Giving is the way to gratefulness

When we count our blessings in the midst of life’s brutal storms, rather than waiting for the sunny days with warmth and light and gentle breezes to appear, it is truly the greater sacrifice. As those watching from without, there is nothing so admirable as observing someone with very little making a great deal about what they do have, however small and humble.

Gratitude can be experienced even when the outlook is dismal, can be presented even when the offering is slight. For even when the pool from which we gather is shallow and lacking in resources, there is still something there.

There is always something in which to be thankful.

It matters not what we’ve been given- we still must find the words to offer thanks.

He was feeling low again- not really in that frame of mind to offer gratitude. Not really in that mode of thinking, really. How can one offer praise when life feels destitute of joy, bereft of common everyday pleasure? He really wasn’t able to pick himself up either, like he sometimes could. Couldn’t rise to the day. It was like he’d been beaten down one too many times and the game was now over. He was ready to throw in the towel.

But she reminded him again of his call to chronicle gratitude. Reminded him of all that he’d already found in which to offer thanks. The five gifts he had committed to finding each and every day- small offerings of gratitude to a Father of good and perfect gifts. And even though it was hard- even though it wasn’t easy, he promised her he would still look for something in which to offer thanks.

And while he was looking for those small five in which to portray his day, something else happened. He started to notice people around him. People just like him, all in need of finding a gift. And as he was noticing people, he began hearing people too. Hearing their hearts, sensing their needs, listening to their stories. And he realized that he could not only count gifts, he could offer them to others as well.

And so he did. He offered a small gift.

And that one, small seemingly insignificant gift- it made all the difference for him. And for her- because she wasn’t expecting it- and to be truthfully honest, neither was he. But because he realized that he was still a giver, still a messenger of hope, he was able to stand in the gap. Even with the limitations of his life and struggle.

Actually, in spite of them.

We all can find gifts- that treasure trove of life that we each have been gifted with. But even more than this, we can all be givers: can give something each day to someone else. We can be the gift. Can be one of the five that another counts as a blessing on their gratitude list. For when we give the gift, rather than merely counting it as acquired, we come to understand:

Giving is the very best way to experience gratitude.

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Experiencing the light {Counting Blessings}

I stand at the gable window, pausing momentarily to fold a blanket and set it on the window seat. It is 7:30 a.m., and I am in the midst of morning routines. So much to do, and so little time in which to get it all done.

What I wish is that I could go back to bed.

As I come out of Daughter’s bedroom, I notice the glow of daybreak through the upper window. Just this once- instead of rushing past to make the bed (without a thought to anything else happening in the universe)- I pause. Catching a glimpse, as I do of pink and purple ribbons extending out across the sky. Just a quick glimpse from the corner of my eye, but it is enough to stop me in my tracks. Pastel hues, as if stolen from an artist’s palette, wash light over grey horizons in a glorious watercolor display. I am awe-struck for several moments as I try to capture in my mind this picture I have been afforded.

A defining interlude in my day.

My mind could never quite do justice to what I am viewing from our upstairs window just now. This image is so exquisite, so rare (if only for the reason that most mornings I miss it). So I run for my half-charged cell phone in an effort to seize the moment; when I return, color is spreading ever wider out from the source, reaching further across the sky. I watch as beams of sunlight extend towards the grey, barren landscape, touching treetops and brushing snow-covered fields, illuminating as they move in regal formation. I watch while frosted roads kissed with color reflect the light. And I cannot help but delight in the wonder that is the shoulder of our road, which runs parallel to our old farm house, as it blushes in rose-tinted tones that reflect the beauty of the sky. The world, a painting in progress, and I am witness to the art unfolding.

“Look at the sky!” I call to my son. “Even the ground is pink.”

We stand in silence for a moment. But then reality sets in again and reminders of the day ahead dictate the schedule. Lunch orders to fill out, bags to pack, beds to make, laundry to wash. Rush, rush. Hustle, hustle. We move about with hardly a conscious thought to the wonder to which we just were given front row seats. Rushing through breakfast routines. Rushing through bed-making. Rushing to the van to make it to work/school on time. Forgetting commitments and then remembering them just in time. And realizing that it is duty day and someone has the wrong boots packed for the weather- just another highlight (low light). And it quickly becomes a day in which I find myself rushing everywhere, noticing little along the way.

