A year ago, a friend issued a challenge. He urged me to select one word as the word for me in 2017. A word on which to focus and meditate. A word of (at least hoped for) transformation.
Perhaps because it was January, perhaps because of the Spirit’s leading, I responded positively to the challenge. I considered a few options, one of which was “acceptance.” That I quickly discarded with a bit of wry amusement, knowing how much I struggle with what is, and how vigorously I labour for change. “Gratitude” emerged as the word of choice.
Throughout the past year, I turned my thoughts and my spirit to gratitude. Most frequently that took the form of breathing the word into consciousness in wee prayers. Wending my way through daily life, with its rhythms of morning and night, work and play, rest and effort, sorrows and pleasures. I would say to myself, “Be grateful,” as if echoing a wise companion. Through winter’s coldness, spring’s greening, summer’s balmy delights and fall’s diminishing light, I carried the word “gratitude,” and allowed it to shape me. Or more accurately, I recognized God’s Spirit as the force behind the shaping. I began each journal entry by naming three things for which I was grateful: God’s Word, the love of family and friends, and my purring cat often made the list.
When my mother experienced a health crisis that brought her to death’s door, I gave thanks for family members and the medical team that cared for her. When she transitioned from her highly prized independent living into ongoing nursing care, I lamented her losses with her. And I gave thanks for her resilient and spunky spirit that held sway.
When I suffered excruciating pain from a minor short-term injury, I gave thanks for my body’s strength and health over many years. I also gave thanks for drugs that alleviated the pain! In difficult conflicts I called gratitude to mind and found God to be at work in the situation, bringing possibilities, healing, peace and reconciliation. If those remained elusive, I gave thanks for the ideals we strive and hope for, pulling us towards God’s intended shalom for all.
It wasn’t that I stopped complaining. Family members can attest to that. It was more of a shift in my focus and my spirit. In the midst of the unhappiness and disappointment, I sought good news and never came up empty.
There are compelling reasons why the Apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesians “[to give] thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything” (5:20). Similarly, he told the Colossians to “be thankful” (3:15), and connected it with allowing the peace of Christ to rule in their hearts.
Paul likely knew the human tendency to be overly distracted with what isn’t right or what doesn’t fit expectations, and to be preoccupied with self-centred complaints. Paul also was full of gratitude for how Jesus had transformed his life and entrusted him with a mission of passion and love for the whole world.
By enjoining the early Christians—and us—to be grateful, Paul pointed the way to hearts filled with gratitude and love. Our grievances, complaints and struggles are then framed within recognition of the larger outpouring of blessings. Like refreshing food and water, like love and intimacy, like art and creation, gratitude is a resource that nourishes and sustains us. A grateful heart gives us joy, insight and fuel to engage the challenges of life.
Back to the challenge. Might there be a word to guide you in this new year?
Melissa Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.