Saturday, January 1, 2011

Reflections on the Year of Thanksgiving

With clear direction from God, I have spent one year blogging about that for which I am thankful. My original thought was to make brief one-sentence to one-paragraph statements each evening. Instead, I have discovered verbosity an incurable malformity of my nature. Ask me what time it is and I am driven to build you a clock, with instructions and a history lesson on the meaning of “time.” I have known about my condition for decades; I have long ago analyzed and theorized about its origins. But not until this year have I grasped the extent of its hold on my psyche.

I began this year with two simple goals for the project. First and foremost was to be obedient to God. I have not questioned why He gave me this assignment. I have always thought of myself as a thankful person. And so I did not begin with a sense that God was forcing me to develop an unwanted character trait. I had a suspicion He was going to do an inner work and teach me some things and I was hopeful about His grace touching some of my inner struggles through the process, but I did not give much attention to possible outcomes for the exercise.

My second goal was to develop discipline and skills as a writer. I have known for some time that I would spend much of my latter ministry as a writer. I have never felt gifted in this arena. But God spoke it into my heart when I was a grad student at Wheaton College. One of our peers was an editor at one of the Christian publishing companies in the area. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember vividly one brief conversation. I made a comment about being impressed with her skills as a writer and that I would love to have that talent but I could never see myself as a writer. She responded with what was a Word from the Lord for me, “I think you are wrong. One day you will be a writer and a good one.”

Those words were burned into my soul. I have just known that God’s call on my life included writing. I have also known that ministry would develop in the latter portion of my vocational life. I entered this project on thanksgiving with a desire to become a better writer. With just a couple of exceptions, my prior writings have been stiff and inclined toward the academic. My desire is to communicate in an engaging, and where appropriate, entertaining way. Perhaps I am delusional or misguided, but I am committed to this effort.

At this juncture, it is irrelevant how many people might read what I write. With the advent of the internet, my calling might not even require my work be publishable. I’ll just keep blogging. My fondest hope is that I be found faithful to the heavenly calling. My prayer is that I might be a blessing to someone. My expectation is that I will learn and grow through the process and in that may He be glorified and may I somehow be found pleasing in His sight. All things are possible.

Through this effort I have discovered some things about myself and some things about thankfulness. The discoveries are interwoven I have noted some of these observations in previous blogs, but I will pull some of them together and add to them here.

At the half-way point I wrote: I have been writing this series on being thankful for almost six months. I have discovered a few things about myself and thankfulness. First, being thankful is easier than being creative. Second, being thankful is sometimes spontaneous and sometimes hard work. Third, expressing thankfulness is a window to one’s soul. Some of the things I am most thankful for are too personal to share. All of the things I share expose my inner self. Fourth (a corollary to the previous), expressing thanks is an exercise in humility. This may seem obvious, but this public discipline has made me aware that the more deep my thankfulness the more conscious I am of my weakness. True thankfulness often is an acknowledgement of our own insufficiency. Fifth, thankfulness may be married to the whole spectrum of emotions: joy, grief, fear, hope. Sixth, expressed thankfulness is sometimes a diversion from deeper, more self-disclosing, thankfulness. Seventh, thankfulness is sometimes more difficult to express than to feel. Expressed thankfulness is a statement about the person/object of thankfulness. It is an effort to honor and therefore requires careful wording lest the other person be dishonored. Ungracious grace can disgrace.

[I had another entry of reflection on August 31 : .]

At this point, I would observe that I began the year with an emphasis on grace. The grace I wrote about centered on God’s voice. I am very thankful for those times God has spoken a word to me. These personal theophanies have been central to my life. Even their absences have been critical in my formation. Looking back over those entries it dawns on me that the grace of God and the Word of God are inseparable. In His Word He gives Himself; this is grace. His grace communicates His love and mercy; this is the Word of God. Thanksgiving is a gift from God that flows from His other gifts the chief of which are the knowledge of Him, His name, and His active presence in our lives.

A review of the year also reveals an emphasis on family, past and present. I was born into and nurtured by an exceptional family. My parents were not perfect, but they formed a dynamic union that afforded me great opportunity to ponder good and evil, right and wrong, better and best. We are the product of those who went before. My parents’ greatest gifts to me included (1) they believed in me and my siblings, (2) they modeled righteousness and strength, and (3) they worked hard to build a better future for us. My Dad use to quote an Ensign in the navy who told him “Johns, a man is a failure if he doesn’t raise his children to be better than he is; he has all of his own mistakes from which to teach them.” I am not certain of the full truth of that maxim but I am certain my father lived by it and I am better off because he did.

Other people are very significant in my life. Several of these passed away this year. Others reconnected after some time and distance. The birth of children always calls forth thanksgiving. Pastors and teachers were prominent. Gratitude is always personal.

Other observations I would make include the following.

1. Thankfulness is an attitude and an affection and not an emotion. We can be thankful even when we do not feel like it.

2. It is easier to be thankful than to express thanksgiving. Expression requires commitment; commitment involves risk. For me the greater risk seems to be fear of being misunderstood.

3. The discipline of expressing thankfulness increases thankfulness, refreshes memories, and quickens the mind. The link between being thankful and expressing thankfulness is strong but not automatic. Expressing thankfulness requires effort. It is easier to express thankfulness to God than to people. The truly thankful will express gratitude to those persons who bless them. This must be genuine and therefore spontaneous, but it also requires effort to articulate specifics.

4. Expressing thankfulness is a form of testimony. It requires recall and naming. In gratitude we know ourselves as both subject and object. It is a creative interpretation of those truths and values we hold as we see those truths outside/beyond of ourselves. As a corollary, gratitude is a link/conduit between our inner selves and the world/people we know.

5. True thankfulness is an expression of humility (I am the object/recipient of someone’s grace) but the temptation to pride crouches at the door (“I must be special to be so blessed”).

6. Gratitude is an expressed affection. The affection is dynamic in that it links our selves, the gift/blessing, and the giver.

7. Some of my deepest thanksgivings are too personal to be expressed.

8. My thanksgiving flows from the eternal to the deeply personal to the material and back again. I suspect that gratitude for the extra-ordinary gifts of life is enhanced by gratitude for the ordinary gifts of life. We would appreciate the phenomenal/eternal more if we learned to appreciate the common/temporal more.

9. A corollary suggests that we would appreciate God more if we learned to appreciate the persons in our daily lives more.

[On a side note: I observed that the most comments I got were (a) about the troublesome General Council (8), (b) an entry critical of arrogant and obnoxious people (6), and (c) an entry about the death of a friend (6). It appears we are more likely to put forth the effort to respond to others when they are dealing with negative emotions than when they are experiencing positive ones.]

Finally, I used this blog in 2010 in part to publically tell some people I appreciate them. In 2011 my calling is to show gratitude daily in more direct, tangible and personal ways. I am going to try to write a personal “Thank You” note every day. I will try to make occasional entries about how that exercise affects me. I will also continue to make entries in this series, just not on a daily basis. But then again, the habit may be hard to break.

January 1, 2011

P.S.  I would be interested in what others have observed about the series.  Help me take my blinders off.


Anonymous said...

Your blog has made me laugh, cry, rejoice, and reflect. I will miss your writings on thanksgiving but look forward to the new year.

Lisa said...

I think my favorite of your entries were always 1) the entries in which your reflections on hope, our future with God, and our lives here in the meantime intertwined; and 2) reflections of your childhood (they were nearly always HILARIOUS). Reading your latest reflections was always a peaceful, refreshing end to a day, and has equally challenged, encouraged, soothed, and amused me. I really will miss reading them regularly.