But isn’t every day the same? And in all the rushing, I find myself just putting in time as I count down the minutes until each hour is over. Counting down hours until the day is done again.

This is no way to live.

Much later, we talk on the phone, she and I- chatting about this, that and the other, when she tells me that he has started counting little gratitudes. Counting blessings. I am touched by this- knowing what a test this will prove to be. He, who appears to have seemingly very little of which to be thankful for (at this point in the game), has taken up the challenge to count the ways in which he is grateful. And she mentions that he’s starting by noticing the little things- things that might mean nothing to anyone else- but which mean everything to those who have been challenged to be grateful.

Little blessings that mean everything to him.

I conjure up an image of him taking part in this ritual of counting gratitudes: and in my own mind, I am humbly inspired. For isn’t this the way? The way to truly experience light?

Light shines when we choose gratitude.

And yet, it isn’t until this very moment that I truly see light today, although I have witnessed the glorious natural wonder that is the sunrise from the vantage of my window. It isn’t until now- as darkness covers everything a velvet black- that I experience light. For in choosing to focus inward on that which envelopes me in darkness, I cannot see the truth of daylight, cannot appreciate the joy that is today. It is only in allowing the light to penetrate my soul that I am free.

So I too begin to number my many gratitudes, naming them one at a time. And I finally realize what I have been missing all along: the opportunity to make each moment as worthwhile as those precious minutes I spent drinking in a mid-winter sunrise early on a Monday morning. It’s all light if we allow it to shine.

And so. Like him, I will count- for if he can do this from a hospital bed with far less at his disposal, then so can I. I will name my gratitudes.

1. Steaming hot coffee in a tall mug.
2. Raisin bread toast laced with cinnamon.
3. Helpers at recess.
4. Laughs at bedtime with my girls.
5. Unexpected emails that make my day.

And of course there are always others. But for today, I am comforted by the light that I have already witnessed, this ritual of counting moving me ever closer to the Source of light as I name my little and big gratitudes, putting words to paper one by one.

Counting one simple blessing at a time.

Credit to Ann Voskamp for the challenge found in her beautiful book “One Thousand Gifts”.

When You Don’t Feel Thankful

Retrieved from Clouds 365 Blog

She stands folding clothes as they talk on the phone. A small stack of washcloths emerges as she reaches the end of the pile. She starts in on the socks trying to find matches while the other voice carries to her over phone wires. And all the while she is listening. Sometimes God speaks loudest when we are doing the basest of tasks. The laundry room can be a holy place.

“I am having a hard time feeling thankful,” she admits. It’s hard feeling thankful when you reach breaking point. When you are falling. When you lie face to the ground. This is not a place to say ‘thanks’- it’s a place to ask ‘why’. A place to demand answers, reasons, explanations.

Ground Zero is not a place for gratitude.

She closes the laundry room door and starts walking, phone to the ear.

There are so many biblical verses that tell us we will never be given more than we can handle and that there is always enough grace- but it is hard to believe. Sometimes. Hard to believe that God is enough. That we can live life. That there is more than enough strength thorough steady, common grace. Hard to believe that God’s grace is sufficient.  It’s a matter of perspective really. Not always circumstance.

For even in our darkest moments- there is light that shines.

I tap out words many hours later. The sun is just rising on a darkened world. Through the trees, I can see the beginnings of light. Through all obstacles, light shines through. Soon, there will be a brilliant display of glorious, epic proportions. There will be a wash of colour, a splash of pinks, oranges, yellows and reds. There will be a glorious sun rising. And it will be beautiful.

But in this given moment, it’s just a peek of light. A promise that more is on its way.  There is still darkness all around.  And if we didn’t know otherwise, we would think it would be like this forever.  But this we know: there is always the promise of a new day.  If yesterday wasn’t all it was suppose to be cracked up to be, well there is always today. Bleak night will turn into morning light.  We have this surety.

