The way we think, and especially the times when we are thankful, have real physical effects on our brain and on our character. Modern neuroscience has shown that the things we think about, the places where we direct our attention, really do shape us and help us grow.
A couple of weeks ago I needed to go to the ECO National Gathering, which was held in Houston this year. To get there I needed to leave Logan on a flight that left at 7:00 am on Sunday morning. Getting up at 3:30 in the morning before a flight is not fun, and while I like many people from Texas, somehow there is just too much of Texas itself for me. Texas is big and flat, and I feel more at home with New England’s cozy hills. I did survive the trip, and there were many highly emotional and inspiring moments during the week. I came back to Logan on Thursday night, touching down at 11:00 pm, completely exhausted. As I struggled down the long hallways to baggage claim, I happened to knock my front tooth, not very hard, but there was a clicking sound and the whole tooth broke off.
As you can imagine, I was not very happy. Why me? Why when I was so fried? Why add another obstacle when I only want to get home safe? I don’t know if any of you have found yourself in a bad situation, and then gotten one last straw that seems to add insult to injury. I felt that God (or Satan) must have had it in for me.
Once I was safely in the car with my husband driving us home, I was able to see things differently. That tooth had only been hanging on by a thread. It could have broken any time in the last week. What would I have done if it happened on the plane? It could have broken in Texas, where I had so much to do and didn’t know (or want to know) any Texas dentists. It turns out that I was really lucky that the tooth waited until I was safe on the ground in Boston to have its crisis. I thank God that I was able to see the wonderful dentist I’ve trusted for years, first thing the next morning. The X-rays showed that the tooth was going to break sometime soon anyway, and the blessing was that it didn’t break until I was in a position to deal with it.
In my experience, daily life is a mix of some good stuff, some clearly bad stuff, and a whole lot of stuff that is a little of both. Almost everything that happens to us has a good side and a not so good side, and we have the choice of which side to focus on.
At the ECO conference we had a presbytery meeting for the churches in the New England and metropolitan New York area. One of our churches, Pilgrim Mission Church of Paramus, New Jersey, was denied dismissal from PCUSA, even though they had done everything according to the procedures for dismissal. They decided to disaffiliate anyway, and their presbytery sued the church leaders for the full value of their property. Just before Christmas they walked away from their property and bank accounts, and took the new motto, “Jesus, only Jesus.”
This is a church of more than 2000 members with 700 children. They had bought a warehouse building and made a campus with offices and multiple worship and fellowship spaces. They’re mostly Korean, but they were hoping to become more multicultural. The senior pastor told us that in spite of losing everything, the church was focusing on a new vision—renting space for worship and education in schools and only having some offices to handle logistics. This would make it possible for them to reach out into the neighborhoods around them, and move beyond their identity as a purely Korean congregation. We all had tears listening to his story, and we thanked God as we prayed for him, for the way the Holy Spirit had brought new vision and hope out of the horrible situation. This faithful congregation is in God’s hands, and knows to be thankful for it.
Likewise, the group of lepers that Jesus came upon in his travels, were in an unfortunate situation. As people with a skin disease, they had lost everything. They lost their homes and families, and they were forced to live outside of normal human habitation. The law of Moses, in Leviticus 13, specifies
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45–46)
Lepers had to let everyone they saw know about their condition, so that others would not come near and be infected. Their only companionship was with others a miserable as themselves. They had no hope and nothing to look forward to, so even appealing to Jesus was grasping at a straw. The might have heard that Jesus was a healer, but only their desperation would give them any real hope of a cure.
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!” (Luke 17:11-13)
Jesus was headed south, toward Jerusalem, and instead of going out of the way and around the Samaritan territory, he chose to go straight through. This village was in an area of a mixed population, with Jews and Samaritans living together as neighbors. We don’t know how many of the ten in this group of lepers were Jews or Samaritans, but there may easily have been some of each. As was required, they kept their distance while they called out for mercy to Jesus.
There wasn’t a lot of conversation in this encounter. Their need was obvious. Jesus simply told them to go and have the priests inspect their disease. In those days, you didn’t make an appointment with the doctor. There are detailed instructions in Leviticus about what to do:
The priest shall examine the disease on the skin of his body, and if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous disease; after the priest has examined him he shall pronounce him ceremonially unclean. (Leviticus 13:3)
If I were one of the lepers, I’d have wondered why Jesus said to go to the priests. After all, I could have gone there yesterday or last week. Why didn’t he say or do something dramatic that would heal my skin?
These lepers didn’t have much hope, but they could at least follow instructions. They set out to see the priests, hoping that seeing Jesus had somehow made a difference. They acted in faith, even if it was faith borne of desperation. And as they went in obedience, the miracle of healing happened, and they were made clean. For the lepers, all was suddenly as it was before the disease. They could be welcome back in the village, welcome back into their old homes. They would be treated like real people again. They were very busy celebrating and putting their lives back together.
One of the lepers had a great insight. This healing is a great and miraculous gift. His gratitude pours out of him in a loud voice, praising the source of miracles, the Most High God. He doesn’t forget to come back to Jesus, the one who made this healing happen, to bow in appreciation and to thank him. Samaritan or Jew, he knew where his thanks belonged.
Of course Jesus noticed that he was the only one to come back, the only one to express his joy and gratitude.
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?” (Luke 17:17-18)
Samaritans were considered bad guys by the Jews in those days. As in the case of the good Samaritan, Jesus makes a point to say that some of those who were part of God’s chosen people didn’t appreciate what God had done for them. The Samaritan showed that you don’t have to be one of the in-group to behave faithfully. And Jesus points out that it’s praise to God, and not thanks to himself, that was the appropriate response.
