Grief: A paradoxical gateway to gratitude

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. Along with the expectation for turkey and pumpkin pie is an even greater expectation of a heart bursting with gratitude. Some years that feels like a lot of pressure. This year is one of them for me.

I spent yesterday retreating from the busyness of the world, choosing to spend the the day in silence and solitude at my favorite retreat center. The day began with frustration and disappointment, but I shrugged it off as I made the 30-minute drive, happy to enter the quiet beauty of the center. I settled into a favorite chair with my Bible and my journal, prepared to encounter the Lord in whatever way He chose to present Himself. I was surprised to see what first flowed from my pen onto the page of my journal…

Thanksgiving is two days away…and I am here to grieve. Perhaps so that I can be truly thankful in two days.

Seriously, I had no idea that was what the day would hold.

I miss my Mom. I understand now how she came to be the person I often didn’t like, and my heart feels tender now towards that woman. The life she lived was not easy, and she didn’t have Jesus to lean on. (I am so grateful for you, Jesus!) I wish I could tell her that I understand now. I could be kinder and gentler and less angry now. But it’s too late. Nevermind that I had to experience the loss in order to arrive at this plac of understanding. Perhaps I need to be grateful for that, too–but I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

I miss youth. I’ve never wanted to be a person resentful of the aging process. It’s inevitable, so what’s the use in fighting it? But I don’t like it, nor do I want it really. My body doesn’t move as fast or as easily as it used to. I can’t see as well or think as fast. I want to welcome that as a green light to slowing down the pace of life a bit. But, truth be told, I am afraid of feeling useless.

I grieve unmet expectations. I have never been one to dwell long on regrets and I don’t want to start now. But I realize that I have precious few years left, and I don’t want to get to the end of them and be sad that I let opportunities pass by. There is so much of this world that I want to see and experience, and not nearly enough time left.

I’ve always loved the change of seasons, but today I grieve the end of warm sunny days. Winter is upon us. Lord, please don’t let it settle in my heart, too.

And the Lord graciously answered. I wept (honestly, I wailed!) until I had no more tears…and I didn’t apologize for it, not to God or to myself.

Then I went for a long walkdsc_0054-2 where I encountered beautiful fall color in the midst of the dull brown of approaching dsc_0122-1winter, admired the beauty of a bright red cardinal, and sat with a turtle slowly making his way through the fallen leaves. I took a nap. I sat in the afternoon sun, wrapped in a blanket, on a gently rocking porch swing and finished a really good book.

And at the end of the day I wrote…

I feel better, I think; ready to face home again. Maybe ready to be grateful as Thanksgiving arrives. It’s been a good day. Thank you, Lord, for listening while I poured out my grief, for collecting my tears in your bottle, for gently wiping my face dry. Thank you for legs strong enough to carry me down the trail and back up again, and for a camera that helps capture that which my eyes don’t see as well as they used to. Yes, it’s been a good day and I am grateful.

There’s something about grieving that opens our eyes and our hearts to gratitude. If you are struggling to be grateful on this day before Thanksgiving, perhaps you need to grieve a little…or a lot. Do it. And I will be praying that you, too, find it to be an unexpected gateway to gratitude.

 

 

Motivation to Serve

What compels people to serve? It’s a question every ministry coordinator asks when trying to attract volunteers. Some people serve because it makes them feel good. Others serve because they believe in the “cause,” whatever it may be. Some serve out of a sense of obligation. A few serve because they don’t have anything better to do. Figuring out how to motivate people to serve is like trying to hit a moving target!

But there is one common denominator for every Christian, one thing that should motivate every one of us to serve: Gratitude. Lavish gratitude for the countless ways Jesus has served us should be what compels each and every Christian to serve. Stop and think: When has Jesus served you?

Remember the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law? Mark says that Jesus, along with James and John, heads to the home of Andrew and (Simon) Peter following a time of teaching and casting out demons in the synagogue. There they find Peter’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. Now, it’s helpful to know that back in Mark’s day, fever wasn’t understood to be a symptom of some disease–it was just considered a disease in and of itself. So it’s a safe bet to say that this woman was very sick with some disease that brought on a high fever. So Jesus does what Jesus does: he heals her. Immediately Peter’s mother-in-law gets up from her sickbed and fixes the evening meal for Jesus and his companions.

If you’ve ever had a high fever, you know that when it breaks, you are spent. No way do you feel like getting up and fixing a meal! Yet this is what Peter’s mother-in-law does! Jesus has not only healed her, but he has strengthened her as well. No residual lethargy, no lengthy recuperative period. She’s fit as a fiddle and good to go! I’m guessing that she was so grateful healing vesselthat she couldn’t wait to serve Jesus! Her response to the lavish love of Jesus was to allow that love to flow through her and out of her as she prepared the meal and met Jesus’ need for nourishment.

If you are a ministry coordinator looking to motivate people to serve, here are three questions to ask of them:

  1. When has Jesus served you personally? (I’m not talking about Jesus going to the cross and saving us from our sins. I’m talking about something more uniquely personal: being spared a near disaster, something needed that was miraculously provided, an instance of physical or emotional healing, etc.)
  2. How do you feel about that?
  3. What is your response?

The lavish love of Jesus compels lavish gratitude, and an appropriate response to lavish gratitude is following the example of Jesus and serving others as He has served us.

Minus the Filters

What happens when our filters are stripped away? It can happen to anyone at any time. It canfilter be the result of alcohol consumption, medications, anesthesia, dementia, Alzheimers, and probably several more factors that I haven’t thought of yet. But the point is…what happens when our filters are stripped away and our naked psyche is laid bare?