And even if that isn’t enough- if the promise of a new day with new hope isn’t enough, and I don’t really feel thankful or particularly grateful in spite of that hope, there are some things that can draw in in spite of my feelings, in spite of my circumstances and the particular place I find myself occupying in life RIGHT NOW. There are things I can still be thankful for…
1. Thankful that I have a choice in how I view my life. I can view it through a lens of despair or a lens of hope. I have at my disposal a choice: how am I going to view this. It’s mine to make.
2. Thankful that I have a choice in what I voice about my life. I can describe it in gloomy terms or in glowing terms. I have at my disposal a choice: how am I going to talk about this. It’s mine to make.
3. Thankful that I have a choice in how I interpret meaning for all the events in my life- both difficult and joyous as they stand right now. These events can be interpreted as disastrous shards that should be discarded or as beautiful pieces fitting for the masterpiece in the making that my life is.

I have at my disposal a choice: how am I going to talk about this. It’s mine to make.

I stop looking out the window and look deep into my soul- searching for light, for some kind of illumination. And I remember that I had found some earlier this week in an exchange made between two dying women, both of cancer- but one full of hope and promise, the other without either of those spiritually speaking. And this is what the latter said in her beautiful letter to the woman bent on ending it all:

“Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known.” (Kara Tippetts)

Although life is full of pain and suffering and tears and unknowns, our lives are not meant to suffer through, to log as if in a chart book- ‘glad that day’s done’, to check off as over and finished. They are meant to be lived. To be experienced. Enjoyed and known. To be analyzed and understood as part of a Master Design. Meant to be celebrated. For each single day on its own is beautiful or terrible, depending on the perspective I might have had that particular day: but the entirety of the life is beautiful. And in our suffering, along with our joy, we find that God is making something incredible of all the pieces.

But He’s not finished with us yet.

Sometimes when things seem the messiest, the most work on the exquisite design is underway. And even when we don’t FEEL thankful, we can still BE grateful that the design is still in process.  It’s not completed yet. It’s just getting started. And it will be something beautiful- a breathtaking display of glorious wonder. When all is said and done.

We just have to strive to believe.

The Art of Appreciation

I was reading a blog the other day that gave kudos to teachers, in support of Teacher Appreciation Week. It talked about the work that teachers do and acknowledged teachers and educational assistants as doing important, worthwhile things, in both academic and other areas, so as to support children and young people in their growth, learning and development. It talked a lot about the little unnoticed things that teachers do, things that often fall below the radar as far as visibility. It was a nice article- it made you feel good to read it.

Particularly if you were a teacher.

And then I scrolled through the comments.

And as I did, I came across some negative feedback- as there so often is- to counter the opinions of the author. Comments placed there so as to undermine the author’s attempts at acknowledging her intended audience: teachers. Comments placed there to whine about why other groups of people hadn’t been thanked. Comments placed there to diminish the efforts of individuals committed to their calling and willing to make sacrifices so as to continue doing so. They were rather hurtful comments to read, whether one was a teacher or not.

I am a teacher. But these comments didn’t irk me because I am a teacher. They irked me because I am a human being. A person with a desire to continually acknowledge the best in people and thus see and commend the value of other human beings in service, whomever those individuals might be. And I do this, quite often, through the art of appreciation. Which is to say: I try to watch others. And whatever they might be doing or saying or being matters to me. So much so, that I try to extend to them, as often as I can, a word of appreciation. Thanks and gratitude. It’s not rocket science- but it is pretty important stuff: actually, it’s how I was taught to be by my own gracious mother. So I continue to do so as often as I can. And it is what I now teach the next generation to do as well- my students and four children as well.

It’s quite easy really. Appreciate people. Tell them once in a while what they mean to you. Carry on and repeat.

Couldn’t be simpler.

But I am finding, at times, that this ability of ours as people, to appreciate others: it is passed over in favor of the all-important critique. It is more trendy to critique someone on their performance, abilities or job and less favorable to find the best about them instead. It is more interesting to find fault. Less interesting to build up. More interesting to point fingers rather than to join hands.

