Grateful

By Dr. David Wheeler.

The “Huddled Masses Mobilization ” blog has posted a number of — shall we say — “snarky” contributions, including several by the present author.  And I mention this without apology.  We contributors are uniformly distressed by the coarseness and vulgarity of public discourse, the divisiveness and outright lying  radiating from the White House and the assault upon the web of life by corporate interests and their political enablers.  And a whole lot more…  I´m reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr´s comment made decades ago, but perennially relevant, that of all the classic doctrines of historic Christianity, the one that is unquestionably, empirically verifiable is the doctrine of original sin.  But having said this to provide context, I want to strike a different note for a few moments. I want to talk about giving thanks.

Preachers and homespun philosophers of all stripes have spoken of the therapeutic effects of living gratefully.  Google the rhyming motto “attitude of gratitude,” and luminaries from Adrian Rogers to Joyce Meyer, from Robert Schuller to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (!) will spring up on the search manifesto, along with multiple websites offering ready made sermon outlines.  The online concordance Bible Gateway identifies dozens of variations on the admonition to “give thanks” in the major English Bible translations.  “In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians (5:18).

I have often spoken from the pulpit and to my theology students of a double grace which we enjoy by simply “being.”  In standard theological discourse, “grace” refers to the unearned favor of God, the Redeemer, who rescues us when we have gone astray, dishonored ourselves and our Creator, and must be “bought back” (redeemed) from the self-generated dilemmas and alien powers into which our fecklessness has delivered us.  “Grace” in Christian discourse most often refers to this “grace of redemption.”  But the grace of redemption presupposes a prior grace, most appropriately called the “grace of creation.”  I refer to the sheer, improbable, inexplicable fact that we are!  Why me?  Why you?  Why planet earth?  Why this solar system, seemingly fined tune for life, this galaxy, this universe?  The only reasonable response is to give thanks to whoever or whatever or simply to the inexplicable ground and power of being (Tillich).

This is an attitude that even thoroughly secular people can — and should — get behind.  The American astronaut Scott Kelly has written a bestselling book, Endurance, about his record setting year-long stay on the International Space Station, and the life journey that took him there.  He interrupts his narrative several times to inform the reader that he is “not religious,” that he walked away from his youthful Catholicism right after confirmation class and never looked back.  And yet he also weaves into his narrative repeated  testimonies of wonder: at the luminous beauty of planet earth seen from space, our common and only home; at the joy of human love; the courage and resilience and ingenuity of teamwork; the exhilaration of common experiences — the touch of water, the aroma of new mown grass …
The most enduring and intuitively appealing of the traditional arguments for the existence of God is the argument from design.  It manifests in non-arguments like “intelligent design theory,” which basically says, “When explanatory schemes give out, add God and stir — the old “God of the gaps” strategy; and in more sophisticated formulations such as the “anthropic principle,” which explores the astronomically improbable odds that various physical constants would converge within the narrow ranges that have allowed the emergence of life, or even a physically stable universe.  Personally, I think that none of these arguments hold up; they all bear the aroma of  “arguing backwards from the results.” (ask me sometime).  But whether I´m sharing “spiritual” counsel from the unprovable but enduring  metaposition of faith, or simply describing the habits of a healthy psyche, my very best advice is to give thanks, to live gratefully, generously, magnanimously.  Even in the age of Trump, be grateful.  Even within the possible surge of the sixth great extinction, be grateful.  Even as your heart aches for the refugees, the victims of war and trafficking, those caught up in Kafkaesque immigration proceedings, be grateful. (And get busy.)  Grateful people will live purposefully and die with few regrets.m  And the world will sing their coming and going.

Epilogue:  Diana Butler Bass, church historian and eloquent commentator upon contemporary faith and culture has a new book out:  Grateful: the Transformative Power of Giving Thanks.  In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, she reminded us that even the act of giving thanks can be weaponized, citing President Trump´s recent declaration the the United States, under his leadership, had done “a great job” ridding the Middle East of ISIS, and where is the “Thank you, America?”  Gratitude that is veiled complaint and blame is toxic.  “Blessed are the pure in heart,” says Jesus.  So to rejigger the Gospel chorus for this cynical age, I say, “Give thanks, with a guileless heart.”
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