My husband and a few friends were in Cuba some time ago. Together with local believers, they visited homes in small villages. They were welcomed in by curious Cubans. Over and over, Lee and his team told the "bad news, good news" story of Jesus. (The bad news is that we have all sinned. The good news is that Jesus paid the penalty for sin.)
The Holy Spirit moved in hundreds of Cubans' lives. In one rural village, a young man who had just given his life to Christ went out into the unpaved road in front of his house, waving his arms and yelling to his neighbors. ¡Venido aqui! "Come here!" he shouted. ¡Tengo buenas noticias! "I've got good news!" ¡Usted ti tiene que oir esto! "You've got to hear this!"
In America, we tend to tell our neighbors how thankful we are if we get a great deal on deck furniture or find a big sale on gas grills. We would do well to strip off our sophistication, remember in thanks our own rescue, and get back to the really good news like our brother in Cuba—or that first-century leper whom Jesus healed.
In Jesus' day, leprosy and other skin diseases were cause for terrible fear and shame. Lepers were ostracized and could return to their community only if a priest declared them fit. Old Testament law held that a person "with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, 'Unclean! Unclean!' As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp" (Lev. 13:45-46).
One day about two thousand years ago, Jesus is on the road when ten tattered lepers call to him from afar. They dare not draw nearer.
"Jesus, Master, have pity on us!"
Jesus' heart moves for them. He tells them to go show themselves to the local priest.
Off they go. Faltering but hopeful.
And as they are going, the Scriptures say, they are healed.
The ten stumble along the road, ragged robes flapping.
Bystanders scurry away as they see the lepers coming.
As the men hurry, the dirty rags fall from their faces. I can imagine what happened next.
"Hiram!" shouts one. "Your nose!"
"What do mean, my nose?" says Hiram, bustling along.
"You've got one!"
Piling to a stop, slamming into one another like clowns at the circus, they stare at each other's faces, mouths wide open. They unwind the rags from their hands, shouting because they have fingers again. They leap into the air; they land, sure-footed. They strip off their bonds and clap their arms around each other's shoulders, laughing with joy. They can't wait to find their families. They sprint toward town.
But one whirls and turns in the other direction, back toward Jesus. He runs fast with his new feet. Weeping, he falls and kisses Jesus' perfect ones.
"Thank you!" he sobs.
Thank you. Thank you.
Ten were rescued, cleansed, given a brand-new beginning. Yet nine ran the wrong way. Only one ran for homebase, where Jesus was.
Friends of ours have a family mantra. "Be the one!" they tell their kids and each other. "Be the one who thanks Jesus. Let others go where they may. You be the one who is grateful."
Be the one!
Being thankful is not rocket science. Though the topic of gratitude goes as deep as the grace of God, it does not require tough biblical exegesis or advanced degrees to practice. It just requires obedience.
Some believers seem to be looking for life principles that are just a little more spiritually sexy. Be thankful? Oh, of course. But give me something more exciting, more dramatic, something remarkable that I can do to change my life.
As one friend told me, "I don't think gratitude is the right topic for a book. People today want quick answers. They don't want gradual process. They want a proven formula that will change their lives."
We live in an instant culture. Minute Rice? Who has the time?
That mindset has leaked into our theology. Who wouldn't want to experience instant change, the spiritual version of television's makeover shows? Something like Trading Spaces: forty-eight hours to a fresh, new look. Or an extreme makeover: Submit yourself to an assault of reconstructive surgeries, and once you recover you won't even recognize yourself. You'll have to wear a nametag on your brand-new chest. Or maybe the sanctification story My Heart, Christ's Home meets one of those design programs where the homeowner goes away for the weekend: We come home and find that the Holy Spirit has been busily cleaning and redecorating our spiritual lives, and we didn't have to do a thing.
Few of us want to cozy up to the fact that most often God changes us in the process of ordinary day-to-day dependence on him. We change most not in the great dramas of life, but in the small acts of submission that no one sees but him, like when we thank him in a hard circumstance, rather than railing, "Why me?" (As Ravi Zacharias has noted, people never wail, "Why me?" when they win the lottery.)
Developing the meditative habit of constantly whispering thanks to him—no matter the situation—is, in fact, a mustard seed of life-changing power. Radical, for it goes to the root of who we are. Small, seemingly insignificant, yet it has the power to change our lives and blow our socks off, right in the midst of the everyday. When we really give God thanks in everything, we are acknowledging that he is sovereign and that we trust him. And we find that it changes us.
For example, a friend was going through the wringer with her teenage daughter. Their once-close relationship had devolved into a briar patch of prickly feelings, stinging barbs, and angry outbursts. My friend felt she could not utter a sentence without stepping into a minefield. Her patience was waning, her frustration growing. The conflicts with her daughter were affecting other relationships, like with her husband.
My friend decided to hold on, like a dog with a savory bone, to God's presence in these challenges. Every time she saw her daughter or got into a difficult conversation, she would clench her teeth around God's truth.
Thank you that you are with me! Thank you for giving me this girl! Thank you that she is even able to speak! Thank you that her mind works so quickly! Thank you that the story is not yet over! Thank you for your patience with me!
She thanked God when she didn't feel thankful, right in the midst of the fray, every day. Several things happened.
First, this exercise titillated a creative challenge within her as she sought to discern all the things she could thank God for. Second, it distanced her from the emotion of the moment, so she didn't respond to her daughter out of frustration or anger. She found she was thinking more about God than her daughter. Third, that distance allowed her to actually see humor in various situations. Humor is good. And fourth, the more she thanked God for her daughter, the more she was able to perceive her as his daughter. She found that developing the habit of giving thanks gave her more resilience and elasticity, rather than always being ready to snap. And oddly enough, she couldn't wait for her daughter to get home from school every day, so she could lavish love on her. My friend's act of obedience to God— thanking him in all things—actually changed not only her mind, but also her emotions.
Fragrance Of Christ
Truly grateful people can't be stopped. They bubble and overflow, refreshing others. Their habitual gratitude serves as a springboard to give a reason for the buoyant hope bouncing within them. They attract those who are stuck in the cares of this world and woo them to the eternal good.
Years ago there was an incident on the Washington subway system in which a crowded train stalled on an underground track. Harried commuters were beside themselves. No one had been talking to one another, but now they burst into mutual, frenzied spurts of accusations against the driver—as if the situation was under his con-trol—the Metro authorities, the federal government, anyone and everyone they could blame for this vile inconvenience.
Somewhere in the midst of all this invective, a woman with a number of bulky shopping bags dropped a new bottle of perfume, and it shattered. Within a few minutes, the pure, luxurious fragrance had wafted the length of the crowded car.
It was as if the fresh smell released people from a dark spell. They sniffed, smiled, and relaxed, laughing with each other. Surprise!
Followers of Jesus have the opportunity, in life's crowded moments when people feel stuck, to be the fragrance of Christ. We don't need to be annoying Pollyannas (who would be thrown right off the Metro anyway), but free spirits who can lead and turn the tide, rather than follow along on the lazy downward spiral of negativity. What it takes is a purposeful, daily decision on our part to be the one. Then follows the creative question in the bad situation, a smile, compassion, a little humor that suggests that we need not take our small selves so seriously—a look upward and outward, where the vistas of God's great love call us to come and enjoy him, now and forever.
Ellen Vaughn is the author of Radical Gratitude: Discovering Joy through Everyday Thankfulness (Zondervan, 2005), from which this article is adapted and condensed.
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