By Jeff Mallinson –
Cicero once said: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all the others.” St. Paul said that the greatest of the theological virtues is love (1 Cor. 13:13). These two sentiments need not cause a conflict between love and gratitude since, as Luther taught, gratitude flows from our encounter with the Good News, the promises of Christ, and love is the way our gratitude becomes expressed in daily life. Moreover, as my colleague and psychologist Dr. John Lu mentioned on an older , the process of listing the things for which we are thankful is one of the best ways to increase our happiness. Nonetheless, the platitude “count your blessings” works best when we go beyond simply saying or thinking we are thankful for the many things that come our way in this life. It involves seeing all of our lives in light of our promised last chapter.
This Thanksgiving, don’t take shortcuts when counting your blessings. Don’t just be thankful for the things that have been easy. Be thankful for things that have been hard. This takes serious reflection. Perhaps St. Irenaeus, a second-century theologian, can be of service in this exercise. One of the ideas he explored was the way in which the work of Christ recapitulates the human story. Recapitulation means rechaptering. In Latin, caput literally means “head,” but it also can mean a chapter heading. God doesn’t go back and change the content of our past experiences, but he is masterful when it comes to providing new meaning to those past experiences, including our traumas. Drawing from classical rhetoric, Ephesians 1:7-10, and Paul’s description of Jesus as the “new Adam” in Romans 5:12-18, Irenaeus spoke of the work of Christ as a retracing of our failed steps. Adam fell in the Garden of Eden, Jesus was faithful in the Garden of Gethsemane. Adam encountered spiritual death in the Garden of Eden, Jesus conquered death, which the angels announced at the Garden Tomb. Humans were barred from the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22) in Eden, but Jesus died on a dogwood tree to become—himself—the life-giving fruit, and welcome us back to communion with Yahweh. In other words, in God’s consummation of things, he takes the reigns of the story, and provides new, redemptive meaning to all the mess we’ve made of the narrative. He retraces our steps, and does it all right. In unity with Christ, we are made heirs to the riches of his successful journey.
How does this relate to us on Thanksgiving? We sometimes want to be thankful only for the pleasant parts of our personal narratives. We sometimes resist being thankful for individuals in our lives who have been blessings to us, but have also been flawed, incomplete, and caused us harm. For , Dan and I conducted personal thought experiments. We mentioned three examples of people in our lives (not immediate family) to whom we owe gratitude. The folks we mentioned on the show weren’t hard to enumerate, with one exception. The third of Dan’s individuals was a person with whom he had a falling out. They no longer talk. The dude fired him. There’s even some bad blood between this dude and some of the other people for whom Dan is incredibly thankful. And yet, he had to conclude, that without this person, he wouldn’t be where he is today. This guy was instrumental in his conversion to Christianity, his interest in theology, and his work in the church. There wouldn’t be a podcast without him.
I only mention this particular situation because I had to do the same thing, though I couldn’t tell the stories involved for reasons of discretion and confidentiality. But it was important and similar. As I started reflecting on people and circumstances in my past, I started not to become grateful but resentful. Every time a person came to mind for whom I should be grateful, I also started to think of ways in which they mistreated me, let me down, or turned out to be flawed in their own ways. But then the wise Bethanne van Voorhis challenged me (I was watching football at the van Voorhis home) not to wallow in resentment. She was right. I knew better. Gratitude isn’t about listing the perfect people in our lives. It is about remembering the enriching aspects of the people we’ve encountered. This is hard. But the perspective of Christ makes this possible.
Try this: list the major chapters in your life up to this point. Give them simple titles. For me, one chapter might be “1986: The Year a Crazy Christian School Broke My Spirit.” Another might be, “2008: The Year I Lost My House Because I Changed Jobs During the Housing Bust.” Note that we have a psychological tendency to remember the painful stuff and forget about the positive moments. But now, consider two more chapters: “AD 33: The Year Christ Flipped the Cosmic Script” and “The Last Chapter: When Death Was No More”. The last book of the biblical cannon describes the last chapter of the universal narrative:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Now, do you believe this? Really? It’s a bold claim. It sounds naively optimistic. It seems too good to be true. But what if it is true. Well, that would change everything. If the last chapter is beautiful, it redeems all the old ugliness. If the last chapter recovers the truth about our humanity, it floods out the resentment of all the inhumanity we humans inflict upon each other. If the last chapter is good, it gives the bad new meaning. We can understand this in a good novel. If the story has a happy ending, then the struggles in the middle chapters, while not things we celebrate, become part of the richness.
It is hard to write or speak this, because some will think I’m after the theology of glory offered by well-meaning Christian counselors (like Job’s counselors) who want to try and find a silver lining in all of life’s horrors. That’s not what I’m talking about. It isn’t that we must call evil good. It’s that God is powerful enough to turn bad into good. It’s that, because the last chapter is so wonderful that the light is brilliant enough to flood our darkness with light.
Because of this, I truly am able to retitle chapters from my own past. “1986: The Year I Found a Sense of Purpose—To Study Theology and Liberate the Spiritually Wounded.” And, “2008: The Year I Reconnected with Lutheran Higher Education.” The title change makes all the difference. These titles only work, however, if the last chapter is as promised. If there’s nothing beyond this mortal coil, then who cares what I sensed in grade school, and who cares about Lutheran thought? But I, friends, am confident that all manner of things shall be well in the end. Perhaps, at the great Thanksgiving/Wedding Supper of the Lamb, we will clink our glasses and reflect fondly on the weird twists and turns of this life. In the meantime: a toast to you and those you love. May you let go of all resentment and cling fast to the blessings you’ve received. May you see your life in the light the perspective of the beatific vision for which we hope, in the Last Chapter.
—The Wayfaring Stranger