A disciple of gratitude
It is amazing how God gives us what we really need at exactly the right time.
O Lord, that lends me life, lend me a heart replete with thankfulness!
Unlike Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries, Thanksgiving is not often thought of as a “trigger” time for those who are grieving. I didn’t fully realize how hard Thanksgiving was for me until my pastor asked me during a meeting to plan the Thanksgiving service. My first reaction was complete panic, then, holding back tears, I spat out: “No, sorry, I can’t do that service.”
That experience brought to the surface something I had been stuffing down for some time. While I had accepted my son’s death, I was bitter; and each blow that came after – each additional loss – only increased my ingratitude. I started to avoid Thanksgiving services as they made me feel like a fraud. An imposter before the throne of God.
Rewind back to July 2009. I was over 40 weeks pregnant with our second child, ecstatic that I had enjoyed a relatively easy pregnancy compared to my first pregnancy, in which I had dealt with multiple complications. Our first baby, a boy, was born early with a bit of jaundice and a very bruised head. All in all, he was miraculously healthy and even our doctor was in awe of his survival.
Our second pregnancy seemed to be problem-free and our son Zachery Liam was born in the early hours of a summer day. I don’t remember the people or the room but I do remember the sounds. A solitary squawk. Beeps of machines, but not a single cry. Code Pink on the paging system. The hushed whispers of the NICU team. Squeaking wheels of the incubator as he was rushed out of the room surrounded by nurses and doctors. I couldn’t catch a glimpse of him.
I didn’t see my son until six long hours later. That night, Zac was transferred to Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto where he was diagnosed with a rare and fatal brain malformation. I was released early from our hospital to be with him. Zac died in my arms just four days after his birth.
I hadn’t known loss before that day. Nothing could have prepared me for the darkness that would follow. I clung to the promises that God would draw us to peace, into the eye of the storm. Promises that one day our mourning would turn to joy. But in the years that followed, that rainbow never broke through the clouds.
With each new trial, the fear that had settled in my chest became more paralysing. Our third child, a baby girl, was born premature due to entirely different issues from her brothers and was swept away with a Code Pink just like Zac. She spent her first weeks in the NICU wrapped up in wires and breathing tubes. When she was five days old, I was finally able to hold her. It soothed the ache in my arms but not the knife-sharp pain in my heart. Instead of healing, the thanklessness in my heart thickened. I was Mara.
It is amazing how God gives us what we really need at exactly the right time. One foggy summer morning, I picked up a book that had been sitting on my shelf for almost a year.
I had heard about Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts at a women’s leadership retreat but after receiving the book as a gift, I wasn’t ready to read it. I didn’t want to let go of my thorns. And so it was shelved next to the Children’s Bibles. If I had purchased a book that summer, it would not have been about gifts and gratitude but, rather, a book that cried, “Why God? Why have you forsaken us?”
That morning, a few months after the murder of my friend, I was spiralling into bitterness. I didn’t want to keep living this way so I opened the pages of that waiting book. I cried as I read “Here in the messy, piercing ache of now, joy might be – unbelievably – possible!” Voskamp told of how a lifestyle of thanksgiving, or eucharisteo, transformed her life. Eucharisteo is a Greek word that means “giving thanks” but also in its root contains chara (deep joy) and charis (grace).
Her words sank deep into my mirky, discontent heart.
So many thoughts and questions surfaced. I had spent half a decade keeping tabs on my misfortunes and making a habit of feeling sorry for myself. I wasn’t sure if I was fully ready to let go of my pain. And how does one just grab hold of “giving thanks”?
I started to search through the books on my shelves. Dutch writer and theologian Henri Nouwen provided insight in Return of the Prodigal Son: “In the past, I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline.”
This idea of thanksgiving as a conscious, disciplined choice rather than merely a natural emotional reaction was a new concept to me. With the persistent weight of sorrow crushing me, could I really choose to be thankful?
As I turned more pages and found Shakespeare’s lines from Henry VI – lines I’ve read many times before – the repeated word “lend” danced before me. Could it be that simple? Could I borrow gratitude? Could I beg my Maker to open my eyes to all the blessings he bestows on me?
I dared to ask.
Back to life
I remember sitting at the kitchen table that day as the sun shone through the rain-stained trees. And there it was – a double rainbow. God wanted to reconstitute my hardened heart.
Starting to see each and every moment as a gift was His gift. I didn’t want to forget again, so to be intentional I started writing a
list just as Voskamp had done. First I wrote simple things like “Silly baby jabber through the monitor” or “Sleepy smiles after a good night’s sleep.”
It was sometimes awkward. Sometimes forced. I think Nouwen’s words say it best:
The choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort. But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace.
The discipline of gratitude, this attempt to acknowledge each moment’s blessings as a gift of love, has brought me back to life. Really living, not with fearful, bitter acceptance but seeing God’s love in the midst of the fallen world.
I wish I could say that I am a perfectly transformed person. Just as my grief comes in waves, so does my thanks-living. There is still a protest inside of me. Mornings where I must choose to place my feet on the ground and beg God to show me the beauty and blessings.
And there are the moments when I can’t even fight. Moments like the one last July, just days before the sixth anniversary of Zac’s birth and death, holding my daughter in my arms as she gasped for air, fighting for what we often take for granted, the gift of breath. Turbulent wheezes came from her throat as we fearfully waited for the sound of emergency sirens to break through the darkness of the night.
In those moments and those that follow, fear drowns gratitude and all my lips can utter is a tormented, “Why God? How is this your plan?” But my heart is human. A sinful and broken heart. A heart indebted to the grace that covers the moments I cannot see God’s goodness.
Every living thing groans under the curse of God’s separation from us. That permanent ache, the part of my heart that will forever miss my baby boy, reminds me of this daily. But with all its brokenness, this world still contains so much to be thankful for.
Thanks before the miracle
Voskamp writes that when Jesus gave thanks, eucharisteo, it always preceded the miracle. For me, this came in the gift of another baby girl. The miracle wasn’t a perfect pregnancy. The miracle was that, despite experiencing even more medical problems during this pregnancy, I didn’t get lost in the fog. I could still see God’s blessings in the middle of the messiness. When she was born full-term, she wasn’t whisked away by a team of specialists like the others. She was wrapped up in a blanket and handed to us, without wires and minutes old. Another gift.
Eucharisteo, the act of thanksgiving, is completely wrapped up into God’s story, beginning to end. From ingratitude in the Garden of Eden to Christ giving thanks at the Lord’s Supper hours before our redemption on the cross. God’s story will never cease to amaze me and I want to spend this lended lifetime looking for his goodness and gifts of love. And so I will try to count my blessings, count them one by one.
Praise the Lord O my Soul. Forget not all his benefits.
– Psalm 103