A Commitment to Gratitude – Chuck Rush (10/4/15)

A Commitment to Gratitude

Psalm 103:1-5

For men my age, if we received any appreciable guidance in matters of religion, it was in all likelihood, this very text. I remember hearing it from my football coach. Our coaches were not in the regular habit of praying with the team but sometimes we would take a knee before a championship game, and this is what we would hear. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”

It made a big impression on me, probably because my coach had played for the New York Giants and was incredibly fit in middle age.  Talented, fiercely independent, a self-made man with discipline. To hear him publicly acknowledge that the source of his accomplishments comes from something beyond himself made a lasting impact. Parents if you memorize only one line of scripture to acknowledge the Creator in front of your children, this one will do just fine.

After Michael Jordan won his first NBA title, right as he got to the locker room before the throng of reporters overwhelmed the place, he briefly knelt beside his locker in silent thanks. I think it was the reporter from Sports Illustrated that said, “For all of his impressive acrobatic feats, His Airness never looked so good as when he humbly bowed to give thanks.”  Michael Jordan has struggled with his ego and who doesn’t at that level. But for that moment, he embodied a way of looking at the world, articulated so well by Brian Piccillo when he was playing for the Chicago Bears.

A reporter was asking Piccillo why he did what he did and he answered, “My God is first; My country and family are second; I am Third”. Brian Piccilo was a man of honor and he lived and died with honor guiding him.

“Bless the Lord, Oh My Soul, and forget not His benefits… who redeems you from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you shall live.”

When we are younger, we are so anxious to prove to ourselves that we are accomplished, that we are worthy, we keep achieving and achieving and achieving. Particularly if you are in certain fields, you spend most of your time in your 30’s and 40’s in a competition beating someone else and after a few years of this, you can start believing that you alone are responsible alone for your achievements (certainly no one else is), that you alone are the master of your own destiny. Of course, being in control of your own ship is very important and relishing accomplishment with healthy pride is a good thing.

But at some point, after you’ve become accomplished, after the accolades and the dollars come pouring in, you probably have a moment when you realize just how different this whole story could have become. You were blessed with a great team that jumped your whole project to another level altogether. You were blessed that events of history broke your way and opportunities opened up that could just have easily stayed closed in a different economy

General George S. Patton had one of those moments rather late in life (if the movie about his life is generally accurate). After the European campaign was over and the Nazi’s were defeated, right at the end of the war, he was leaving a meeting at a Café, just about to step into the cobblestone street, when a colleague pulled him back to the curb to avoid a runaway cart that would have killed him. All of the Generals were joking about how ironic it would be to survive all of the tank battles of WW2, and die from such a silly accident.

But those moments, you ought to reflect back that the world could have been quite different and that you are more dependent on contingencies out of your control than on virtues that you possess, and that a certain humility and gratitude should pervade your being. Suddenly, it is not such a bad thing to take a knee and remember that actually a whole lot of things had to break for you at just the right time. Come to think of it, you are actually blessed beyond your knowing of it.

And if you don’t take that knee, if you aren’t moved to see the many ways that you have been blessed by the team that is around you, you will be sidelined prematurely because you don’t have the spiritual attunement inspire and motivate people at the top levels. Management Professors refer to it as “Servant Leadership”… people that create a culture that fosters personal and communal growth as the key for transformation. Service is characteristic and they embody that sense of service, building trusting relationships through collaboration, creating communal commitment.

When you think about these really great leaders, they are good at listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to growth of people, and building community. These are skills that point in the direction of being emotionally and spiritually attuned. Part of the spiritual attunement is having learned to exercise the muscle of gratitude.

Gratitude directs us up and out of ourselves to a wider mission. It is a capacity to be developed. Partly we must develop it because self-interest is powerful and petty as every family knows. Wendy Mogul remembers the year her daughter was in first grade and she got a check in the mail from Nana and Papa for her birthday.[i] Her daughter had been obsessing about a Pound Puppy Playhouse. She was going on and on about having one. Alas, they didn’t carry them at the wee toy store on Main street, so her daughter convinces her to go to Kmart, way far away. They get to the store, but no Pound Puppy Playhouse, and her daughter is crestfallen with disappointment.

Now Mama Bear develops missionary zeal and they go to a couple more stores, where finally at the Mega “Toys R Us”, they locate the veritable Holy Grail. She buys it before her birthday, let’s her open it right away, and for three days the daughter plays with it constantly. And then… it was over… never played with it again. Now she wants a Backstreet Boys CD, also so, so, so bad.

Without really realizing it, it can become easy to fall into habits that weaken our sense of gratitude in our families, without really intending to undermine our sense of gratitude. We rely on outings to the Mall for rewards for our children (even more so for our teens). It makes shopping more of a panacea than it is in reality. We could be at the museum, exploring nature, or making a field trip of some kind- the Mall is a kind of default indulgence in our metropolitan culture.

We are flooded with catalogues and on-line shopping, so we keep feeding our sense of desire and we create more of an ethos in our home and we don’t quite realize the degree that our children are influenced by all of the things we leave lying around. We could be exploring new ideas on-line or learning together.

We find ourselves using the word “Need” when you really mean “Want”. As our wants become needs, opportunities become flattened into expectations (entitlements).

