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The Gratefulness Factor

Luke 17:11-19 [NRSV]

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus* was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers* approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’* feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

gratefulThe adjective grateful means “thankful.” Gratefulness is an abstract noun formed by adding the suffix -ness to grateful and therefore means the state of being thankful.

Being grateful is a practice that all of us should take seriously. Why? Because gratefulness positively affects our brain function, according to a variety of studies out of the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.[1] 

When you are grateful, your brain floods with reward chemicals. When your brain is experiencing gratitude focused on a specific person, i.e. thanking someone for how they have treated you, your brain fills with pleasure chemicals. It’s like eating chocolate—your reward center is activated and so your brain learns to crave that feeling again and again.

Secondly, when you are grateful, your anxiety and depression symptoms may lessen. Research shows that even something simple like keeping a daily gratitude journal has interesting effects on people suffering from anxiety and depression. Those who are anxious sleep better; those who are depressed experience more positive changes; their depressive symptoms rate better on regular mood tests. Gratefulness challenges and upsets the negative thought cycle that can send us into anxiety and depression.

Third, a grateful brain means that your hypothalamus is working better. Gratitude activates the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating all sorts of bodily functions, including hunger, sleep, body temperature, metabolism, and how the body grows. In 2009 studies using MRIs of brains showed that the limbic system [of which the hypothalamus is a part] is activated when we feel gratitude. Gratefulness actually makes our metabolism, hunger and other natural bodily functions work more smoothly.

Furthermore, when you’re grateful, you are more resistant to stress. Your body and brain, in a state of gratefulness, have the ability to bounce back from stressful events like trauma, homelessness, grief, or job loss.

I mentioned earlier that gratefulness helps you sleep better, and this factor contributes to you experiencing more positive emotions overall. When you are grateful, suggest some psychologists, your prefrontal cortex where memories are formed is being trained to retain positive information and reject negative info over time. Makes me think that practicing gratitude just might lead to increased happiness, right?

Absolutely, says David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar who gave a Ted Talk all about the link between gratitude and happiness.

Since 1953, Brother David has been a monk of Mount Saviour Benedictine monastery in New York, dividing his time between hermitic contemplation, writing and lecturing. He’s the co-founder of, supporting ANG*L (A Network for Grateful Living). I invite you to listen to his Ted Talk or to check out his webpage. Some really good stuff there. To sum up some of his Ted Talk, Mr. Steindl-Rast says that “there are many things for which we cannot be grateful, but there is no moment for which we cannot be grateful, because in every moment, even difficult ones, we have the opportunity to do something.” He makes it clear that gratitude is not realizing that people are worse off than you. So pointing to be people going through tough times or those in horrific situations and feeling lucky or better off is NOT gratefulness. Instead, being grateful requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your life—not comparing your life to another’s. So you can be grateful by appreciating even the simplest things in your life. And you can be grateful when you show appreciation for another person, which is openly expressing gratitude. Finally, Steindl-Rast says that being grateful occurs when something valuable to us is freely given. We do not earn it; rather, it is a gift.

davidgratefulGratefulness is the theme of the Luke story about a Samaritan leper giving thanks. I absolutely love this story, because I think it speaks to people on a universal level and you don’t even have to be a religious person to be blessed by it. There are obvious clues in this story as to how this thankful person was seen by others. He was a leper, so he was untouchable and lived on the margins of society. And, he was a Samaritan, so he was hated for his nationality, ethnicity, and religious tradition. But Jesus of Nazareth didn’t care about those things. Jesus chose to heal this Samaritan leper; he made him clean, along with nine others. The now-healed Samaritan leper realized his new situation. He shouted out with joy. He turned back, approached Jesus, got on his knees, and he said thank you. And then Jesus sent him out—on a new path of gratefulness, a new life.

I think the story speaks for itself. Practicing gratefulness can change our lives for the better. So to close, how can we be grateful like the Samaritan leper?

  1. We have to stop and give full attention to the moment we are in. This means letting go of those future and past-focused thoughts.
  2. We need to look at our lives right now and ask: What am I grateful for in this moment? What opportunity is life presenting me, for which I can be grateful? Keep it simple. Consider your senses, the weather, your ability to learn something, a pet, food, a friend, your body, or nature. Think of each of these things as a gift as opposed to a given.
  3. Practice this gratefulness thinking especially in times of transition or when you feel particularly vulnerable to stress.
  4. For some, keeping a record of gratefulness is a very meaningful and powerful thing. Consider writing down your gratefulness in a gratitude journal.
  5. Lastly, express your gratitude to others. There are many ways to do that: short FB messages, a kind email, a phone call, even a text! Taking a risk to acknowledge someone’s kindness, patience, or character is powerful.

