Connections and Gratitude
By: The Rev. Canon Heather L. Melton, Staff Officer for the United Thank Offering
In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
The above quote was written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer while imprisoned in Germany near the end of WWII. Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and Lutheran pastor, was being held in prison for treason after participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler, for which Bonhoeffer was ultimately killed. The entire process of writing Letters and Papers from Prison relied upon individuals putting their lives at risk to bring Bonhoeffer writing supplies and to make sure his texts were delivered to those who would preserve them. In this context, gratitude was likely much clearer, as the costs were especially high for those helping him. This is why the above quote is so powerful, as it makes clear that Bonhoeffer recognized that when everything is going perfectly (or as close to perfectly as we can encounter), it is easy to assume that we achieved whatever level of security, happiness, or success on our own and overlook those that aided in our rise to that position. It is in moments of struggle that we then realize that our lives and achievements are woven tightly in with the lives of others.
For many of us, the past few months have been an opportunity to recognize that our lives, and the achievements located within our days, are extremely dependent upon others. Even now, as I write this, the success of finishing the E-News is dependent upon the gift of time to focus, which is granted to me by my family. Writing has never felt like my gift, so I need quiet and time to stare at my computer. It wasn’t until now that I realized that quiet and time were both gifts given by others, in the past by those who cared for my children while I worked, and now from my family as they care for themselves. The fact that this newsletter is in your inbox is a testament to the grace of my family and my gratitude for them. In the past, however, the quiet hours spent at my desk were not something I reflected on beyond, It’s my job to sit here and work, your job to go to school, and someone else’s job to teach and care for you while I work. Now, I can see the delicate balance of gift all of that was, and I can give thanks for that time and give thanks for the delicate balance that we now have found after a few months of sorting it out. Sometimes, it takes trials to find our way back to gratitude because gratitude always requires us to acknowledge that we cannot exist without each other, that we cannot thrive without the gifts found in the creation around us and the people we share it with. It is more comfortable to think that we can do all of these things ourselves; it’s harder to acknowledge that we cannot do things alone; and it’s challenging when the structures we depend on to thrive shift, break, or disappear. But God has given us the gift of community, of being a part of humanity, to remind us that we are not alone, that we do not have to fix what is broken alone, and that we all have something to share.
Community has been something I have noticed in a more profound way over these months of staying at home. We are truly staying at home. My husband picks up groceries twice a month, other things are delivered, and we only have done a few pickups at other stores. I’ve not left the house except to go for two hikes with my family, and that felt like medicine for my soul. We do this not only to keep our family safe and healthy, but also to try to keep others who are working safe and healthy. All of the sudden, we are alone and yet connected, and that connection is fueled by gratitude. As I stay home, I find that I am even more aware of those that are out in the community. I see you all keeping those food pantries open, hustling to house the homeless in the midst of increasing restrictions, making sure that elderly folks can get groceries and aren’t lonely. I see you, and I give thanks for you.
In fact, I’ve gotten to know some of you that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Thanks to Anne at Christ Church in Charlevoix, Michigan, I was introduced by email to her awesome Episcopal church. I’m going to be honest with you, I had to Google Charlevoix because I had no idea where it was except that it had to be in the north since there was snow on the ground in the photos. I got to see members of the Sunshine Committee at work in their community, singing songs from the sidewalk and spreading cheer. (Happy 90th birthday to Henry!) I highly recommend visiting the church’s webpage to see what the faithful folks of Christ Church are up to, from delivering groceries to gathering to chat on Tuesday mornings to creating a space for people to share what they miss. (As I write this, Scarlett, age 7, is missing real time with people and wants a two-week sleepover. She’s also missing visiting the toy aisle. Scarlett, I feel you, I also miss seeing my friends and can’t wait to be with them again, and I also really miss walking the aisles at a store, but thank you for staying home and staying safe. I am grateful for you.) I am really grateful for the chance to connect with Christ Church, which I’m certain wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I am really grateful for all of you who have found your voice, ministry, and mission in your community. I am grateful for all that I am receiving because our lives are knit together in ways I didn’t know about a few months ago.
As Bonhoeffer made clear, gratitude acknowledges that when one of us rises, we all rise. When one of us sees a need and a way to address that need, then we all benefit. Over the past few months, the UTO Board also has witnessed all the amazing ways churches and church members are stepping up in the midst of the pandemic. Board members also have recognized that the shifting economic realities creating some of these opportunities to step up would also create hardships for congregations. They looked back at the grant list from the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, they prayed, and they gave thanks. The results of that work, of seeing during this difficult time our connections and the importance to give thanks for those connections, is found in the 2021 UTO Grant Focus and Criteria. Right now, if you make a thank offering to UTO for all of the good things happening in your life in spite of the pandemic, the blessing of those moments will immediately be granted to bless others who are in need because of the pandemic. The Board can only do this with your help. We need you to give as you are able, in gratitude and in recognition of the ties that bind us together, so that they can award grants twice this year to keep vital and essential outreach ministries going and help new ones start. This is perhaps the best way we can acknowledge the bits of gratitude we owe to others (factory workers, farm workers, grocery workers, healthcare workers, janitorial staffs, etc.) that we might never get to thank in person, for without them we could not accomplish simple tasks in our day. So, with that, I invite you to join me in taking a moment to give thanks and make a thank offering UTO so that the blessing of this moment, the gratitude of this moment, can go on to bless others. I am so very grateful for all of you. Please keep sharing your stories and photos with me.
One last thing…I wrote the above at the end of May and somethings have changed since then so I want to make one last connection for those that might need it regarding the important work of Racial Reconciliation. Three years ago, the UTO Board awarded the ingathering ($1.5 million) in grants for projects within the focus of Becoming Beloved Community. If you are wondering how you might address issues of racism in your community, please be sure to look at the UTO grant list or asset map to see if there is a site near you that might help you get started on the path to racial reconciliation in your community. I also commend to you our amazing Staff Officer for Racial Reconciliation, Rev. Shaneequa Brokenleg, who is here to help you (and leading our June webinar so be sure to sign up using the link in a following article). You can also visit this webpage for some amazing resources. I am also happy to help connect you further with grant sites or staff, so please reach out if you’re needing help.