“I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise.” Psalm 138:1
Last week, shortly after I posted my theme for 2016, I had a younger woman ask me, “How do you do that? How do fill your heart with gratitude?” It was not entirely incredulous, I think she was just asking for some practical advice on how to rid our lives of discontentment. I generally figure for every person who asks a question out loud, there are probably a few more silently wondering the same thing, so I decided I’d take a minute and explain a few things I find helpful in practicing gratitude.
I hope this is helpful… It’s a small example, but small discontentments grow if we don’t displace them. Let me know if you have had similar experiences, have additional advice, or if you need help finding the gratitude in a situation.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
It happened faster than anyone was prepared for. My husband, our three-month-old, and I were lingering over coffee at one of the campsites we were sharing with several other families for the weekend. We were enjoying being in the woods with a group that has been going on this annual camping trip for more than a decade now. About two dozen children, including our two older children played in groups either in the woods or on the playground.
Suddenly, rising above our conversation, the bird noises, and the squeals of happy children, was a sound quite unlike any I’ve ever heard. It was a scream, a child’s scream. It seemed to go on and on. Instead of the usual dissolving into sobs, it grew louder, more urgent, and was soon joined by the same scream from other children. I suddenly understood fully why such a sound is described as ‘blood curdling.’
As fast as Melissa, another mother in the group, could say “Adults. That’s a cry adults need to go to!” there were about ten of us on our feet, trying both to move toward the sound and to figure out who the screams belonged to.
As the sound persisted,I thought “Someone in this group is going home without a child.” I wasn’t sure what mess we were about to behold, but I pictured blood, or lost limbs, or small bodies being crushed. Or all of the above.
One of the teenage girls was already holding our baby, so I was able to start running, but I was nowhere near as fast as the men in the group. Before I could even reach the trail, they were there, and helping the three children who were being attacked by a huge nest of yellow jackets.
My six-year-old , frozen in fear, was getting the worst of it. It was her piercing scream that had first punctured the air. Faster than it seemed possible, our friend Clayton had gotten to her, leaping over a creek and snatching her from near the nest. He literally threw my sturdy, 63-pound child back over the creek to my husband. They moved onto the trail, with my older daughter and another little girl. I got there as they were stripping her down and rushing her further away from the nest. My older daughter and her friend were being attended to by a couple of other people. It was now that I realized it was some sort of stinging insects, and I realized I was completely helpless to do anything to help my children—I tested allergic to them in my teens, and I’m supposed to carry an Epipen for it.
In another instant, as the rush to get the girls away from the nest continued, the remaining insects began to swarm. I saw a black cloud some yards away, and heard the buzzing of what had to be thousands of angry yellow jackets. “They’re swarming!” someone yelled. “Get to the tents!” I saw that another friend had the baby, and was headed away from the bugs, so I headed for our tent. As I approached it, our oldest, who had already gone to take cover there, came shrieking out of it. She ran to me, and I could see that she was still covered in yellow jackets. They were on her shorts, her shirt, and in her very long hair. “Mommy! Mommy!!!!!!” she cried. My instinct was to help her, but I also was terrified of being stung myself. Another dad in the group was nearby and I shouted at him “Jared! Help her! Take off her clothes! I’m sorry, I’m allergic!” He stripped her down and I got inside the nearby tent where someone had taken the baby.
Things got calmer after that. From inside the tent, I could see my husband and some of the others taking care of both our girls. I could hear the anguished wails of my middle daughter. They stopped counting her stings at thirty. My husband had about ten; my oldest had eight. The other little girl had two or three. Some of the other adults had five or so. I could do nothing but listen and ache to be near them.
When it finally seemed safe to get out of the tents, I went to them. It was around then that someone mentioned Clayton. I didn’t realize until this point that he had gone straight into the area of the nest to get the children out. “How is he?” I asked.
“Pretty bad,” they said. “He’s in the shower. They got him pretty bad.”
Pretty bad, indeed. My six-year-old wanted to see him as soon as possible to thank him. At first, he seemed okay, and felt better after his shower. But as the minutes passed, he started to swell. He developed welts in places he wasn’t stung. The nurse in the group looked distressed, and soon sent him and his wife off to town to go to the ER. We prayed and waited to hear word.
Finally his wife texted the only one of us who had cell service, that he was hooked up to an IV and was getting steroids. He arrived back at camp several hours later, less puffy but clearly drained. By this point, the children he had helped were a little itchy and swollen, but after some Benadryl, also ready to eat burgers and s’mores and settle in for another night of camping.
I was, and still am, in a place of extraordinary gratitude to God for watching over our children that day, for giving them Clayton and the other adults who flew to their rescue, and for sparing them from any long term damage, or worse. I also have been pondering since shortly after that incident, the question of, how do you adequately thank someone who saves your child’s life? If she’d continued to be the target of an attack that vicious, it’s entirely possible that we’d be planning a funeral today, and not her birthday party.
The bottom line is, nothing seems enough. Clayton, a father of four himself, dashed in to a very dangerous situation to save a child who was helpless in the face of extreme danger. When he got to her, she was frozen, mouth agape, screaming, while being stung repeatedly. Did you know yellow jackets leave a scent on the mark of their fury, signaling that others should attack there, too? She needed rescue. She needed it fast and she needed it desperately. He put his own well-being aside to help a small, weak, human, and ended up taking the brunt of the pain in return.
I was not the direct recipient of the saving in this case, but I can’t shake the feeling of helplessness that I experienced in not being able to aide my own children. And nothing—except our condition outside of Christ— compares to how truly helpless the children were to get out of danger. They couldn’t save themselves. But someone paid a price to get them out of harms way.
“He saw me plunged in deep distress
And flew to my relief;
For me He bore the shameful cross
And carried all my grief,
And carried all my grief.”
In the stillness of the nights since then, as I nurse the smallest of my children, those words from “Majestic Sweetness” have resounded in my head. My savior saw the deep distress I was—we are— in without him. He recognized my complete inability to save myself from my sin, from my own stumbling ways, and from the attacks of the devil. And before I even realized I needed him, he gave up Heaven to come down and save me from it, at the cost of his own life. I can have only reaction—I have been completely humbled by my Lord's sacrifice, and I am forever grateful.
Saturday night, knowing that Clayton had spent the day in the hospital and that he had paid his own very steep price to help her, I noticed that my daughter could hardy look him in the eye. She's a smart kid, and I think she knew to a degree what he had done to help her. And she knows she can’t do anything to help him back. But I know she is grateful, as am I, and that we always will be.
So much more I must show my gratitude and service to the one who paid the ultimate price for my distress. When my soul is in danger, when I am under attack, he is there for me. Always. And for that, I am eternally humbled, and grateful, and ready to serve.
“Since from His bounty I receive
Such proofs of love divine,
Had I a thousand hearts to give,
Lord, they should all be Thine,
Lord, they should all be Thine.”
October is the craziest month of our year, as we come off birthday season in our house (3 of the four of us have birthdays within 13 days of each other) and head into a quieter time before Thanksgiving. This year especially, I was looking forward to it.
But the last three weeks have proven to be anything but quiet. We made a rapid-fire (but not rash) decision to try and sell our house and move into something else. I won't go into the trigger incident for the move. I will say the goal is to be in a house that has better space for our guests and that is closer to church.
That means that it fell (mostly) on me to declutter and clean the house and make it ready for house-shoppers to come through and peruse what our little home has to offer them. I have boxed and cleaned, cleaned and boxed, and moved furniture out and in to make the house look...different. About half of our belongings are now either in the trash, at a thrift store, on Craiglist (printer/scanner anyone?) or in a storage space that we rented, and the house is starting to come together as a sell-able product.
That makes it sound like it's been easy, right? And yet, it has been an extremely humbling experience. I have, for a long time, clung to the idea that since I have a small house, I must be a minimalist, free from the constraints of materialism and the longing of having All The Things.
But I've come to realize that I was not practicing what I thought I was practicing. In many ways, we continued to accumulate things when we should not have. When The Stuff got to be more than we could handle, sure, I'd haul some of it to Goodwill, but there have also been a lot of trips to Ikea to buy Stylish Swedish Vertical Storage to fit The Stuff into the small space.
I wish I could say that in the process of the packing that I decluttered more than I did, but in truth some of those things won't be clutter if we have the space to house them in the new place--though I intend to do another round of decluttering once we move, if the Lord is willing that we do so.
In the meantime, and especially with the Season of Marketing and Advertising upon us, I have been giving a lot of thought to The Stuff. And how to truly be free of any unproductive attachment to it. Here's what I plan to do to stay on the right path as we move forward--whether the Lord blesses us with more space or not.
1. Take care of what I do have. This has been a truly convicting point for me, and perhaps the most humbling part of the whole experience. I have found several things that I have really enjoyed, and perhaps have even used a lot, that are no longer as desirable to me simply because I didn't care for them as well as I should have. I have been instructed to be a good steward of what I have (1 Pet. 4:10). Realizing the many ways I have failed in that has been disturbing to me, and I am newly resolved to discontinue that trend! The good news: since I am determined to have less stuff, that will be less stuff to clean and maintain. More care to lavish on what I really do enjoy.
2. Use what I have. My wedding shoes--the ones I lovingly had color-matched to my dress and that were a real splurge for my parents, are in the trash as of this week. They did not hold up well, tucked away in their box in the top of the hall closet. I found them discolored and unsightly, and realized that even if they still looked nice, the style is far too youthful for me now. Wouldn't it have been nice to wear them a time or two in the years just following the wedding? They got ruined anyway, at least I could've used them. I have been far too guilty of not using my 'nice things.' Well, what's the point of having them if you're not going to use them? How will I tell the children stories of the china my grandmother gave me if they never see it? At some point, I'm not going to have it anyway--it will either get lost or broken or stolen or I'll die. So... why not use it and enjoy it? I remember reading Alice Walker's short story Everyday Use years ago, and being touched by it--but not always putting it into practice, that using important things is important and good.
