Practice Gratitude

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Luke 17:11-19
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.

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Several years ago while riding my bike over back roads in Washington Co., Maryland, I had St. Francis on my mind. I’m not sure why but there I was thinking about Francis and his way of praising God for everything no matter if it was good or bad. I thought it might be fun to practice gratitude while I rode that day. That day I nearly killed myself.

As you may know, praise and gratitude were trademarks of Francis’ life. You can hear it in his “Canticle to the Sun.”

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Sun.
Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon
Be praised, my Lord, for Brothers Wind and Air.
Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water
Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire
Be praised, my Lord, for our sister Mother Earth
Be praised, my Lord, for our sister Bodily Death
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks.

Praise and gratitude were trademarks of Francis’ life. So, on that particular day for no particular reason, I took up a Franciscan exercise little knowing that I would have a brush with “our sister Bodily Death.”

I had set off early that beautiful morning and at various intervals along the route I intentionally practiced gratitude. WOW! Look at that!

Praise be brother sun. Praise be sister blue sky. Praise be heat and humidity! Praise be chirping sister birds. Praise be buzzing brother bees. Praise be alliterations like that! Here it is again in case you missed it: Praise be buzzing brother bees.

I was about 20 miles into this cheerful ride when suddenly my back tire popped. I wanted to curse but instead uttered a quick thank you. Praise be this unexpected rest stop. Praise be the chance to pump new life into my deflated tire which, don’t you know, would be a Christ-like thing. You know, injecting spirit into dispirited lives and communities. Which only goes to show there’s more than one way to view hardships.

I grabbed my compact pump but, alas, I had forgotten to pack a spare tube. That was not good. But I did have sister cell phone. Thank you, sweet Jesus.

I called Paula who—thankfully—happened to be off that day. She brought me a tube. I pumped brother air into sister tube and was soon on my way riding cheerfully again through heat and humidity when suddenly that mostly sunny day turned black. Storm clouds filled the sky and a thunderstorm burst over my head. I was drenched by sister water.

Thank you, I forced myself to say. Thank you for cooling off my hot, sweaty body.

By the way, none of this came naturally and, yes, it did feel a little silly. But I was working on an exercise the way we do when we want to learn a new habit. Practice, practice, practice. I was practicing gratitude in the way and in the spirit of St. Francis. Thank you for these showers of blessing.

Within minutes the rain stopped, brother sun popped out again and the sweltering roads dried instantly. I kept rolling along on my cheerful way down Rt. 65, past Antietam and into Sharpsburg where I made a sharp turn onto a side street and nearly got killed. You see, brother sun had quickly dried the roads but the iron plate across the culvert was still slick from sister rain.

Just like that my bike flew out from under me. My head and face hit a cement curb. In a flash I was out cold.

I saw a white light approaching through a tunnel and then with a jolt I woke up! Blood was streaming down my face and onto the ground. Through my blurry eyes I saw three strangers standing over me.

I’m fine, I said, and started to get up to fetch my crumpled bike so I could continue my cheerful ride home, the way we all want to get home when we’re down and out and hurting bad. When we are down and out home is where we want to be.

But I didn’t get up and I didn’t ride home. A stranger drove me to the hospital ER where I was swabbed, stitched, x-rayed and finally sent home with Paula and a pocket full of narcotics.

And so I continued where I’d left off. Thank you, sweet Jesus, for drugs. Thank you for stitches. Thank you for hospitals. Thank you for strangers who rush to our aid. Thank you for nurses and doctors. Thank you for Paula and a way home. And most of all thank you for brother helmet. Thank you for brother helmet for without that helmet on my head I would not now be speaking to you—or at least not speaking at this pace—on the subject of gratitude.

But I am here today. And I am here to recommend the practice of gratitude and praise on a daily basis. It won’t kill you. In fact it will make you more alive than ever.

As Mikhael Aivanhov put it: The day I acquired the habit of consciously pronouncing the words "thank you," I felt I gained possession of a magic wand capable of transforming everything.

Thank you, Mr. Aivanhov. Thank you, for that piece of wisdom.

Anne Lamont, the quirky author of Bird by Bird, Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and several other books says there are three essential prayers: Help, thanks, and WOW. She’s written a book with that title.

At the beginning of each day and throughout the day you make room for: HELP, HELP, HELP. At the beginning of each day and throughout the day you make room for: THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU. At the beginning of each day and throughout the day you make room for:  WOW, WOW, WOW. And if you’d like, at the end of each day you can literally count your many blessings and name them one by one.

Someone said, if you don’t say WOW at least a hundred times a day, you’re not paying attention. And attention, according to Mary Oliver, is a form of prayer. Have you noticed the sparrow, the whale, the swirling stars or rainbows?

Long ago our great ancestors found themselves in exile, a long, long way from home. They were in a place they never wanted to be. It was a dark and gloomy time. There are, as you know, many such places, places and situation none of us ever want to be in.

It could be prison. It could be a closet. It could be an endless valley of grief. It could be a sick bed. It could be a terminal illness. It could be divorce. It could be a grim workplace. It could be unemployment. It could be recession or depression. It could be old age. It could be loneliness. There are many ways to be in exile, a long way from where we’d rather be, a long way from home.

But even there we can say thank you. For darkness, too, deserves gratitude. Darkness deserves gratitude. It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight. (Joan Chittister, Uncommon Gratitude)

When we say “thank you” in the darkness, the darkness is transformed. But you don’t get there overnight. It takes practice, practice, practice.

Long ago our great ancestors found themselves in exile, a long, long way from home. It was a dark and gloomy time. And then they heard a voice, saying,Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7)

And that is yet another kind of prayer. It’s a prayer for others, for strangers and even enemies, a prayer that all those with and around you may be well and whole. For, as it turns out, you are never the only one hurting or lost in a given place or situation.

And so we pray not only, “help” and “WOW” and “thank you” but we also pray: May all be well. May all manner of things and people be well.

Once upon a time, ten lepers where stuck in a dark and gloomy place, away from home, in exile, without hope, without a future, the way some of us are stuck in fear, shame, guilt, despair, or grief. In case you didn’t know, or in case you’ve never heard, let me tell you this: The Beloved is near. The Beloved is near and the Beloved longs to help you make your way back home.

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HYMN: “God of the Sparrow”