In his November blog, Bishop David Bard remains profoundly grateful even though the “difficulties before us as a country, as a world, and as a United Methodist Church, are real” …
I am sitting down to write this essay in a time when I am anticipating with joy my upcoming trip to Israel. I look forward to sharing these days with a number of you. I am also anticipating, with a mixture of emotion, the United Methodist Council of Bishops meeting. It will be a joy to see colleague bishops from around the world, and we meet in anticipation of the special called session of General Conference. We will be asking how we can lead in the days leading up to the General Conference and in its aftermath. We have challenging work ahead.
I also write in the shadow of disturbing and difficult events in the United States. Mail bombs were sent to former government officials, a couple of citizens who have been politically vocal, and to a prominent news organization. In the parking lot of a grocery store, two people were gunned down simply because they were African-American. At a synagogue in Pittsburgh, eleven people were mercilessly killed because they were Jewish. On the evening of November 1, I gathered with hundreds of people in East Lansing to pray at a local synagogue in remembrance of these eleven.
As I write, we are also beginning the month in which gratitude plays a significant role. November begins with All Saints Day, a time to mourn, yes, but also a time to remember with gratitude all those with whom we have shared the journey of faith.
In an essay read a few years ago, I encountered these words, which still ring profoundly true to me. “The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other, and to be stretched large by them” (Francis Weller, The Sun, October 2015).
The events of recent days bring real grief. They speak of genuine difficulty. There remains in this country levels of hate and anger and violence that we wish we could get beyond. The human capacity for dehumanizing “the other,” whether that “other” is of a different race, or religion, or status, is tenacious. Our ability to have meaningful conversations about shared goals and values and the common good has become more difficult as the quality of our public discourse continues to deteriorate. As some of you know, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Christian ethics and democratic political theory. I have a deep appreciation for the critical importance of dialogue and deliberation to a healthy democracy. I grieve that our shared conversation in this country has become so degraded. In a book I have been talking about quite a bit lately, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes, “Thinking is hard, fear and blame are easy” (The Monarchy of Fear, 10). How often we seem to be choosing the easy way.
Grief is real. The difficulties before us as a country, as a world, and as a United Methodist Church, are real. Yet, so too, is gratitude. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18a). Recognizing the genuine grief, sorrow, and pain in our world, recognizing the deep challenges ahead, can we hold those in one hand, while also holding gratitude in the other and be stretched large? By God’s grace, I think we can. I think we must. We need the capacity of hearts and minds stretched by grief and gratitude if we are to genuinely participate in God’s work in Jesus Christ of transforming the world. When we look honestly at the pain and suffering in the world and feel the grief, we need the energy of gratitude if we are to address the deep needs of the world.
So in this time of gratitude, let me share some of what I am grateful for. I am grateful for a God whose amazing love, which I know in Jesus Christ, never ceases, this God whose image is imprinted in every human person and whose creativity astonishes in the beauty of the world. I am grateful for the calling of God in my life to serve the church in the ways I have. I am grateful for an amazing wife whose commitment to education I admire deeply, whose friendship and love help sustain me, and whose company I always enjoy. I am grateful for our three children whose lives and accomplishments make me humbly proud to be called their “dad.” I am grateful for family and friends who share this journey of life with me. I am grateful for so many colleagues in the work of ministry, people with whom I not only share work but also friendship. I am grateful for the many things which bring delight and sometimes invite me to grow: books whose words stretch my thinking or whose poems evoke deep emotion, music that brings with it a memory or sets my heart if not my feet to dancing, movies which move me, a good cup of coffee, a pleasant meal, a brisk walk or short run, a baseball game, my dog Abby who is always glad to see me and never asks me difficult questions about my work.
One of my favorite poems about gratitude is a reflection on life and family. The poet, Lisel Mueller begins:
Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you
She goes on to speculate on other possibilities for her life, perhaps being born in another time or place, yet she and her husband and their children are alive together:
with marvels and follies
and longings and lies and wishes
and error and humor and mercy
and journeys and voices and faces
and colors and summers and mornings
and knowledge and tears and chance.
The cadence of words carries such joy, reminding me of all I have to be grateful for. I want to hold it joyfully in one hand while holding grief in the other and be stretched large by them. Even the opportunity to be stretched large, through the grace of God, is something I am grateful for. How about you? What are you grateful for?