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Category: Thankfulness

Being thankful when the storm comes

God has an infinite number of ways he answers our prayers. There’s the gentle nudging or the still small voice whispering in our ear. Personally, I prefer God uses these methods to answer my prayers: it is more pleasant and, frankly, has less drama. Then there is the prophetic word uttered from a loved one—more confrontational yet still tolerable enough.

But then there is a catastrophic method of answering prayer. This is exactly how it sounds:  prayer gets answered, but it takes the form of a broadside where God kicks our wheels out from under us until we find ourselves completely out of control, sliding sideways across the road toward a retaining wall. Everything becomes blurred. there’s a lot of screaming and shrieking. Occasionally, someone breaks out in a chorus of “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” Eventually, everything rocks to a stop, leaving behind a trail of bent metal and shattered glass. Clearly, this method is my least favorite, although I have a sneaking suspicion it is God’s preferred go-to.

November 10 was like any other typical November Friday. My wife and I had our birthdays to look forward to the next week. We share the same birthday and traditionally celebrate with a dinner out.

Even more exciting was a trip to Montana for Thanksgiving for a wild-and-crazy week with my family—undoubtedly the highlight of my whole year.

With so much to look forward to, this particular Friday morning was an active one, preparing my wife’s birthday present and heading to the store to pick up a carload of Christmas lights—never too early to get a start on the season.

All in all, it really was a wonderful Friday.

Until the telephone rang.

My wife was on the line. She had just come from a meeting that let her know that her job of ten years was over. Just like that. No more passing Go. She was a casualty of downsizing, so in an instant, the greatest portion of our household income went up in smoke. In moments, our life was chopped off at the ankles.

We are heading into a season of thanksgiving, hope and anticipation. However, instead of approaching this season with celebration, we found ourselves stumbling forward into it trying to keep our feet underneath us. It’s astonishing how sudden and complete chaos and uncertainty can pound life into a stupor. One minute—life as usual; the next—a fog of grief and panic.

The last two weeks have been in limbo. Life seems to be in a state of incompleteness and perpetual waiting. Everything is half-done, on hold, and discombobulated. Suddenly the immediate future looks to be extremely different yet entirely unknown. The darkness of uncertainly surrounded our house.

Yet today is Thanksgiving Day.

Today, we give thanks.

And, surprisingly, I am truly thankful.

I am thankful to our God, who amidst our wide swings of fear and sadness, has set my wife and I upon a solid foundation of peace within this storm. We truly believe God is somehow behind this and is preparing us for a dramatic life-change. More than once since receiving the news of unemployment, we have had to remind ourselves that we actually prayed for this. I have long been feeling antsy, restless. Over the summer, I had finished my second manuscript but instead of celebrating I fell into depression and became irritable, and I constantly reminded loved ones and friends how frustrated I was. I prayed to God in no uncertain terms that ten years of waiting is long enough — it is time for him to do something in my life. Interesting enough, my wife was struggling with the same feelings. And now God seems to be moving. I don’t know what the immediate future holds, but I am thankful.

I am thankful for a God who created a stunning Thanksgiving morning sky over Hauser Lake in Montana. Only our Creator can paint the sky in this way to serve as a reminder that he is still in control.

I am thankful for the grace to walk through this chaos imperfectly. I want to have faith; I want to surrender my control; I want to not be afraid. Some days are better than others. But God’s mercy is constant. And I am grateful he cares for us the way he does.

I am thankful for our wonderful home community, who surrounded us when the news broke. They prayed for us, were present with us, and even helped us to be able to pay for this Montana trip, which by the way, also serves to prospect jobs. Our home community stood by us within our tears. Each week they teach me what love and life in community truly is, and this week they went far above and beyond the call of duty. They are as much a part of this journey as we are.

I am thankful to be a part of a great family gathering on Hauser Lake outside of Helena, Montana. I never grow tired of the laughter and love of family.

I am thankful for the colors and smells of autumn.

I am thankful for the majesty and beauty of wildlife as well as the scenery.

I am thankful for the anticipation of the Advent season.

I am thankful for a wife who clings to God alongside me in this time, who feels this same peace as me.

I am thankful that this peace of God is real.

This Thanksgiving, despite the storm in our lives, I can truly be thankful that God is good.

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Skipping thanksgiving: is selfishness snuffing out our thankful hearts?

The day after Halloween, I went to the store to pick up a few things. In the seasonal section, one side of the aisle displayed leftover Halloween candy. The other held Christmas giftwrap and ribbons.

Typically, this isn’t a surprise. After all, most stores started preparing for Christmas of ’16 way back in June of ’87. Each year, anxious to cash in on every second of the season, shops and stores await the earliest possible moment to roll out Christmas merchandise with visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads. That’s just the way it is in a consumeristic society.

