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This is something I shared at a women's brunch in our church a few days ago. The brunch was named "Gratitude 2" because it was the second year the women had focused on this important discipline at their annual gathering.
Although gratitude has been something I’ve thought about throughout my life, there was a more conscious shift in focus a few years ago. In the last year of my sister-in-law, Donna’s life, we had a long and memorable phone call. We talked about difficult things and encouraged each other. As a result of that call she loaned me a book, called “One Thousand Gifts” by Ann Voskamp.
Ann’s writing style was difficult for me at first, but her message was important. A friend of hers had challenged her to make a list of 1000 things for which she was grateful during a time in her life when things were pretty hard. She kept notebooks and paper handy so that things could be written quickly at the moment they were noticed. The book is the story of what changed in her life as she worked her way up to 1000 gifts.
I no longer remember what her lists contained, but I was challenged to begin to see things in new ways. That was the beginning of a new adventure with gratitude for me.
Gratitude is a choice we make to notice.
It is both of those things together...a choice...to notice.
First of all, a choice.
On good days or in happy seasons, it doesn’t seem like a choice. This summer, with a garden full of flowers, and with the goodness of Tim and Michelle’s wedding, gratitude was like a wave I was riding. It surrounded me and was effortless. It had little to do with choosing and it was impossible not to notice.
But there are times when things are hard. Times when things are so hard that unless we make the choice for gratitude, it will not find us. Psalm 50:14 says “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,” and Philippians 4:6 says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Thanksgiving as a sacrifice seems different than the wave of gratitude I ride in the really happy times of my life. The Philippians instructions about handling worry make it even more clear that gratitude is a choice that we make when worry is the more natural response.
When I am worried or under a lot of stress, every free moment is filled with the worry. If my mind is not actively engaged in what I’m doing, it is drawn back to the hard stuff. Arguments replay themselves in my head. Lists of my failures or my grievances play on autoplay. During those times, taking a walk is more stressful than staying at home and working, because even surrounded by nature, my mind can’t jump out of the rut of the hard things I’m trying to figure out.
But gratitude is a choice. So some things have had to change.
One change involved memory work. I worked on it during my walks so that my thoughts would be forced away from hard things. I chose Psalm 103, which begins “Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name, Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits---” I walked and spoke those words again and again, adding a line, and then another, until I could repeat nearly all of it to my 5th grade Sunday School class. Instead of reliving hard things I had little to no control over, memory work forced my mind to gratitude.
I want to be clear. This choice did not erase all the hard things or push me back onto the effortless wave of gratitude. Sometimes, especially on very hard days, the words did not resonate as much as I wanted them to. It was a choice more than it was a feeling, but it was also a true choice. My circumstances were still hard, but I had to recognize the truth that there was also goodness in my life.
I bought tiny composition books. They come in packages of three for 88 cents at Walmart. They fit in my purse or on my nightstand. I began to try to write down something every day, or three things a day, or more. One year my Lenten discipline was to write five things each day. I use the books on and off. I kind of forget about them sometimes, especially when I’m riding a wave of gratitude. But when the wave runs its course and I’m not so naturally grateful anymore, eventually I remember that choosing to write things down helps me notice.
And that is the second part of gratitude. Notice.
Notice even in the midst of the mess.
Photography can maybe illustrate this better. Sharing photos online with friends is something I enjoy. I’ve used facebook in the past, and now recently my daughter-in-law, Andrea, introduced me to instagram. People often post pictures of good things in their lives, such as places they are visiting, or events, or people they love. It is often about gratitude. Right now there are a lot of sunrises, sunsets and autumn leaves showing up.
This year I’ve posted a lot of pictures of garden flowers. We filled our garden with flowers for Tim and Michelle’s wedding, so I’ve had fresh flower arrangements in the house all summer, and I may be able to get some more picked yet this afternoon. Sometimes when I take a picture of a vase of flowers, I think I’m getting a photo of flowers, because that is what I see. But the camera sees not only the flowers in a vase, but also the papers strewn on the table, the bits of leaves and stems left from making the arrangement, the crumbs from snack time, and maybe a dirty dish or two. Am I being too honest here? My point is this. Gratitude can come before the mess is gone. I can see what the camera cannot. I can ignore for a moment the mess that could obscure the flowers. And gratitude can sometimes be the beginning of the motivation to clear the mess.
Table mess is relatively simple to clear. Some messes are beyond my control. But I can choose to notice even the graces of my life that can’t posted on facebook or instagram.
What are the things I notice?
Small things, normal things often headline my list.
There are the sensory things. The taste of a fully ripe peach. Warm gentle breezes. The colors of a maple tree in October. Mockingbirds singing through the night in spring. The smell of freshly brewed coffee or bread in the oven.
There are people things. The way Sarah lights up when she sees us across the room, or the feel of her arms around my neck. How Aaron looks up out of the tops of his eyes instead of moving his whole face. The intense Luke-ness of Luke. Charlie’s giggle and his attention to detail.
There are things that happen. Hearing one person offer another grace. A smile from a friend. A conversation over coffee. An unexpected gift. A lunch at Dutch Kitchen with my mother.
There are memories. Memories of grace offered. Memories of loved ones. Memories of places. Memories of my Grandma’s rocking chair and her voice singing, “Gott ist die liebe.” For those of you that know that song, do you ever hear it without hearing it in your Grandmother’s voice?
Memories of past kindnesses. Because I’ve spent a lot of time with the children of my church, their kindness or wit or questions or wisdom have often been in my little books. But not just the children. I’ve seen so many others do or say things that brought me to gratitude. I’ve written some of those things down in little books or in my journal, but there are too many for the time I have here.
And there are insights or ideas. Seeing a Bible verse as though it is new again. Hearing something explained differently that finally makes sense. Understanding more fully the life of someone who has experiences very different from mine.
So, just for a moment, choose to notice.
In this moment, find gratitude.