So how does it feel to receive a gift from God and recognize it for what it is? How do you think the Samaritan felt when he realized what had happened? How would you feel if, for instance, you had the world’s worst case of acne, and suddenly it went away? You wouldn’t have to hide your face any more. Your wouldn’t have to be really careful to hang out with people who knew you and could see the person inside. Suddenly you could go out in a crowd and not be embarrassed. You could even go up to a stranger and start a conversation What freedom! What a weight taken out of your life! I hope I’d be wanting to sing and dance and hug anyone I could reach. I’d be bubbling over with joy, and I’d be totally grateful to the one who made it happen.
Of course there are small gifts as well as really big gifts, but receiving a gift always has a glimmer of joy, even if you didn’t like the gift itself. Getting a gift means that someone cared enough about you to give it, and that alone should put a warm feeling in your heart. The key to feeling that joy and warmth is to take care to notice and appreciate all our gifts, especially those we often overlook.
One of the reasons that I loved serving the church in Roxbury was that so many of the folks there were ready to pray at a moment’s notice. Some of the pray-ers, especially those who’ve been around for a while, would always begin their prayers with thankfulness. What would they thank God for? They’d thank God for the gift of life, for waking them up in the morning to another new day. They’d thank God for food, and shelter, and family, and friends, and all the things that make our lives possible. We’re really surrounded by blessings, from our first waking breath in the morning to our last breath at night before we go off to sleep. In Roxbury I loved to be reminded to be thankful, at the beginning and end and all through the day, for all the good works of God that make life possible.
I know that I often forget to be thankful. My most frequent failing is not saying grace before meals. When food is served and it smells so good, I just can’t wait to take the first bite. Tasting the first bite, I usually think, “Oh thank you, Lord” for this food. Oops. I was supposed to do that before the first bite, and I’m late again.
Jesus didn’t forget to give thanks before a meal. When he miraculously fed a crowd of thousands, Mark says,
he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. (Mark 8:6)
For Jesus, giving thanks was always part of sharing bread. Even at the last supper with his disciples, Luke tells us that
he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)
After the transfiguration, when the seventy Jesus had sent out returned to tell about their successes, Jesus rejoiced with them. He knew how much of his ministry was directed and empowered by His Father, and he gave thanks for it all. We hear from Luke that
Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. ” (Luke 10:21)
Jesus was a living example for those around him of expressing thankfulness and giving glory to His Father.
Paul was also a living demonstration of a life of gratitude in good times and bad. Even as he was brought to Rome as a prisoner in chains, he found grounds to be grateful. Acts reports:
we came to Rome. The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage. When we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him. (Acts 28:14–16)
For Paul, even the opportunity to live by himself under guard, rather than in a crowded and vermin-filled cell, was a blessing.
Paul often thanked God for his ministry, and for its successes. To the Ephesians, he wrote,
I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. (Ephesians 1:16)
In his letter to the Colossians, he wrote,
In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. (Colossians 1:3–5)
To the Romans he said,
I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, (Romans 1:8–10)
The people of his churches were family for Paul, and he often expressed his thanks to God for them.
Paul also knew that the work of conversion is a gift of God, calling for thanks and praise. Paul says,
thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:17–18)
In the same way, writing to the Philippians, he gives thanks for their ongoing growth in faith.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:3–5)
Paul even sees the trials that the Corinthians have faced and the grace they’ve received from God, are good reasons to give thanks:
Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:13–15)
Modern neuroscience has learned a lot about the way our brains actually work. It turns out that the connections in our brains are like roads—those we travel a lot get big like interstates, and those we don’t visit much turn into dirt roads that disappear over time. If we think about things that make us angry, the angry paths get very strong. If we think about things that make us happy, the pathways will grow to take us to more happy places. Hate and anger even turn off working parts of our DNA, while love and gratitude and kindness physically encourage healing and strength. We get to choose what grows and what kind of person we become, by where we direct our attention and energy.
Paul advises us to use our minds and our attention to continue our transformation into people who are more like Jesus. He says,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
How do we actually do this? Paul might not have been a scientist, but he was exactly right. He said,
whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
The way we think, and especially when we grow in gratitude, has a real physical effect on our brain and on our character. The things we think about, the places where we direct our attention, really do shape us and help us grow.
Gratitude is for everyone, regardless of who you are and which side of the current controversy you happen to be on. Paul is clear that where you stand on the issues doesn’t matter. He says,
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. (Romans 14:5–6)
Giving thanks to God is the constant, wherever you come down on the issues of the day. Paul’s advice is for all of those who are brothers and sisters in Christ:
let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:15–17)
If you look, you’ll see that we’re surrounded by blessings, and many of the things that aren’t fun at the time, actually work for our good. Take a minute to think about the things you have to be thankful for. What things do you have to be thankful for today?
In the letter to the Thessalonians, Paul reminds us to pray and give thanks all the time, whatever happens to be going on at the time. He says,
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18)
God has given us so much, we have more grounds for gratitude than we can even imagine. Some day you might want to make a list of blessings, just so you can be reminded on a dark day when bright spots are hard to remember. The list should always include the thought from John:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)
And then there is our ultimate hope and promise:
When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” … But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:54–57)
All that God has done for us through Jesus inspires our thanks and praise. How could we not be overflowing with gratitude? Amen.