Friday, December 10, 2010

What if gratitude was a verb?

Last week on World AIDS Day I showed the film A Grandmother’s Tribe at our church, to a room of mostly Jr. High kids and a few adults. It is a story of two grandmothers from Kenya who are preparing for their Christmas celebrations and raising their grandchildren because their own children have died from AIDS. One thread that was woven through the movie, from the grandmothers and the grandchildren, even though they lived in terrible poverty with unbelievable hardship - - - is GRATITUDE. This really struck my CCC teammates, Dion and LJ, and they’ve been talking about it since; how little we Americans understand about how grateful we should be, how often we Americans seem to confuse wants with needs and are disappointed when we don’t have things that are complete luxuries for most people in the world (especially at Christmas).

Since the film’s showing numerous people have asked to borrow my DVD and have expressed that they want their kids to watch it so they will feel more grateful. I should be thrilled with this, more people spreading the word about the injustice and plight of people in Africa. Right? But for some reason this sudden interest in helping people feel more grateful troubled me. Thinking and praying about this unusual response for the past few days, I finally realized what is that is bothering me. GRATITUDE IS JUST A NOUN.

Webster defines gratitude as simply “the state of being grateful” and “consciousness of benefit received.” And while scripture is full of admonishment that God’s people should feel grateful and express that gratitude, there is also an admonishment that gratitude can be expressed with arrogance and hypocrisy. Consider Jesus’ story about the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:11-14).

Bill Easum, in his book Leadership on the Other Side describes how Israel allowed gratitude to turn into arrogance. He says “Over time Israel began to think of herself as being chosen because she was special. The difference between being special because you are chosen and being chosen because you are special is enormous. One is servanthood and the other is entitlement.”

When I was in 5th grade English I learned that a verb is an “action word,” and I think gratitude, in a biblical sense, should be a verb. Here are a couple of examples of when this was the case.

King David went to present an offering to the Lord, to express sorrow over his sin of counting the troops and his gratitude for God’s mercy. As he was going, Araunah the Jebusite saw the king coming, ran up and offered to give him the threshing floor and the grain for the offering. But David responded, “No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing” (1 Chron 21:24). When Jesus invited people to follow Him in a life for which they would “feel” immeasurable gratitude, He said “take up your cross” (Mark 10:21). When the apostle Paul challenged the Corinthians to feel grateful for God’s mercy he said, “offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” (Romans 12:1)

Paying for an offering, taking up a cross, giving a living sacrifice are all actions – VERBS. Yes, feeling gratitude is important. But I think that when we become satisfied with just feeling grateful, we are in danger of becoming like the Israelites or the Pharisees. On the other hand, taking action on our feelings of gratitude is the perfect protection against it.

So my prayer, for myself and others, is going to be that when something moves us to gratitude, whether it is a movie or a conversation with a friend or a delicious meal with family, we would assume that what we are feeling is a VERB, and ask ourselves what action God is calling us to take in response to the gratitude we feel.

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