Sunday, October 9, 2011

Giving thanks, in sickness and in health

Text: Luke 17:11-19 (the thankful leper)

So, it is Thanksgiving Sunday 2011. And as on any day, each of us probably have a lot for which we are thankful.

However this week, like many of us who struggle with illness or who are mourning the loss of loved ones, I have been dealing with some things that we don't usually associate with gratitude. For one, my ex-wife, with whom I remain close, fell ill last week, and she now faces a complex recovery.

Also, one of my cultural heroes and the most famous CEO of our day, Steve Jobs of Apple Corporation, died this week after a long illness.

In the wake of Jobs' death, I appreciated learning more about his thoughts on mortality and how it might illuminate our lives. I hope that by looking at connections between his thoughts and the Christian Way of the Cross that we can gain a new perspective on thanksgiving.

Giving thanks is a key practice of Christianity and of any well-balanced life. Focusing on our blessings and offering thanks to God for them is a simple and effective way to accomplish several spiritual tasks.

Giving thanks can remind us that our accomplishments result not from our own efforts but from the matrix of natural and social forces into which we have been born. It can help us remain humble.

Giving thanks can help us remember the grace that supports us even when we are in pain or in other types of distress. It can help us trust our lives and our God.

And so some of us may have adopted Oprah Winfrey's suggestion to keep a gratitude journal. Many of us try to start every prayer with thanks. And many of us begin and end each day by remembering our blessings.

But how can we give thanks when we feel overwhelmed by pain or fear? To approach this topic, I start by recounting what I have been up to over the last few weeks.

Two weeks ago tomorrow, I travelled for the first time to Fort Qu'Appelle to attend a United Church event for ministers who are new to Saskatchewan. For three days and nights, 10 of we newcomers spent time in the beauty of the church's Calling Lakes Centre. We learned more about Saskatchewan, the work of the church here, and about each other. We got to know the three ministers who led the event and other church leaders, including the President of Saskatchewan Conference, Deb Laforet who is a minister in Stoughton, the staff of the Saskatchewan Conference office, and former premier Lorne Calvert, who is now the Principal of the United Church's St. Andrew's College in Saskatoon. We also spent time visiting some of the First Nation communities near Calling Lakes and a local farm family who are active in the church.

I believe that I gained a lot from the experience. It reinforced my gratitude for the people who make up the United Church and my pleasure in being a part of our wonderful church and its ministry.

Immediately following the Calling Lakes event, Carla and I attended the meeting of Chinook Presbytery in Moose Jaw. And it had a similar impact on me. I learned a lot, enjoyed the people who make up Presbytery, and am glad to now be part of it.

When Presbytery finished last Saturday afternoon, I flew to Toronto to spend three days there. My original intent had been to spend time with my mother, who had moved to Toronto to live in a senior's residence there on October 1st. And I was pleased and relieved to be with her and to see that she will probably enjoy the residence and settle into life in the big city where she can be closer to my two brothers and their children.

But as I was packing for both Moose Jaw and Toronto a week ago Thursday, I got a call from my ex-wife. She was in hospital emergency and was being admitted for treatment. In the end, she stayed in the hospital for eight nights and was seen by an array of specialists. Although she is now at home and has a clear treatment plan, I feel sad about what she now has to deal with.

On the other hand, I am grateful to our publicly-funded medical system and the extensive care she has already received. I am grateful that she and I got to spend a lot of time together over the three days. And I am grateful that despite our divorce we are still  loving friends.

There is nothing unusual about having one's friends and loved ones fall sick, especially as we get older. And when someone close to me is in hospital, or when a cultural icon like Steve Jobs of Apple, who is only a few years older than me, dies of cancer it reinforces the truth that I am no longer young.

But as we age and deal with the inevitable illnesses of ourselves and of our friends, is it still possible to give thanks and to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into our annual Thanksgiving festivities?

