Monday, November 24, 2014

Thankskeeping? Grudgegiving?

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches.11 The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12 and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the LordGod commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband...Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Amanda Lindhout collected National Geographic magazines as a child. In her bedroom, she would run her hands over the glossy photos to escape the grown-ups who were yelling at one another. She longed to see the wonders of the world in real life, not just on the page.  It’s not surprising that she grew to be a young woman seeking adventure, working as a cocktail waitress in fancy Canadian restaurants so that she could earn enough money to travel and see the world. She travelled to South America, Afghanistan and Iraq. She tells her story in the book A House In the Sky.
Travel was an adventure for her, but things went drastically wrong when she went to Somalia. There, she was kidnapped by rebel troops and held for ransom, a ransom so high her family could not afford it. The Canadian government refused to pay the kidnappers because payment might lead to more abductions for profit.  So, Amanda was held hostage for over a year by teenaged soldiers looking to earn money to help them start families or go to school.
But what started as a profit-making venture devolved into hell. When it became clear her family couldn’t pay, she was starved, kept in chains and gang raped at the hands of her captors. She was abused, but never killed. She says she survived by creating an alternate place to go in her mind, a house in the sky. It was place where she could remember there were things she could be thankful for.

Lying alone in the dark on a hard floor, she writes that she gave thanks for her family at home and the oxygen in her lungs. She was intentionally grateful when her captors set her meager food on the floor instead of throwing it at her.
Amanda Lindhout practiced gratitude in the most horrific circumstances. Her imagination, her memory and the ability to practice giving thanks gave her a will to live and allowed her to keep her dignity. Practicing gratitude reminded her that she was worth more than ransom money.
What we see in Amanda’s story is that practicing gratitude didn’t have anything to do with how she was feeling. It was a defiant act of reframing her circumstances and focusing on the things that sustained her.
In her moments of reflection, she would ask herself, "Am I OK? In this very moment am I OK?" In her house in the sky, she remembered the family that loved her, the friends who cared, pancakes, and soft beds. When she would look her life and take stock of who she was, she could ask, “Am I OK in this moment?”  and miraculously the answer was yes.
“Gratitude has the power to transform ordinary or even terrible things into extraordinary ones. Gratitude has eucharistic power. An old French proverb says, ‘Gratitude is the heart’s memory.’ There is an amazing grace in looking backwards on your life. You will see things from a new perspective.”

Amanda knew this. She discovered the transformative power of gratitude. Was she grateful for what she was going though? No. But, she was able to practice gratitude during it. Amanda's story ends with her going home. It ends with her reflecting upon the year she spent with the teenaged soldiers. Reading the end of her book through a blur of tears, I was amazed to see that she manages to forgive her captors. She doesn't hold on the fear and anger. I don't think she could have done that if she hadn't practiced gratitude. 

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, most of us will be thanking God for the things we have--warm homes, abundant food on the table, people who love and care for us. And this is good and right. Very few of us will have lives that resemble Amanda Lindhout's or those of her her captors. 

Reading A House In The Sky, it becomes clear that thanksgiving and gratitude are more than just feelings. Thanksgiving is a practice and action that lead to the transformation of the soul. 

Some people call practicing gratitude a spiritual discipline. That makes is sound like something complicated and difficult that is only for religious professionals.

Others say we need develop an attitude of gratitude. That makes it sound like something you get on sale at a health club. But remembering to give thanks is an important part of the Christian journey. It’s something we should practice everyday, not something we only acknowledge when we feel it.

All that we have and all that we are comes from the hand of God. We see this in the Genesis story and the Revelation story. In both of them God provides a garden with trees for food and healing. God provides rivers that bring forth life. We give thanks for the garden of creation, our earth—for brilliant sunsets and quiet snowfalls. For corn and apples and potatoes. For turkey and pumpkin pie and all the things that sustain us physically.

We give thanks for our family and friends who love us unconditionally. For the teachers that have formed us and the communities that sustain us. For those who lend a helping hand when we need it.

We are thankful spiritually, remembering our salvation also comes from the hands of God through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We are sustained spiritually through Christ as he breaks the bread and passes the wine, as he submits his hands to the nails of crucifixion and death so that we might taste eternal life with God.

We feel thankful for a lot of things. But how often do we give thanks? Thanksgiving is a practice that has two parts. We are called not just to feel thanks but to give it as well. 

After all, we don’t call it Thanks-keeping, nor do we call it grudging-giving. No, it’s thanks and giving together. It is something we pass along, something that we share. It’s something that passes from God’s hands to Jesus’ hands to our hands to the hands of others.

This week you may want to try a little thankful giving. Pass it around. Give to God, give to your family, give to your friends. Remind them that they are important. Love and abundance flow from God's hands, through Jesus' hands to your hands. What you do with your hands matters. 

St. Teresa of Avila reminds us:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
From God’s hands to Jesus’ hands to ours. Pass along the love of Christ. Thanks is ours to give. Lets be generous.

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