As a result, we are losing much, not the least of which is a dying art. That is, the art of appreciating people and things and ideas. The ability to recognize possibility. Particularly, the potential in another human being and then acknowledge that same person for their endeavours. I think that we as people can never do enough appreciating in this life. And it certainly should never come at the expense of a lost opportunity taken instead to undermine another human being’s worthy attempts at celebrating other human beings for their efforts.

Appreciation matters.

My students had a tea party for their mother’s today. It is my third annual tea party for mothers. I once also threw a pizza party for fathers. It is possibly in the works again for this year. The point of me telling this is because the whole event is organized so that my students can take time to think about and reflect on their parents and the hard work they do at raising them. The important work they do in loving them. And thus come to appreciate them a little more. We spend time thinking about what parents do. How they look after us. How they provide for us. We take time to thank them. We sing songs in praise of them. We prepare things that we know they will like and then we serve them. We let them eat and drink first, for a change. In short, we take time to honor their legacy.

It’s very important work- and not just for five and six years olds. It just might be some of the most significant work I do with my students all year. I take it very seriously.

What I am trying to say here is this: we need to instill in our children, our young people and thus in adults as well, the value of appreciation. The worth of acknowledgment. The importance of telling people what they mean to us. The art of appreciation.

Not because we as receivers of this praise need it so as to shore up our self esteem.
Not because we are needy of accolades.
Not because we can’t function unless we have a set number of compliments.
Not for our egos.

But for our souls. Because quite simply, we matter.

No matter what we do we matter. That’s because people matter.

And because our person matters: our contributions thus matter, our influence matters and our legacy matters.

And when we are told as much, it causes us to want to do the same for another human being, starting a chain of appreciation to begin to form.
One can only imagine what ways this world could change with such a chain. Such a possibility for seeing worth in the world around us.
It is quite simply the power that is the art of appreciation.

And I believe that when we appreciate, there is no end to the possibilities for hope.

It’s just that influential.

Thank you

Over the years, I have had moments as a teacher so memorable they have left a significant, lasting impression. Imprinting forever in my long-term memory the emotions that were felt when that experience occurred.

I remember a particularly difficult teaching assignment in which I took over a short-term social studies position at the high school level for a teacher with long-term illness. Who actually passed away during my time in his classroom. I was seven months pregnant with our third child, taking on three new-to-me high school courses, mid-way through the term. Not only that, there were special circumstances surrounding my hiring, along with some very special students in the classes I would be teaching. Students who were not easily persuaded or motivated to tow the line. To say it was a challenge would have been an understatement.  Overwhelmed was more suitable a word in describing how I felt about my assignment at the time.

Towards the end of June, after exams finished and marks had been submitted, I was helping the school’s graduation committee one day with various tasks associated with the graduation ceremony.  At some point, and truthfully- I can’t remember exactly how it happened,  a Grade 12 student arrived at my classroom door with a note in hand. After he left, I opened the card, and this is what I read:

Ms. Gard,
Thank you for everything you taught me. I know it was not easy to step in and take over the class, and we had to deal with a lot of unfortunate things. All things considered, you did an excellent job. Thank you for being there and seeing that we learned all that we needed.
Thank you.

Two little words. So simple, yet so powerful. So meaningful. And oh! how motivating to me as the teacher.

The whole of that message was really condensed into two little words of gratitude.  Of thankfulness.  Words that we  use at times without realizing their incredible importance in the life of another.   Have we ever stopped to consider them? For there are times when those two little words are the only ones necessary, all that needs to be spoken.  For truly, those two little words have all the power to change and impact like no two other little words in the English language. They are influential.

Game changers of the best variety.

They can melt a heart of stone. Can break a cycle of apathy. Can mend a broken fence. Build a bridge. Heal a wound. Make everything worthwhile. Those two words have sway. Gentle authority. And while there are many ways in which these two little words can be spoken. Many ways in which they can be used to convey the full sense of gratitude of which they speak, there really isn’t anything more powerful than the simplicity of those two little words.

Thank you.

Tonight, I want to say thank you.

