Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cultivating a Grateful Heart

All day yesterday I compiled a mental list of things I'm thankful for. I rattled off family and home and food and all the other easy answers, but then I was stumped. It just didn't seem like enough. All day long I felt like I was in the the Peanuts episode when Patti invites herself and a few friends over to Charlie Brown's for Thanksgiving. They gather around a tablecloth-covered ping pong table expecting turkey and all the trimmings, but all Chuck and his indomitable dog can muster is some popcorn, buttered toast, and jelly beans. I wanted to feast yesterday, but I was served up a snack. My ability to be grateful fizzled on me.

Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever find yourself dreading being asked what you're thankful for or trying desperately to remember something unique and impressive? The only things you can come up with sound about as exciting as cardboard. Maybe I'm the only one tempted to invent a story. "Well, this year I'm thankful for the extra income from that lottery ticket I found stuck with chewing gum to the sidewalk. It's been so touching to see orphans fed and the homeless sheltered and pets adopted. I just can't stop grinning at all the goodness."

Feeding orphans or sheltering the homeless or even adopting pets are legitimate things to be thankful for, as are family and home and food. It's just that being thankful for things isn't very satisfying. All the good gifts in the world are really just popcorn and buttered toast if we forget the Giver. Cultivating a grateful heart involves more than just remembering to pause and appreciate our loved ones or our comforts. A grateful heart embraces God who gives us these things. What's more difficult is that a grateful heart embraces God even when he seems to be withholding our gifts or, harder yet, taking them away. Just over a year ago I was lying in a hospital in Singapore, five months pregnant, waiting to see if we could postpone delivery long enough for our baby to live. Every year during this holiday season, my parents and Daniel's parents struggle with having us so far away. I'm sure they are grateful for their children and grandchildren, but they don't often get to enjoy those blessings. Just this morning Daniel received an e-mail from a family friend whose husband passed away. There are times when a grateful heart must look beyond blessings to see a good God who never changes.

I am often reminded of the story of Abraham hiking toward the mountain to sacrifice his son, Isaac. What must have gone though his head! I imagine he counted every step. At each familiar turn in the path he remembered, "Ah, this is where we gathered berries last summer. This is where Isaac fell and got that scar on his left knee. This is the spot where he loves to come swimming..." Maybe he even thought to himself, "This is the last time... I may never see my child in this place again."

We can't know exactly what Abraham was thinking, but the book of Hebrews does give us a glimpse into his mind. Chapter 11 tell us that Abraham obeyed "by faith." In other words, he figured that God was so good and so powerful he would never go back on a promise even if it meant raising Isaac from the grave. We know the end of the story. We remember that just as Abraham was about to kill his son, God stopped him. Abraham had passed the test. He had demonstrated that he loved God even more than he treasured God's good gift. He obeyed and trusted God even when that gift was in jeopardy.

Few of us are ever put to this kind of test. In fact, instead of examining us, God proved his own love in Christ. For this I am deeply grateful. Hmmm, that is more satisfying. Maybe I am finally on the right track. Where do I go from here, though? If being thankful for all the good things God has given us only leads us part way toward being grateful for God himself, then how else do we cultivate a grateful heart? How do we look beyond blessings and see God? I'd love to hear your thoughts if you have any. In the meantime, I will give thanks to the Lord, for he is good and his steadfast love endures forever (2 Chronicles 7:3, paraphrased).

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Happy First Birthday, Nathan!

We celebrated Nathan's first birthday a few days early, then we stuck the leftover cake in the freezer and headed to Singapore. The plan was to have a second celebration on the actual day, but that went the way of most good intentions. The boys and I spent part of Nathan's birthday in the guest house lounge because we were locked out of our room. Three hours later Daniel finished his meeting and came back with the keys. That evening we dragged two tired boys to McDonald's where they took turns screaming and wriggling to get out of their seats. Nathan did pull it together long enough to enjoy some birthday ice cream. Needless to say, we don't have many pictures for posterity, though we are collecting quite a list of birthday misadventures. Nathan's first birthday will rank up there with the one Daniel spent taking the GRE or the birthday I spent stuck in a flood in Jakarta. Ah well, these things do make the day memorable.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Pope and Other Things We're Thankful For

We made hand turkeys this week and construction paper Pilgrim hats and a pumpkin that looks more like an orange box with a stem. We also started our annual Thanksgiving list of all the things we're grateful for. Last year I cut out colored leaves and we wrote an item on each leaf then taped it to the refrigerator. I was feeling less ambitious this year. Maybe the turkeys and Pilgrim's hat did me in. In any case, our "thankful list" is just two pieces of copier paper taped to the living room window.