3. Use my things to serve. This is the most productive way to do #2. If you look at 1 Pet. 4, there is a clear link between stewardship and serving. We aren't given things (physical or spiritual) to just sit around and stare at them--or even worse--to put them in the closet! It can look different depending on your interests, who you know, and what people need. Maybe it's using your dishes to have people over. Maybe it's using a casserole pan to make a meal for someone. Maybe it's letting someone borrow your outdoor gear because they want to try out camping without committing to buying a slew of stuff just yet. My things, while now clutter to me, can be a blessing to someone else. When I have clothes that are no longer my style or are too youthful for me, there may be someone else out there who will love it. My random small appliances may have been on someone else's "want" list for a while. Getting a freebie from someone else is such a nice surprise, and giving one to someone means both of us win. Just don't be offended if they don't take it--all you can do is offer!
4. One thing in, one thing out. When you do find that you need to bring something into your home, this is a great rule to follow. I'll warn you though-- this one is hard! We "need" the new thing, but have a tough time letting go of the old. But it is a good practice in just how much we need it, if we already have something we don't want to let go of. Going forward, I intend to decide just what I will let go of BEFORE I buy the new thing.
5. If it hasn't been used in a year, let it go. Oof, this one is hard for me. I always want to fudge and make it two--or even three--years, but the one year rule is solid. If it's important to you, you'll use it. If it's not, it's clutter.
Alright, I'm off now to clean the newly-discovered surfaces in the house in preparation for family and Thanksgiving. I have so much to be thankful for--including my newly humbled spirit. Here's to being a better steward of all the many, many blessings I have been given.
The time when I’m making dinner can be a vulnerable time for me, thought-wise. It’s often the first time after the events of the day where I am somewhat alone—the kids usually play and it’s just me and my thoughts while I cook. Often the activities of the day have left me somewhat tired and instead of having time to process the day I’m doing more work. Now, I love to cook, but this just seems to be a time where I’m able to be in my head, and that’s not always good.
Last night I got to thinking about Mary and how much I will miss her. And there was that jolt of “I can’t believe she’s gone,” which is so often followed by what seems like an almost electrical jolt of sadness to my system. It is the kind of thing that can sometimes be a diving board straight into despair.
But last night, just as I had that thought, it was hijacked by this most wonderful realization: “I am so thankful I got to know her.” Now, Mary knew a lot of people. A LOT. And because she loved people in general and because she wanted to serve God and them, I’d say she knew well many more people than most folks do. But in the grand scheme of the world, there are so many more people who didn’t get to know her. BUT I DID. And I am just so thankful that God allowed me some time with her. And it gave me a totally different perspective on what to think about during the many times she will be crossing my mind. “I miss her, but thank you, Lord, for letting me know her even just a little bit. I won’t waste that gift.”
I like to think I’m a pretty grateful person, but this was revelatory for me. For the rest of the night, I decided to consciously practice gratitude, just to see what other thoughts I could turn on their head.
I was making Breakfast-for-Dinner (yeah!), which involves my grandmother’s recipe for biscuits from scratch. I am pretty committed to cooking real food, but I gotta tell ya, cooking without convenience foods can be pretty…inconvenient. And while Breakfast-for-Dinner is pretty much the best thing in the world, I found myself looking at the bowl of flour and thinking of cleaning up bacon grease and cutting up watermelon. I felt a sigh coming on.
And then…”I’m so thankful I get to do this.” I’m so thankful I have the means to do this. That I have a husband who supports us willingly so I can have the time to do it. That he even has a job. That we have two little girls who clamor for the biscuit dough and help set the table. And on and on till the biscuits were in the oven and we were ready to eat and truly offer thanks for dinner. Grateful. I won’t waste that gift.
The other experiment came when I checked Facebook. One of the first things that came up was a picture of some people I know, having fun together. I hadn’t been invited. This is nothing new, and I don’t invite everyone I know to everything I do, nor do any of us have time to attend every gathering of every person we know every time they happen. And yet, I started to feel that feeling. Perhaps you know it? It’s the “Oh thanks Facebook for letting me know that other people are having fun together while I’m just here hanging out in my frumpy clothes with my phone” feeling. I hate discontentedness, and yet I could feel it coming on.
And then… I hijacked the thought. “I’m so thankful they got to be together.” And I meant it, too. Perhaps it was just what they needed at that time. It was certainly a group that doesn’t get to be together often. I know how that feels and it is so good! I’m thankful that they were together, and that they got to get closer. Those are all good things and frankly, how self-centered of me to be even remotely jealous. I have good times, too—a lot of them. There are times where the reality is, I am thankful not to be asked to do more things because I tend to over-commit and then get stressed out. I’m truly thankful for all of it. And I won’t waste that gift.
I intend to practice intentional gratitude again today. But going beyond gratitude, I intend to hijack as many negative thoughts as I can. We are in a war against Satan, who wants to steal our joy at every turn. This is a weapon against discontentedness and so many other joy-stealers that we are free to use, and it’s a powerful one. Strongholds: I am coming for you today.
3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
2 Corinthians 10:3-5
Encouragement Spoken Here
"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver." Proverbs 25:11