I have witnessed a gentle, trusting person slip into an early death, their body ravaged by cancer, their mind dulled by medication. I have witnessed a fearful, fiercely independent person slip into dementia, lashing out at anyone trying to help. I can’t help but wonder at the difference the habits of the mind might make when one’s filters are gone.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

These words penned by the Apostle Paul to the church at Philippi are an exhortation for me as well. I must train my mind and my heart to trust the Lord’s nearness, employ joy, gratitude and prayer as weapons against anxiety. To do so is to welcome a peace that transcends my cognitive experience, a peace that remains even when medication, disease or old age lay bare my soul.

Today I must think about the positive rather than the negative, look for the good in people and situations, fix my mind on the very One who is most lovely and excellent. Today is the day; I can’t afford to wait until tomorrow or the day after. I need a lifetime of this discipline in order to be the person I most want to be–the person Christ created me to be–minus the filters.

As we begin this new year, ask yourself who you most want to be. Is that who you would be, minus your filters?

Today is the day.

Back to the Basics: It’s All About Love

Trust me, this not a sappy Valentine’s Day post! Actually it’s somewhat of a response to my last post. To be honest, there was something about that post that felt a little off the mark. Not because I wrote anything untrue. Not because it was direct. No, there was just something missing…something very important. Motivation.

The danger of throwing out scripture verses out of context is that they can be misunderstood. One could interpret that post in light of the scriptures I employed as me contending that we should serve others out of a sense of obligation to Christ. Nothing could be further from the truth! Obligation has little to do with it. It’s really all about love.

Know that you are loved by God.

The first step in serving others is to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loves me, that I am his beloved child and that nothing can change that. I can do nothing to make him love me more or love me less. And because of God’s love for me, Christ gave up his life for me. Judging by my behavior, I wasn’t worth that. But God sees me differently, and loves me unconditionally.

Know what is an appropriate response to that love.

Because God loves me–because Christ gave up his life for me–I am motivated to respond. This is not a matter of somehow earning this love. It was already mine, long before I was aware of it! No, this is a visceral response to a love that I really can’t comprehend, but for which I am beyond grateful. I want to respond, I want to return at least a small measure of that love. Not out of obligation, but out of this deep fountain of gratitude that wells up within me. Anticipating this response, Jesus left instructions about how I might express my gratitude and my love for him.

Know how to love others.

Jesus simply said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) The way that Jesus loves me is that he gave up his life for me, and now walks with me every day. He points out the people he wants to serve through me. He provides everything I need to do what he asks me to do: the gift of the Holy Spirit, friends who have complimentary talents and abilities so that I do not serve alone, spiritual directors who are willing to share their God-given wisdom to encourage me to become more and more like Christ. All I need do is make myself available to him.proof

And that is what I do, as best as I am able. I make myself available to Jesus Christ. Not out of a sense of obligation. Not because I think I can somehow earn what has been freely given. Neither of these are adequate motivation to go the distance in the way that Jesus calls me to serve. No, what motivates me is love–God’s love for me, understanding the appropriate response, and loving others as Christ loved me.

A little gratitude…

It’s that time of year, isn’t it? You know… the avalanche of gratitude. This is the season where we make a point of expressing our thankfulness for all our blessings: family, friends, shelter, food, Jesus, salvation, the church, and so on. It’s not that I think this is inappropriate–my family traditionally shares something for which we are each especially grateful as we gather around the table at Thanksgiving. … But are we as focused on an “attitude of gratitude” from January through October?

Recently my husband was sharing some frustrations about his job, one of which is that he rarely gets any encouragement, much less an expression of gratitude. Case in point: a recent conversation in which his supervisor pointed out that my husband’s department only ranked third in the region, yet the department actually sold significantly more of a top-line product than during the previous year. What a difference it would have meant for my husband to hear, “Wow, Dave! You and your team did a great job increasing top-line product sales.” Knowing that you are never recognized for what you have accomplished makes it difficult some days to go to work.

As I listened, I couldn’t help contrast his situation with my own. In my church staff role, my pastor regularly expresses his gratitude for my ministry. Nothing fancy; no big hoopla. He simply interjects into a conversation that he appreciates my help… and that makes me smile.

I also work part-time at a local quilt shop. Not a week goes by that my manager fails to tell me that she is grateful for me. Most of the time, it’s specific–“thank you for all you do with our website, ” or “you put together beautiful fabrics for that customer’s quilt.” Often it’s said in front of a patron. No matter how hectic the day has been, I go home knowing that I am appreciated.

Getting up and going to work–whether it’s at church or at the quilt shop–is rarely a struggle for me. I feel valued in both roles. My husband, on the other hand, has to fight each day to maintain a positive attitude for himself and for his team.

Perhaps this is the season to take an objective look at the attitudes of your team members. Is anyone grumbling? Who “no-shows” on their day to serve? When is the last time you encouraged them with gratitude? Not the generic expressions of appreciation as one among many. No, something more specific and personal. Something that says, “I value you as an individual; your unique service is vital to our ministry as a whole.” No big hoopla, just a well-spoken word.

Reality check: You have good intentions, but you get busy and forget, right? Set a reminder on your calendar, post a sticky note, write it on your bathroom mirror, tie a string around your finger… whatever you need to do to remind yourself of this most important equipping value. Say “thank you” sincerely and often. A little gratitude offered regularly can yield joy-filled service and fruitful ministry!

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P.S. One of the blessings that I’m most grateful for this year is you! Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I know it’s valuable time out of your day, and I pray that you find encouragement for your ministry in return for your investment of time. Have a joyful Thanksgiving!