It is time to be thankful, not just because it is Thanksgiving week, the leaves are changing and Fall is a wonderful season. But the theme of thanksgiving seems to be continually popping up, along with the encouragement for practicing thanksgiving in many forms. Whether it is counting in a thousand ways, 40 days, or finding ways of generously being grateful, we long to be more thankful. Who wants to read a book or blog on “Becoming critical or self-absorbed in 30 days?” Unfortunately for me, it takes more like 30 seconds! I also have my own way for teaching my kids thankfulness when they were young. We would use their ten fingers to find ten things to be thankful for before they went to bed. This little act began to spill over into my sleepy head as I drifted off to sleep, when I was sitting in traffic (hopefully not so sleepy), or waiting in line. Really, I just want giving thanks to be “ordinary,” not unusual or infrequent. But why do we need to form a habit of thanksgiving, when it is drilled into most of us as a children? Who hasn’t heard or said, “Say thank you.” Or, “Did you say thank you?” Shouldn’t it be an easy, ordinary part of our life?
This past weekend I was scheduled to go on a retreat with my family as part of my job (sounds rough I know). I looked forward to being with great people, out in the woods and not cooking for a weekend. During the week of the retreat I felt out of sorts for a variety of reasons. My dear friend and neighbor of nine years moved, causing me to sob uncontrollably at times. Hours before we were to leave for the retreat I discovered that a different neighbor was not too pleased with us (or our dog) and we had arranged for this neighbor to take care of sweet Pepper over the weekend. The car was having issues. I was starting to not feel well. And there way too much on my “to do list.” I was also the emcee for one part of the weekend, which is a fun thing to do, but I needed to figure out what the time was going to look like. After the incident with the neighbor, I was about to fold and say (what I say in moments like these before I am to leave town), “I just wish I could stay home.” None of these things were life altering, but I was reminded that life is continually full of twists and turns, unexpected interruptions and uncomfortable interactions. It is more messy than neat. I am often surprised by these sorts of things, and expect something different from “life,” as if “ordinary” in life is 100% smooth sailing. How do I have ordinary thanksgiving in ordinary life?
“Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
The bible is filled with exhortations for giving thanks. Before there were 1-1000 ways of giving thanks, God gave us “thanksgiving” as a necessary and appropriate response. Like so many things, my heart needs shaping to have this kind of ordinary response– for becoming a truly thankful person. My ten fingers do help train me, but to make it ordinary (a regular, normal part of my ordinary life) I need heart change. I desire to be on a path that allows God to shape my heart continually over time. This kind of path will pull thankfulness out of my heart and onto my lips. A changing heart brings about changing lips. Here are a few perspectives that help grow an ordinary thankful heart in ordinary life:
Blessed to Bless
How do I see the blessings in life? We have been blessed and may even say, “I have been blessed. God is so good.” We may see these blessings (material wealth, good health, safety, etc.) and think God has had favor on us– He is with us. We also might think that these blessings will show others also that God is good. He shines through the “blessings.” But is God with us when the good blessings don’t “appear” to be there? Can others see God shine in us as we live through the ordinary difficulties?
As we shift our thinking to: “I am blessed to bless others” (whether I feel blessed or not), the demonstration of sharing our blessings becomes a way for others to see that God is with us. Blessed to bless shines His light. It is a beacon in the darkness. As we take time to share our time, to listen, give our abundance of clothes away instead of letting our closet hoard them, make opportunities to share Christ’s love with others, downsize and live on less, we are a blessing. We are blessed to bless. We find ourselves thankful that we have opportunities to give, to bless and be used by God. Blessing others cultivates thankfulness in our own hearts. Thanksfulness automatically springs up from our hearts.
