What does “gratitude” look like in tragedy?

When it comes to filling gas tanks, there are really only two kinds of people: “I have three quarters of a tank, I’d better stop at the next gas station” or “The empty light is blinking. I have least 3.2 miles to go.” I can’t lie. That’s me. I know exactly how far I can push it until I’ll find myself sputtering into the filling station on fumes. I’m a three-miles-past-empty girl.

Sadly, I tend to treat my spirit like my gas tank. The talent for gauging just how low I can go with the car isn’t really so much of a badge of honor where my spirit is concerned. Are you like this? Do you push and push and push until your spirit is depleted? Are you likely to find your soul broken down on a deserted road with no filling station in sight?

How do we keep our “tanks” filled? It’s one thing when the tanks are intact. It’s another when your tank looks more like a sieve. Life’s little potshots have a way of siphoning off our reserves. Unemployment exhausts. Diagnoses debilitate. Desires derail. Strained relationships sap souls. Death depletes.

Last week’s topic was about making the new year more intentional by choosing one word/topic to explore. As I wrote that blog, I was still struggling with my word for 2018. Focus even on one word in the midst of struggle is taxing. So I was wrestling to find my word.

Over the week, however, my word has found me – “gratitude.” Other words tried to take root, but the soil of my spirit needs to be fertilized with some “gratitude” before any other words – faith, joy, love, hope – can grasp root and flourish.

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.  – Marcus Tullius Cicero

Gratitude is the fuel for our spiritual tanks. Just like we must be intentional about refilling cars that don’t refill themselves, we must be intentional about returning to the spiritual “filling station.” Inner peace, true joy, solid faith, and brimming hope cannot blossom without returning time and time again for a fill-up at the source – God.

The events of March 16, 2017 knocked a big hole in my spiritual tank. Along with the other “holes” already in my tank, gratitude has been falling straight through and spilling out onto the ground. There was an earlier time when I had patched up holes and my “thank tank” was beginning to fill – my “thank was full.” My soul thirsts to return to that time.

While cars can run on fumes – spirits can’t. I can’t be a three-miles-past-empty girl and expect to make the spiritual journey. “Thank tanks” are meant to be overfilled and spilling out onto everyone around us.

We are called to be thankful for all things. “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 The theme of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is about allowing our belief in Christ to be reflected in our attitudes and the way we live our lives. So, it makes perfect sense that believers are abounding with gratitude and it should be spilling over everywhere. But – all circumstances?

There must be a typo. Maybe there was a mistake in the translation from the original Greek. It would make more sense if it read “some circumstances” or “most circumstance.” I saved you the trouble and did some digging. Apparently, Paul wrote “all circumstances.” Even so – some circumstances and gratitude just aren’t a natural fit.

Corrie Ten Boom tells a story of her flea-infested barracks at Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Her sister, Betsie, was encouraging Corrie to be thankful for everything according to 1 Thessalonians- even the fleas that overran their living quarters. Corrie resisted. Fleas and gratitude mix like oil and water.  Eventually, Corrie relented – giving full-hearted praise with her sister for the fleas.

I can’t adequately describe the conditions in which Corrie and her sister found themselves except to say that it is beyond our imaginations. Abuse by the guards was common. Yet, the captors didn’t bother them while they were in their barracks. Because of this, Corrie and Betsie were saved from additional assaults by the guards. The discovery of a Bible would have meant certain torture or death. Yet, they could study from a Bible that had been smuggled into the prison.

Corrie Ten Boom learned later that the guards avoided her barracks because of the flea infestation. God can use even the most miserable of our circumstances to work good.

I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that, I still possess. Corrie Ten Boom

When we give thanks in “all circumstances,” we are in essence placing those things in the palm of God’s hand. What fleas infest your barracks for which showing gratitude is a struggle? A strained marriage? An empty job? An unwelcome prognosis? An unplanned pregnancy? A missing loved one?

What does “thank you” look like in the tragedy?

I don’t blame you if you can’t say “thank you for the abusive relationship;” “thank you for the cancer diagnosis;” or “thank you for taking my loved one.” There are some spirits who have reached that point and what a beautiful beacon they are for the rest of us.

For those of us who are still maturing, gratitude starts smaller and takes a more tentative approach – “thank you that it isn’t worse.” “Thank you for the time that I was given.” “Thank you for the memories that can never die.” “Thank you that death has no power over love.”

Thank you for peace through the pain

Thank you for faith through the fight

Thank you for support through the struggle

Sometimes, we have to be even more fundamental – “thank you for being God.” “Thank you for taking the burden of being God off me.” I can honestly admit that I likely wouldn’t have thought to use fleas to make Corrie and Betsie’s situation “better.”

Even when times are bad (even when they are really bad), there are blessings all around us. Maybe calling us to be thankful for all things is nothing more than a call to turn our focus outward when we most want to recoil inward. I realize that the low levels in my “thank tank” aren’t because I’ve not been blessed as of late. Rather, the painful tears have blurred my sight. The tears pull me inward – isolating me – making me vulnerable to temptations that will only pull me further downward.

Gratitude is an active verb. “Giving thanks” requires me to focus outward. Doing so in times of great strife leaves me vulnerable – but in a different way. If I am thankful in all things – I leave myself vulnerable to connect with others who are also struggling with unrestricted gratitude.

The blessings that matter – the ones that form the moments that death can’t touch – are the little things. The beauty is that no matter what we are struggling with today, the little things are summoning our attention. It’s an orchid that blooms when the plant looked all but done for months on end. It’s a beam of warm sun peeking out after days of frigid temperatures. It’s the sound of the full belly laugh of baby. It’s the hand of a friend extended in comfort and love. It’s the smile from a stranger walking down the street. We don’t have to look far, but we must look intentionally.

I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness – it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude. Brene Brown

In spite of a heavy heart and a “thank tank” full of holes, 2018 is going to be the year of “gratitude.” As I type these words – I feel like I am biting off much more than I can chew. So, if you see me slip during the journey, throw a little support my way. (If you are super bored, you can check-in on my progress at 2018 Gratitude Challenge)

Share your word and we can support each other. Happy New Year!


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