10 Rules Series: Practice Gratitude

Imagine my surprise when I woke up on Saturday morning to the realization that Thanksgiving is this Thursday…

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I sort of knew it was coming. I mean, it’s on the calendar, and it does show up around this time every year…

But between our trip to the coast last week and the fact that I have not adjusted yet to this “nearly empty nest” phase of life and my general struggle with time management and planning, I just totally let it sneak up on me. I think a big part of my struggle to keep on top of holidays and significant days this year has been the lack of a school schedule to keep me on track. When I had kids in school, we had markers to keep us connected to breaks, holidays, and celebrations. Not that they didn’t sneak up on me then, but I don’t think it was quite as bad as it is now.

In any case, I know I keep saying I’m going to write more about side characters, but since this week is Thanksgiving, I thought it would be more appropriate to write about one of my rules for this year–Rule #9: Practice Gratitude.

Buckle up, Buttercup, because this one will get Jesus-y.

Why I Wrote This Rule

This is an easy rule to explain: I wrote it because I wanted to learn how to practice gratitude.

I think I’ve written before about how I have trouble with happiness and contentment. I am not, by nature, a joyful person, nor am I particularly optimistic. These traits cause my husband no end of grief. He has a generally happy and optimistic outlook on life and doesn’t bother to ruminate too deeply on the kinds of things that keep me up at 2:00 a.m. Maybe this is part of what attracted me to him–this weird happiness.

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As I’ve read more about building good habits and creating a balanced life over the last few years, I’ve realized that a whole lot of the gurus mention that people who are grateful tend to be happier, have better mental health overall, enjoy greater success, and so on. I know that thankfulness is a profoundly biblical principle–one found in both the Old and New Testaments–and I have not been practicing it well.

So because I can’t do anything without ruminating on it for months on end, I’ve been trying to do big and small things to actively be more thankful in my life.

And what I’ve discovered is that practicing gratitude is a lot more complicated–and a lot more rewarding–than I ever thought.

The Easy Bits

For years, every November, someone on Facebook or some other platform would start doing “30 days of gratitude.” Even people who didn’t post every day in November seemed to post a lot about thankfulness.

I will be candid here: I always found those posts saccharine and superficial.

I’m a terrible person.

The thing is… a lot of those posts–in fact, probably most of those posts–were about material things or family members. I am not saying it’s wrong to be thankful for that stuff. It is absolutely right to be thankful for all of these things. And I believe with all my heart that all of those posts were 100% sincere.

But I just always felt like those things were too easy.

I’ve been trying to write down at least two things I’m thankful for every day, and I’ve hit a lot of days this year (not all). When I’m on a roll and keeping up with this practice, I struggle to find something new every day. How many times can I say I’m grateful for coffee, books, yarn, pets, kids, best friend, husband, parents, etc.? In some sense, there is no upper limit–I can say I’m thankful for those every day. But I sort of want to be as expansive in my gratitude as possible, and falling back on these obvious things feels a little like cheating.

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So instead of only trying to think of something new every day, I’ve also challenged myself to be actively grateful as I go about my day. When I see something beautiful, when I have a positive encounter with another human, when something goes right with the writing or the marketing, I try to pause and recognize it internally–to say to myself (and yes, to God), “I am grateful for that. Thank you for giving me that.”

I think this little tweak has helped me see more positive things in the world, and it’s starting to allow me that expansiveness that I want in my gratitude. It’s also more of a “practice,” I think–something that requires intention and thought.

But the biggest thing is that I think this new habit has allowed me to look at the hard things differently–and this is where things get even more Jesus-y.

The Hard Things

As I’ve pondered the things I’m grateful for, I’ve naturally turned a lot to certain tenets of the Christian faith. I am thankful for general revelation–for the gift of this amazing world that turns in its ordered way and provides all that we need for life. I am thankful for redemption, certainly, knowing that I am not deserving of anything, but that I am rescued from the wages of sin by the grace and mercy of God through the blood of Jesus. I am thankful that God’s promises are true, that he who promised is faithful to bring about his purposes and will.

But those are sort of easy spiritual things, the equivalent of being thankful for coffee, yarn, and books.

For the last few months, I’ve been hovering in the New Testament in my daily reading. I finished another full read-through a while back, but I decided that I needed to just camp for a bit in the Gospels and the epistles to the early church.