Thank you to all those students who have crossed my path in years gone by and in these present days.
Thank you to the girl who recognized me at the drugstore two weeks ago as her music teacher back in Grade 1.
Thank you to the young man at Walmart a while back who remembered me from his junior high days.
Thank you to my neighbour’s son who walked with me the other evening and shared his heart as well as happenings of his day with me.
Thank you to my little friend from Grade3 whom I see at the pool twice a week now. Whom I love to chat with and sometimes like to tease.
Thank you to my own seven little ones in kindergarten who have taught me how to love unconditionally.
Thank you to the little boy who met me at the door today and confided to me a heartfelt sorrow. I treasure that trust.
Thank you to the boys and girls of Bloomfield- every one of them. The ones who ask me to supervise hockey games, the ones who chat with me in the halls, the ones whom I work with in extra-curricular activities, the ones who keep me company on duty.
Thank you to the little one who always writes me love letters.
Thank you.

You have blessed me in ways I could never express. My life is fuller, more beautiful. Because of all of you.

And for that and so much more, I am forever grateful

A few words on gratitude…

I am steering the van towards after-school destination numero deux in project “My Life as a Chauffer.”   A tired Kindergartener rides solo in the backseat, a motley assortment of Foodland bags/backpacks/other odds and ends ride shotgun in the passenger side.  And all the while, Veggie Tales blares in the background.  One male character says to his sidekick, “Do you think she’ll like me?”    To which comes the response, “She has to like you…under order of banishment or imprisonment.”

I wish I could jump into the script and wring that little gourd’s rubbery neck.  But I resist.   Because in a world of cartoon characters, it is that easy.  To draw the lines, shade in the edges and round out the scene.  If you want it to happen, it will happen.  Just write it in the script.  If you want a happy ending, wave the magic wand.  Done.

If only life were so easy.

And when real life is factored into the equation.  And the show is over and real-life begins.  That’s when the truest test of character is evidenced.  When the chips are down, and everything is laid bare to the raw bones.  It’s when we are at our lowest that we see what stuff we’re really made of.

Can we truly find joy even in weariness?

It’s the gradual wearing away, the erosion of patience and understanding and empathy that really hurts.  The endless trips we make back and forth, from home to goodness know where else.  It’s the lack of time for meaningful conversations.  The sleepless nights.  The gray hair.  It’s the little things that wear us down and make it hard to be thankful.

Living life with gratitude sometimes means one must offer thanks at the most un-opportune moments. Uttering words of gratitude even for those things in life of which one is not always fully enjoying, passionately loving, deriving pleasure or benefiting greatly from nor receiving back a large measure of happiness.  Sometimes we give thanks for the smallest of things.  And in the one item of thankfulness, it can often more than balance the scales in the long run.  Life lived in gratitude is the truest measure of joy.

Tonight.  I am thankful for:

  1. My ignorant bliss this morning as I slept in almost an hour past my alarm.  My body needed that little bit extra.
  2. Not losing my patience as I coped with having slept in way past what I should have done.
  3. Nutri-grain bars. Great breakfast option on the run.
  4. That domino game I forgot about.  As I also forgot my math teacher’s edition, it was a great pinch-hit for a harried teacher.
  5. My colleague who offered me a domino worksheet last Thursday.  Whoever would have dreamed it would’ve come in so handy (#loveyoumarlenewarren)
  6. Five-year old helpers.  Who are almost already out the door even before I get my thoughts out of my head and into words.
  7. A husband who packed my lunch today.  And always.
  8. Cell-phones that are not broken.
  9. Schedules that allow windows of opportunity.
  10. Supper meals without fighting.

 

And these, dear friends, are just a few of my favorite things.

Why say thanks?

Lights dimmed, a lone candle lit.  All is warm and cozy, safe and sound.  The Little One and I snuggle under plush covers, heads touching on the pillow. Her fine baby hair spreads fan-like, soft tendrils all around. So light.  So easy to be a child.  And yet.

I just feel heavy beside her.  But still I listen to prayers.  Looking, as ever for gratitude in the offerings.  She utters words and so do I.  But my heart is just not in it tonight.  Not in the thankfulness-spirit of it all.

I’m struggling.

How can we be thankful in everything?

