I am participating in the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from #Unco14, focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The theme for November is (Un)Gratitude. http://uncosynchro.wordpress.com
The last few months have been pretty lousy because I miss my best friend. My friend had a mastectomy in August and is now undergoing radiation treatment which has left her ragged and raw and in tremendous pain. She has kept everyone except her immediate family at a distance, communicating through email, texts and Facebook postings. I don’t blame her for shutting down. If I were in her situation, I’d probably do the same thing. I shut down when I have the smallest of sniffles, so cancer would probably drive me into a dark cave.
I’ve done my best to respect her wishes, but the loss of my friend’s laughter and listening ear and just her sheer physical presence feels like death. Which is stupid because, of course, she’s not dead. In fact, she’s doing everything she can do to not die. I am not totally selfish, and I most certainly want her to get well even more than I miss her.
Yet I am flooded with a heavy sense of loss because I know nothing will ever be the same after this — not for us as friends, and certainly not for her. She will survive the cancer, but her life has been forever changed. She will, in the fullness of time, be ok. But nothing about any of this has been even remotely ok.
I am not very good at putting a positive spin on pain. I do not see people who are suffering as blessed. I am hard-pressed to see anything good or valuable coming out of my friend’s cancer. I don’t see anything that remotely resembles a blessing in another friend’s major depression, or another friend’s failing marriage, or even in my 13 year old son’s continuing struggle with autism. I do not see blessings in the deaths this year of my mentor, Jannie Swart, or my friend Don Polito, both of whom were much too young to be called home to Jesus, as nice as that home must certainly be. Nothing about any of these losses feels like blessing. Every single one of them feels like crap. It all feels like grief and sadness and “I-feel-like-punching-something” anger.
I know, I know. We are supposed to rejoice always in the Lord and be grateful for all of life, even the parts that really suck. I know I am supposed to pretend as if a sunny Christian attitude has the power to disinfect the messiness of it all.
Yet, I confess to feeling distinctly ungrateful as we enter into this month of gratitude.
My ungratitude extends beyond my own friends and family. I am ungrateful for the never-ending wars in the Middle East, and for the kidnapped Nigerian school girls who will never, ever finish their educations and never, ever get to go home. I am ungrateful for the growing population of homeless families in the little burb in which my little church is located. I am ungrateful for the many in my congregation who are suffering loss with a capital “L.” I am ungrateful that the little church I serve is perhaps on its last legs with few good options available to it.
You are probably capable of making your own list of things for which you are distinctly ungrateful. It has, however, occurred to me that perhaps naming all those losses for which we are distinctly ungrateful is something we all need to do before we get to genuine thanksgiving.
After the Royals lost to the Giants in the World Series, a diehard Royals fan said, “losing is good for the soul.” “Baseball” he went on to say, “is proxy for the fundamental drama of humanity, with its failing and adjusting, redeeming and overcoming.”
In other words, it is not that loss itself is good for us. What is good is recognizing that the cycle of life, with its ups and downs, celebrations and grieving, gains and losses, is what makes us fully human. A whole human life is a movement between gratitude and ungratitude, and one cannot exist without the other. By attaching ourselves to something or someone we care about, even to something as frivolous as a baseball team, we are attaching our heart to the near certainty that our heart will be broken. As a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, I have entered into many Aprils knowing that baseball would break my heart. But, as I always say, what else are hearts for?
So it is with friendships. Relationships. A full life on this earth means, by necessity, that there will be times when we are left with very little but ungratitude. Until we have deeply loved into the possibility that loss will devastate us, there can be no blessing.
I preached on the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:1-12) last Sunday, a text in which Jesus says that people who want to be blessed are going to suffer deep losses of one kind or another. Jesus says that losing is not only good for our souls, but also a necessary step to saving them.
I hate that Jesus says that, but at the same time, it’s kind of comforting. In fact, you can see a Kingdom perspective played out in the Beatitudes if you invert them a bit. Like this:
We cannot receive the kingdom of heaven until we become poor in spirit. If you are rich in spirit, Jesus doesn’t have much of anything to say to you.
We cannot be comforted until we mourn our losses. If you do not allow yourself to grieve, Jesus doesn’t have much comfort to give you.
We cannot inherit the earth until we are meek. If you think you have all the answers and don’t need anyone’s help in figuring out this God stuff, you haven’t left Jesus much room to teach you.
We cannot be filled with the good things of God until we are hungry and thirsty enough to receive them. If you are stuffed with junk food theology or sugary sweet faith, you won’t be hungry for the real stuff which is the bread of life.
We cannot receive mercy until we are merciful to other people. If we are unwilling to forgive other people, we probably don’t believe that Jesus forgives us we mess up just as badly.
We will not see God until our hearts are broken wide open to receive God. A closed and protected heart is the surest way to keep Jesus at a safe distance.
We cannot be children of God until we are willing to be peacemakers in our families, our communities and our world. If we are quick to anger, we are following an angry, vindictive God and miss out on the love of Jesus.
We will not receive the kingdom until we do the right thing, even when it’s the hardest thing in the world to do. Staying safe and out of trouble is not the path that Jesus plots out for his disciples.
So I guess I should be grateful for my current state of ingratitude, as much as I hate it. Perhaps it is the path I need to take to get to a place of genuine thankfulness instead of my typical knee jerk reaction of guilt about how good I truly do have it.
Blessed are you who on this day are in a place of ungratitude, because you are closer than you know to the very heart of God.