Giving Thanks in Thankless Times

A Guide for Reflection & Conversation

Editors Note: Each month, Bearings contributors offer insights on a key theme in the practice of life-as-ministry. As the final installment in the issue, The BTS Center’s scholar-in-residence Pamela Shellberg, PhD reflects on the articles in the issue and poses questions for further reflection by Bearings readers and the communities in which life-as-ministry plays out for them.


This month Bearings brought together three contributions in response to the challenge of “giving thanks in thankless times.” Each writer views gratitude through a distinct lens: as a way into healing, as an act of resistance, and as a power for transformation. But all end up talking about, in some way, the relationship between gratitude and disciplines or practices. And they all illuminate how gratitude funds hope, and how hope turns out to be the light that helps people navigate suffering and find purpose in life’s tragedies. As G. Jeffrey MacDonald suggests, “Perhaps the gratitude-enhancing practices of deeply wounded people can be a trove of wisdom from a bruised and bruising world.”

What follows are summaries of key ideas offered by each author, with questions for further reflection and conversation with your family, friends, and faith community.

JEFF MACDONALD: “PRACTICING GRATITUDE AS HEALING”

MacDonald identifies three “paradoxical” practices that build up gratitude and resiliency. Survivors of tragic events, he says,

(1.) turn outward,

(2.) give of themselves, and

(3.) understand their wounds as wellsprings of benefit for others.

Journalist and pastor Jeff MacDonald writes about the experiences that seem more likely to render people utterly incapacitated rather than able to make any gesture of gratitude—gun violen

ce, terrorism, natural disasters, the death of children, the trauma of war, and more.

He asks how it is that people who have suffered these circumstances ever come to feel grateful for anything again, which raises important questions for all of us:

• What has ever caused you to believe that there was nothing for which you could ever again muster gratitude?
• When have you been surprised at your own healing and resiliency?

MacDonald identifies three “paradoxical” practices that build up gratitude and resiliency. Survivors of tragic events, he says, (1.) turn outward, (2.) give of themselves, and (3.) understand their wounds as wellsprings of benefit for others.

• In what ways does MacDonald rightly identify these practices as paradoxical? What makes them so?
• Is it your experience that practices of service “work” in the way MacDonald describes? How would you explain how and/or why it does?

Finally, MacDonald refers to the work of Robert Neimeyer, a psychologist studying healing after murders, who says that people who hold a religious value or belief or who are engaged in a religious community are more likely to experience post-traumatic growth. Neimeyer has found that this is also true of people who’ve suffered a child’s death or a loved one’s violent death.

• What might account for the fact that people who suffer the most tragic of losses and those who hold a religious belief are among the groups that experience the greatest degrees of post-traumatic growth? What might those people hold in

 common that accounts for their more significant measures of growth and healing?

RON CULMER: “RADICAL GRATITUDE AS RESISTANCE

The Reverend Ron Culmer opens his piece by describing all the ways his life, his heart, his soul are disturbed by the political, economic, and social realities of our days. He shares deep laments and offers searing critiques. Culmer laments the deportation fears of immigrants in the U.S. today, the anxieties of people with severe or chronic health conditions over healthcare, the unmet needs of those without adequate food, the trauma many women experience from gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and the challenges that continue to face LGBTQ people seeking equality in housing and employment.

• Which of the things that are disturbances to him are also disturbing you?
• How are you reacting and responding?

What makes gratitude “radical”?

Culmer’s tone could almost be heard as one of despair until he says, “Rather than casting another millstone of anger and despair and flinging it to drown in the sea of dystopia, I instead turn to God for help, hope, and perception.” That is to say, he makes a decision, he makes a choice about his response. He engages in gratitude as an act of “radical resistance.”

• What makes gratitude “radical”?
• What is required of you, of anyone, to be able to make the choice to resist the millstone of anger and despair? Is it always a matter a choice?
• How does Culmer prepare to respond with resistance? How do you prepare?

Culmer says he turns to God, in these times of disturbance, for three things that are generative of gratitude:

1. Help, because the disturbances are too much for one to bear on one’s own
2. Hope, because hope is a reality that proceeds forward in spite of the current outlook
3. Perception, because people do not perceive the impact they are making

• How do you understand hope, help, and perception to be generative of gratitude?

DARLEEN PRYDS: “FINDING DEEP GRATITUDE IN ORDINARY TIME”

What do you do to show up to “what is” in your life?

Darleen Pryds, spirituality professor and hospice volunteer, says that people facing the end of life have brought about her spiritual transformation by living “each day until they died, nothing special and deeply special at the same time.” She pursues two practices of presence and gratitude in her hospice work that shetries to pursue in all dimensions of her life: taking time to prepare and showing up to be fully present to “what is.”

• What do you do to show up to “what is” in your life?
• How does the reality that time doesn’t last change perception of time?
• How can those who are not at the literal end of life live with that kind of heightened attention?
• How are the experiences of gratitude in the ordinary time of hospice shifts and gratitude after violent and tragic deaths related? How do these different circumstances both open to gratitude?

Pryds says that in her hospice shifts she experiences church, that there is very little dogma, and that she’s done with trying to find presence, contemplation, and gratitude in the seasons of the church.

• It seems like there are some lessons here for the church. What can or should the church be learning from people who are at the end of life or the people who care for them?

• Liturgies are supposed to make us aware of other dimensions of time and reality, to bring us closer to the “thin places.” What are the implications of Pryds’s essays for liturgical practice, specifically?

REFLECTING ON GIVING THANKS IN THANKLESS TIMES

Gratitude is an active process of transformation, an ongoing practice of hope and purpose. Gratitude happens in the turn to God in a radical act of resistance. It happens in taking time to prepare, in showing up to be fully present to what is.

Simone Weil wrote that, “Love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude.”

• How do the three articles amplify this statement?

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Christians at Rome, encouraged the community “to not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you might discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” [Romans 12:22].

• What do any of the three articles amplify in this verse from Romans?

The contributors to this series have all highlighted the relationship between practices, or habits of mind, and gratitude. According to them, gratitude is an active process of transformation, an ongoing practice of hope and purpose. Gratitude happens in the turn to God in a radical act of resistance. It happens in taking time to prepare, in showing up to be fully present to what is.

• Is there one that feels closest to your experience?
• How do you articulate the relationship between gratitude and spiritual disciplines or practices?
• How do you practice gratitude?

Gratitude has been associated, in this series, with many other dimensions of life: healing, joy, resilience, hope, presence, resistance, action, purpose, transformation

• What is the nature of gratitude’s power for you in these dimensions?

Cover photo: Simon Maage, “Signs of Gratitude.” (August 24th, 2017).  Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

 

Pamela Shellberg

Dr. Pamela Shellberg is the Scholar-in-Residence at The BTS Center, crafting “Course Corrections,” a program for imaginatively responding to changes in the church and in life based on the biblical template of Paul’s life and writings. During the 2015-16 academic year, Pam was the visiting professor of New Testament studies at Andover Newton Theological School, jointly appointed by ANTS and The BTS Center. She is the author of Cleansed Lepers, Cleansed Hearts: Purity and Healing in Luke-Acts (Fortress Press, 2015). A teacher in schools for lay ministry in the Maine Conference of the UCC and the New England Synod of the ELCA, she thinks and writes about the metaphors in poetry, art, and music as lenses for bible reading and as tools for interpretation. Pam may be reached via e-mail.

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