Of Gratitude and Grief
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit with some friends who live in Colorado. We spent a couple of days hiking in the beautiful San Isabel National Forest. Within this section of the Rocky Mountains are five major mountain ranges that rise from 5800 to over 14,400 feet and have the most mountain peaks above 14,000 feet. The difference in elevation affords one multiple views from different perspectives.
Starting at the tree line populated by various conifers, aspens, and cottonwoods, we climbed to the more barren alpine terrain dotted with scrub brush, alpine wildflowers, and wildlife. Reaching the ridgeline, the vistas of the valleys and trails below took on ever-new perspectives. Climbing higher gave a broader panorama, obviously, but each step taken presented ever-changing views. From my perspective, I thought I had seen everything on the trail, and yet new aspects of the horizon continually became visible.
Like hiking, life often has a way of shifting one's perspective. While on the hike, I received a text message from a concerned relative. "Was I anywhere near the shootings?" the text read. I hadn't learned yet about the horrible massacre that had occurred just hours earlier in an Aurora, Colorado theater where 12 people were killed and 58 were seriously injured. From striking beauty and the grandeur of mountain vistas to images of suburban sidewalks spattered with blood, our perspective shifted once again. Now the awe producing vistas of our hike were juxtaposed against the horror and terror of what should have been any other night at the movies in suburbia. While we had been enjoying the landscapes, others were fighting for their lives. While we laughed at marmots at play, others wept over their lost loved ones. While our feet trod lightly without a care in the world, others bore the weight of worry and fear that their loved ones, too, were among those killed. And this grievous juxtaposition of opposites occurs over and over again in contexts all around the world.
How quickly our perspectives changed. Just as our view of the landscape looked differently as we made our way along the trail, so too changed our perspective of our precarious place in the world and the brevity of life. Despite the serene beauty around us, our perspective shifted to dark and deadly forces not two hours away from where we stood. Gratitude gave way to grief over what was lost.
The jarring nature of life's rapid, often simultaneous shifts is expressed in a popular song by the Dave Matthews Band:
"Lying in the park on a beautiful day
Sunshine in the grass and the children play
Sirens passing, fire engine red
Someone's house is burning down on a day like this.
Funny the way it is, if you think about it.
Somebody's going hungry; someone else is eating out
Funny the way it is...somebody's heart is broken; it becomes your favorite song.
Funny the way it is, if you think about it
One kid walks 10 miles to school, another's dropping out
Funny the way it is...
On a soldier's last breath, his baby's being born"(1)
On one level, as the song suggests, one's perspective is dependent on where one stands. For some, the world is obstructed from view because of dense, tree-lined forests. Others sit on top of the world viewing the expansive views of grandeur from an unobstructed ridgeline. Context dictates the way in which one sees the world even as a global media presents multiple and shifting perspectives in which one is asked to stand. More poignant is the thought that grief and gratitude co-mingle every moment of life, lifting us to the highest heights and bringing us to the lowest lows of human existence.
Consequently, theologian Karl Barth once exhorted Christians to hold the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.(2) He was striving to remind them of the necessity of navigating such shifting perspectives—one firmly grounded in the world of the Scripture and one grounded in the ever-changing events of the world. Barth's concern to keep a dual perspective was not simply aroused by the tumultuous nature of the modern world. It was thoroughly grounded in a biblical concern: Jesus isn't a God for spiritual vistas and escapes, he is God on earth. God is Spirit grounded among us through ever-changing perspectives. With the creation that groans, the Spirit groans with prayers too deep for words. This God experienced the lows of grief and the heights of gratitude.
In wrestling over the application of the gospel to the obstructed world of violence and tragedy and injustice, I have often asked, what difference does the gospel make here? Is the gospel only fit for the perspective of summits in life, or does it also shape my perspective as I traverse dark trails and paths at the base? Is it a gospel that makes room for grief as well as gratitude? Questions remain, yet as the Bible suggests, the renewing perspective shaped by things above should ever enable vision for the world below.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Dave Matthews Band, "Funny the Way It Is," Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, RCA Records, 2009.
(2) Accessed from the Center for Barth Studies, www.libweb.ptsem.edu, July 31, 2012.