Grateful is Dead

Grateful is Dead

“Thank you for reffing sir,” said the boy at the conclusion of his middle school basketball game. The official who was changing his shoes slowly looked up with a puzzled glance, almost as if to say, “Are you mocking me?”  He, and everyone else in the gym who knew anything about basketball, understood he had not done a particularly good job of officiating this game.  Yet when he saw the boy’s sincere countenance and outstretched arm, his look immediately changed and with a soft, “You’re welcome,” and he shook the boy’s hand.  The boy quickly ran off to be with his friends. The basketball official, however, sat still for a moment and stared distantly, thinking. The boy made a profound impact on this man – he was sincerely grateful.

I’ve often reflected upon this, and events similar to it.  Why men and women serve as officials for sporting events anymore is hard to fathom.  Coaches yell at and question them, parents ridicule and intimidate them, and players demonstrate disrespect and disdain for every call that goes against their team.  Officials don’t get paid a lot of money. They officiate because they love the game and desire to see young men and women compete and grow in their skills and sportsmanship.  Sports officials, like many others who serve society in ways small and large, are finding that grateful is dead.

The sports and entertainment industries are on the leading edge of the “me-first,” self-indulgent, and “I’m above the rules” thinking that dominates society.  I am truly sad as I read about Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, and others. I am even more troubled as I listen to and read the muddled explanations and rationalizations that surround the endless reporting about fallen heroes of modernity.  This same caldron of post-Christian thinking barrages our students outside of the classroom every day. It is the pervasive paradigm that allows people to think selfishly as they live their lives. Said another more theological way, we have created a god who is a manageable deity constrained and controlled by our own small minds and inwardly focused hearts.  Tiger Woods and Serena Williams conducted themselves consistently with their thinking, and they cannot be explained or redeemed in this post-modern paradigm, only pitied or pilloried.

One of the goals of Paratus Classical Academy’s theology, literature, and history curriculum is to teach young hearts and minds to see the important and dynamic interaction between the three types of relationships that compose man’s existence.  These three relationships are with God, with other people, and with self. The struggles, failures, and achievements of man can be well examined in the proper ordering and prioritization of these three relationships. When they are out of balance, whether in a Shakespearian tragedy, Kant’s nihilism, or King David’s rooftop longing, man places himself at the top of the relationship pyramid, and selfish pride, rather than gratitude, guides his thinking.  

Luke 17:11-19 provides a very useful story to help us understand how prone we are to thinking selfishly.  Jesus approaches a town and comes upon ten lepers. Rather than yell, “Unclean, unclean,” as Jewish law required, the lepers cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”  Jesus says to them, “Go, show yourself to the priests.” Luke immediately tells us, “And so it was as they went, they were cleansed.” What happens next is startling – only one of the ten returns to thank Jesus and glorify God.  Jesus asks a question that should trouble our minds, “But where are the nine?”

Why were the nine not properly grateful?  This is an important question to delve into, because gratitude has an object – a first order cause – it is not happiness or joy or relief or satisfaction.  It is the reorienting and reordering of one’s affections toward the Great Giver of all good and perfect gifts, and it should permeate and leaven our entire life.  This short passage strikes home if we think of leprosy not as some ancient disease, but as spiritual malnutrition, eating away at our souls to the point we do not recognize God’s sovereign rule over our lives.  Are we part of the nine?

Be “the one!”  Be the one who properly expresses a heartfelt sense of thankfulness to God.  Be the one who through the daily exercise of thankfulness, draws near to Christ.   Be the one who through the sincere action of thanksgiving understands the profound personal link to the Creator and Ruler of the universe.  Be the one!

It’s not uncommon for high school students to ask how to discern God’s will for their lives.  Most of these young men and women fully appreciate the importance of prayer in seeking God’s will.  One important point I make to them is to be thankful, for it is truly God’s will for each of us. This is particularly important for young people who can be anxious, worried, or impatient as they seek their calling.  Being purposefully and perpetually thankful causes them to be content with God’s current provision for their life, and this contentment grows into faithful trust.

And gratitude is not something that only the mature can practice. Young ones can be grateful for the helping hand as they exit the car at drop-off each morning, or for the teacher who helps them open their Gogurt at lunch. It’s never too early to learn that please and thank you are still the magic words.

The focus for all of us in practicing gratitude is very important because as Jonathan Edwards points out in Religious Affections, there are two types of gratitude. We are all familiar with the secondary form, thankfulness for blessings received.  This Edwards terms “natural gratitude” and is conditional and based upon the circumstances of everyday life. The primary form of gratitude, the gratitude that binds us to God through Christ, Edwards calls “gracious gratitude.” This is gratitude that is based upon God’s character, who He is, and who we are in Christ. This gratitude is not predicated upon circumstances or providence but on the promises of God and His covenantal relationship with us.  Gracious gratitude is the source of true joy and happiness in all of life’s circumstances. Simply stated, joy is the result of your gratitude for your complete dependence upon God. And as I said, it’s never too early to start learning that.

It is hard to read Paul’s epistles and not be struck by the repetitive instruction and encouragement to demonstrate gracious gratitude.  Paul consistently states that one of the key distinctives of the early church is for “thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.” In addition to this well-known passage to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 4:15), Paul writes similar instructions to the Colossians (Col. 3:15-17), the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5:16-18), the Philippians (Php. 4:4-7), and the Ephesians (Eph. 5:20).  The Christian life is clearly marked by both gracious gratitude and natural gratitude. Importantly, we try to model this atmosphere of thanksgiving at Paratus so that your children have an example to consider and emulate that is radically different from what they observe in the modern culture. This is why the boy and the basketball official were such a powerful image to me – living gratefully makes a difference.

I recently watched the movie Invictus starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela.  At several points, Freeman repeats one of Nelson Mandela’s favorite expressions, “I am the captain of my soul.”  These words captured my attention. As I considered them, I asked, “What is the compass you steer by? What is the course you chart? Where are the stars you navigate by?” and “Do you think selfishly, or are you striving to ‘be the one’?”  Through sound instruction and modeling their parents, pastors, and teachers, I pray that all our Paratus students will gratefully have Christ as the captain of their souls.

Written by: Michael J. McKenna