Thanksgiving and Remembrances

Obviously, I haven’t posted in a while. Part of the reason is that I’ve been fairly busy lately. I spent most of the weekend and beginning of this week making sure that I had all of my papers graded before Wednesday so that I could spend Thanksgiving with my family. Part of the reason is that I did spend Thanksgiving with my family, which meant travel, get-togethers, food, etc. I also think that part of the reason, a subconscious part, is that 1) I’m still not entirely comfortable having followers on this blog and I want to get rid of all of you, and 2) the most significant thing I’ve had to say lately isn’t something that I’m actually comfortable saying yet. In fact, what I’m about to write I’ve told all of one person (my niece), and I had to force myself to tell her. It’s not that it’s a bad thing, in fact I think its a very, very good thing, but its something that is very personal, and very uncomfortable. I’m not used to it yet.

So, giving thanks. There are a lot of things to be thankful for, and something that we do at my church the Sunday before every thanksgiving is take a night to simply share things that we are thankful for. I couldn’t get up and share this, though I wanted to. There are many reasons to be thankful. Many things that should inspire gratitude in us. For one, I have a loving family that gets along well. I live in a safe town. I live in a safe part of time. I have good roommates. I like my apartment complex. I have a job that I thoroughly love. I have good friends who care about me. I have people who know they can depend on me. I have a plethora of amazing books to read. I have access to websites with even more amazing books to read. Let’s face it, even being poor in America isn’t all that bad unless you’re at the very bottom of the barrel. I could go on listing things about my church, the school I’m applying to, friend, hobbies, etc, but I think you get the point. I have a lot to be thankful for.

That being said, I haven’t always been a thankful person. Actually, for a long time I was an extremely ungrateful person. I always wanted more, no matter what. It didn’t matter what I did have. The only thing that mattered to me is what I didn’t have. (Don’t worry, I am actually getting to the point). I’ve mentioned several times that I used to be  (still am all to often) a right bastard. My lack of any form of gratitude was a part of that. There are still things that I’m working on. For instance, my last couple of birthdays have been difficult (hell, birthdays have always been difficult for me). The year before last my birthday was ignored entirely. This came on the tail end of a bad breakup in which the girl that I’d been ‘not-quite-dating’ dumped me and then jumped in bed with someone three days later. Admittedly, that was a low point, and I feel that I wasn’t entirely unjustified in being frustrated with my friends. My birthday this year wasn’t forgotten, a few friends even got together and threw me a party. Honestly, this should have been plenty to satisfy me, but the distinct lack of gifts stood out to me. I went out of my way to be profuse in speaking my gratitude, but I’m not convinced that it was entirely felt. A part of this is that gifts are my primary means of receiving love and affection. If you really want to make my day, send me an encouraging note or give me a little something with a lot of meaning.

I’m not saying that I need big gifts or expensive gifts. Honestly, how much it cost doesn’t matter to me at all. If you can get it for free, all the better. What does matter is the time, thought, and effort that you put into the gift. I have a few rules for gift-giving: 1) the gift should be meaningful to the giver, 2) the gift should be desirable to the recipient, 3) the gift should say something about the relationship between the two, 4) the gift shouldn’t be a necessity. So, the lack of gifts did actually mean something to me. However, I also think that lack of gratitude stayed with me for longer than it should have.

So, the point. One of the things that my church does on our night of gratitude is ask this question: What is one thing that you are thankful for now that you never thought you could be thankful for?

My answer to that question surprised me. I am thankful that God has kept me single for as long as he has. I’m not saying that I don’t still want to get married. I’m not saying that I’ve given up. I am saying this, and I’ve said this part of it several times. God has taught me more through loneliness and broken relationships than through any other single means. It is my utter, complete, and repeated failure with women that has taught be to love other people, and taught me about God’s love for me. This is probably the single most significant change in me over the course of my salvation, and I’ve been thankful for the changes themselves, but never for the process that led to them.

This is the thing that no one ever told me about gratitude. There are many, many levels of gratitude. It’s not simply about saying thank you, nor is it simply about being thankful for the things that you have or the things that you like. I need to be thankful for the things in my life that are good for me, even if I don’t really enjoy them.

Saying thank you and actually being thankful are two different things as well. I can say ‘thank you’ a hundred times and never mean it. However, saying thank you can (and some of the exercises on Happify.com have helped with this) actually help you to be thankful for things. Being thankful is more consistent than simply saying thank you. A simple ‘thank you’ can come out of nothing more complicated than politeness. However, being thankful comes from the heart. It reflects the core of one’s being, and it is one of the things that reflects godliness. We should rejoice and be thankful in general, but we should make special effort to rejoice and be thankful for those things that we are not at first eager to say thank you for.

So… I think at this point I’ve stopped making sense. So, I leave you with this: gratitude that is slow to appear, begruding, and quickly vanishes is less than real. It might be a good step, but it isn’t real. Gratitude that overflows from the heart, that is quick to the tongue, eager to be shared, and doesn’t disappear after being shared is the real thing. Strive for that.

