Gratitude as the gospel speaks about it embraces all of life: the good and the bad, the joyful and the painful, the holy and the not so holy. Is this possible in a society where gladness and sadness, joy and sorrow, peace and conflict remain radically separated? Can we counter the many advertisements that tells us, “You cannot be glad when you are sad, so be happy: buy this, do that, go here, go there, and you will have a moment of happiness during which you can forget your sorrow? Is it truly possible to embrace with gratitude all of our life and not just the good things that we like to remember?
Jesus calls us to recognize that gladness and sadness are never separate, that joy and sorrow really belong together, and that mourning and dancing are part of the same movement. That is why Jesus calls us to be grateful for every movement that we have lived and to claim our unique journey as God’s way to mold our hearts to greater conformity with God’s own. The cross is the main symbol of our faith, and it invites us to find hope where we see pain and to reaffirm the resurrection where we see death. The call to be grateful is a call to trust that every moment of our life can be claimed as the way of the cross that leads us to new life.Henri Nouwen, from an article called “All is Grace,” Weavings, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1992
All is grace
An intriguing irony of the gospels: the best teachers are not the really religious people of the day. Lessons come from a good Samaritan, an ostracized woman delivered from demons, a hated Roman centurion, a Canaanite mother referred to as a dog, a foreign leper, children regarded as worthless in that society. They know and show what it means to have a relationship with God while the clergy du jour stumble along cluelessly as blind guides. Jesus himself, born a homeless refugee, incarnates God’s presence with us.
So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised these days if we’re taking moral lessons not from the most popular Christian preachers, but from sports and entertainment figures, including late night TV comedians.
Such lessons came to me last week as I watched Anderson Cooper interview Stephen Colbert. I commend it to you. Many of you have probably seen it already. One clergy friend pondered showing the interview in lieu of Sunday sermon. These two guys talked a lot about the political situation, subject of another column. But what captured my interest was Colbert’s rich theological insights into the human experience of suffering, something I suspect we each know something about. As one of my mentors used to tell his congregation: “Suffering is the promise life always keeps.” A bit bleak, perhaps, for a Monday morning. But tell me it isn’t true?
Colbert knew loss from an early age, his father and brother killed in a plane crash. He recently wrote a condolence letter to Anderson Cooper, who had experienced his own loss. I think that’s what triggered the interview, in which Colbert said: “The bravest thing you can do is to accept with gratitude the world as it is, to love the thing that I most wish had not happened,” Colbert had asked: “What punishments of God are not gifts?” When pressed to explain, he said: “It’s a gift to exist. It’s a gift to exist,” Colbert, slightly changing emphasis in the retelling. “And with existence comes suffering. There is no escaping that. I guess I’m either a Catholic or a Buddhist when I say those things.”
There’s more: “If you are grateful for your life…then you have to be grateful for all of it. You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for. And then, so what do you get from loss? You get awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it is like to be a human being if it is true that all humans suffer.” Colbert went on to say that this is partly why he is a Christian, because in Jesus, God comes to suffer among us. In several places in the gospels, it says that Jesus regarded the people with compassion, a word which literally means “suffering with.” Karen Armstrong says that word is at the heart of all great religious traditions. That’s something for which we can give thanks.
Scripture calls us to give thanks in all things. That doesn’t mean we don’t wish bad things hadn’t happened. But the difficult things, which we all know something about, can become a bridge, creating deeper connection with God and neighbor. Going back to the gospels, I imagine that the best teachers were those who knew suffering.
Give thanks in all things? It reminds me of a college friend, who ended his religion papers with the acronym SOKOP: Sounds okay on paper. Easier said than done. That is certainly true when it comes to gratitude in the face of suffering. All of this, it seems to me, must be our own interior work. A person of privilege like myself can only tell myself to be grateful in the limited suffering I’ve experienced. Mostly rich people problems. I can’t tell that to people who become deathly ill with no warning, to toddlers put in cages, to parents separated from children, to spouses widowed after gun violence, the list is unending.
I can only enter into the counter-intuitive dynamic by which greater human community is gained through loss. It’s a message of resurrection. It’s Easter after Good Friday. This week, may we each be given grace to act on the challenging scripture from I Thessalonians (5:18): In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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