Sometimes It’s Hard To Be Thankful

How do we make sense of hope for the coming year? How do we begin the year of 2021 with hope after everything that has happened in 2020 and the pandemic will continue to rage on going into 2021? Reading on the work of Scholar and Theologian, Diana Butler Bass, I found that gratitude does not negate or downplay the struggles and challenges we have faced and will be facing. On the contrary, gratitude will also give focus on the reality of our struggles and challenges together with the reality of our shared and mutual response. Hence the first part of this sermon series is to recognize that it is very hard to be thankful when faced with pain, sorrow, sickness or even death. Gratitude is like a person trying to find a light, any light in a pitch black road or room. Looking for the light or any light in a darkened place actually makes us more aware of the darkness that is all around us. However, it also heightens our sensitivity against danger or road blocks and it allows our eyes to adjust in that darkness to be able to still see. It is hard to make sense or to talk about hope. It seems to be so abstract or ethereal but grounding hope in gratitude helps us to have some solid grounding to walk on or a small yet clear light to see. It is with this that we are using Gratitude as our framework for hope for the coming year: Gratitude as explained, elaborated and reflected upon by Diana Butler Bass.

For some people, gratitude can be very difficult. A classmate from my days at an evangelical college had a poster hanging – of all the places – above the toilet in her bathroom. It depicted a cheerful garden and was emblazoned with words from the New Testament book of 1 Thessalonians (5:16-18)

Rejoice always,
Praying without ceasing,
Giving thanks in all circumstances;
For this is the will of God
In Christ Jesus for you.

Honestly, I always wanted to rip if off the wall. I was secretly full of fury at injustice, not only the injustice I had suffered, but the larger agonizes and evils endured by people less fortunate than even my own sorry self.

“It is worth noting,” write the authors of one gratitude study, in typically detached academic jargon, “that while gratitude is considered a positive psychological factor, it is not necessarily good for all people under all circumstances, e.g., displaced gratitude under conditions of exploitation.” No kidding. Put that on a poster, girlfriend. Telling victims to be grateful for trauma, violence, or abuse only wounds those who have suffered and empowers perpetrators. Gratitude may work miracles, but sometimes the miracle comes from just being able to feel anything but pain. Feeling thankful might just have to wait. Gratitude cannot and should never be faked, and it is never appropriate to cover up or deny abuse or excuse injustice. Indeed, gratitude as a placebo can be another form of abuse that silences those in deep pain with false notions of forgiveness, happiness, and wellbeing. One of the most helpful teachings in Buddhism is the idea that suffering simply exists and that it is intensified by human refusal to acknowledge the reality of pain. Suffering actually increases when we resist, deny, or fear negative emotions; those emotions often cause shame and shame blocks gratitude. As human beings, part of our job is to be able to recognize what causes pain, to work toward healing, and to learn how to live in the world with empathy, forgiveness, and gratitude. Embracing our humanness, with its mixture of sadness and joy, foster vulnerability and authenticity and takes us toward maturity and deep love.

It is not easy to live with the mysteries of pain, injustice, illness and violence. We humans highly rage against these indignities. Those things that work against joy, love and peace. Gratefulness is no panacea against violence and injustice, yet my soul suspected there might be a path beyond rage – a way for gratitude to enfold the pain in greater good. These words from the Catholic spiritual writer Henri Nouwen spoke to me:

To be grateful for the good things, for all our lives – the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections – that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our being as a gift of God to be grateful for.

Grateful: The Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks by Diana Butler Bass

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

John 20:26-27 (NRSV)

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