Improvisational Gratitude

Do we recognize a moment of grace when it happens to us? If so, how does that grace transform us? These seem to be the lingering questions behind this story of the healing of the ten lepers. This is a story about how we understand our lives. My friend Michael Lindvall suggests that it:

"implies two fundamental ways of being in this world: one assumes that my life and all that fills my life is simply what I'm more or less entitled to. You can only guess that those nine lepers who disappeared from view without so much as a 'Thank you, Sir' honestly felt that good health was their right [and had been a long time coming]. It's not gift. They simply had what was owed to them....

"The Samaritan leper who returns and drops to his knees before Jesus is a living emblem of the other demeanor toward being. His thankfulness is actually a life stance, a fundamental attitude that says...'Here I am, alive and whole. I might never have been, but here I am. I did nothing to deserve life. It's a gift; it's grace.'"1

Of course, very few of us ever fall completely into one of those categories or the other. Some times we are overwhelmed by the giftedness of life, and at other times we find ourselves consumed by concerns about fairness and senses of entitlement. Sometimes we recognize the grace for what it is; at other times we don't.
Henry Ward Beecher, the nineteenth century American preacher, employed a wonderful image to describe what it means to live the life of gratitude:

"Suppose someone gave you a dish of sand mixed with fine iron filings. You look for the filings with your eyes; you comb for them with your fingers. But you can't find them. Then you take a tiny magnet and draw it through the dish. Suddenly the magnet is covered with iron filings. The ungrateful person is like our hands combing the sand. Such a person finds nothing to be thankful for. The grateful person, on the other hand, is like the magnet sweeping through the sand; that person finds hundreds of things to be thankful for."2

The recognition of grace is not a matter of how much one has. We have all known people who had almost everything they could ever want or need, and yet lived with some great emptiness; and we have known others who seemed to have less than a little, whose lives nonetheless demonstrated a remarkable peace and contentment and fullness.

Ten lepers...ten outcasts...forced to live at the outskirts of humanity. The diagnosis of leprosy was in many ways a sentence to exile. Clothing affected by leprosy was burned; houses afflicted with leprosy were torn down; people beset by leprosy were avoided, as the saying goes, "like the plague."3 Ten lepers beg Jesus for mercy, and Jesus, skipping the pastoral care, responds with a command: "Go, and show yourselves to the priests."4 All ten respond by going as they have been told, by obeying the command. All ten! And along the way down the road of obedience, all ten are healed; all ten find themselves "wearing new skin." "Naturally," says Paul Duke, "they are ecstatic, and do what any of us would do if headed down a highway with a brand new life: they accelerate. Jesus told them to go, and in the going they were healed. What are new feet for if not to sprint to the finish of what we are commanded to do? To the priests, then, and step on it!"5

But one of them stops, overcome by his new possibilities, overwhelmed by an unexpected gift. In such a state he discovers something more important than obeying the instructions he has been given. He follows his heart instead of his instructions.6 He needs to express his gratitude; he needs to offer his praise, and so he wheels around and runs back to Jesus, "praising God with a loud voice," and then falls at the feet of Jesus, offering his thanks and praise.

That this man is a Samaritan, not a Jew, is surely a point that Luke wanted to make, for throughout Luke's Gospel it is the outcasts, like the Samaritan, who recognize Jesus for who he truly is. The outcast is the one who sees and who responds freely to the grace he has experienced. He is the one who improvises his gratitude and praise, if you will.

Paul Duke once said that praise is the "jazz factor" of faith, that praise is love improvising its answer to love.7 Praise is love improvising its answer to love. When one is learning to play an instrument, one first has to learn the basic fingering and, with some instruments, the discipline of breath control. First pieces of music are relatively uncomplicated, as one learns to transfer the notes that one sees on the score to the breath and the fingers, and ultimately into simple melodies. Over time the melodies may become more complex, requiring more intricate dexterity and coordination. Some musicians become remarkable technicians, learning to play flawlessly and with great passion. And a few of them will discover a capacity to internalize the score, to sense deeply its ebb and flow, and then to float free of that score, improvising as they go... retaining the theme, but enriching it with their own grace.