So find ways to start or to keep practicing gratefulness. Make grateful living your way. Become aware that every moment is a gift—you have not earned it or bought it. You don’t know if there will be another moment given to you. So this very moment is an opportunity and gift. What are you grateful for?

[1] Alex Korb Ph.D. PreFrontal Nudity: The Grateful Brain, The neuroscience of giving thanks, Posted Nov 20, 2012.


No Triage Necessary

Mark 5:21-43

triageTriage [in medical situations] is the process of determining the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition. Triage is meant to make treatment of patients more efficient when there are not enough resources for all to be treated immediately. Triage comes from the French word trier, meaning to separate, sift or select.

Triage can be applied in the emergency room of a hospital, after a natural disaster, in war, and in many other settings. Essentially, the original intent of triage was to categorize patients in one of three ways:

  • Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in the outcome.[1]

Now, with modern advances in technology, triage scores based on physiological assessment findings determine which category in which a patient is placed. Some of these models are algorithm-based and of course, caregivers and hospital staff now have access to triage software and hardware products.[2]

I know many people who work in the health care profession. Here are some stories that they gave me permission to use.

I had a resident patient of mine who waited for me to come back from vacation before she passed away. I believe it was because she wanted to say goodbye and to be at peace. She always called me her granddaughter. She had no close family and no children to speak of. I was her only family. I did my best to make her feel as comfortable as possible…bringing homemade things in for her just to make sure she ate. I was there for her through it all and held her hand as she passed. I let her know that it was okay and that I was here….that it was okay for her to go…she died peacefully with me right by her side.

I was a fairly young nurse–married and working in obstetrics. I was going through fertility treatment for a while with no success. At that time in my life becoming a parent was all I wanted. It just so happened that I was caring for a patient whose child was a stillborn. She chose to stay on the maternity floor, even though it was her day for discharge, the day when most mothers go home with their newborn. I went to her room to do her discharge teaching and of course to discuss whatever she needed to talk about. Well, I found myself becoming very emotional when I was supposed to be her support. She then put her arm around me and comforted me. Although I was supposed to be her healer, she turned out to be mine. I have never forgotten that patient or this experience, because I learned that sometimes I will be the one to experience the healing, This story continues to heal me after all these years!

I’m sure you have some healing stories of your own—I know I do. The thing about healing is that it isn’t limited to someone getting physically “better.” Sometimes healing takes shape even when someone passes away. Other times healing comes to the one who is supposed to be doing the healing!

I have great respect for health care professionals, because I cannot fathom how difficult some of their decisions must be. I get the concept of triage, I really do. In emergency situations when doctors and nurses are overwhelmed, what else can they do? They have to make the tough calls in a split second. Of course, they want to treat everyone, but sometimes that is impossible. So who gets healed first, second, and who has to wait?

Healing is complicated, isn’t it?

I know plenty of people who stopped participating in a church or synagogue or temple because a beloved family member or friend passed away after a long battle with an illness. They were told to pray, pray, and pray. They were assured that God would heal their loved one. And then, when their beloved passed, they were left feeling empty. What good did all the prayers do? Where was God? How come some others were healed and their loved ones weren’t? Did God have some sort of triage system, determining who received healing and who didn’t?

Also, I’ve known plenty of people who have lost a close family member or friend suddenly, and who have raised similar questions. How does the person still living find healing for him/herself? Will the prayers work? When will that emptiness and sadness they feel subside?

And finally, I’ve been in so, so many churches and I’ve heard numerous people praising God because someone was healed of an illness, an addiction, a problem, etc. And while I think that they should celebrate and be thankful, it still troubles me, for I know that while they celebrate, there are others right next to them who are not healing, and some who won’t heal from cancer or whatever ails them. And so, I still ask:

Is there a triage for healing? Does God heal one person over another?

I know what my gut response is to that last question: no. Absolutely not. God does not show favoritism. And yet, this issue continues to come up again and again, because there are still so many who do think that they are favored [or not favored]. This can lead, of course, to some thinking that they are favored because of how they pray, or live, or believe. And the flipside is that by doing that, they are subtly thinking and saying to others who are suffering that this is all because of something they did wrong, or that they didn’t pray enough or they just didn’t believe.

That is just plain awful.

Because I’ve seen people healed of physical ailments and they never once said a prayer and they certainly don’t believe in a god. Likewise, I’ve seen devout people of faith suffer from ailments and illnesses for years—never to encounter the healing they prayed for. So I argue that if there is a triage, it’s not what we think.

