Thankfulness and gratitude can, at times, be hard things to aspire to. We may wish to be thankful in all things, we may long to show gratitude for the blessings we have received, but thankfulness and gratitude may be beyond our reach or slip from our grasp. Sometimes we think that if only we change our mindset and think more positively we will be able to stir ourselves out of disappointment and pain and into thankfulness and gratitude. There is no shortage of positive-thought peddlers who would tell us that positive thinking will change the way we feel and think, and that it will even our health. Perhaps there is kernel of truth in what they sell, but why is it that in spite of our best efforts we cannot be thankful? Why is it that in spite of all our positive thinking we find the rug pulled out beneath us and realize that we are less than thankful for the trials into which we tumble?
Trials are inevitable. There is not a single one amongst us who will not know or experience significant, and even tragic, disappointment at some point in our lives. Positive thinking only masks our pain and disillusionment. Counter-intuitively, it seems to me that honesty about our disappointments is at the heart of living a life of thankfulness and gratitude. It is not that we need to be thankful about such things. Instead, let us simply be honest that we are less than immortal, that we are indeed vulnerable, fragile people, that we can be hurt, and yes, we will in turn hurt others. If we are honest about such things we will realize that they can exert an extraordinary power over us that mere “positive thinking” cannot overcome.
But recognizing the power that disappointment, pain, and brokenness have over us does not mean that in the end we allow them to shape the story of our lives. It does not mean that our narrative is to be controlled by the things that would destroy us. It does mean that we need to understand that under our own power we are tempted by the illusion that we can be victorious over such things. How many people have I loved, have you loved, that are stricken by cancer or some ravaging disease? How many have lost jobs, relationships, peace of mind, and been told by some well-meaning soul to “cheer up” or “be positive.” It’s not so easy is it?
Last fall I visited my friend Susan who was dying of cancer. She was in much pain. Her husband had just retired. There was much sadness that all their plans for a retirement together were about to evaporate. Susan told me she was keeping a journal. I asked her what she was writing about. She told me, “hope.” As it came closer to her final days and she was in palliative care, I noticed that the word “hope” had been pasted on her door. Susan had embraced something much bigger than herself. Or rather, it had embraced her.
Hope is not simply positive thinking. It is not mere optimism. Hope does not have its origins or foundations in the human heart, but rather, in the heart of God. Because of her hope in Christ, Susan did not have to deny her anguish, regret, or pain. She did not have to deny the reality about what was going to happen to her. In the midst of these things, in facing these things with brutal honesty, she held fast to the one who made her, redeemed her, and at last called her home. Hope is not something we muster up, but something God has for each of us and pours into our hearts in our weakness. Hope is the undying, eternal reality that God loves us. Hope is the truth that God seeks for us to be reconciled with each other, with his creation, and ultimately, with himself. Hope is the longing that God has for us and by his gracious gift, it becomes our longing for him. And thus, hope triumphs over the narratives of brokenness, of sinfulness, of pain, of disappointment and disillusionment. These stories, as painful as they are, will never be the last word for us, because God has the last word, and his word is Hope. I find much to be grateful for in this truth, and I am thankful to my friend Susan for reminding me of this.
Wherever you are this Harvest Thanksgiving, and whatever challenges you, my prayer is that you will know hope of God in Christ Jesus and that his story of hope for you becomes the story that shapes your life.
c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves