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COVID-19 / Faith

At a Time Like This, It’s OK if Thankfulness is Painful

woman in mask thankfulness is painful

Gratitude seems to be wired into us humans. The birth of a child, a beautiful sunset, another day of life, good friends, achieving goals, knowing that people far away have you on their mind. There are countless reasons that we find to be thankful. Gratitude and thankfulness seem to emerge surprisingly from experiences and moments in life that leave a mark on us, shaping who we are. 

I’d like to say that I’m full of gratitude right now, but I’m really not. I’m frustrated, low-key depressed, tired all the time, and just getting by. There’s a great little meme that’s going around showing a vending machine that appears to be “off” because the lightbulb that helps you see the items is burned out. The meme says, “The light inside is broken, but I still work.” Yep. That’s me. So I can’t say I’m feeling the gratitude thing. 

To be honest, I often feel like I’m just waiting out this long slog of the pandemic. 

Can You Really Be Thankful in 2020?

Seriously though, can we just be done with 2020? Stick a fork in me. I’m getting the sense that I’m far from alone in feeling this way. 

There’s good reason for this. Especially during the holidays. For this holiday season—unique as it is in the midst of a pandemic and the requirements of social isolation—remains complicated by the various challenges, anxieties, and disappointments that have accompanied our experiences so far this year. It’s as if trying to be grateful would be submitting oneself to a kind of flagellation, beating oneself up for being bogged down with fatigue, lacking a positive attitude, having diminished productivity, and the incessant worrying that comes with every hint we might be slightly ill. 

To be sure, it’s much like a spiritual discipline to think about how the experiences of this year have blessed us, to consider those things for which we’re thankful. Surely, so much has been taken away. So many of us have suffered significantly. And it’s not over. 

As symbolic as it will be, the flip of the calendar that signifies the end of 2020 won’t satisfy. Marking time like this in the midst of a pandemic seems rather arbitrary. After all, on January 1, 2021, the pandemic will still be with us and not much will have changed. Still, marking time by recognizing the end of a calendar year is a ritual that gives form and stability to our frail human lives, offering us a gift for thinking ahead about what we hope for after saying goodbye to a year of challenges, but also, blessings. More of each will inevitably come.

Sometimes Thankfulness Just Happens

This Fall, I spent time together with my grandfather during the final days of his earthly existence. I’m thankful for those moments. The memories and intimacies of those last days are precious. Yet, it seems odd to thank my grandfather for them. For one, he’s not here now to receive the thanks. But even more, that I was able to spend time with him in his final days was nothing that he, I, or anyone else had any control over. Thankfulness, or gratitude, of this sort seems to reach beyond toward something transcendent, a Giver of gifts, unseen but active and known by those of us who recognize we are recipients of things undeserved.

A curious feature of thankfulness is that it seems to require a recipient. Thinking this way tends to move things in a philosophical or spiritual direction pretty quickly. Sure, we can be thankful for grandma’s delicious holiday cookies. But what does it mean to be thankful for grandma? 

To be thankful presumes that there is someone, or perhaps better, someOne to thank. To be sure, we’re often thanking family or friends, coworkers or neighbors for their thoughtfulness or generosity. But where do we aim our gratitude for the sprawling tapestry of a beautiful sunset, the miraculous birth of a child after a difficult pregnancy, or the sense of how undeserving we are at the gift of just the right kind of friends? It’s as if thankfulness for such things just bubbles up from within us, seeking the proper recipient—we almost need to thank someOne. Gratitude is aimed. Philosophers would say it is “intended” – it’s meant to hit a target. Ultimately, that target is God himself, from whom all blessings flow. 

Expressing Our Gratitude, Even in Hard Times

We have some incredibly thoughtful and talented contributors here at THRED. Rather than just encouraging you, dear reader, to practice gratitude, we wanted also to inspire the kind of reflective posture that might help you arrive at some form or another of gratitude. So we solicited some input from our writers and vloggers. We asked them a simple question:

“What did 2020 give to you that has generated gratitude?”

Some of them, however counter-intuitively, spoke of gratitude from the perspective of how 2020 has brought them experiences of pain. 

Don Everts was moved to consider the legacy of his work.  

The apostle Paul reminded the church in Corinth that fire has a way of “testing the quality of each person’s work”. If your work is good and strong (like gold, silver, or costly stones), it will be refined by fire. But if your work is not so good and somewhat feeble (like wood, hay, or straw) it will burn up, of course. In this way, Paul writes, fire has a way of showing work for what it is. 

 In 2020 we’ve faced fires galore. As a pastor, leader, parent, writer I have had to look on as work that I had presumed was fine silver or gold turned out to be more woody and straw-like than I had presumed.  

While painful, this comeuppance, has been a gift to me and my soul. I feel humbled (almost to the point of embarrassment), and also inspired. For whatever years I have left, whether I’m wearing a mask during those years or not, I want to put my hands to work that is good and solid and helpful and lasting. Maybe not gold or costly stone, but at least silver. Or some solid iron or aluminum. Life is too short, I now see, to presume I have time to fiddle with straw and hay most of the time.

Similarly, Matt Popovits describes how 2020 caused him to reflect on his priorities, opening space for more important things.

2020 has given me humility. With every cancelled plan, every Zoom meeting that should have been a flesh-and-blood meeting, every cough that made me wonder if I’d “caught it,” 2020 has humbled me. It’s given me a fresh realization of just how little control I have, how fragile my life is, and how petty most of my usual “problems” are. And for that I’m grateful. I have been deeply distracted by a belief that I am stronger, more capable, and more important than I actually am. Being reminded that I am mortal, that being with people is what matters, and that I am not the king of my universe is a gift. 2020 made a mess of my plans and a mess of how I see myself. But in that mess is more room for God.