We express our envy in unguarded moments.[ii]

All of these habits communicate fairly powerfully, perhaps non-verbally, but they feed desire and self-regarded satiation. Add these few habits together with a wider culture of Marketing that is already expert at stimulating desire in us, and you realize that if you don’t have a commitment to gratitude, you aren’t going to exercise it enough to combat this social ethos of Entitlement that surrounds us. Left on default mode, with our prosperity, entitlement will win.

It has to be managed and it has to be managed our entire lives because it doesn’t go away when we have more assets. It is always there. Just ask a financial advisor during a really volatile time in the market what it is like advising their clients. No matter how much you have, the prospect of losing it, is unnerving to big fish as well as the small. I remember visiting one of our Investment Bankers who had to take a call, the screaming on the other end so loud, that it sounded like cicada’s in July in his office. Embarrassed, he hangs up and says, “We have a lot of high maintenance clients”.

That anxiety that we don’t have enough, that there won’t be enough, somehow this is hard-wired into human nature and we over-react to it because of our deep evolutionary history. This penchant to anxiety has to be managed with the virtue of generosity.

We become stronger characters with generosity. Giving allows us to become God-like. We are exercising some responsibility for one quadrant of the world that we are in contact with. We are focused on ‘others’ not on ‘self’. When we exercise the character muscle of generosity, we start to see ourselves as channels of blessing. We can direct the flow of blessing.

Reciprocally, it also opens awareness. You pay attention to blessing. You start to realize how blessed you’ve been. You become aware of the people that positively shaped you in the past, people that fostered in you the things that later came to bloom in important ways. And you start to see yourself as a kind of channel in this process. If you are lucky enough to actually be involved in raising more than one generation, how humbling and grateful that awareness really is… We really are, literally, channels of blessing to those around us. It is at the core of what it means to love and allow yourself to be loved by others.

Generosity and Gratitude exercise that muscle. They take you out of yourself, out beyond yourself. They re-direct that anxiety about ourselves and empower our attention to others, our empathy. It channels that anxiety into blessing.

Francine Christophe is 84 years old. She was 8 years old in southern France when she was made to wear a large yellow star of David and then rounded up to be taken to Bergen-Belsen when the Germans swept across France and rounded up the Jews.

Since she was a child with her mother, she was allowed to take a couple items from home. Her mother took a couple of those exquisite French chocolates, wrapped them in their special paper and took them for her.

She told Francine, “When you collapse completely and really need help, I will give you these chocolates and they will make you better.”

There was a woman in the camp who was pregnant. You couldn’t really tell because she was so skinny, she didn’t look right, but the day came and she went into labor.

Francine’s mother came to her and said, “remember that chocolate that I have saved for you. I want to give it to this mother about to give birth. It will be very difficult for her and I think she might die and I think the chocolate will make her stronger. Is it okay with you, if I give her your chocolate?”

“Yes, Mama”, the little Francine said.

She gave birth to a tiny feeble little baby. She ate the chocolate. She did not die. She came back to the barracks. The baby never cried. Never. It didn’t wail.

6 months later, the camp was liberated. They unwrapped the babies rags and the baby screamed. That was the day that this baby was truly born. They took this baby back to France, a puny little thing.

A few years ago, my daughter said to me, “Mama, when you all were liberated from the camps, maybe it would have been easier for all of you if you had been able to see a psychiatrist that could have helped you deal with the trauma you had been through.”

Francine, now in her 70’s said, “Undoubtedly, but we didn’t think of that then… But you know what, it would be a good topic for discussion.” So she organized a conference with a number of bit speakers, psychiatrists, psychologists, historians. They gave their papers and they were excellent. The conference drew quite a crowd.

The last speaker got up to speak. She was a psychiatrist from Marseilles. Just before she spoke she said, I have a special gift for Mrs. Francine Christophe, would you come up to the podium.

The elderly Francine went to the podium. The psychiatrist handed her two pieces of chocolate and she said, “I was that baby that was born.”

If you are lucky enough to live your life to the ripe old age of 84. If you are lucky enough to grow up spiritually through your difficult seasons and through your seasons of triumph, you’ll look back and see that your whole life has been a great channel of gratitude for those that came before you and blessed you and those that you were a blessing to others, perhaps quite in spite of yourself.

And I hope for you that you will live to see the chocolate you gave away come back to bless you. May you live to see someone flourishing in front of you, talented, humane and gracious because of how you have lived your life and what you have provided for others. I think sometimes we are just holding those pieces of blessing for someone else to make them strong and then someone is holding them for us to make us strong. It is a great interwoven tapestry of grace and generosity if only we could zoom out and see the big picture.

If you pay attention to the people that opened doors for you, if you give thanks for the values that shaped you, you start to see your role in this process, you start to see that what is important is that you direct blessing in some tangible way yourself. You don’t generate it and you don’t get to hold on to it forever. You receive it and open the doors to pass it forward.

That is really what you want, to live a life of significance, to make a difference. What can you invest yourself in with your family that is significant? What are you channeling blessing towards? Why don’t you dream about that together?

And among other things, we hope that this community becomes a community of significance for you. We hope you commit your time, talent, and lives with those right around you here. May we dream dreams of good deeds together. May we inspire each other to live out of our higher selves. May we grow in grace and blessing together.

 

[i] Wendy Mogul, “The Blessings of a Skinned Knee” (New York: Scribner’s, 2001), pp. 115ff.
[ii] Ibid. p. 126.

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.

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