Connections 05.08.2016: The Struggle for a Grateful Heart

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Luke 17:11-19

Bold, shocking, and even offensive to some, Anne Lamott writes about the rawness of the spiritual journey—especially for a person who has lost much, made big mistakes, and still managed to find God in the process. In her 2012 book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (New York: Riverhead Books), Lamott discusses three main categories that cover most if not all prayers.

We say “help” when we run out of ways to fix things: “it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat—you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.”

We say “thanks” when we run out of pride: “It’s amazement and relief…that you didn’t have any reason to believe that things were really going to be OK, and then they were and you just can’t help but say thank you.”

And we say “wow” when we run out of words: it’s the “prayer where we’re finally speechless…the prayer of wonder.”

Lamott says “help” is the hardest prayer, and I understand her point. None of us wants to have to surrender control and admit our inability to fix things. But I would argue that “thanks” is actually the hardest prayer. Most people I know—myself included—are quite good at begging God for help. I may not do so publicly, but I’ve done my fair share of crying out to God for help when I’m alone.

But how many of us remember to say thanks? How many of us are aware enough of God’s gracious activity that we live in a spirit of constant gratitude? It seems to me that in the ordinary times—which for many of us is probably most of the time—we get distracted by busyness and small worries and general rushing from one activity to another. We forget to say “thank you.”

In our lesson text, the healed men were certainly not living in ordinary times. They had just been cured of one of the most socially isolating sicknesses of their day. They had every reason to sob their thanks, to throw their arms around Jesus in gratitude, and then to dance off into town toward the temple, thanking the Lord all the way. As we know, only one of them even managed to say thanks. He found himself getting swept up with the others, rushing to the next thing, but then he stopped and realized—with great humility—that he owed everything to the one who had healed him.

My marriage was broken for a few years, and I thought it was beyond repair. I was even ready to move on and live into a new way of being. But when the miracle came that reunited us, I was glad for it. Our reconciliation happened a year ago. We have left the “honeymoon” stage. The ups and downs of family life have returned. The uncertainty of the future sometimes threatens to overcome us. Once again, life seems absurdly normal and at times tedious.

When I look back on it all, though, and then truly consider where we are today, I am overwhelmed by a sense of blessing. Bigger than the roller coaster of life, the questions about what lies ahead, and the tedium of normalcy is a sense of gratitude. More than any other emotion, it floods me continuously. It’s not easy to say “thanks” because it reminds me of our weaknesses, but I’m getting better and better at it. Thank you, God.

Thank you.

Source: “Anne Lamott Distills Prayer into ‘Help, Thanks, Wow,’” transcript of Morning Edition, NPR, 19 November 2012, (accessed 25 April 2016).

Discussion

1. What do you think of Anne Lamott’s three main prayers? How often have you prayed them?
2. What is the hardest prayer for you to pray? Why?
3. How often do you say “thanks” to God? Why are you thankful?
4. Why do you think the nine healed men rushed away to the temple without thanking Jesus? What made the one man come back to say thanks? Why do you think it is sometimes difficult to express our gratitude to the Lord?
5. What can you do to cultivate a spirit of gratitude? Why do you think this is important for a believer?

Reference Shelf

Ten Lepers, 17:11-19

This is the Gospel text for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, so far into ordinary time that the minister and congregation may be forgiven for losing their place in the church year. Jesus has also been on his journey to Jerusalem since chapter 9, and the reader has no idea where he is on a map. Back in 13:22, Jesus “was going through town by town and village by village, going towards Jerusalem,” and at the very outset of the journey, Jesus and the disciples had been met by an inhospitable group of Samaritans, who refused him shelter because he was dead-set on going to Jerusalem (9:53). So when the narrator tells us in v. 11 that he was still heading for Jerusalem, passing between Samaria and Galilee, we wonder if perhaps Jesus has been lost, or like the Israelites in the wilderness, he has been going in circles for some time. (Has Mary Magdalene been suggesting since chapter 10 that they stop and ask for directions? Peter: “No, it’s starting to look familiar now—I know right where we are.”)

Many English versions translate v. 11 to read something like “While he was on his way to Jerusalem, he passed through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” Look at a map of Palestine in Jesus’ day, and you will notice that there is no territory between Samaria and Galilee. If you go south from Galilee, you enter Samaria, but according to Josephus, most Jews took a longer route down the east side of the Jordan, avoiding Samaria altogether. Some commentators suggest that Luke intends something like “he passed along the border between Samaria and Galilee,” which would mean that he was going east, to skirt Samaria, in order to take the road most pilgrims took. Others just remark that Luke had no maps or vacation guides to sunny Galilee and so had only a dim notion of the roads Jesus would have walked.

In any case, this verse tells us that in Luke’s mind, Jesus has been in Galilee since the rebuff at 9:53. Perhaps the Israelites-in-the-wilderness comparison is apt: having been turned back from his road once, he is now approaching the border for a second time, facing up to the giants that blocked his path before. If the “border” explanation of v. 11 is correct, we can also know that in Luke’s mind, Jesus no longer intends to go straight through Samaria, but is, like any normal Jewish traveler, trying to stay out of unfriendly territory.

Whether intentionally, because he knows more than some commentators suspect, or accidentally, because he is foggy on his geopolitical details, Luke puts Jesus into a liminal space, a twilight zone, a space where the boundaries are fuzzy. Green astutely observes that when Jesus enters the village in v. 12, the reader cannot know whether it was Jewish or Samaritan, and so cannot know, until v. 16, that the group of ten lepers included both nationalities. Verse 12 also says that the lepers stood at a distance from Jesus—lepers were required to stay outside an inhabited space—so that we need to imagine Jesus, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, standing at the edge of the village to talk to them. So in multiple ways, he is on the borderline, somewhere between Galilee and Samaria, somewhere between in and out of an unidentified village.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008) 543, 544.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters, and watching television shows on Netflix.

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