For example, some of us may need to heal physically, and it can and sometimes does happen. Medical professionals are amazing. For real.

Some of us, though, may need to heal mentally more than physically. We often neglect the healing of the mind.

And others may need to be healed spiritually, and you guessed it—that can affect the body and the mind.

The triage, then, is in which healing each person needs first in order to be whole. Sometimes we think we need to be healed of a sprained ankle, but really that’s not the priority. Our negative thoughts about ourselves and about others are the priority.

Other times, we may feel down; our mental state is deeply affected by our past, so we bombard ourselves with psychological treatments. But deep down, the thing requiring urgent care is not our mind but our spirit. We have neglected our spirit for so long that we don’t feel anymore; we don’t find joy in simple things; we don’t laugh hard and out loud; we are so seriously devoid of spirit that we are withering away.

And other times, we pursue religion and dive into prayer and worship and service, but that isn’t the urgent need. We have mistreated our physical bodies so much that we’re sick all the time, feeling heavy and tired. And our minds aren’t active and have lost their creative edge, because everything we do now is based on something in the heavens. And as our body and mind degrade, our pursuit of spirituality does also.

This is why I enjoy Mark’s Gospel and its portrayal of Jesus as a healer. I’ve mentioned before that this Gospel is no-nonsense. There is less theology or “Christology” than the other Gospels. Mark’s Jesus of Nazareth is a doer and most certainly a healer.

I’ll admit—this story in Mark 5 is one of my favorites of the whole Bible. Essentially, it seems like one unified story: two healings for the price of one. Jesus is met by Jairus, a leader of a Galilean synagogue. His twelve-year-old daughter is dying. He wants Jesus, in his words, to heal her so she can live. So Jesus goes with Jairus, and a crowd follows.

But then, Jesus is interrupted.

A woman who had been suffering from a bleeding illness for 12 years, and who had visited every doctor she could find and had spent all her money, and yet the illness had worsened—she reached out to touch Jesus’ cloak. She thought that if she could just touch it, she might be healed.

This is called intercalation, a literary device whereby two narrative units are combined by splitting one apart and inserting the other between the parts. There is a broader point in intercalation–something fundamentally important that the writer wishes to draw out. So Mark’s writer inserts the bleeding woman’s story in the middle of Jairus and his daughter’s story. Why?

There are countless possibilities. Here’s what I’m thinking.

Jairus’ daughter was twelve. The woman was bleeding for twelve years. The bleeding woman had the faith to touch Jesus’ cloak as a means to healing. Jairus lacked that sort of faith and needed Jesus to come with him to his house. The bleeding woman was an untouchable—someone so removed from society because of her ailment. She was also poor. Jairus was well-known, well-off, and part of an elitist social class. Jesus calls the bleeding woman daughter, and it is Jairus’ daughter who is dying. I’m sure you can make more connections of your own.

But here’s what continues to floor me about this story.

First, the bleeding woman surprised Jesus. Oh yes she did! He looked around to find out who touched him. He was befuddled. No one else was interested. But he found her.

Secondly, Jairus’ family and friends gave up and told Jesus to go away. They laughed at him when Jesus said that the twelve-year-old was just sleeping. In the end, Jesus told everyone to leave.

He took the girl by the hand and told her to get up.
And when the girl did, of course, the people changed their tune. They were amazed. And Jesus, in classic Mark form, tells them to shut up and to give that poor girl something to eat.

So this says to me that healing happens at all times and in all places.

Healing is not limited to a select few.
Healing is different for everyone.
Who is a “daughter” to God is not who we assume.

We better stop creating our own triage—saying who we think is more important or less important. Jairus’ “important” daughter WAS the bleeding woman to Jesus. There was no difference.

And so it should be with us.

We should recognize that all of us need healing of different types and at different times.
And we must all balance our joy over a realized healing with the honesty and sorrow of someone still waiting for such a healing to come.

The encouragement in the story is to consider that everyone has access to healing, and it will happen in its own time. So no matter what you need to be healed of, you don’t walk alone. Sometimes a hand reaches out to you; sometimes you will reach out your own hand; others times you will pray; sometimes you won’t; at moments you’ll gather community together in order to heal; other times you will heal yourself; sometimes hoping for a certain thing to heal will lead you to unexpected healing of another kind.

So may healing come in its time; may you be whole.
And may this Ben Harper song help you get started.

[1] Iserson KV, Moskop JC (March 2007). “Triage in medicine, part I: Concept, history, and types”. Annals of Emergency Medicine 49 (3): 275–81.

[2] “Transforming Triage Technology (National Research Council of Canada website)”.

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