A Life of Worship

It seems that I have a lot more to say when I’m struggling with things than I do when I’m not struggling. Honestly, I don’t suppose that should really surprise anyone. I think we all tend to have more to say when we are struggling with God. The issues in our lives tend to be more evident when God makes them undeniably clear to us. In turn, this obviously means that we pay more attention to them, and that we have more to say about them. All to often I (we) have little to say when life is good. The reason for this is, I think, very simple. In the church today there is a dearth of true worship in the church. I have much to say when I am struggling with God because my struggles are at the forefront of my mind. I am frustrated with God, frustrated with myself, and I want everything to be better. However, when things are better I am not thankful. E.M. Bounds illustrates the difference between thankfulness and gratitude in his book The Essentials of Prayer. Bounds argues that gratitude is inward focused and negatively associated (i.e. not that gratitude is a negative or bad thing, but in association with action gratitude, being focused inward, is negatively focused because it does not produce action). Thankfulness, Bounds argued, is outwardly focused and positively associated (i.e. again, towards action: that thankfulness, being outwardly focused, produces action). I find that I agree with him in this, and I think that both are necessary for a life of true worship.

Obviously one may demonstrate thankfulness without being grateful. This happens quite often when we utter words of thanks to God or to others, even though we are inwardly bitter, angry, or disappointed. This is, of course, hypocritical (i.e. hupokrites refered to an actor, so a hypocrite is literally one who acts), but we are often hypocritical in our lives without paying much attention or care to our hypocrisy (this is something that has strongly disabused younger generations [who value genuineness greatly] from the mainstream church). So, we go through the motions of thankfulness with no true spirit of gratitude. I have found, in my own life, that this often leads to even deeper feelings of disappointment and resentment. I have, many times, felt truly grateful for the trials and struggles that God has put me through. However, I have also (probably more often) been thankful out of a sense of obligation. I suppose Kant would argue that acting on this sense of obligation, especially when my feelings ran counter to it, was the most truly good action. However, while I have great respect of the man, this is one place where I think that I profoundly disagree with Kant.

Sacrificial love is, in my opinion, a beautiful and very important thing. However, love that is truly sacrificial is gracious and grateful as well. It is not resentful, which is what I find my hypocritical thankfulness often turning towards. To act out of obligation is good as long as the action is truly genuine as well. I may thank God for trials because I am obligated to do so, and still feel truly grateful for those trials. However, if I give obligatory thanks in bitterness and resentment, I cannot find the wherewithal to call this ‘good’. Thus, I must argue that this kind of hypocritical thankfulness is not good.

However, one may also clearly be grateful without being thankful. I have often found myself in this place: filled with a feeling of grateful contentment, but so focused on my own internal pleasures that the outward exercise of thankfulness disappears. St. Teresa of Avila warned of this in The Mansions. St. Teresa claimed that she had known several sisters (she was a nun and so her writings were generally directed towards the sisters) who became so overwhelmed by the internal pleasures of God’s gracious love that they ceased all activities. She called this a deathly illness (though it isn’t entirely clear if she meant physically or spiritually) and called on the ranking sisters to keep watch on nuns who showed signs of this malady. St. Teresa claimed that this cessation of outward activity was a sign of spiritual weakness that would inevitably delay or even halt the spiritual growth of the sisters so affected.

I have to admit that I have seen this in my own life. There have been times when I hoarded God’s love and compassion, keeping it to myself and enjoying my time with God without letting anyone else benefit. When my spiritual life is turned entirely inwards it doesn’t stop being real, but it stops being prosperous. When we turn our affections entirely inward then, as Paul said to the Corinthians, we are edified, but the body is not. However, when we keep our holy affections balanced, with a strong inward life of spiritual gratitude that spills over into an outward life of thanksgiving and praise, then we edify not only ourselves, but the body as a whole. This is, I think, the best life that I could hope for, and I hope that it is the path that I am now on.

But then God

It’s easy to focus on the things that suck. Rejection is… memorable, and pain rather demands attention. The empty places in our lives stand out like gaping potholes in the middle of the road. The street might be 90% fine, but that one pothole is still hard to miss. Even if you don’t see it, you’ll definitely notice when you drive over it. It’s easy to notice the potholes, and it’s easy to notice only the potholes. The fact that the rest of the street is in pristine condition is relatively unimportant as the car bounces through that frustrating little pit. Life is often the same way. Most of life can be going quite well, but it’s still the potholes that we notice. The things that we don’t have, the things that aren’t going the way we want, aren’t things that we have to look for. They stand out and demand our attention, often with jabbing blades of intractable pain and frustration. Repeatedly I come back to the unwavering truth of Proverbs 13:12 “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire granted is a tree of life.”

