7,430 Thankful Thoughts

There is a poster on the wall of a 4th grade classroom at York that caught my attention a couple years ago:

Watch your thoughts; They become words.

Watch your words; They become actions.

Watch your actions; They become habits.

Watch your habits; They become your character.

Watch your character; It becomes your destiny.

The message is both unsettling and hopeful – the idea that thought upon thought, action upon action can build into something as momentous as character and destiny. It makes me wonder, what kind of words and actions are on repeat around here?

The last few years I have been trying to foster the practice of gratitude. Knowing what the Bible, what research, and what wise, joyful people I know have to say about the positive impacts of gratitude gave me plenty of motivation to work on this.

In Ann Voskamp’s blog and her subsequent book, One Thousand Gifts, she described a challenge someone gave her to chronicle one thousand gifts in her life – things she was thankful for. The book is the outcome of that practice. She discovered that giving thanks for the life she already had – from the mundane, to the beautiful, to the hard and ugly – caused joy to invade heart and pointed her to God’s grace.

Four years ago this month, I started keeping my own list of thanks. I had already established the habit of rising every morning at the same time each day, before the rest of my family. Along with my cup of coffee, Bible, and prayers, the numbering of thanks began to repeat, day after day. I would reflect on the previous 24 hours, and as events, people, things, and words flashed by, I’d recognize the goodness they added to my life, and gave thanks to the Giver. I wrote them down, starting with number one.

After a short amount of time, I started noticing the gifts while they were happening instead of just remembering them the next day and realizing they were gifts. I’d hear little words and phrases spoken between my kids and delight in them. I’d see a pile of laundry overflowing and thank God that my family is always amply clothed. I smiled when I realized that we were out of milk because I knew how easy it was to hop in the car and pick up a gallon at the store.

When my life looked and felt like this, I could give thanks:

mess

This is not an uncommon scene in my kitchen. Why don’t I close cupboard doors? One of life’s mysteries. And in case you’re wondering, that is a bird’s nest in a tin pan in the bottom left corner.

My messy house, my chattering children, my husband, home later from work than I anticipated, were all numbered in my journal, and gratitude and joy slowly pervaded my character.

As of this writing, I have logged 7,430. Four years of counting and thanking, sometimes two or three a day, sometimes long lists, some days skipped entirely. Number 7,430: “John and Ellie exercising in the kitchen.”

Over the years, I have also attempted to cultivate gratitude in my kids, but honestly, it’s hit and miss. We have written things we’re thankful for on cut-out leaves and hung them on a tree, we have written things on cute post-its and stuck them on the window, I have encouraged my insomniac daughter to think of 20 things she is thankful for while trying to fall asleep, and when my son was having some rough days at school I encouraged him to hold up his hand, fingers spread and count five things he is thankful for whenever he felt sad. Extended family members joined the conspiracy and designed a game around the dinner table, seeing how quickly we could list 64 things we are grateful for (five minutes). I still hear a lot more grumbling than thanksgiving from my darlings’ mouths, but hopefully they are hearing the opposite ratio coming from mine.

I love that we have a holiday whose very name forces us to think about gratitude and the giving of thanks. Like New Years, this is a good time to begin or renew a pattern of thoughts, words, and actions that form a habit and cultivate character. Plus it’s just plain good for the soul and the souls of those around you.

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Most Good Things

Most good things have been said far too many times and just need to be lived.

– Shane Claiborne

Inspirational quotations make a frequent appearance on my facebook feed, but this one stopped me. Part of it was the irony. Here was someone on facebook repeating something good that someone else had said. I admit, I appreciate an idea skillfully put into words. Stacks of books with pages of good words and ideas can be found on any flat surface in my house. I’ve even read some of them. In fact, I own the book written by Shane Claiborne that contains the above quotation in its context (but hadn’t read it yet and didn’t know it had this bit until I googled it). I also like repeating good things I’ve read to friends who also like to read good things. We talk about these good things and if the conversation goes really well, we discuss how we could apply these good things to our lives in the future. But in the end, if I’m just reading and talking but not doing, it’s pointless – as James the brother of Jesus explains, I’m only fooling myself. This kind of foolishness happens in me all the time, and that bothers me. This foolishness creates in my heart a kind of dissonance that I work very hard to ignore and drive away because the word or the identity it keeps pushing to the surface is one that I never want to describe me: hypocrite.

So here’s the truth: I’m no good at any of those good things I like to read and repeat. Most of the time, I really prefer to sit on my comfy couch with a cup of coffee and read interesting books than actually love my neighbor, pray for my enemies, work for justice, humble myself, and do a million boring acts of compassion for the people in my life. And the dissonance I feel when I recognize I am not living the words that I am loving? Perhaps that’s a signal – not to label me “hypocrite”, but to remind me of my need for my Father in heaven.  Because here is another truth: any good I have done or will do is only by the grace of a good God working through me, giving me the desire and power to do what pleases him.

A friend often reminds me of a habit that energizes her to live according to the words she loves. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale God’s goodness and strength through relationship with him, exhale love and service to others. Our physical bodies need both inhalation and exhalation. Try doing one without the other – obviously it’s impossible. Well, that’s the sort of foolishness we set ourselves up for when we repeatedly breathe in the word of God, corporate worship, or other spiritual practices without exhaling love and goodness to others. Or if we exhale sacrificially on behalf of others until we collapse in exhaustion because we neglected to rest and fill up in his presence. Getting the balance just right is a struggle – I am so prone to wander. Maybe that’s why spiritual disciplines are called disciplines, and why scripture has to be so painfully clear on this message: a new command I give you: love one another.  Unlike respiration, the breathing in and out of the Christian life is a conscious activity for me, but so necessary.

Inhale. Exhale. A rhythm for good things that just need to be lived.