In a sense, that is what the Samaritan leper did. Jesus gave all ten lepers a score and a script to follow. He gave them a simple song to sing to the priests, and all ten went their way rehearsing that song. But one of them heard something else in that melody. He heard a different strain than the others, and he began to improvise on that theme. And back at Jesus' feet, the song he sang was one of improvisational gratitude.

I've known others who have gotten caught up in such jazz. I know a man who miraculously survived a horrific automobile accident, who found his life and relationships altered by a profound gratitude and improvised a new kind of graciousness about life. I watched an African woman in an outdoor worship service in a Ghanaian village who had no gift of money or produce to bring as an offering, who improvised a dance of thanksgiving and praise. I knew a couple whose only daughter was born with severe handicaps, who accompanied her through years of special medical expenses and demanding regimens of care, who nonetheless saw her and treated her as such a profound gift of God's grace, noting improvisationally, "every day is a blessing."

When I'm at my best, I can improvise such praise. When I'm at my best, even simple daily occurrences can stir such feelings: the laughter of a young child, a sunset full of orange and yellow, a warm bowl of oatmeal on a crisp autumn morning, safe transit through heavy traffic, an unexpected act of kindness, a pedal note on the organ that makes the windows rattle and my heart stir, a disagreement settled and resolved. When I'm at my best, I can improvise praise and gratitude for such moments.

At other times I find my senses dulled by routines, or my conscious thoughts consumed by those things that cause anxiety, by pettiness and envy, by expectation and demand. In those days I do well simply to follow the score. By "the score," I mean the commands of God for faithfulness, for honesty, for treating others with respect, for demonstrating kindness to my neighbor. Sometimes just following the score seems like burden and demand. And in those days improvisational gratitude seems impossible, at least without some help.

There's an old story about a renowned pianist and composer - a grand one who lived at the beginning of the last century - and a lovely thing that happened at the start of one of his concerts. At this particular concert a woman and her young son came to hear the master play. The young boy had only recently begun his piano lessons, and the mother, wishing to encourage his studies, took him to the concert.

The two were seated just prior to the concert, but the mother spotted a dear friend along the aisle a few rows back and went to speak to her, telling the boy to wait in his seat. But, then, what child likes to sit still? And so seizing the moment of opportunity to explore a bit, the boy made his way down the aisle, through an open curtain in a doorway and disappeared.

The houselights dimmed and the mother returned to her seat, discovering as she did that her son was not in his seat. She began frantically to look all around, not paying attention to the curtains opening on stage. But at the laughter of the audience, she looked, and there, seated at the magnificent Steinway on the stage, was her son, haltingly playing the first song he had learned to play: "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

The mother was horrified, and started to get up; but at that same moment the great pianist himself entered from the other side of the stage, putting his finger to his mouth to still the audience. He moved to the piano and whispered in the boy's ear. The boy kept playing, and then the master reached down with his left hand and began filling in a bass part to the composition. Soon his right arm reached around to the other side of the child and he added a running obbligato. Together the old master and this young novice transformed an awkward moment into a moment of grace, and as they finished playing, the audience broke forth in thunderous applause.

The truth is the melody of gratitude is not always easy. We sometimes play it haltingly; we are sometimes undone by our own pettiness and insecurities. We may at times feel more like humming dirges of lamentation to ourselves. But by grace, sometimes we hear whispers of remarkable encouragement, whispers to us to keep playing. And as we do, in grace God extends and complements our own best efforts...transforms us in ways we had never dreamed possible. That's grace. And when it touches us maybe then we see something that others, like the other nine, miss. We see that life is a gift, that this day is a gift, and that our life's simple melody is never sung a cappella, never played alone, but is always accompanied, richly, fully. And those who are able to see in such a way cannot simply keep moving down the path they've been traveling, because what stirs in them...seeing what they improvisational gratitude and praise. What stirs in them is pure jazz.

Let the music of gratitude play in us, O God. Let it play. Amen.

1 Lindvall, in a paper on this text presented to the January 2004 meeting of the Moveable Feast preaching consortium in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
2 As cited by Lindvall.
3 I borrow these descriptions from Patrick Willson and a sermon he preached on this text October 11, 1992 at St. Stephen Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
4 Paul D. Duke, "Down the Road and Back," Christian Century, September 27-October 4, 1995, 883.
5 Duke.
6 Barbara Brown Taylor, as cited by Duke.
7 Cited by Paul Duke.