How healthy are you? How thankful are you?

When I was riding my most recent bicycle “century” last month, I felt a fairly sharp pain in my right hip at about mile 40 that I had to deal with for the next 60 miles. In the course of discovery, I found that the pain became lesser or greater as I slid forward or backward on my saddle — by only a couple of centimeters each way. (The fit of a bicycle is so crucial!)

The next morning, Steve, one of our St. Stephen folks, who does a lot of mountain biking, asked me how the century had gone, and I told him about this. He said, “That might be a flexibility problem. Sometimes, if your hamstrings are tight, that shows up in hip pain.”

That makes a lot of sense to me. It’s been a long time since I could touch my toes, and I never think to stretch. (One time my massage therapist asked me, in her Icelandic accent: “Ahndy. Duh yuh stratch?” She could tell that I didn’t!)  Flexibility is the weak point in my physical health.

There are three areas of health: the physical, the spiritual and the emotional. If we are unhealthy in any of these, it affects the way we treat others and ourselves. The good news is: as we become healthy in any of the three areas, it helps us in the other two!

I’ve come to a realization.  I can actually measure my spiritual health (which most closely affects my emotional health).  I can measure my spiritual health by how thankful I am.

It is a real challenge to be thankful.  That’s because we live with such an abundance of material wealth. It’s very easy to take these things for granted: a comfortable bed, clothes, hot water for showers, coffee, food, mobility, the Internet, enough money to buy the things I want/need today and even enough money already in hand to buy the things I will want/need tomorrow, …  Well, you get the idea.

This isn’t an earthshaking realization that I’ve received. In fact, it’s as basic as it comes.

And, in fact, it helps me understand the mystery of joyfulness among African Christians that I met when I visited the Mongai Parish and other parishes in Tanzania three years ago. These are people who eat one meal a day. (It’s about a handful of corn meal with the consistency of grits that have been cooked too long, with a sauce poured over it.) Most Tanzanians sleep on dirt floors in wood and mud huts. It is not at all unusual for someone to feel fine one day, feel bad the next day, and be dead on the third day because there is very little medical care. There are few actual jobs to be had because there is very little cash economy. Many Tanzanian children are being raised by extended family or by church members because their parents have died from AIDS. Most Tanzanian children are unable to attend even the horrible public schools because the various fees required for books, uniforms, etc. total about $100, which might as well be a million dollars. The cost for better schooling, at private schools, is many times $100. I could go on and on.

But here’s the thing. There is great joy among the Christians I met in Tanzania! Unbelievable joy!  Infectious joy!

Why is that?

I think it is because they are thankful on a daily basis for this day. For the fact that they are alive, again, on this day. They are not able to take for granted even that.

So, this realization that I’ve received is not anything that’s earth-shaking. It’s pretty basic. It’s something I’ve realized many times before.  In fact, what I’ve found is that it’s something that I will forget about if I don’t discipline myself in my prayer to to return to it each day — remembering to be thankful for the blessings of the new day during Morning Prayer; and for the blessings that I’ve received during the morning and afternoon when I pause at the end of the afternoon for Evening Prayer; and for the blessings of the entire day during Compline or Night Prayer (a prayer office which includes releasing my regret over those things I’ve screwed up during the day).

It is a basic spiritual practice: to be thankful.  Because there are always reasons to be thankful.  Always.  Every day.  Even when the day has been lousy.

And here’s the thing.  Thankfulness results in joy!

I can measure my spiritual health by how thankful I am.

Is that true for you too?

About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine loves being a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!