Cultivating a Thankful Heart during Hard Times

Cultivating a Thankful Heart

Recently, we celebrated Thanksgiving in Canada. My family’s Thanksgiving celebration involves a feast overflowing with foods such as mashed potatoes and gravy, turkey, stuffing, ham, meatballs, coleslaw, corn, salad, and buns. For dessert, I usually make a pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Sometimes my mom makes cheesecake, sometimes she makes apple pie. When my grandma was still alive, there would also be cherry Jell-O with fruit cocktail buried inside.

Our Thanksgiving feast starts at one p.m. My family is still small enough that we can all squish around the dinner table where we gather and eat until we are full to bursting.

But we don’t just eat. We talk and laugh. Sometimes we laugh so much that we cry, especially when the bathroom humour makes its way into the conversation (you can count on it to be there). If you’re squeamish, I wouldn’t recommend sitting at our dinner table, particularly now that we have two firefighters and one paramedic in the family who share some of their work experiences.

We reminisce and form new memories. We watch my niece play and try to cuddle with the cats (who hate it) and the dogs (who love it). Sometimes we’ll play board games if the mood strikes or just move the conversation to the living room with plates piled high with dessert.

When suppertime arrives, the leftovers come out of the fridge and we eat again. Then the leftovers get packed up in empty margarine containers and distributed to each separate family to take home.

Whenever I return home after a family gathering, I feel full, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Spending time with my family revives in me that feeling of being at home. It doesn’t matter where our family gatherings are hosted, whether they be at my parents’ place, my place, or my sisters’ places—it always feels like coming home.

In 1971, Elvis Presley recorded a song titled, “Home is where the Heart is.” I would go even further to say that home is where family is. A family doesn’t have to be biological or through marriage bonds—a family can simply be the people who love and care for you and whom you love and care for.

I’m especially thankful for my family. We have been through a lot together and we have had (and still have) more than our share of hardships, but those hardships have bonded us together like glue, and not just any ordinary glue—it’s a Crazy Glue kind of bond. There is very little that can separate us—we’ve already been through the fire and survived.

(One day, when I have been given permission, I will share the story of my family’s trials, but for right now, our story is still too raw and painful, and further healing is needed for all members of my family before our story can be shared.)

The love I share with my family reminds me of the love God has for all of His children. His love is also a Crazy Glue kind of love—absolutely nothing will break His love bond. In his letter to the Romans, Paul explains the permanency of God’s love:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:35, 37-39 NIV

Romans 8:38

How powerful is that? Nothing bad that happens in our lives can change the love God has for us. Not even death has power over us!

This past year, has been an especially hard year for many people all across the world. Not only are we plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic on a global scale (over one million people have lost their lives at the time I write this), but we are also on the cusp of an economic collapse. Businesses are closing, countless people have lost their jobs, and many more may lose their homes.

In addition, 2020 has been the year of social justice reform in North America, especially in the United States. Stories of social injustice have been rising to the forefront of our collective consciousness, bringing to light the horrific and traumatic treatment peoples of colour have suffered at the hands of White Supremacy and supposed Democracy.

There’s no doubt that 2020 is a hard year, perhaps even the most difficult my generation has seen yet. If my grandparents were still alive, they might scoff at what we call hardship and say, Sweetie, you ain’t seen nothing yet! After all, my grandparents lived their childhoods during the First and Second Wars (one of my grandfathers fought in World War II) which was followed by the Dirty Thirties where many people suffered extreme poverty. Talk about hardship!

But for my generation, this is the worst we have ever lived through (with some exceptions), and it’s not over yet. We are in this for the long haul. Even if we found a vaccine for the pandemic and were all inoculated before the year’s end (which is impossible at this point in time), it will take time for the economy to recover, and we still have to figure out how to change our entire democratic and legal systems to ensure all peoples have equal rights and protection under democracy and the law, not just one race of peoples.

We have a lot of work ahead of us. I bet you’re thinking, how dare you even title speak about thankfulness during a time such as this! What is there to be thankful for when the world is going to hell in a hand basket?

That’s a good question: what is there to be thankful for in 2020?

I can’t answer this question for you because I don’t know your story or your situation. But I can tell you why it’s important to find reasons to be thankful, even if you can only find one reason at this present time.

Practicing gratitude plays an integral role in our lives, as so adequately explained by Melody Beattie in her book, The Language of Letting Go: Hazelden Meditation Series:

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Melody Beattie

When we practice thankfulness, especially during difficult times, we are focusing on the good things in our lives, not on the bad. We are practicing what’s called a positive mindset. But it goes beyond simply being positive. By focusing on the good, we are preventing the bad from possessing power over us and allowing evil to get a foothold in our lives.

