The Gratitude in the Grief
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When my family sits around the table to eat, one of the children usually presides over the pre-dinner prayer. This prayer sometimes becomes a rambling litany of thanksgivings. Other times it’s very brief: One child has coined the prayer, “Thank you for everything and everyone, Amen.” Sometime early in the pandemic, one of them blurted out, “Thank you for everything except the coronavirus,” and this has now become part of the DeVaul liturgy. Thank you, God, for everything except the coronavirus.
Full disclosure, I never say that part when I pray, because I’m always a little hesitant to specifically not thank God for something. But I also never stop them from saying it because, Jesus explicitly told people like me not to get in the way of kids when they’re approaching God. Especially when they’re telling God the truth.
How do we cultivate thankfulness during terrible times? More specifically, how do we do so without succumbing to toxic positivity? This may be a new phrase to some of you, toxic positivity, but I bet you get it instantly: The desire to remain positive at all costs – even to the point of dismissing any grief, sorrow, or negative feelings you or others might be experiencing. Right now, for instance, when there is so much cause for grief, how do we make space for genuine gratitude without trying to erase the real pain we feel?
Last week I wrote about Noah and the Flood. I think a lot about the profound mixture of gratitude and grief Noah and his family must have experienced. The devastating reality of the Flood and the astounding grace of their deliverance: Neither truth could erase the other. Both were true. Both were true.
I remember when my parents split up. I was 13. I had known they were not happy for a very long time. But the divorce was still devastating. A few months later I found out that my Dad was gay and had lived his life up to that point in the closet. He had grown up in a time and place where being gay was not acceptable, and in a religious environment that taught him that God hated his sexual orientation. He thought if he was faithful enough and acted “straight” enough, God would make him something other than what he was. Of course, that’s not how sexual orientation works, and it’s not how God works. To paraphrase St. Paul, by the grace of God, he was who he was.
The divorce was painful. And also, my Mom soon met a man and fell in love and he loved her the way my Dad couldn’t. I got to see my Mom happy. It was pretty great. And for the first time in his life, my Dad was fully himself, and I got to see him grow in love and wisdom, in kindness and joy. Am I thankful for their divorce? I don’t know if, as their son, I’ll ever fully be there. And yet, I am so thankful for who they were able to be in its aftermath. I am so thankful for what our family became in the years that followed. It was not what I had pictured or hoped, but it was more honest, more real.
There is something I don’t say too often, because it is very tender, and I worry it will be misunderstood. If my father had not grown up in a homophobic culture, he would not have been closeted, he would not have married my mother, and I would not exist. I have a great disdain for homophobia. And also I am really glad I exist. I love that I get to be a person. I am profoundly grateful for my life. I don’t do too well with people parsing out what is God’s plan and what is not. There are some things that are too tender to be categorized.
Maybe this is part of why I’m so reticent to specifically not thank God for certain things: It’s not that I think my kids are wrong – I think they are right, their prayer is real and honest, and this pandemic is truly awful. I’m not thankful for it. And also, I’m thankful for the closeness they’ve developed during this time of forced togetherness. I’m thankful for their ability to tell God the truth. I’m thankful for our exhausting, painful, maddening, seemingly endless but ridiculously precious time together. Both are true.
The grief and the gratitude are allowed to coexist. One does not erase the other. God’s blessing does not dwell in ideal spaces. God’s blessing hallows the tender complicated mess of our shared life. The things that are terrible are still terrible. And somehow grace abounds. This is the mystery of the cross. This is one of the truest truths of our faith.
This pandemic has been impossibly difficult for us. It has traumatized us all. It has traumatized our church. Period. And I am beyond grateful for the grace and love that has been experienced in our church during this time. We have learned things about ourselves, about our priorities, about Jesus, that we could not have learned otherwise. Both are true.
I want to say how thankful I am for you. This week is a natural time for us to pause and consider the things for which we are grateful, and I do not have to pause for long before the faces of so many of you flash before my eyes and I am filled with gratitude for the way you hallow my life. The last 21 months have been extremely difficult, but my heart and soul are buoyed by you, and by the experience of sharing in the life of Christ with you. Not that I think you’re perfect. Don’t worry: I don’t. I know you’re a mess like me. And I am under no illusion that our church is flawless, sinless, or ideal. I don’t pretend we always get it right. But I know that we keep trying to build a community that is founded in unconditional love, and that is pretty powerful. Even when it’s not what it could be, I see God in it. Even though you’re not all the things you think you should be, I see God in you. So, thank you for that.
I love you. I hope that this week your grief and your gratitude are allowed room to breathe. They will not erase each other. They both have a place. And so do you. Happy Thanksgiving.
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