- Be Thankful…
When life looks bleak to you – even on a sunny day – you know something needs to be done and fast!
When my marriage of more than twenty years looked like it was over, our business was on the brink of bankruptcy and two of our three children were encountering severely stressful situations, life did feel very bleak indeed.
I’ve never been one for panic attacks or even remote forms of depression but one miserable, Saturday afternoon, I was watching a football match on television, when all of a sudden I felt a very tangible wave of fear threatening to completely overwhelm me. I felt like I was in very real danger of being sucked into a whirlpool of negative emotions, from which I may never escape. It was truly one of the most frightening things I have ever experienced.
Fortuitously, I had a barely-begun book next to me… it transpired to be the life line that I needed.
The book was called One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. It had been a gift to my wife at the time, but she hadn’t got on with it, so I was giving it a shot – without much faith to be honest. I mean, when life is stacking up against you, it can feel that giving thanks for one thousand gifts is a pretty sick joke. This was the challenge laid down to Voskamp – after she had suffered trauma and was besieged by the stress of life.
I was somehow able to push through and silently pray to God, “Okay, if this is all I have left to arm myself with against this relentless onslaught, then please show me how I can begin to be thankful.”
If, like me, you sometimes need to lay aside a prejudice about things being a little ‘cheesy’, I advise you to do so. This stuff absolutely and truly works in miraculous ways. I quickly learned that “Trust is the bridge from yesterday to tomorrow, built with planks of thanks.”
“It is thanksgiving that shapes a theology of trust and the Israelites bear witness… this is what ultimately, Christ asks of us in the last supper. One of his last directives…”do this in remembrance…” Remember and give thanks. This is the crux of Christianity: to remember and give thanks. Because remembering with thanks is what causes us to trust – to really believe.”
So, on 22nd February, 2014 I began my Gratitude Journal which I subtitled “Reasons to be Cheerful or Joyful 1, 2, 3…” By early May, 2016, I had finally reached my 1000th entry. The one rule I made myself when I embarked on this sole tool of sanity was not to set myself a target or goal of any sort – the risk of failure was way too high. If I could simply build an intermittent habit (an oxymoron if ever there was one!), then I knew it would grow on me and I would slowly but surely build it into my life.
As I’m sure you will understand, most of the entries are too personal to reel off, but here are just a few that I love every time I rediscover them.
- Warmth of the sun
- Sounds of children laughing
- Alone but never alone
- Walking through the mist into the clear, blue sky
- Joy of awakening after a good night’s sleep
- Perfect texture and consistency of my porridge
The Word & the Spirit
What this tells me – having just scanned through my entire list – is that not only does keeping some form of gratitude journal become vital for your mental health, positive spirituality and general sanity, but it also provides you with a wonderful inventory of all the good things that took place during what was genuinely, a very difficult time. It enables me to see how far I have come, and that is always a great source of encouragement in itself.
Even some of the not-so-great things that occurred – I gave thanks in – not for. The entire theology outlined here is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (Emphasis added)
For years, whenever I read that verse, I had to ask myself, ‘are all circumstances that I find myself in, God’s will for me?’ When I began reading the same verse in the context of heartfelt thanksgiving, the divine penny dropped: Giving thanks in all circumstances – that is God’s will! Like so many other things, a very subtle difference but what a huge difference it makes.
For me, and a big part of what I came to realise God was doing in my life during those dark days was this: it was all about safeguarding my heart. I was in an incredibly vulnerable position and one or two situations I found myself in, could so easily have led me a long way from where I needed to be. I found another verse that had spoken to me in the past but now showed me another key to thriving.
“Guard your heart with all diligence; for out of it spring the issues of life.” Proverbs 4:23 NKJV
I knew I had to guard my heart from becoming bitter towards the things that had happened to me. I also needed to guard my heart from becoming seduced into a false promise of anesthetizing myself against the deep pain, and instead allow the Holy Spirit to bring into my life the people, the means, the locations where I would eventually find myself free and full of true life.
- When You Can’t Pray, Find a Way to Worship
I sometimes remember those days as if they were only yesterday. It may not surprise some of you to know that I had never – previously – struggled with finding words to say to God, but here I was – struggling. I would take our two dogs for their morning walk, and not have anything to say to God. There were many reasons for this inability to converse with the Creator of the Universe.
If, for whatever reason, you also struggle to put words together when attempting to acknowledge God, then simply find another means of connection. For me, during the darkest of days, I would take time out to put on some music and either sit, stand or sometimes, even lie down and worship. Depending on where I was at, I would sing the words to a song like this with all my heart – or on other occasions, if I could barely sing through the tears of pain that threatened to engulf me, I would simply ‘be’… in His presence.
One day, I felt God speak to me very clearly and this is what He said, “My presence is in the pain.”
That is not to say you have to be in extreme physical or emotional pain in order to feel His presence – otherwise we’d all be in trouble! No, what I believe he was saying to me in a very personal way was, “… in the midst of this pain, if you can embrace me and all the goodness I represent and have for you, you will experience my presence like never before.”
And that was precisely what happened.
On some occasions, it was like getting a glimpse of how David in one breath was lamenting almost imminent death and then in the very next breath, extolling the unspeakably wonderful virtues of the presence of God.
I had been in plenty of situations before where I needed a miraculous answer to prayer and worshipping God, bathing in His presence certainly gave me a different perspective – regardless of whether the answer I was asking for became a reality. This was different again. It became more about loving God and all that He is, regardless of whether my marriage was restored. The longer it went on, the less likely it was that the answer I wanted was going to manifest itself.
Eventually, it no longer mattered.
All that mattered to me was Him and His presence. I knew that if I could maintain a good level of regular intimacy, everything would flow from that and I would recover… in the end. I would no longer be worried about surviving because one day, I would be thriving.
I found that variety tended to help in these matters. I could have a really intimate time with God whilst walking the dogs in the sunshine but I also discovered that same level of intimacy could be achieved in a different way when walking in the rain (something I had previously despised!). On another day, I could be standing in the middle of my lounge, with the music on full blast, having my very own one man church service. One of my favourite places to go was the beach. At the time, I lived a few minutes’ walk away from a lovely stretch of coastline. During the summer, I spent seemingly endless times there, walking up and down the sandy beach at low tide, scaling the rocks and shingle at high tide. A beautiful song by U2 called Every Breaking Wave truly spoke to my heart during this time and brought the beginnings of lasting healing.
The key point is to be intentional about connecting with God – the where and how is a moveable feast. It is the focus that is important.
If you have the luxury of your own office and you’re easily able to create some privacy, why not spend some time worshipping God during your lunch break? You probably won’t be able to sing as loud as you want, but you could certainly enjoy His presence! Otherwise, how about turning your car into a mobile one-person-worship service? I did this back in the days when I was a 40,000 miles a year salesman and perhaps those times provided me with a bit of a reservoir when I felt empty years later. Or perhaps more simply put, it is like living off your savings when your regular income comes to a halt.
The Word & the Spirit
During those days of wanderings in the desert and connecting with God, this declaration of David truly kept me going forwards, “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Psalm 27:13
Sometimes, you simply do not know where you are going to end up or how long it will take to get there. God was teaching me that none of that mattered in the end. All I had to do was trust that He was able to carry me through it all and eventually, at just the right time I would see His goodness and enjoy dwelling ‘in the land of the living.’
Most Christians I know will have heard of the Footprints in the sand illustration and after a few years of enduring trials and hardship, it is tempting to think of it as a lovely thought but far from reality. I can assure you, the assertion behind this beautiful portrait of how God works in our lives is 100% accurate. The secret (if there is a secret at all) is to simply believe and trust that it is true.