I mean, really.  Everything?  You’ve got to be kidding me, right?

I have to stop and share this story.

We arrive for a sleepover, the three girls and I.   My family’s home place, warm and inviting on a bitterly- cold, January evening.   I climb the staircase and round the kitchen corner to find Mom’s water cooler in two pieces, a towel under the floor next to the spot where the container had previously sat atop the base.  The over-sized jug stands, stark naked on the middle of the table, half full of water.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Oh,” she says with a tired voice.  I came home this morning after having been away for a few hours to find the kitchen full of water.  Everywhere, water.”

She tells me of the arduous process of cleaning it all up.  Of taking every piece of china out of the cabinet so as to pull the huge piece of furniture away from the wall.  Of cleaning the leaking mess all around the baseboards and behind every table and cupboard that might move.  Of the hassle this undoubtedly was.

And then she says this.

“And to think.  I had just told Him (my brother) the other day how much I loved that water cooler, and how good the water tasted!  And now.  It’s gone.  Just like that.”

We talked for a bit about the ways in which this seems to happen quite often to her, dear Mom.  And we both got to thinking of particular stories just lately in which Mom has specifically lost something dear to her heart that she had made a point of being thankful for.  For instance.  The time when she had just finished saying a little prayer of thanks for the small electric heater in her bedroom that had been given to her as a gift.  And then literally, five minutes later, it made a noise and blew a fuse.

And that was the end of that little luxury.

Or this one.  The day last fall when my mother was caring for some of her six grandbabies and the older ones took an hour to run wildly through the field behind her house.  And so did she.  And when she stopped to catch her breath, in those precious moments in which this special memory transpired, she stopped to also say a quick prayer that went something like this: “Thank you God that I can still run with my grandkids, and that I have the energy to move in this way.”  And how not long after, she hit her leg hard on a bench in her home and injured it permanently.  So that she has never been able to run again in this manner.

And to think.  She had just stopped to breathe a prayer of gratitude for this also.

Mom jokingly added this thought: “That’s why I never say thanks to God for my four children! (who knows what would happen if I did?)”

She jests.  Of course she does, say ‘thanks’.

But what of the Others who do so also?  Those Significant Others in my life who have said countless ‘thanks’ for that precious of all gifts, a child, only to lose that very gift of which they uttered words of gratitude.  That Father awakened at midnight by two police officers telling him that his beloved daughter had been in a car crash and was now gone into eternity.  That Mother also receiving her bitter news, only this time it was a daughter maimed and her near–to-birth baby in utero, dead.   That Man who loved his job but lost it, all because of Parkinson’s.  That Boy who lost his eyesight.  That Girl who sits day after day in a wheel chair, only to have food trickle out of her mouth even as someone spoons it in, her eyes crusted over from infection.  Her head indented from where the snow plow blade sliced skin and bone.

These all.  Prayed over, and with thankful hearts, beloved.  But life, and love and livelihood taken anyway.  Even in the midst of gratitude and thankfulness.

The questions pile over and over in my head, tumbling in a free fall as if they have reached a precipice and due to forces of nature, have fallen over the edge.  And so might I, sometime.  But for the grace of God.

And all these questions beg an even greater question.  Were these people, these things, this precious stuff of which we make our lives so wonderful and rich, were they ever ours to begin with?  And is anything ever really ours?  Do we hold in our possession any thing, any one?  Can we lay claim to anything…ever?  What can we hold as our own?

Job 1:18-21 (NIV)

“While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house.  It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!  At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head.  Then he fell to the ground in worship and said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.  The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

I am not Job.  Nor do I have the wisdom of Solomon.  Neither am I a staunch gratitude champion or a simple idealist.  But when I think about gratefulness, I think that this thankful-spiritedness means this: acknowledging what I have (nothing), what I owe (everything) and why I am grateful (because all of life, from the brevity to the length of it, from the richness to the poverty of it, from the joy to the sorrow of it, it is all His).

And because all of life is a gift, I am grateful.  And even in this one small thing, in the acknowledgement of so great a truth, we can give thanks.  Even when the asking is hard.  And even when the answers never come.