I am quite sure that anyone who has spent much time reading this journal can guess what my deferred hope is. Well, there are a few, honestly, but one that seems to always rise to the surface. It’s also easy to say that I trust God. It’s easy to mouth the words, to play the game, to say that I’m alright with it, or that I’m getting used to it, or that it doesn’t matter that much. Unless you are utterly and completely broken it’s pretty easy to fake comfort and spiritual wholeness. To fake a relationship with God.

Do hard things. I really love that maxim. We have to do the hard things because those are the things that really make life worthwhile, and confronting our own dissatisfaction, our pain, our despair, our foolish pride and hopeless frustration is hard. It’s hard to let those things go and actually trust God. It’s hard to live day to day and honestly believe that God will fill in the potholes, even though he hasn’t yet. It’s hard to have hope, and it’s hard to trust him, and it’s hard to wait.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem titled IF. The poem as a whole is about what it means to be a man, but first stanza points out the difficulty of waiting:

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

It is hard to wait. Hard to maintain that hope and trust in the absence of desire-specific evidence. It’s hard not to give up, but it’s equally as hard to give up. I’ve tried and failed multiple times, and this is the crux of the problem. If I could just give up and move on with my life, viewing my singleness as a blessing in my life (which I’m sure it often has been), or if I could find a woman to love and who would love me in return, then this particular hole could be filled. That isn’t where God has brought me though. He has put me in a place of waiting, of hope deferred, and that is very hard.

That being said, being in this place of waiting has also taught me a lot about God, and his relationship with me. In the Old Testament God repeatedly presents himself as the jilted bridegroom, waiting for his bride to be a loyal, loving wife. Waiting for her to come around, to stop running to other men for comfort and satiation. Hosea probably presents the best picture of this, but it is a theme that runs throughout the Old Testament.

My life of hope deferred gives me some little microcosm of understanding. I can’t imagine the pain, the grief, the sorrow that fills God every time I run to something other than him, or every time the Israelites ran to something other than him, or every time any believer chooses something else over him (and we all do). However, I can understand that pain of waiting, of hope deferred, of repeated rejection, and that understanding lets me see just a little bit of the character of God. A character that led him to pursue the nation of Israel for over almost four thousand years. A character that led him to pursue the church for two thousand years. A character that led him to work in the lives of generations of believers and unbelievers, drawing them to him, loving them, forgiving them, despite the repeated wanderings and rejections this love incurred.

It is a love of which I stand in awe. A love that I cannot reflect, much as I wish I could. The forgiveness that God has shown me is immense. The forgiveness that he has shown the church Catholic is inconceivable. It is simply and entirely beyond me, and I don’t think that we can begin to understand the kind of thanks that we should have for that forgiveness. I mean that literally. I honestly believe that the kind of gratitude that love deserves is beyond the collective comprehension of the human race. It is something so incredible that it defies any and all attempts to imagine or explain it.

We live in a world that is full of problems, and we live lives that are full of potholes that constantly demand our attention. Our pains, unfulfilled desires, derailed ambitions, and forgotten dreams fill our minds with regret, and this is something from which we can’t escape. There is a reason that those things demand our attention, and honestly they deserve attention. However, when those things obscure the incredible blessings that God has showered upon us on a daily basis, then we lose the best part of life. We lose that unending gratitude that he deserves. Instead of letting pain defeat us and lead us to misery, we must let pain remind us of how much more he has suffered, and lead us back to that place of thanksgiving. Back to an unending gratitude for love.

Giving Thanks

Something that I’ve been learning lately is the importance of actually giving thanks. I don’t mean the importance of being thankful, that’s something else entirely, and it absolutely is important. However, being thankful is an internal attitude, and for too many of us it never actually makes it to our lips. What I mean by ‘giving thanks’ is the importance of actually saying ‘thank you’, and not just as a polite missive, but actually sitting down with someone, or taking the time to write a note and tell someone why you are thankful for them.

This isn’t something that we often do, and it’s important both for ourselves, and for others.  Having a grateful attitude is a wonderful thing, and being a thankful person can go a long way towards making you a happier person. However, actually taking the time out of your day to stop and let someone know why your thankful for them, why they’re important to you, or what makes them awesome brings this attitude into reality.

You don’t have to write them a three page letter, or take them out to dinner (although that never hurts). Try starting simply by writing out a short note letting them know that you’re thankful for them and a few reasons why. Explain why they matter to you, why you love spending time with them, or what they’ve done to make your life better. I have to admit that I’m not very good at this yet, but I’m learning as I go.

Something that I’ve tried to make a practice of in my life is to not wait to say the important things. So often we don’t say the things that really matter because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of being rejected, afraid of being embarrassed, afraid of sounding stupid or sappy. We let our fears control us, and this costs us what could be important, meaningful moments with the people we care about. We don’t tell our friends that we love them, or that we’re thankful for them, or that they add value to our lives, and we should because by doing so we could return some of that value to them.

So, the next time you really want to say something nice to someone, but are afraid it might come off as ridiculous or that it might not be good enough, just say it.