Practicing Gratitude

When I lived in Kenya, there came a day in the slum when I beheld a Chevy pickup truck heading my way. Now pickup trucks were not uncommon, at least not if they were a Toyota. But a Chevy…well, I had to wave the driver down and inquire about the origins of such an American icon on the unpaved roads of Kibera. Turns out the driver was a pastor of a missionary Baptist church in the Nairobi area – good ol’ boy from Tennessee. Now the pickup truck made perfect sense.

RIchard told me a story that has always made me smile. It involved his “regional” supervisor who had spent more than two decades in Central and East Africa as a missionary but mostly as a coordinating supervisor between the churches of his congregations both in Africa and United States. It was time for him to head home for the last time and begin his well-earned retirement. As it happened the the return home coincided with a “congress” of all the Baptist missionaries of their particular conference.

He was well-known and respected among his peers, and just in the gathering assembly many had come to thank him for his service to the Lord and wish him well. When the presiding minister called the assembly to order and for the opening prayer service, he called the soon-retiring minister to come to the stage and lead the community in prayer. About halfway down the long aisle, the presider asked that the prayer honor the people of East Africa by being given in Kiswahili.

The problem was that the man had been a supervisor in East Africa, never having the time, need or opportunity to learn Kiswahili. But then again he had a long aisle to think of a solution. When the time came, he asked the assembly to bow their head in prayer, and solemnly began. All the time Richard is wondering what was about to happen as he knew his friend and mentor did not speak the language. He was quite surprised to hear the prayer begin, “Mungu mwenwezi… Almighty God…”  Perhaps he was mistaken about the
linguistic ability.

However what followed was a random string of Kiswhahili words: moja umbilii tatu (one, two, three) umbwa mkali (hot dog – and not the food variety) and whatever words came to mind. Prayerfully delivered with a few Yesu Kristu thrown in and it was pronounced, “a powerful prayer indeed.”

That story came to mind when I was thinking about all the people who will, this day, sit down at the Thanksgiving Day meal – and suddenly they are asked to pray and give thanks. I suspect one or two awkward moment will grace that moment as words sputter and thoughts are spoken less fluidly than hoped for, and less elegantly than wanted. It is not that the person is not grateful or does not have the vocabulary, but like a spoken language, it all takes practice.  Practice, practice, practice.

As you have heard me proclaim over the years, if you want to be an expert on something, you have to practice. Some claim it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve such expertise. From the world of swimming, Michael Phelps and Katy Ledecky would agree. As swimmers they are as fluid and elegant as they come. To the trained eye it is poetry.

Practice is simply a key ingredient.

Pretty powerful message. Pretty simple, yes? And so…. what do you practice? The choices we make develop the habits we form and the person we become.

The Gospel for Thanksgiving Day:

As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee. As he was entering a village, ten persons with leprosy met him. They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” And when he saw them, he said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.”

As they were going they were cleansed. And one of them, realizing he had been healed,  returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan.  Jesus said in reply, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” Then he said to him, “Stand up and go;  your faith has saved you.” (Luke 17:11-19)

In the gospel, ten lepers were cured – and consequently they are naturally surprised, overjoyed, ecstatic – and they are heading off to show themselves to the priests just as Jesus told them. Lots of choices for their response. If you had asked them if they were grateful they would have replied, “Yes!” But one did not need to be asked. It was his natural choice to return and express gratitude to the one who cured him – and to recognize Jesus and so bow in worship

Gratitude is indeed a response to the blessings of life, but it is also a practiced choice to see those blessings, name them, and express our gratitude in word and deed.

There are lots of events we encounter in an ordinary day. Sure, there are reasons for gratitude, but those reasons are mixed in the cauldron of life along with frustration, fear, feeling foolish; regret, remorse, reluctance; anger, apprehension, apathy. We have a whole range of emotions to choose from. Which do we choose most often? The choices we make develop the habits we form and the person we become. As the young man in the video asks, “What do you practice?”

I always imagine that the 10th leper had a lifetime of practicing gratitude. You can too. One of the members of the parish staff has a gratitude jar in her office. She writes notes expressing her gratitude and drops them in the jar.  And the jar fills. And she becomes what she practices.

Thanksgiving is the day some will be put on the spot as they are taken out of the cauldron of life. It is like showing up at the finals of the 200 freestyle. It is not that you can’t swim, but you will be about as good as you have practiced.  Haven’t practiced? You will probably get to the end of the race. It might take a little longer and it won’t be pretty, but…

We are called to live as though each day were Thanksgiving Day – each day naming that for which we are grateful, each day practicing what we want to become, working towards “expertise.” And then next Thanksgiving Day when you are called upon, you will pray from the depths of your being – fluidly and elegantly.


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