20161101_1343431But as I walked down this aisle, I noted an unintended metaphor. One side of the aisle represented a holiday which calls for circling the neighborhood in a silly costume and extracting boatloads of candy (if you have charm, stamina, and a killer costume – pun intended). The other side of the aisle represented a holiday known for massive overspending on gifts which are often unneeded and unwanted (unless they’re really cool, like an XBOX).

For the record, I absolute love Halloween and Christmas. They’re my favorite times of the year. I really—I mean, really—get into them.

Nevertheless, I noticed a bigger message: Between the two sides of the aisle promoting these two days of materialistic hedonism, one holiday was missing.

And its absence reveals our hearts.

Why is Thanksgiving so forgotten, a mere blip on the calendar? Oh, don’t get me wrong – I know that when it arrives, most of us will get together with our families and eat like horses. But one can’t deny that in the grand marketing scheme of all things autumn, it’s virtually ignored (save for the heaping pile of turkeys in the meat section). More and more of us are beginning to refer to it, in less mushier terms, as “Turkey Day.”

gal-black-friday-3-jpgCompared to Christmas, or even Halloween, there’s much less preparation and anticipation related to Thanksgiving. In fact, most people seem more excited about hitting the malls on Black Friday than about giving thanks. Stores now minimize the day even more by essentially extending Black Friday throughout the entire month of November. Some stores even stay open all day and all night on Thanksgiving, encouraging further disregard (by both shoppers and employees) of family time and the idea of thankfulness – though other stores are starting to buck that trend.[1]

Still, Thanksgiving needs better PR.

True, when it comes to marketing and merchandising, it’s not the easiest holiday to promote. Its very nature is about being grateful for what we have, not about buying more. So in one sense, I understand – and even appreciate – the fact that it’s not over-hyped by marketers. I’d hate to see it ruined that way, like so many other holidays.

But maybe the fact that it’s harder to “sell” is just one more excuse for ignoring it.

So why is Thanksgiving so overlooked?

We’re an entitlement society. Goofy, the Disney character, used to sing a little lyric: “Oh, the world owes me a living.” Humorous, yes. But sadly, this appears to be our new national anthem. We truly believe the world does owe us a living. We believe someone else should hand us a prepaid education, career, place to live, and more. Even our traditional protest mantra screams entitlement. You know how it goes (and you can fill in the blank): “What do we want? [____]! When do we want it? NOW!”

The problem with entitlement – believing we deserve things – is that it preempts gratitude and thankfulness. Giving thanks requires an admission that we don’t deserve what we have received – so if we believe we actually do deserve it, we can’t be truly grateful. What are three blessings in your life—right this moment—that you don’t deserve?

We find it hard to feel thankful. Maybe you’ve been through tough times. Maybe the bad news was really bad, and it just kept coming. Maybe you’ve felt overwhelmed by sadness over circumstances, or even by anger at God for letting you down. In such times we may find it hard to give thanks.

Trust me, I get this one. When my life collapsed, I felt this way for years. Then I heard a sermon which recommended giving thanks aloud for five things each day. So my wife and I began doing this every day. Often my list sounded like the same empty recitation, day after day. You know: “I am thankful for my house, my wife, my family, my job…”

At first it seemed utterly meaningless and superficial, but we kept doing it anyway.

And then I began to realize: I don’t deserve any of this. When my education and career imploded and I had no way to rebuild, it was during a deep recession and many people were losing their homes—but I was able to keep mine. Many marriages collapse under such extreme stress and heartache, but I had a loving wife who stayed with me and became a strength to me. And the truth is, although I was emotionally dead and drifting, God took care of us financially. I believe giving thanks aloud for all of these undeserved blessings—even though it often felt an empty exercise—actually helped me see how undeservedly blessed I was. It began pulling me out of my “Eyeore” worldview.

On the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested, he ate his final supper with his disciples. When he broke the bread and poured the wine, an act we remember as communion, he gave thanks before passing each element (Luke 22:17-19). He knew that within a matter of hours he would be unjustly tried, tortured, humiliated, abandoned, and executed in an excruciatingly painful way.

Yet he gave thanks.

For the broken bread, representing his broken body.

For the poured wine, representing his spilled blood.

Jesus gave thanks.

Again, I absolutely love this time of year. I love celebrating Advent—thinking of the coming of the Messiah, a gift that I, in a million years, could never deserve. I am not entitled to it. I am not deserving of it. Yet it is a gift given to me—and all of us—willingly.

The Christmas season will come. Black Friday will be here in no time. The lights, the joy, the anticipation of the season are just around the corner.

