I started a gratitude journal once, years ago. I made a numbered list of things I was thankful for and a few months later when I needed a writing notebook, I tore out the single sheet. The entire notebook was supposed to be full of thanks. I’d barely managed one page.
I am better practiced at fear and complaint. And I suppose that is the point of keeping a gratitude journal, to counter the inclination to worry and wallow.
Also years ago, a Lebanese woman named Adele took my hands after a church service in Kuwait. She was tender with her wisdom, and I prayed with her often. That Friday morning Adele opened her eyes at amen and said, Sarah, I see you like a child in a field of flowers. So much joy. Laughing. I nodded. I was glad someone could imagine joy for me. Adele spoke a promise I needed at the middle end of a dark run, and I still keep her words. I remember her warm hands holding mine, that we kissed cheeks at parting. I remember walking into the bright heat of day, looking at the sky and whispering please. Later that summer when I laughed like a child spinning circles I whispered thank you.
I am just out of another dark run. When I look at the shadows I lived in for months I am sad. I don’t want to go back. But I want to carry what I understood in the shadows. A thought came when I curled in bed, unmoving after sobs, to give thanks. A thought came at the tightening of fear in my body, to praise. When I prayed, gladness was like rocks in my mouth. Praise tasted like metal. But I expanded my prayer, reading the Psalms to speak wild glory like a new language. I practiced the sacrifice of praise.
My circumstance did not change. I was not suddenly content in my work, or healed in my body. I was still sad most days. But last spring, a ripple of impatience: I did not want just healing or just satisfaction in the day. I asked instead for peace in the middle. I asked for joy. What I wanted was to know that God really is enough. Enough is a tough measure. Enough is letting go of the scramble for more or better. Enough is trust that what I hold is good.
Last Sunday our church celebrated Thanksgiving. We sang “Blessed Be Your Name.” This was a song at my brother’s wedding. Blessed be your name in the land that is plentiful. A perfect marriage song, our mom said. This was the song I cried with my dear mom friends in Kuwait, the morning after Liana delivered a son who lived an hour in his daddy’s arms. Blessed be your name when I’m found in the desert place. This is the song my friend Els chose for her funeral. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, given slim hope of living another five years. Blessed be your name on the road marked with suffering. Though there’s pain in the offering, blessed be your name. After the service, Els told me that in the weeks after her diagnosis she understood that no part of her illness was a surprise to God. She read from the Psalms. She ached for her young children. She ached for her husband. But she also lived. Els made dinner, read to her children, nurtured friendships. She is alive today, and that is a miracle. All that she knew of her faith was pressed into daily practice during her illness, and she has not forgotten her God who was present in her suffering. She sings her funeral song.
So I do not want to forget what I understood in the shadows. Again and again I read from 1 Thessalonians, writing in my notebook
pray without ceasing
give thanks in all circumstances
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus
Do not quench the Spirit
On Sunday the message centered on this passage. Such direct instruction. I have learned this before. I know this. And in the shadows these past months I obeyed. I lived my sorrow deeply, honestly. But I also recognized the everyday swells of joy: the limbs of my children stretched either side of me at bedtime, as we read or talked about the day. My son playing with Lego, scripting the minifigures and animating planes and boats. My daughter bent over her sketchbook, humming. My husband turning to me in the night. The mountains on our summer drive west. The taste of a gin fizz twenty minutes in the making. The fun of a full dining table, a card game, and family stories.
Singing praise as you fall apart is heart work. Singing praise is trust, naming a God whose glory transcends circumstances. There is so much I do not understand. There is reason for this exhortation to give thanks. Gratitude is good for the body and mind. Something intangible turns on thanksgiving.
Knowing my proclivity for fear and discontentment, I couple my sacrifice of praise with another prayer. Renew my mind. I live in a body that will go to ash. I cannot hinge joy on what I touch. So renew my mind, I ask, so that gratitude becomes a natural breath in my day. I do not know what will follow this practice, but I am far enough in my faith to choose to continue on, even after a long stretch of darkness.
I am not starting another gratitude journal. But when I flip through the muddle of my notebook, I want to see thanks between the story drafts, petitions, and wandering thoughts. So too in my day. Amen.