I was recently asked an insightful question. A friend asked me, when I’m in the stadium on a Friday night, and I see my girls cheer, or I see the football guys or the drumline kids perform, what do I feel? As he asked that question, I thought about the things he mentioned: the football or basketball guys that I refer to at times as “my boys” since I don’t have any of my own, the drumline kids, but also parents in the stands, people who are my friends, with whom I have done life, raised kids alongside, had conflict and resolved conflict; little kids from the elementary school running around the softball field, some oblivious to the game, just enjoying their friends, others entranced with the game and dreaming of the day they get to be football players or cheerleaders, like when my senior cheerleader, as a 4-year-old, told Donna Youngblood she was going to one day cheer for the “Dace Toogers.”
How do I feel? I feel intensely grateful: grateful for the work of our precious teachers in the life of my girls and their friends. Grateful for 13 years of families, people who have become my best friends in the whole world, as we have had the privilege to be used by God to build something great together, this school. I’m grateful for God taking our acts of sometimes faltering, whiny, but ongoing obedience to build a great community, and a great people.
I know the realities. Like you, I’m not blind to them. I know that, for whatever reason– our kids being raised by screens, busy parents, poor nutrition, something the U.S. government is beaming from satellites or black helicopters into our brains, whatever– kids today are different than they were years ago. Parenting and teaching is, in many ways, more difficult than it has ever been.
I understand society has changed, that the rest of this Judeo-Christian nation that most of us grew up in isn’t very Judeo-Christian anymore. I get that the world is blowing up around us, and that ISIS is on the move, and it makes us all scared and immobilized and xenophobic, just like Satan wants. It seems we’re more geared toward ungratefulness than ever before.
Which is why Thanksgiving is so awesome. Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to cultivate gratefulness in our own hearts. First, it’s an opportunity to remember that gratefulness is not primarily a feeling, but a discipline. Gratefulness is a spiritual discipline, a means of grace, like Bible study, or prayer, or fasting. Making the decision to be grateful and to consciously see the opportunities in the life and mission you’ve been given is a spiritual practice. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
It’s not something that I experience when I have everything I want or need, but a choice to be glad and joyful for the things that God has given me. I’m convinced that the original sin wasn’t pride, like people say. It was discontent. Before Adam and Eve decided to be like the Most High, to be their own gods, they became discontent and ungrateful of the fact that God had already given them everything they needed.
The default, fleshly mode is always discontent, and I can always find something to complain about, something I don’t have. That’s easy, and dangerous. I have to pray every day that the Holy Spirit will quicken my heart toward the things I’ve been given.
When you really think about it, all of us are born into sin. All of us are rebels against God. Like I tell my girls, if we all got exactly what we deserved, we would die immediately and spend eternity in Hell. Now, from that starting point, look at your life: What do you have? Everything that is not death and Hell is a beautiful, gracious, spectacular gift from a God who loves you so much that He thought you were worth dying for, and also showered you with all these other gifts. Kind of a perspective-changer, isn’t it?
We serve an awesome God, the great Jehovah, against whom none can stand. Cultivating gratefulness reminds us that God even uses the challenges of life to provide us tremendous opportunities, if we’ll look at them that way.
When my freshman, Ellen, was in second grade, we were coming back to Tyler on December 23rd from a ski trip. We got stuck overnight in Denver, due to a freak snowstorm. My older kids, their mom and I were sulking about being marooned overnight at the Denver airport hotel. Not Ellen. She was excited about the adventure of being stuck in a snowstorm. She was excited about the fact that the only restaurant around our hotel was Pizzeria Uno. She was excited the kids’ menu had “make your own pizza.” And, to top it all off, she got free cookies! “This is turning out quite nicely,” she concluded. As we stared at her unbridled enthusiasm, the rest of us sorry sad sacks couldn’t help but break into smiles and laughs. She changed the course of our evening, as she’s done for our family so many times.
When I grow up, I want to be Ellen. I love people who are generous, and grateful, and gracious, and whose lives are a blessing to other people, even through challenges way more intense than freak snowstorms. I’m praying that God will make me into one of those people, and that my kids will see it and become those people, too. Because gratefulness is the pathway to both joy and righteousness, and it starts with Thanksgiving.