Let’s start by preparing our hearts to be thankful.

Let thankfulness be the truest beginning to the advent season.

Let’s start by being thankful now.


[1] Many malls are closing their doors on Thanksgiving day, such as the ginormous Mall of America. . To go one further, REI, the outdoor sporting goods store has elected to even remained closed on Black Friday.

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Pile it on, part 2

Recently a friend asked me a two-part question. In Part 1 she asked whether, given my new book deal, I am now grateful for the painful road that brought me here (see my post,  Pile it on, part 1).

But then my friend asked Part 2: “Does it take something really big or really good to make us finally thankful for a difficult road?”

To be honest, compared to the first question, this one was even tougher. It forced me to think harder to get past the spiritual clichés.

Because, as they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty. It seems superficial to look back after a big God-event and say, “Yeah, now I see God’s hand in the hardship.” I mean, if someone gets canned from a job and then finds one that pays oodles better, it doesn’t take a whole lot of spirituality to “give God the glory” for losing the first job. Giving glory to God in the windfalls is just too easy.

But what about those who never get a big God-event in which all the pieces seem to fall neatly into place? What about those who lose good jobs and never regain anything similar for the rest of their careers? What about those who get blindsided by life, and the magic rescue from heaven never comes?

A common Christian answer is, “Well, God’s timing is perfect. Maybe the time hasn’t come yet.”

Perhaps. But in some cases, the time never comes at all.

In the book of Job, Job experiences terrible disasters in which he loses all of his earthly wealth, then his health, and finally his ten children. After all of this, he wants to know why he’s had to suffer so terribly. But he never gets an answer. All he gets is a voice in a whirlwind giving the most beautiful non-answer – essentially this: Who died and put you in charge that I must answer to you?! (Job 38:2ff)

Yes, eventually Job regains his wealth and health and has more children; but as any parent knows, any child who dies can never be replaced by a new one. Like most of us, Job never knows the reason for all of his sufferings. In fact, had he known that the reason was a little bet between God and Satan (Job 1:8-12), he might have drowned himself in a whole new flood of theological issues.

So I don’t believe the old saying, “Time heals all wounds.” It doesn’t. Catastrophic events can affect how we view the world, and ourselves, throughout our lives. Time alone doesn’t provide the same healing as a redemptive event.

But time can bring perspective and growth. Because God’s redemption seldom drops into our lives as a single event. If it did, there would be no need for us to wrestle with God, no need to seek out his mystery and his grace. And without wrestling and seeking, our spiritual challenges become stale, bland, lukewarm. After all, if I experience a great event that alleviates all the pain of my difficult road, then I’m set; I have everything I need. So why bother wrestling with God or trying to understand him at all?

Yet with time, though we may never receive the answers we desire, we are driven to seek out and draw closer to the Creator.

And occasionally, we might get a big answer which calls for a big celebration.

But even if not, I think God wants us to develop a deep thankfulness through the search itself—a thankfulness built as we continue to “pile it on,” one painful memory at a time, turning each stone of pain into a step of thanksgiving.

For example, over the past six years of struggling with employment issues and broken dreams, I have become truly thankful that—with careful planning and despite a brutal economy—God has met my physical needs: a car that runs, food in the fridge, an affordable little home when many were losing theirs, and even the ability to attack and finally, after many long years, get my indebtedness ratio moving in the right direction. I am thankful he created my two little wiener dogs, whose antics drive everyone crazy but also bring great joy and laughter. I am thankful he brought me into a church which makes him very real to me and encourages me to cling to him. I am thankful he shoved me, an introvert, into a home community of other broken people who have poured out grace and healing prayer on me; I absolutely fell in love with these folks. Finally, I am thankful for the love and commitment of my wife, who has stayed by my side through undoubtedly the worst years of my life so far. I know she has struggled, but she’s still here. And I am deeply in love.

Such lessons of thanksgiving can be learned only in the desert. Now that I have a book deal, thanksgiving seems almost too easy. But when I didn’t have a book deal – or anything else to hope for – that’s when thanksgiving became a true sacrifice of praise for me. That’s when it really meant something, really cost me something, to learn to give thanks anyway.

These emerging areas of thankfulness don’t come superficially through a single big event, like a book deal. Instead, they come gradually, over time. They are hard-won by persevering through the wilderness, one step after another, like Joshua and the Israelites.

Although most of us would prefer a big “something” to drop immediate clarity into our laps, the deepest moments of growth and thankfulness seem to come only as we travel those winding desert paths.

Like Joshua, we can build our painful memories into a monument of praise. We can pile up the painful moments, one by one, as reminders that God is always good, even when things look very dark. And yes, we can be thankful for the blessing of each painful memory – even if the big fix never comes.

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