Gratitude, Forgiveness and Malala

Malala Yousafzai from guardianlv.com

Malala Yousafzai from guardianlv.com

This sermon was offered on Sunday October 13, 2013 at the Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church and is based on the reading for today, Luke 17: 11-19.

Imagine a child, 15 years old, taking the bus to school.  She’s sitting in the seats with her friends.   They are talking, laughing—about what we can only imagine.  Perhaps their teachers, or their homework, about who they have a secret crush on…or about their families.  They are singing, using their hands to tap out melodies on the seat cushions in front of them.  The bus driver glances in the rearview mirror, keeping an eye on the girls in the bus, smiling to himself at their voices as they sing, chatter and gossip on their way to the school.  Just what kids that age should be doing, having fun—enjoying their friends, carefree. 

But something is worrying the driver and one of the girls.  The street they are travelling down, which is usually bustling in the morning hours, shops opening, people on their way to start their day or open their homes is quiet.  The shops haven’t opened.  All of a sudden everything seems very wrong—but there is no time to change course or turn around.  Out of nowhere a group of men appear, and ask for one of the girls on the bus to step forward.  They have her name, and they have been sent to kill her, a 15-year old child. 

The next part happens so quickly; she huddles down low, protected amongst her friends.  She covers her face with her hands as shots ring out; bullets begin to travel towards her.  One hits her in her head, narrowly missing its opportunity to enter into her brain, ricocheted off the skull.  It blows through her eardrum and severs nerves in her face and ends up in her back, dangerously near her spinal cord.  She is covered in blood, unresponsive.  The men scatter and run, cowards fleeing into the streets of the city.  The bus driver hits the gas and drives the young girl and her terrorized friends to the nearest hospital.  Two days later she is airlifted from her home in the Swat Valley of Pakistan to a hospital in Birmingham, England for specialized care.[1]  We have heard about her story on the news, this young girl’s name is Malala Yousafzai—an activist child for girl’s education in a part of her country were forces like the Taliban made it impossible for many girl-children to be educated.

Imagine if you can what a trauma like that would be for you if Malala was your child.  The fear you would feel.  The rage and anger that you would have towards those who attacked and nearly killed her; who forever changed the trajectory of her life.  After you sat at her bedside and watched her suffer.  Or imagine if you were her and it was you in the hospital bed, who had to deal with that kind of pain?  Or if you were one of the other girls in the bus that day, still in the Swat Valley, still fearful for your life.  How would you feel, how would you react?

Would you be able to forgive?

 Would you still believe in God after all that suffering and a life of injustice that seems to have no end? 

Would you be able to be grateful that you survived, even though your life has changed and the experience will live with you every day of your life?

I have carefully watched Malala over these last few months.  I am mesmerized by her.  By her light, by her energy, by her composure.  I watched the speech she made at the United Nations this summer and was struck by the first words she said, “In the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful.”  If you watch her speeches, listen to her interviews, she always talks about her faith, about how important it is, and how it helped her to heal. 

But I am struck by something else about her.  She suffered a terrible trauma, which was preceded by a difficult life before that.  And she does not appear to be bitter.  She is not in hiding.  Instead she moved in a new direction and seized the opportunities that are before her to speak her truth.   As she said in an interview this past week, “I totally changed after that incident.” 

Today’s Gospel reading tells the story of ten people who are in need of healing.  They are desperate and surround Jesus as he enters a new town to beg him for help.  Jesus tells the group of people to go to the Temple for healing.  As they turn away to walk towards the Temple they are healed.  Only one notices it, and he turns around, runs back to Jesus and cries out his thanksgiving to Jesus.  Jesus notes that only one returned with gratitude, where were the others?   Why could only one notice he had been healed, and then say, “thank you?” 

It’s one of the simplest stories about Jesus that is in the Gospels.  The message is very clear, we are to be grateful for the things that God does in our lives and we are to pay attention for the healing movement of God’s Spirit in our lives.

But that is hard to come by some days isn’t it?  

I know many people through my pastoral work who over the years have suffered with terrible, debilitating illnesses, situations in life or even trauma.  Some upon being healed or made well are full of gratitude.  Others go in other directions.  Anger, rage, bitterness.  Sometimes trauma leaves us unable to move forward, we have suffered too deeply.  Some question God in those moments, others do not.  I’m not judging one or the other; I know that we have a range of reactions and experiences among us here today.  And if I have learned anything during my time thus far in pastoral ministry it is to have respect for every sort of reaction that occurs to difficult times of life’s journey.  Because we are each different.

But it begs a serious spiritual question: what does it take to have gratitude? 

What spiritual energy does it take to let go of anger or bitterness? 

