ In fact there are very few occurrences in the Gospels of people saying thanks to Jesus. Are they grateful? Absolutely.
But it’s the prayer we don’t pray. Only one gives thanks, and he’s the only one we know for sure was grateful, because gratitude that doesn’t translate into thanksgiving is invisible. That’s why I don’t think we have a gratitude problem in this country—I think we have a thanksgiving problem.
I think most of us have a lot of things we are grateful for. The problem is we don’t always show that gratitude. We don’t always give thanks where it is due. If you count mealtime prayers, “thank you” might be the most common prayer you pray. But how often do you really mean it? How often do you go out of your way to pour thanksgiving to God? Or how often do you simply say, “My shoes are red?”
It is that numbness that can set in, a lack of feeling, a sort of spiritual leprosy, when you have been in church for a long time. You don’t show up in worship expecting anything to happen anymore. You don’t get all worked up about what we read in the Bible this morning. You’re grateful, don’t get me wrong—praise God from whom all blessings flow—but we’re never tacky about it, never outspoken about it.
Then along comes some Samaritan. Some outsider. Some newbie to the faith, who’s just met Jesus and for whom everything is brand-spanking-new. And they’re signing the hymns louder than anybody else. They’re volunteering for every committee and mission opportunity. They’re reading through the Bible like a starving man set loose at a buffet line. They are grateful.
Perhaps what all of us need is a little Samaritan. Maybe it’s as simple as never letting out gratitude go unspoken. Maybe what all of us need is a little more reckless thanksgiving. Maybe a life full of unnecessary thank-yous, a life of raising our voice to the one risen King just might do the trick.
Writer Anne Lamott says her two favorite prayers are, in the morning, “Help me. Help me. Help me.” And at bedtime, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” For me, it is as simple as our weekly ritual of standing and singing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”