Thankful Anyway

I think it’s safe to say that this year is unfolding in ways none of us expected. Each New Year’s Eve—I may have told you this before—I have a tradition of doing a kind of prayerful vision board for the coming year, an exercise in opening to the blessing and adventure that God is sure to bring in the months ahead. I greatly look forward to this tradition and I begin gathering magazines with beautiful pictures over the last few week of the year. They are filled with images of things I love—beautiful gardens, lovely landscapes, photos of family, home, comfort, and joy. On New Year’s Eve after the sun sets, I light a candle and in a prayerful way begin looking slowly through the magazines, cutting out any images or words that really resonate with me. And then, taking my time, I get out my trusty glue stick and arrange all the clippings on a large sheet of paper that will go in a poster frame for the year. And it amazes me how every year—and I’ve been doing this a long time—I always have exactly the right amount of pictures and words, and they seem almost to arrange themselves in a beautiful, balanced, life-affirming view of the possible year ahead.

Some years this exercise reveals some mildly prophetic results. Like the year the images and words pointed to mindful practices—when I hadn’t really explored that on my own prior to that point. Several months into the year, someone at the hospital asked me to give a workshop on mindfulness, which led to me to do research on it and that blossomed into a number of presentations for the community. Not long after that I began facilitating a twice-a-month mindfulness group at our cancer center. Somehow what arose during my spiritual exercise pointed to something that showed up in my life in a real way during that calendar year.

When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve this year, there was no hint that the next twelve months would be significantly different from the preceding twelve. We had not yet heard of the virus and the pictures and phrases on my board reflected a kind of happy expectation about the year ahead. At the top of the board I had pasted, in big colorful letter clipped from headlines, “A Beautifully Good Day.” That served as the theme for the year, the hope and promise that each day, come what may, would be not just an average forgettable day but have something beautiful and good in it. The pictures that found their way to my 2020 board were images of happy families, dogs and cats, cozy living spaces, beautiful landscapes, greenhouses, restful spots, and more. Phrases like, “Well worth it” and “Kindness revolution” and “Love your heart” were also arranged with the photos.

Just a few weeks later, in February, we would hear stories of the spreading virus, and by the end of the month and into March, it was moving into our communities and causing great fear and alarm. For a time my quest for a “beautifully good day” was forgotten as I headed into the hospital at 6am each day—even on the weekends, for a while—to pray with the CICU staff at shift change. Soon, though, when things started to feel more manageable and began to seem to settle down, the idea and possibility of the “beautifully good day” began to come back. Even—and perhaps especially in the midst of crisis–there was much to be thankful for. Brave nurses. Kind family members. Faithful physicians. People who cared and prayed and shared what they had. God’s presence, everywhere. Goodness showed up in the hearts, minds, and actions of people, no matter how much stress and anxiety and sorrow they were carrying. In the midst of great darkness, here was an ocean of light. No matter how dark and scary it got, God was always offering something—some tiny glimmer, some flicker of hope—that said yes, fear not—it is still a beautifully good day.

Often when we think of living a thankful life, we picture a time when all our problems are solved, things are on an even keel, and we have basically what we want in life. Ah, we think. Now I can enjoy peace. Now that I’ve gotten what I’ve prayed for, I can live with a thankful heart. The gratitude becomes something we offer after all our needs are met the way we’d hoped.

But there are two things about this idea that need adjusting. The first is that gratitude is a more active and creative power than that, not reserved only for the calm space after the storm, but meant to be a claim, a creative hope, a defining focus on the one who is with us and provides in the time of trial. If we wait for things to be perfect before we start to be thankful, we may be waiting the whole rest of our lives. Because life is rarely perfect and smooth for any long stretch of time, and there will always be things outside our control that can capture our attention and steal our gratitude if we’re not careful. The second thing is that when we wait for life to be right before we begin to practice gratitude, we miss the power that God gives us in the moment, right where we need it, when we remember he is with us, providing what we need in every circumstance. Always has, always will.

Daniel is a good case in point. The book itself is a mysterious book…scholars don’t really know who wrote it or when. The story is set in the period of Jewish exile, and Daniel and his friends are living in Babylon. The background story is about people who are doing their best to stay true to their faith in a culture that that doesn’t support it. There is much temptation in Babylon and competing demands to serve other masters, yet throughout the entire book, Daniel and his friends hold fast to God. Daniel comes to the attention—and then the service—of the king because he has a demonstrated talent for interpreting dreams and signs. He becomes widely known and trusted, as the king told Daniel, because “a spirit of the gods is in you, and … enlightenment, understanding, and excellent wisdom are found in you.”

So Daniel grew in status and service to the king, and when a new king was crowned, those who were jealous of Daniel and felt an exiled Jew shouldn’t rise to such a position of power plotted Daniel’s demise. Knowing Daniel’s devout faith in God, they went secretly to the new king and convinced him to sign an edict saying that any person who prayed to anyone, divine or human, instead of to the king should be thrown into a den of lions. The king did as they deviously asked him, not yet knowing about Daniel and his faith.

This is where our Old Testament scripture comes in. “Although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.”

We can see that a trap has been set for Daniel, but he simply does what he’s always done, what he knows to be the right thing. He continues his prayers, praising God as he always does. Of course, the conspirators come and find him and haul him before the king, and the king, horrified and upset—not wanting to follow through on this punishment for this good and trusted man—knows his hands are tied. He must carry out the order.

It’s an amazing thing that in the face of great danger, in light of a conspiracy against him, when all his good fortune seemed to be slipping away, Daniel reacts with calm and patience and praise. He simply does what he knows to be right: He puts God first, honors God in his prayers, and thanks God for all that the good in his life. It’s hard to imagine such a clear and faithful response when we are under attack, or afraid, or unfairly judged. But Daniel knew what was right and lived by it, and he trusted more than anything in God, who had been faithful all his life. His thankfulness was a claiming of God’s promise, an active statement of his faith that declared that his trust was in God alone and nothing and no one else.

You probably remember the end of the story. Daniel gets thrown into the den of lions. And as the stone was rolled into place, shutting Daniel in with the wild beasts, the king says to him, “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!” The king then went back to the palace and fasted and prayed and stayed awake all night worrying about Daniel. When he returned to the lion’s den in the morning, he discovered that Daniel’s God had, in fact, protected him, sending an angel to shut the mouths of the lions. He had not been harmed, in spite of the plans of jealous and devious men.

Jesus also shows us something important about the power of thankfulness. I’ve always loved the New Testament story of the loaves and the fishes, when Jesus feeds the 5,000 on the remote hillside in the cool of the evening. The disciples had come to him and said, “This is a remote place and it’s getting late…send the crowds away so they can go get something to eat.” Jesus says the people don’t need to leave and tells the disciples to feed them. Can you imagine their faces when he said that? They must have looked at each other incredulously. They had only five loaves of bread and two fish—how could they feed 5,000 people?

But Jesus had a plan. And it did involve, ultimately, the disciples feeding the people, like he said. First he told the crowd to sit down on the grass. Then he picked up the loaves and fishes, looked up to heaven, and gave thanks for what they had. He broke the loaves and handed the bread to the disciples—the ones who had noticed the need in the first place, and they shared it with the people. And scripture tells us they all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples gathered 12 full baskets of pieces left over.

Amazing. A miracle! A story that would be repeated through the ages, encouraging believers to trust God’s unlimited capacity to act on the behalf of his children. This story has four key elements we all encounter over and over again in our lives: (1) we see a need—it could be in our own lives or the lives of those we love, or it could be in our larger culture or our world, (2) we care about the need we see, and (3) we thank God for answering that call for care in the perfect time and way; and (4) we act as God directs to be part of God’s response to the need. Instead of being overwhelmed with the need we see, or thinking “Wow, there’s nothing I can do about that,” we trust God to meet the need and willingly do what Love asks of us.

In this story, Jesus’ gratitude—his giving thanks as he broke the bread—was also a statement of his unwavering faith, his knowledge that God provides, always, for everyone, without exception. He was claiming—loudly, publicly—that the goodness of nourishment was something that God not only cared about but provided. Jesus knew God could not and would not let his children down. And if we care—and if we’re listening—God will enlist our help in sharing God’s goodness with all who need it.

And the same is true for us. No matter what we expected at the outside of this year, no matter how difficult, scary, uncertain, and upsetting these past months have been, we all have something—many things—to be thankful for. We have the eyes to watch this, the ears to hear. We have people we love, if not beside us, at least thinking of us and hoping we’ll stay well. We have sunrises and sunsets, food and shelter. But mostly, mostly we have God—a constant, reliable, never-failing companion, as Daniel knew. The source of all things, as Jesus demonstrated. When we face a scary time, as Daniel did, we need to do what we’ve always done: practice our faith, say our prayers, and thank God for all he is already doing in our lives, for each good and beautiful thing in our days.

When we worry that the needs in the world are too great or our own needs won’t be met, we can do what Jesus did. See the need, care about it, and give thanks that God, too, sees the need and will meet it, perhaps through us. Whether that need is daily necessities, care and companionship, better health, or something else that seems missing, our thanks are a statement of our faith, our steadfast belief in our God who loves and cares for us each day, come what may.

We all know that this Thanksgiving won’t be like any other, but we’ll have a thousand things to say thank you for if we’re paying attention. Let’s notice all the beautifully good things God is bringing, will bring, and has already brought into our lives. The result will be the presence, protection, and provision we and all God’s children need, with the full-hearted, peace-filled knowing that God is truly with us and all in God’s presence is well.

RESOURCES:

  • OT Daniel 6:10
  • NT Matthew 14: 15-21

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