Bringing Thankfulness out of the Shadows
In the garden center at Walmart, Evan and I were greeted by Frosty and Santa. Quickly Evan’s eyes scanned the Christmas trees, decorations and the overwhelming display of “Christmas.” Evan’s expression was of a kid who knows Christmas is just around the corner, yet he and I both knew it was October 5th. Frosty was trying to convince us that it was no longer early fall with the anticipation of cooler days and the changing of leaves, soon to be followed by Thanksgiving. No, he was hastening us towards cold days, falling snow, the buying of gifts and thoughts of Christmas. Frosty suddenly made me a little anxious– as he told me we needed to get the lights up, decorations out of the attic and be ready to shop! I know most of us despise the early Christmas decor and wish there was a universal understanding that Frosty and Santa need to stay at the North Pole a little longer. I want to enjoy the moments of fall, some hot chocolate, rainy days and the making of plans to be with family for Thanksgiving. How many days do I really need for celebrating one day out of the year?
I do think the busy culture has overshadowed “thanksgiving,” (and not just the holiday, Thanksgiving). Just as frosty tries to overshadow fall and move onto Christmas, busyness often overshadows thankfulness. We need to bring thanksgiving out of the shadows, by reducing our busy schedules. If there is a “thankful” enemy, whose job is to keep us from a thankful heart, he is doing a good job– by using primary weapons of distraction, busyness and self-absorption. Countering this attack would take some radical change. Can you imagine the retail industry changing their values for the holiday season and being rid of Black Friday? Impossible! Think how much money would be lost. For us it would feel similarly impossible. To create more time and be less busy, would recquire some radical change in possibly the reduction in hours of work or pay, rethinking the kids schedules, or having more discipline and intentionality. It would shift dramatically the way we live life. The result would be heart changing I think. Reducing busyness and freeing up our schedules cultivates thankfulness, because stopping to be thankful needs time and space for stopping.
Observing the Ordinary Details
I did make it to the retreat and decided to skip out on one of the afternoon activities and have some time alone. For me, moments alone are life-giving– having time to pause, think and observe. I brought my camera along for a closer and longer look at things. When I use my camera I have to pause. I stopped and noticed the varied colors,
As I create space in my schedule, I can create space in my mind. As I take time to notice details, I have eyes to really see. I find then, as I slow down to observe details, I cultivate thankfulness. How can I not be thankful when I see such beauty in the details of ordinary life?
Giving Thanks in Faith
Back to “ordinary” life. Why be thankful when a neighbor is rude, a friend moves or life seems unfair? It seems like there would need to be a “reason” to give thanks in “all circumstances.” It takes faith to give thanks in these ordinary life difficulties. By faith, whether we feel like it or not, we choose thanksgiving in these circumstances. Somehow, stepping out in faith changes our heart. Faith increases our faith. As we live in a feelings driven world, we say all sorts of things– “I don’t need to do this or that if I don’t feel like it.” My feelings often drive what I should or shouldn’t do. If I feel blessed, of course, I feel like giving thanks. But in ordinary life, I don’t often feel like giving thanks when things are uncomfortable. But what if God is growing me and giving me something permanent through these difficulties? Could my kindness and patience grow through my neighbor? Is God teaching me to trust Him with our finances as our car needs repairs? As things fall apart, am I running to God and finding true comfort? In the long run I want to be more like Christ– to become a person that blesses others, trusts God, and displays the fruit of the spirit. God uses these “hidden blessings” in ordinary life to grow this in me. That seems like something worth giving thanks for. The ordinary issues and pains of life actually become part of God’s grace and mercy. Thankfulness recognizes this. My feelings would tell me it is easier to wade, and then submerge myself in my feelings of complaint, hopelessess or anger– instead of walking closely with God by faith. Giving thanks by faith, changes our heart. Discovering these things as “kindnesses” in ordinary life, cultivates thanksgiving. They grow all sorts of things, not just for a moment, but for a lifetime.
The Ripple Affect of Ordinary Thanksgiving
Each of these things have a ripple affect. As we grow in these areas it changes our hearts. In turn our heart becomes more thankful. Thanks “giving” grows thanksgiving. I need practices for thankfulness, but I want it to be an ordinary part of my life– which takes heart change and time. As our hearts become more thankful, it then settles on our lips. Thankfulness becomes an ordinary part of ordinary life.