 Where can we tap into the well of strength that God’s Spirit offers us even when we cannot muster it up ourselves, when we have been too wounded?

How can we notice when God is right there beside us, helping us.  How do we know when this is happening? 

None of this is meant to be glib in any way, gratitude is hard work, but I believe that it is the work of our souls.  It is the work that changes who we are spiritually and how we encounter God.  Gratitude can keep us from falling into the trap of self-pity, not the sort that is allowable when something bad happens, that stays with us for a short while or for a season.  Instead it is the sort that keeps us pinned down by its strength, haunts our days and our nights, and lulls into the false belief that our lives or even our very self is worthless.  Self-denigration who we are at our core—believing the lie that we are anything less than the beloved children of God we were created to be.  This separates us from the love and the promises of God. 

Gratitude on the other hand opens us up.  It expands our souls.  It invites God and relationship back into our lives.  Even though we might still be wounded, even gravely so, gratitude gives us strength and helps us reconnect with God so that we can push through the walls of fear or resentment.  Gratitude helps us on the journey towards working the process of forgiveness, of letting go of anger, and making even more room and space in our hearts for the Spirit of God.  When the man who was healed returns to Jesus it isn’t just to say thank you—it is to connect up more with him.  The man started out wanting and needing something from Jesus, as if it was some sort of a transaction.  You could almost hear what his first attitude towards Jesus was, “I’ve heard about your reputation as a healer.  You are new in town.  You can help me.”  But, now the man wants to be with Jesus—he wants to know him.  But Jesus tells him “no, thank you for your gratitude.  Your faith has made you well.  Be on your way.  Do not linger with me.  Go, be on your way, live your life!  Share your changed life with the community!”  The quote in the bulletin last week was from Howard Thurman:  “Do not ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive and go do it.  Because what the world needs are more people who have come alive.”   This is what the man in Luke’s Gospel did.  He knew what he needed, and so he went to seek it out—and then as he came alive Jesus invited him into the journey that did not just keep him in one place—but sent him back out into the community. 

Going back to Malala, the story of this young girl, who had every reason to be angry, or bitter—whose family has every reason to be scared or worried, to never move in a new direction from where they had been—what struck me the most is that she somehow tapped into that deep well of Spirit inside of her that has allowed her to begin to move forward with her life and to speak words that come from a place of gratitude.  To be clear, Malala is Muslim—and so she tapped into what was true in her spiritual life, but it is a great example for us today as people of faith that our faith traditions offer opportunities for healing and new directions.  We can learn from and appreciate her journey of faith because it is recognizable to us as people of faith ourselves.  We have that in common—we each take our faith seriously and know it is God’s gift to help us heal.

What also strikes me about this young woman, and her faith that is also recognizable to me as a Christian is that her acts of gratitude have taken her to places of speaking and naming truths that are central to all faith traditions:  the rejection of all violence (she even used her time this past Friday at the White House to speak out against the U.S. drone war in Pakistan), the discussion and teaching of nonviolent living (she explained this most clearly in an interview this past week where she explained that she decided that if she fought back against the Taliban and used violence to protect herself she would be no better off spiritually than they are), speaking for justice (as she talks about girls education), openly describing her relationship with God (she always does this in her interviews), and then explaining forgiveness (that she is moving forward and cannot allow herself to be trapped by the experience, and that she goes deep in her relationships with her family in this time).  

These are the markers of gratitude in our tradition as well: the rejection of violence, drawing closer to God, a changed life that points to the justice that we are invited into in Jesus Christ.  Gratitude is not an individual journey; it is something we share with the community around us, and our changed lives points to the reality of God that we have experienced.  No matter what gratitude changes us, and it changes the trajectory of our spiritual life with God.  And as I have watched this young Muslim girl from Pakistan, from a life so different from the one you and I lead I see in her a person who is filled with gratitude and who is alive with the Spirit of God.  We can learn spiritual lessons from others outside of our tradition, and I believe that Malala is offering us one. 

I challenge you today to take a look at your life.  Where are the places of fear, worry, and injury, even trauma?  Where are the places that anger, bitterness, or spiritual separation has taken hold?   Those are the spaces where we have opportunities to grow in our gratitude and grow in relationship with God.  Those are the places upon which to focus our prayers and to focus our opportunities for change.

I leave you with this thought: 

Presbyterian writer Anne Lamott says this:  “My favorite prayer in the morning is help me, help me, help me,” and my favorite prayer at bedtime is “thank you, thank you, thank you.”  

May it be the so, for you and for me.  Amen. 


[1] This story is my adaptation of the one Malala Yousafzai told to Diane Sawyer on 20/20 which aired on October 11, 2013.

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