Unconditional Gratitude – An Open Letter to Brian McLaren
I tend to like the dark. Truth is, I spend most of my best reading time in the dark; staying up late into the night in bed with my book in front of me and my small little reading light curled over the top of it as I envision the author standing before me speaking the words I’m reading as though we were engaged in a deep conversation. I’m not sure why but I feel like my mind is just more focused that way, more willing to engage in what the text is saying.
It was a few nights ago though that after starting Brian McLaren’s new book ‘Naked Spirituality‘ that I came across a conversation he expressed having about gratitude that deeply disturbed me. I usually am greatly inspired by his writing which is why it took me back so much when reading it. Try as I might, the discontent would not leave so I thought it best to put pen to paper and express my thoughts in an open letter here. Will McLaren every read it? I do not know but, I hope by verbalizing it we might all grow to find a deeper, more unconditional spirit of gratitude.
Dear Brian McLaren,
I remember the first time I ever picked up one of your books. I was in a Chapters book store here in SW Calgary looking for something different and came across your writing of ‘A New Kind of Christian‘. Like most other times in book stores, I began reading it in one of the aisles and found I could not put it down. Most often I like to read apologetics or theology books and it is my wife who reads the narratives and biographies but your thoughts in this book where mesmerizing! Needless to say I was finished it in 3 days and on to find the 2 follow ups after it.
Since then I have gone on to read a number of your other books including starting most recently your latest work in ‘Naked Spirituality‘. After hearing so many of your thoughts in your other books though I must admit to being a bit distressed in a story you speak of regarding a spirit of gratitude. You say,
When I was still a teenager, my friend Mary asked me, “How much money would you give to keep your eyesight if you knew you were going blind?”
“A lot,” I answered. “Everything.”
Then she asked, “What if it was your ability to walk – if you had a disease that would leave you wheelchair-bound unless you could pay for a cure. How much would you spend?”
“Everything,” I said. “I’d liquidate everything I own and go as far into debt as I could to save my mobility.”
“How about your hearing?”
“The same,” I answered.
“How about your sanity – your mental health, your intelligence?”
Finally I asked, “What’s your point?”
“I’m just trying to save you from BYTS – the Big Yellow Taxi Syndrome,” she said, evoking the newly released Joni Mitchell song. “If you were to loose any one of these abilities, you would pay millions of dollars to recover it, so each one is worth millions of dollars to you. You would rather have the ability to see or hear or move or think then tens of millions of dollars in the bank. Well,” she smiled and gave me a little shove, “you have them! Which means you’re better off than a multimillionaire! You have to know what you’ve got before it’s gone.”
I realize that we live in a world that likes to box frame such things as success, richness, blessings, normality, and capability but in honesty I can’t help but feel personally towards this story. In open truth, here I am, in a wheelchair, paralyzed as a quadriplegic after a car accident 18 years ago, reading this story, and what I’m hearing is you would rather do anything, including go as far into debt as possible, then become like me!
Why? What is wrong with me? What am I lacking that makes your abilities more valuable then my own? Should I then go and do “everything” to not be this person in a wheelchair?
Let me share a story with you which comes from an experience I had prior to the car accident that has placed me in this wheelchair and is strangely similar to your encounter under the stars. It was about a year before my life would change in such a dramatic way and like most days I was found dribbling a basketball down the street. I was always athletic competing in just about everything and being a 6 foot 210 pound 15 year old I was as invincible as you could be!
Growing up in the church I understood the concept of God but I really didn’t take the conversation seriously. Anyways, there I was, dribbling down the street towards the courts and I distinctly remember an inner voice speaking to me. It said, “How would you like to be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life?“
Now my mother had worked with people in the health care industry before who had been in wheelchairs and so it wasn’t like I wasn’t aware of some of the challenges these people face in life. Still, without really taking notice of who I was talking with and the implications of what I would say, I shot back, “Sure, I could do that! It would make me cool, unique, and I’d be some what revered!“
Let’s be honest here; I had no idea what I was talking about. More to the point, I had no idea who I was talking too! Looking back now I can honestly say that I know I was talking with God that day and he was preparing me for what was going to become very shortly, a new projection to the pilgrimage of my life. Still, what was I looking for here? What was the deeper desire? Maybe even, what would make me grateful to be who God created me to be?!
Let’s look at it from the perspective of the secret vision of Jesus. (Thought you might like that term ) Jesus’ disciples loved asking questions and they were constantly asking him about the “why’s” in life. One time they were walking on the streets of Jerusalem and they came across a blind man begging on the side of the street. His followers turned to him and said, “Teacher, why is this man born blind and disabled since birth? Is it because he himself has displeased God or did his parents offend God?” (John 9:2)
Jesus looked at them and answered, “It is neither because God is displeased in this man or offended by his parents. It is so that he can do the incredible works of God through being who he was created to be!” (John 9:3) Blindness was seen by Jesus not as a lacking or deficiency but rather a personification of God given character and identity. This man was special, unique, and cool because of who God made him to be!
I have been in a wheelchair for many years now and gained much more wisdom and appreciation for the gifts God has placed in my life because of the wheelchair I live in. As such I must admit to recognizing that you probably are writing this false understanding of gratitude without realizing the danger nor damage this sense of false gratitude can create. But, we must see beyond the world’s sense of segregationalized and marginalized gratitude. Our eyes must be blinded by the glory of the cross which drives gratitude straight to the hearts of the segregated and marginalized!
I have been around some incredible people who face incredible physical and mental challenges in life and one thing that has been greatly impressed upon me is the real spirit of being able to accomplish all things through Christ’s inspiration and guidance. (Phil. 4:13) Perhaps something I am most grateful for is the encountering of Christ’s presence through such relationships and events!
We have met one time before a few years back when you came to Calgary to speak with Bob Goudzwaard on your book ‘Everything Must Change‘. After your talk I came up and shook your hand while you signed my copy of ‘A Generous Orthodoxy‘. Perhaps this is something else that must become more generous in recognition and must change in our society’s understanding of appreciation. A real spirit of gratitude is not an appreciation for what we quantify as the justifiable right in our life; but rather the physical, mental, and spiritual diversity and beauty God has placed in each one of our lives both individually and communally. Sharing those things together as equals and sharing full equity between each other despite differences; those moments are truly miraculous and filled with the glorious spirit of eternal gratitude!