Others are thinking deeply about their priorities too. The time we’ve been forced to spend with limited amounts of people, often restricted to those in our own households has, for our friend Laura, made her glad for how slowing down has brought her closer to her family, despite the inherent challenges.

There are a lot of things this year has given us or removed in a positive way. I’ve had more time with my children than ever before. They sing all the time and I love it. They come into my office at random times just to hug me. It’s magic. It’s also crazy hard because I never get alone time and we’re trying to do all the things. It is making their sisterhood stronger. They are relying on each other in ways they never would have elsewise. As a full-time working mom my time with them was always saturated with the frenzy of “hurry.” Whether rushing to school or picking up in the afternoons and then dinner and bedtime, rinse and repeat. We no longer hurry to get anywhere. We don’t go anywhere. 

Also my kids are chronically sick. They get sick and stay sick. One of the reasons we’ve been so careful is that. This may be the longest either of them have been off of antibiotics since before they started school. The amount we aren’t spending at the specialist doctors for breathing, asthma, and allergies definitely is helping to fund our online shopping. There are more. But these stand out.

Justin has a variety of things he’s thankful for, but none of it would be possible without the amount of time that the pandemic offered. 

The wrapping paper was ugly, but 2020 gave me one unexpected gift that I will always be thankful for: time. When the year started, I never imagined that I would get to spend months at home with my son, finish more books than I have in the last decade, and even fine tune my tuna salad recipe until I achieved perfection – but I was able to do all of those things and more. While I wish the circumstances were different, and didn’t include a global pandemic, I’m grateful for the amount of time for growth, reflection, and memory making that 2020 dropped in my lap. 

Finally, we get to hear from Rachel, whom many of you know as THRED’s greatest champion and cheerleader. We give thanks for her work to bring THRED’s content to you. Her own gratitude focuses on relationships and how 2020 has afforded us time to give them so much more attention.

I never knew I would like being home so much. My life has always run at a breakneck speed. I’m a single mom with two small kids with all their activities. I work a full-time job and have a beautiful network of family and friends that I LOVE to see. I enjoy travel and so many activities. 2020 stripped away many of the extra activities of life. It slowed me down. I could view that as a loss, but when I shift my view to what I have and what it left, I am filled with gratitude. What it left for me though was my family and friends. It let me dig deeper into my home and beautiful relationships that I’ve created over time. It allowed me to spend a ridiculous amount of quality time with people I adore. I learned so much about myself, and so much about the people I was able to spend my time with. I was reminded of my adaptability and my ability to do hard things. I’m emerging from this year with deeper relationships, a deeper understanding, and a more nuanced version of myself, and my relationships. I’m grateful for growth. One of my life mottos is “Love More.” This is a year that has given me the opportunity to love more, and be loved more—how could you not be grateful for that?

Gratitude emerges from surprising places. Perhaps it’s also surprising just how much gratitude we can discover when we take the time to reflect even on the difficult circumstances many of us have faced this year.

Gratitude’s Target

If gratitude is the sort of thing that’s always aimed, always presuming a recipient, maybe we can say that gratitude also points us toward another way, one that moves us forward in the midst of these painful times. It’s a way forward, because it’s something we can lean back on, rely on, trust. We said above that gratitude is aimed, often at others. But for many things, including some of the experiences that we have been served up thanks to the events of 2020—circumstances that irrupted into the midst of our lives from somewhere beyond our expectations and control—whatever gratitude comes from them is aimed somewhere else. 

Let me suggest that this somewhere else is toward the Great Giver of All Gifts: God. 

As 2020 winds down, we embark upon the major holiday season of Christmas. The origins of Christmas, as you likely know, extend back 2000 or so years to the birth of a child who is called the Savior of the World, Jesus Christ. Christians speak of him as Emmanuel, God with Us. And if there is ever a year that many have felt we needed God with Us, it is 2020. 

One and a half millennia ago, St. Augustine wrote “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” His Confessions have become one of the most influential books shaping the culture we live in. For half his life, he ran away from God, only to find dissatisfaction around every corner, despite his incredible stature and successes. This line from his Confessions describes what happened when he stopped running.

Every year around Christmas time we sing many Christmas carols. Some of them are so familiar, their words pour into our ears, yet we don’t really hear them. In the classic “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” we hear a line similar to St. Augustine’s phrase from the beginning of his Confessions. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” The “Thee” in that phrase refers to Jesus. 

God sent Jesus, his Son, as the Greatest Gift the world has ever known. He is a gift to you because His life showed us that despite all we suffer, all we endure, all we fear, and all we hope for, there is one thing that is certain—God’s love for you and me. Regardless of who you are, where you come from, what you’ve experienced—the trials, the loves, the joys, the pains, the sorrows, defeats, successes, and victories—God sent Jesus for you. 

May your 2020 come to an end in celebration of the many reasons we still have to be thankful. May you find yourself settling into the trustworthy arms of a God who has already been at work to carry you through these days, whether you noticed his presence or not. May you find yourself full of gratitude for Jesus, a Savior whose gift of abundant and eternal life he offers to you today. Trust him. Come what may, he will carry you on the way.

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Dr. Chad Lakies is Regional Director of North America at Lutheran Hour Ministries in St. Louis, MO. He’s into coffee, beer, drumming, video games, and buying more books than he has time to read.

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