Our Gospel reading today is about sickness and healing. Ten lepers beg Jesus for mercy. He tells them to show themselves to the priests; and merely by obeying this command, they are healed of their sickness. Only one of the ten, however, moves from a trusting faith, which has healed him, to thankfulness. This last leper returns to Jesus to thank him for his healing.

This simple story sketches the whole of the Christian life. By trusting in God in Christ, we are healed. And our response to this healing is to give thanks. Trust God, be healed, and give thanks: that is really all we called to do in this life.

But what about sickness that is not healed? And what about death, which comes eventually to all of us? Trusting in God does not mean that we or our loved ones won't get sick. Giving thanks to God for the healing we do often experience does not mean that we won't eventually die. So why, then, should we give thanks?

It all depends, I believe, on what we mean by healing. The lepers wanted their skin disease to be healed. And perhaps that is what happened. But in general the healing offered by God in Christ is not about avoiding disease, ageing or disability. God's healing is deeper than that. It is spiritual healing. It is healing found by following Jesus on the Way of the Cross. It is a healing found in confronting our fragility and mortality and not in denying them.

Jesus, by travelling to Jerusalem with his friends in the sure knowledge that this will mean his death, models for us a life that is freed from anxiety about pain and death. It is a life that acknowledges the toughness of the human condition. The Christian path doesn't eliminate anxiety by denying suffering and death. It eliminates it by accepting and even embracing those tough realities.

Here is how the late Steve Jobs put it in a commencement address at Stanford University in 2005 the year after his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer. He said:

"When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: 'If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right.' The phrase made an impression on me, and since then, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."

He continues, "Remembering that I'll soon be dead is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart." .

In his speech, Jobs touches on some of the key teachings of the Way of the Cross, I believe. Christ teaches us that only by dying can we can gain new life. This is as true for God in Christ as it is for each of us. By taking up our cross and following Jesus to Jerusalem we are given the courage to live our lives in the light of death. We are given the courage to die to our old anxious way of life and rise to a new one filled with hope, joy and love regardless of the circumstances. Life does not become free of pain. But it does become free of old ego anxieties. The Way of the Cross helps us to realize that though our egos are temporary, our future in God is secure and eternal.

You know, it can seem easy to give thanks for the things we like: good health, loving families and friends, a bountiful harvest, a peaceful and prosperous country, beauty, excitement, pleasure, and so on. But I believe that it is also possible and useful to give thanks even when dealing with thing that we don't like: illness, broken relationships, loneliness, failed harvests, times of conflict and poverty, ugliness, and pain.

Regardless of our circumstances, we can give thanks for this sacred moment. We only have now in which to live. In receiving God's help to accept the moment, we wake up to God and to each other regardless of pain or pleasure. Giving thanks flows from such acceptance and it also helps us get to that acceptance.

Accepting the moment, even when we or our loved ones are in pain, is a gift from God. It helps us to die to our old anxieties and rise to a new and eternal life within God  through Christ in the power of the Spirit.

Now sometimes in moments of pain or loss, we are incapable of acceptance and gratitude. And that is understandable and OK, I believe. The eternal life in Christ that we can enter in any moment is often fleeting in my experience. But with God's help we rise again and again to those moments in prayer, worship, or love in the sure hope and faith that our source is in God and our destiny is in God.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful that initial treatments have put my ex-wife out of  danger. I am thankful for our years together and our continuing friendship even as I find it hard to accept the pain and regret for everything we did not like about our marriage.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the life and leadership of Steve Jobs of Apple even as I find it hard to accept his death. I am thankful for the publicity given this week to his provocative words from 2005 on how the shadow of death might illuminate our present moment in God's Sacred life.

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful to be the minister here in Coronach, Rockglen and Fife Lake. I am grateful for the beauty and abundance of this land. I am grateful for the warm welcome you have extended to me in my first three months here. And I am grateful for the people and activities in the communities in which we live and in which we carry out our ministry.

This Thanksgiving moment, like any other, is one in which we can wake up to both the beauty and the pain of human existence in community and with God. Despite everything, we are here. God is here. Love is here.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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