Focusing on the good doesn’t mean we pretend bad things aren’t constantly texting us spammy messages in an attempt to entrap us to click the link and let a virus get a foothold in our lives. It means that we say, “No, thank you, I’m not interested,” and press delete. It means that we continue looking for the good and saying thanks in spite of the bad.

In her book, Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way, Shauna Niequist puts it this way, “When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow.”

Shauna Niequist

Remember the story of Joseph in Genesis Chapter 37 of the Bible? Remember when his jealous brothers sold him into slavery to the Egyptians? Remember how he rose from slavery and prison to a position of power in Pharaoh’s house and all the land of Egypt?

Bad things happen to Joseph. He is betrayed by his own family and sent to live a life of exile as a slave in a foreign country. Rather than let his circumstances dictate his response, he works hard for his new master and rises to a position of power in Potiphar’s household (Genesis Chapter 39).

Then he is betrayed again, this time by his master’s wife, who accuses him of rape because he chooses to maintain his integrity by refusing to commit adultery with her and he is thrown in prison. Again, he chooses to uphold his integrity and works hard for the prison warden, earning the respect of the prison warden and his fellow inmates (Genesis Chapter 39).

This keeps on until Joseph receives recognition by Pharaoh himself and rises to a position of power over all of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. Then famine strikes the land, but Egypt doesn’t suffer because of the wisdom God bestowed on Joseph to prepare for hardship (Genesis Chapter 41).

After some time, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt begging for food because of the severity of the famine. Joseph has the perfect opportunity to exact revenge on his brothers for what they did to him all those years ago, but instead he recognizes God’s hand working behind-the-scenes to ensure the survival of the Israelites, and he makes the choice to forgive his brothers, saying to them: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20 NIV).

Genesis 50:20

Joseph could have chosen to dwell on the hardships he endured in his life. After all, he had good reason to be angry about his lot in life. He could have taken out his anger on anyone and everyone who even looked his way. He could have been bitter and resentful towards God, and turned his back on Him.

But he didn’t. Instead, he chose to give his best and say thanks despite his terrible circumstances. He didn’t allow bitterness and anger to consume him and turn him into a bitter old man. He thanked God for working something good out of something so bad.

Joseph’s story serves as an exemplary reminder that God can take any bad situation in our lives and weave it into something good and beautiful. By placing our trust in Him, we concede to God’s role in our story, or more appropriately, our role in God’s story and the story of the world.

Bad things happen, and bad things will always happen while we live in a fallen world. It’s okay to be sad and even angry each time something bad happens in our lives, but we have to choose how we respond to that anger and sadness.

We can choose to let our bad circumstances consume us until we become so full of bitterness that it spews from us like a cloud of poisonous gases, destroying everything good that could ever come from our bad situation. Or we can be like Joseph and choose to put our trust in God and simply say thanks for giving us another day even if it’s not the kind of day we had hoped for.

It’s your choice. But I can tell you from experience that the first choice is not a good road to go down. In fact, it’s downright painful and hurts more than the initial wound. It’s a path of darkness and despair, hopelessness and hate, and it will consume you until there is nothing left of you but a dried out husk.

I chose to go down that first road many years ago, and now I’m suffering the consequences of that choice, a consequence that has manifested into an affliction on my physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. It’s an affliction that can’t be so easily removed from my life in order to return to a state of wellness. I may even always have to carry this affliction with me as a reminder of the poor choices I made in the past which now affect my present.

However, despite having to live with the consequences of my past choices, I also live with the hope that through my weakness I find strength in God, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10b NIV).

When bad things happen in our lives, we can still say thank you with the confidence that God is weaving a beautiful tapestry from my story and from yours. One day, He will present the finished tapestry to us as a gift and we will see it for all its splendour and glory.

So despite the hardships you may endure throughout the course of your life, you can still practice thankfulness even if it’s only something as simple as saying thanks for the sunlight or for waking up in a warm bed. Chief Tecumseh, Shawnee leader and leader of the Native American Confederacy in the early 19th century, states, “When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living.”

Chief Tecumseh

But if you can’t find a reason to be thankful at all, just start with the basics and say, “Thank you.” No other reason is required to express your gratitude.

You are not alone.

You. Are. Loved.

Unconditionally.

I hope you find love, hope and peace in these words.

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