Of all the spiritual lessons I've learned, one of the most important is choosing to give thanks. When we teach our young children to say "please" and "thank you," it is a lesson in politeness. When God teaches us to say "thank you" in the midst of our messy lives, it is a lesson in perspective. . .that eventually colors the way we see life.
Though my story is not your story, it may be helpful to you in this Thanksgiving season to see how it played out in another person's life.
Real life is messy
Nearly 30 years ago, my husband and I were off for a weekend trip to the beach on Friday afternoon, leaving our children with friends. Sounds lovely and luxurious, doesn't it? However, though the view was lovely, it was a working weekend—I was expected to write the script for an extensive church musical, and the deadline was Monday. The reason for going to the beach was that it was the only place I had enough quiet and "creative space" to write the 3-times-per-year scripts that our church production committee required.
As far as luxury, we went on the "cheap" because the church was picking up the tab. It was the only way we could have afforded it, since we were a one-income homeschooling family and my husband was a public school teacher. Finances were so challenging that, when our family no longer fit in our old pickup truck, we couldn't afford to buy something else. A friend at church, noticing our problem, offered his extra car to us until we could make other arrangements.
It was this borrowed car that we were taking to the beach on Friday afternoon. Before leaving town, we stopped briefly at the grocery store to buy ingredients to make our own meals at the beach. That's when our story really begins.
As we got back into the car, it wouldn't start. The engine was dead, not a spark left. And I got so angry with God in that moment!
"Really?? We're on our way to work all weekend on a script for the church, it's due on Monday, and You know I can't write it with all the noise and chaos at home!! Why would You do this to me???? It's not FAIR!!!!"
We called some friends on the production committee, explained the situation, and they graciously brought another car for us to use for the weekend. Two hours later than we had planned, we finally left town. . . leaving the first borrowed car in the neighborhood store parking lot.
The two hour trip to the Oregon coast was not the delightful time originally envisioned. Seething and scared, I was humiliated by our financial need, fearful of what it would cost to fix the car, and angry with God for this disappointing mess in the midst of my "serving."
Early the next morning, I woke to the sounds of waves breaking on the beach—one of my favorite sounds in the world. Quietly, I left my husband sleeping, and went out to the tiny ocean-facing balcony with my Bible and coffee. There would be only a short time for reflection and prayer before the work of scripting began, but in the beauty of that moment, I sat quietly with the Lord.
Opening my Bible, I came to 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.
I couldn't believe my eyes as the words "give thanks in all circumstances" lit up like neon lights in my mind.
"Are You kidding????? You expect me to GIVE THANKS in this circumstance????? With a broken borrowed car and no money to fix it????"
It sounded like utter craziness. . .and, yet, it felt like the God of the universe was gently showing me that giving thanks was exactly what He had in mind for me. Feeling utterly ridiculous but wanting to be obedient, I quietly whispered, "Okay, Lord, I thank You right now, even in this mess."
When my husband woke, I asked if we could walk on the beach so I could share something rather startling with him. With the sound of the breakers accompanying my words, I told him how that verse had lit up in unexpected clarity, and that I had known in no uncertain terms that God was asking us to give thanks to Him right in the midst of our scary, messy situation.
As is often the case, God has already been speaking to my husband's heart, so sitting together on a piece of driftwood, we committed that we would, from this point forward, give thanks to God in the various circumstances of our lives. At that point, a huge burden rolled off our shoulders. We actually felt lighter, like we weren't alone in the mess. God was present and He would walk us through all that was to come.
When you make a commitment, it's always tested, right?
Arriving home with the script completed, I began to unpack as my husband immediately left with a friend to tow the other car home from the grocery store. In the short time he was gone, though, my mother called and said she had hurt both legs and was confined temporarily to a wheelchair. She needed me to come that day to help her get ready for a trip later that week. I took a look at my small children, my house in need of some TLC, and my overfull homeschooling schedule, and said, "Oh, Mom, I'm so sorry that happened! Sure, I'll come as soon as I can." Thanking the Lord for His goodness even in the midst of this unexpected demand, I started packing up homeschool books and getting my kids ready to go with me.
A short time later, my husband walked in. I said, "You'll never believe this, but my mom hurt both of her legs, is in a wheelchair, and needs me to come help her for the next several days. I actually was able to say, 'Thank You, God, for this one!'" He looked curiously at me and said, "Well, when I went to get the car, I found that someone had thrown concrete blocks through the back windows, and there is glass everywhere in the car. I thought, 'Well, thank You, God, that You are with us!'"
We looked at each other in surprise, dismay, and hilarity. It was so over the top that we burst out laughing till tears rolled down our faces.
"Lord, we don't have a clue how this is going to turn out, but we are going to give You thanks, no matter what!"
The Path of Perspective
The baby-steps we took that day in giving thanks set our feet on a new path. At times the road has been steep and rocky, sometimes it's been dark and threatening, but the perspective gained on the beach that day has brought hope, cheer, and a deepening awareness that we do not face life—even the messy parts—alone.
What I've learned is that as we develop the practice of giving thanks to God, we will see the colors of our life grow deeper and richer.