A friend of mine came to the house on Wednesday. She had returned home after being at an aunt’s funeral in Ohio. And she shared that she had never been to a funeral and left so joyful in her whole life. She was joyful because her daughter who left home without a word 11 years ago at 18 years of age and who my friend had not heard from once in all that time – showed up at the funeral and restarted a relationship with her mother. My friend learned that she is a grandmother. My friend has much to be thankful for this year.
Every year we set aside one day to be thankful. Every Thanksgiving my family sits around the dinner table and shares what we are thankful for at the moment. All the usual suspects appear – family, friends, and health. But there is more to thankfulness than that.
As Buddha once said, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”
And so I realize I have so much more to be thankful for – those things I take for granted like the miracles of sight and hearing, the turning of the seasons, the peace of a good night’s sleep. These things are not always on the top of my mind – but when I do give them ample thought or when someone reminds me of them – I am very thankful. In fact, all of the things that I think about being thankful for are pretty darn easy to be thankful for.
And that struck me as somewhat incongruous with what Jesus is usually calling me to. Because when I really get down with Jesus, I don’t hear him telling me to do what’s easy. I hear him challenging me and making me uncomfortable. I recall a passage from 1 Thessalonians. Plain as day: Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Give thanks in all circumstances.
So I started asking another question this year. Instead of asking what I am thankful for I started asking myself what I’m not thankful for. And you know, that was a pretty easy list to make too. Because quite frankly, some things about life really stink.
Things like illness and poverty, prejudice and violence, unemployment and homelessness, hunger and loneliness, hate and injustice. And broken relationships. There are people and situations that I don’t even want to even think about, let alone be thankful But here it is, spelled out very clearly for me by Paul: Give thanks in all circumstances.
Wow. Now there’s a challenge. It seems to me that the key to thanks giving, then, is in seeing every thing as an opportunity to learn and grow. Then all persons and situations – including the most difficult ones – have the potential of becoming our teachers.
Now, I do have to say that I don’t believe God gives us bad things because God has decided we have to learn something. I don’t believe God tests us in this way. So every challenge, every resistance, every thorny problem has the potential of propelling us into higher levels of understanding, competence and maturity. But those same difficulties are not assigned from God – and we should not go on an agonizing search for answers trying to discover what it is we are supposed to be learning. Instead, difficulties are just a part of our living in a fallen world. Not all is sweetness and light. Every experience of suffering brings pain that we must endure – and from which we might grow.
And indeed, the opportunity for growth is unique – because we are challenged in ways we would rather not be. Because spiritual growth demands that we overcome our character flaws. And to do that, we often need something or someone to shatter our incorrect beliefs, our frozen feelings and our self-delusion. We need outside assistance to help us break free of our current, limited understandings. Some way of uprooting the very things in life we are holding onto most tightly in an effort to keep them the same. Some way of experiencing enough pain that we are forced to make the necessary changes that we have resisted for so long.
OK, here’s an easy example. We are called to cultivate an attitude of grace at all times and for all people. I once worked in an office with a nice young lady who could really botch things up – and who regularly did. She was always apologetic and willing to fix her mistakes and I found it easy to be gracious toward her.
I also had a boss – who was a perpetual thorn in my side. When he messed up, I wasn’t nearly as gracious. I may have even told other people he messed up for no good reason at all. Which of these two people presented the greater opportunity for me to learn the golden rule – to treat others as I wish to be treated? Who are the difficult people in my life right now who present a perpetual training ground in which I can practice and learn this most valuable discipline? For them, this year I am grateful.
Seeing hard times as teachers means seeing them in an entirely new way. In Buddhist tradition, bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who possess great powers. They are also very compassionate. Most are like angels, but there is also a special class of them called reverse bodhisattvas. They are equally compassionate, but have terrible appearances and their mission is to enlighten others through creating difficulties, challenges, and hardships. Such a viewpoint allows us to “flip” our perception of people and circumstances so that they become spiritual practices designed to help us reach new heights of spiritual growth.
Reality, then, is neither good nor bad – it is a matter of how we choose to perceive it. For someone who has mastered the art of seeing this way, the world is always perfect. Our external reality doesn’t have to change to make it so. The secret lies in changing our perception of it. Thanksgiving comes out of inner transformation.
Jesus was an expert “flipper.” Throughout the Gospels, he teaches the art of seeing and the need for internal transformation using the phrase “being born anew.” There are a lot of different connotations to these words nowadays – and not all of them are good. But to Jesus, being born anew wasn’t about accepting a religious belief but about experiencing a spiritual awakening.
The night before Jesus was betrayed, as the story goes, he ate with his disciples. He broke bread, gave thanks and gave it to them to eat saying – this is my body, which is going to be broken for you. Then he took wine and after giving thanks he gave it to them to drink saying this is my blood, which is going to be poured out for you. On the very night before he was betrayed, knowing in all certainty the horrible pain and suffering and death that awaited him, the first thing he did was thank God. Even in the midst of greater difficulty and hardship than I will ever know, my Jesus was thankful.
I don’t always follow that example. I’m not that strong. Often my thanks are given much later and from a safer distance. My friend whose daughter returned to her life last weekend is thankful now. She is able to look over the expanse of time and see the growth that occurred even in and through the pain. But 11 years ago? We humans don’t usually think in terms of forever, but in terms of the moment – a day, a week, a month at a time — complaining that there is never time enough. Gratitude means we are to make the momentary eternal by using what we have been given to the best of our abilities here, today, in service of love for others. There is no best and no worst hour. There is only now. We must choose how we will view the now and what we will do with it.
I am grateful this because I believe that Spirit is with us in the midst of the pain and the hardship and the struggle. I believe that we are never alone even in the darkest hours of our life. And I know that the Divine is strong enough to support and strengthen me when I can no longer support myself.
We can use Jesus’ way of seeing to foster our own inner peace – not as a device to intellectually solve life’s problem or to understand why bad things happen to good people – but to be amazed by the poignant beauty in the paradoxes of life itself.
- What good things are you thankful for?
- What hardship or difficult person are you thankful for?
- Where did you feel Spirit most present in your life this past year?