And here’s the thing about all those messages to the early church… They keep extoling gratitude in the midst of just the worst, most brutal persecution people could suffer. The early believers knew that their livelihoods, safety, and lives were on the line if they followed Christ–and they did it anyway.

But not only did they follow Christ–they were thankful for the persecution.

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I think the best example of this attitude is the whole book of Philippians. Here’s the synopsis from BibleGateway.com:

The most joyous book in the Bible comes from the pen of the author chained to a Roman guard. The NIV Student Bible says many scholars believe Paul wrote Philippians in Rome just about the time Nero began feeding Christians to ravenous lions and burning them as torches to illuminate his banquets. In such an environment, how could joy possibly thrive? Paul points to Jesus’ death to show that God can take even the darkest moment in history and turn it into good. The cross and Jesus’ triumph over death prove that nothing is powerful enough to stamp out a reason for joy “in the Lord,” as Paul says.

Let that sink in for just a minute.

Here’s a man who was chained to a Roman guard and knew that his life would likely end in martyrdom (and indeed, it did), and all he can talk about in this letter to the Philippians is how much joy he has in his circumstances because the only important thing is that Christ is being preached.

And I whine if I’m out of half and half for my coffee.

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Thankfulness in Pain

You may be asking yourself right now, “Okay, Amy, but what is your point? You aren’t about to be fed to the lions for practicing Christianity.”

Fair enough. I am well aware that my life in the United States of the 21st Century is quite different than the Apostle Paul’s life. While it’s true that I have seen assaults on religious freedom in recent years, I’ve also seen those cases work their way through the court system. In America, we know we have a First Amendment and a whole body of law to protect us from the kinds of assaults the early believers had (usually).

But I can still learn a lot about gratitude from these early believers.

You can’t be human and get to the age of 54 without experiencing some real pain in your life. I have experienced real pain. I have childhood pains that have helped shape who I am today. My family has experienced some deep hurts over the last several years. And I certainly have to admit that I have caused myself a certain amount of pain through bad decisions over the years.

So the challenge of the early church is–can you be thankful for those things?

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Kiss the Waves

One of my favorite quotes from the great preacher Charles Spurgeon is, “I have learned to kiss the waves that throw me up against the Rock of Ages.” I was reminded of this quote last week when we were at the coast. The Oregon Coast is very rocky and has many dramatic features where the waves crash and spout and put on a heckuva show. Here are just a couple of examples:

The thing about coastlines is that they will, eventually, erode.

The Rock of Ages never does.

It is hard–beyond hard–to be thankful for bad things that happen. And if bad things happen through absolutely no fault of my own–say, I’m a victim of a crime, a natural disaster, or a corporate layoff–I don’t have to say “thank you” to the heavens (though I do believe it’s possible to eventually get to that point).

But I can take a posture of humility that allows those bad things to shape something good. I can be grateful that the bad things draw me closer to Jesus, that they bring new people into my life, that they shape greater empathy and compassion in my own heart and spirit, that I find new ways to express myself in my writing, that I develop resilience through difficulty…

On and on.

It is hard to be thankful for hard things, but I think this is where the practice of gratitude naturally leads. It’s more than just being thankful for a full pantry (though that is, indeed, something to be thankful for). It’s learning to actively and intentionally allow hard things to shape us into something better. And I don’t think this is something exclusive to Christians; anyone can practice that depth of gratitude. But I do think Christians are called to that depth of gratitude.

We can kiss the waves of adversity and know that the Rock we’re thrown against will not erode or fall away.

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So this week, yes, I am grateful for a full pantry, four kids, a daughter-in-law, a couple of grandkids, a best friend, a house, a car, and all of those other things. I am grateful for clients, for my threes of fans, and for progress in marketing both sides of my writing business this year. And as always, I’m grateful for coffee, wine, yarn, half and half, a supply of books I will never finish reading, and maybe even–dare I say?–a modicum of talent.

But I am also grateful for the hard things that have shaped me into what I am today. I am not done growing–far, far from it! Sanctification is a long-term project, and I’m a stubborn woman. I suspect Jesus will be working on me for a few more decades, at least.

And for that, I am grateful.

 

 

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