In the midst of those times when we realize that we are called to be united in the love of Christ Jesus, even in the midst of the struggles when that calling is not so easy, an attitude of thankfulness gives positive shape to the heart and mind and helps us grow in grace, love, and unity. It is not only important that we experience or do a thing. It is also important what we bring to what we experience and do. Our attitude reveals what we think of our relationship with God and each other. If we see everything as difficult and painful; generally most things will conform to that expectation and be experienced as difficult and painful. If we believe that God will make the best of everything; that, as I have experienced life, is how things generally turn out. It is the old question of whether the glass is half full or half empty. Do we expect good things or bad? Do we expect that we will grow in or relationships, or do we expect them to be a struggle against a constant pull to make things fall apart?
The call for Christians to be united in Christ’s life and love, and to be united in our relationships with all the other inhabitants of creation, is a joyful aspect of who we are made to be. Like all things, this calling means that we must bring to it all that we have as unique individuals. And, in bringing what we have, there is the dance of relationship that meets us, challenging us to discover harmonious movement that will allow us to give ourselves and to receive the bounty of the gifts brought by God through all God’s children.
When we think of ourselves as disconnected or apart from one another, the effort to express ourselves can be full of desperation. We can jockey for position, thinking that our voice will not be heard unless we compete with those around us. We can feel oppressed and overrun by others. We can feel exhausted in our effort to stay ahead of the contest and be heard. This worldview is rooted in a sense of scarcity; that some have a place in God’s house and others may arrive and discover there are no seats left for them at the feast of life. It is an idea that underlies much in our lives today. It is an idea at the foundation of our economic system. We have attached Darwinian competition to social interaction — and maybe even ideas of our relationship with the Divine. It is difficult to have an attitude of thankfulness when it is crowded out by a sense of potential doom.
Here is where the teachings of Jesus come back to us to say that our belief about God’s provision means a great deal. If we seek, we should expect to find. If we knock, we should expect the door will be opened to us. (Matthew 7:7) God has promised as much. And, what God promises we should be confident in receiving.
Unity among Christians is a promise. It will become a fact. Unity of all creation in the love of God is a promise. It will become a fact. The challenge to the Christian now is to live with a sense of confidence that God will make good on God’s promises. Living in that confidence means working towards those realities of unity and avoiding the temptation to moan and complain about how far we have to go . . . or our fear that we might not get there at all.
Jesus teaches his disciples that, whatever it is that they wish to receive, they should offer up that wish in prayer and give thanks to God for having received it already. (Mark 11:24) This is, I think, how we should approach each day in the effort to draw closer to one another and to all creation. Especially when it seems that we are at our furthest from one another, we should give thanks for the certainty that we will grow closer and truly be united in the love of God. That attitude of thanksgiving removes barbs out of our every day moments and helps us not to hinder God’s wish for us with doubt in God’s promise or in our ability to receive that promise through enactment in our lives.
Teaching in seminary, one of the things I brought into my classrooms was the need to practice this seeking after unity with one another. Before each new semester, I printed out the photos of my students. They were lined up on a grid in alphabetical order. For a long while, I would sit at my desk gazing at their pictures and praying about each person in turn and then the group together. Some of them I knew personally. Some I knew by reputation. And some of them I did not know at all. After a long while, I started putting a letter next to each name. The letters indicated the small group to which I was assigning them for the duration of the semester. As much as possible, I put together those who I thought had the least in common. If there were known conflicts between people — all the better. I separated friends. I divided every clique I could. I wanted the class to be as divided and disunited as it could be.
There were often groans when I told my students that they needed to sit with their group. I even went so far as to put friends on opposite sides of the room. Enemies, though, I brought close to hand. Sometimes there were protests. “We are graduate students. This feels like you have set up a seating chart . . . like we are children.” I smiled compassionately. “Your group will need to be together because you will be working together all throughout the semester. We don’t have time to waste rearranging chairs when your groups meet.”
The biggest howls, however, came when my students found out that all assignments were group assignments; or that they had a group component to how they would report their shorter, individual written assignments. Seldom were they thankful for all this meddling I’d done in how they liked to organize their own lives.
One of my favorite moments in teaching came about after I put together two diametrically different women (one who believed in inner spirituality and was suspicious of “activism” and one who believed in activist Christianity and was suspicious of “private religion”) together for the semester. In the early weeks of the course, they fought with one another, often engaging in point-counterpoint debates during group and class discussions. Their small group members felt irritated and down, much of the time, on account of the constant quarreling between these two students. They appealed, more than once, for the group membership to be rearranged. “What are you going to do,” I asked them, “when you are in ministry in a community and you find you have a situation like this in your church? Driving one or both of the ‘troublemakers’ out of the congregation is not likely to accomplish anything good. They might just as likely get you removed as the church’s pastor. So, how would you solve this? — How are you going to solve this situation you have in your midst right now?”
I didn’t coach the members of the group on exactly how to deal with their “problem.” I did, however, go and pray with them. I suggested that the two “enemies” pray for one another by name. They did so; at first grudgingly. In subsequent weeks, I heard group members suggest the same thing — that these two women pray for each other.
Then, well into the semester, I walked into my classroom and began to open the day’s discussions, and I heard an unexpected sound. It was laughter from the group that had been struggling together for so many weeks. In particular, I heard the two enemies laughing — a good laugh that was joined by everyone. I looked in their direction and questioned them with a tilted head.
“Don’t blame us. You’re the one who started this,” I was told. I went on.
The group was never the same. The remaining weeks that I observed them they engaged in lively and substantive discussions. There were disagreements all around. It seemed that the other members of the group had few points of commonality with either woman. There was a whole spectrum of views. But, each day we met, I heard one of the group members thanking God for having brought them together so that they could love one another and learn from one another. They thanked God that, in the love of Christ, they had all been made one.
At the end of the semester, I often have each student share what was the greatest challenge and what was the greatest learning of their time in class together. Some students speak about insights gained from things read, things said, or even the research papers they struggled to prepare. When we came to the first of the women who’d fought so hard with each other, she stood up and then motioned for her “enemy” to stand up with her as well. “My biggest struggle was that you put the two of us together. The most important thing I learned is that I love her, that I need her, and that we are better together than apart.” They both started to cry a little. The other woman said, “Of course, we still don’t agree. We emphasize different things . . . different ways of expressing the love of Christ. But I think this is because God decided the world needed someone like me — and someone like her.”
So many times in my classes, I have learned, by being taught by God and my students, that thankfulness often makes the difference in how well things work. It makes the difference in how well enemies come to be friends. It makes a difference in how much a community comes together and thrives together.
Part of the lesson is that we are not meant to wait to be thankful. Being thankful is sealed by the gift of love and unity that blooms because the seed of gratitude was planted first. It was planted in the promise of God that it would come to fruition. It was nurtured by individuals and communities living the faithfulness of their confidence in God.
It is the many examples of the coming together of enemies that makes me confident in the ability of Christians to come together with each other. Enemy love is as much for those within the church as it is for those who live lives of different spiritual callings. Maybe the strongest testimony the church can give is that it stand together in thankfulness for the love of Christ Jesus — while remaining a community of individuals and groups with differences.