I asked Caleb to contribute to the list and he suggested that I write down the obvious three: "Mama, Daddy, and Nathan." I added "Caleb" to be fair. Grandma and Papa S. and Grandma and Grandpa O. also made the cut. I asked Caleb if we were forgetting anything and he thought for a moment. I gave him a prompt: "Thank you, God, for..."

"The POPE!"

Let me explain. We have not secretly converted to Catholicism. I'm sure Pope Benedict XVI is a wonderful man and we can justly be thankful for him, but the Holy See was quite possibly the furthest thing from Caleb's mind. In our home, the "pope" is a plastic air pump that we use to inflate the boys' wading pool. Caleb dragged it out of the closet upstairs while I was preparing the room for a guest. Somehow he confused "pope" with "pump" and continues to use the two words interchangeably. Later that day, Caleb (with the help of some friends) made the discovery that jamming the pump handle down with just the right speed and force causes the nozzle to whistle loudly and fly across the room. He was thrilled!

Our guest arrived the evening after Caleb's pump discovery. He is a visiting professor whom Daniel had met only once. He is also British. This fact alone gives a person a veneer of sophistication that is intimidating to us Yankees. I'm always a little apprehensive when we have a house guest I've never met. Add to this the "British professor" factor and it is quite understandable that I was eager to make a good first impression. I had coached Caleb and instructed him to be very polite to Mr. Woods. He must have sensed my nervousness because he was on pins and needles waiting for Daniel to get home from the airport. As soon as the front gate swung open, Caleb bolted to the door shouting, "Shoot the pope, Mr. Woods! Come shoot the pope!"

I can't say that I am thankful for the pope (small "p"), but I am thankful for icebreakers. In the end we had a very nice week with Mr. Woods. By Wednesday night I was so at my ease, that I didn't even wince when Caleb climbed up next to our guest and announced with finger outstretched, "I have a booger, Mr. Woods." I'm not sure that Mr. Woods was equally pleased with that discovery, but he took it in stride. All things considered, maybe the pump/pope is not such a bad addition to our thankful list. Remind me to add "new friends" to the list as well.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Eveready Moth

Caleb and I fished a dead moth out of the garden pond yesterday. I laid him on the tiled ledge and Caleb examined all his parts commenting on his big eyes and furry legs. He blew on the moth's wings to make them flutter. The moth, of course, was beyond response. After a while, Caleb got still. He stared at the moth and then looked up at me and said with all the earnestness a three-year-old can muster, "Go get him some new batteries, Mama."

Sunday, November 9, 2008


I thought I would report back on a couple previous blog posts. You may remember Caleb's gecko (see the October 7th post). Well, apparently booster-seat-buffet didn't agree with him. I thought he was just getting cocky, holding his ground and staring us down. It seems, though, that he had eaten himself into a stupor. His reflexes weren't what they used to be and he was stuck making the best of open ground.

His demise came prematurely. Daniel asked me to jot down an address in Vietnamese as he was leaving to pick someone up from the airport. I was struggling to remember all the little Vietnamese accent marks and grabbed a seat at the table to focus my efforts. I can only imagine what must have flashed across the poor gecko's mind as he saw my end (and thus his own end) looming large. In any event, he was too immobilized by weeks of cracker crumbs, dried up rice, and spilled pasta to avoid catastrophe. The gecko passed without a sound. I didn't even realize what had happened until after Daniel left and I was setting the table for dinner guests. I must confess that the only prayer offered in memoriam was a quick "good riddance."

We've also established a new name for the bulb aspirator. At bedtime last night, Caleb was crying and pleading with me to get him the "squishy rice nose." Needless to say, I was at a loss. Squishy rice nose...? I tried giving him the Mr. Potato head nose, but he only wailed at a higher pitch and managed a few big tears. I racked my brain to think of anything nose related and finally hit upon the bulb aspirator. I had cleaned the boys' room earlier and put the aspirator back in the drawer where it belonged. I found it again and handed it to Caleb. The wailing promptly gave way to a big grin. Phew!

I think that covers updates for the time being. A fight just broke out over the wooden shape sorter. I should probably go moderate.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Daily Commandments

I fear that I am a legalist at heart. I like rules. I like to keep them and I like to make them. I've tried to break myself of this habit but to no avail. I will never be a rebel.

These days I make rules right and left. With two boys, there is plenty of opportunity. Here are the latest additions around our house:

No building campfires in the living room.

No chewing television cords, phone cords, fan cords, or any other variety of cord.

No using Mom's pumpkin candle for a campfire.

No chewing Mom's sandals, shoes, slippers, sneakers, or any other variety of footwear.

No lighting a campfire on the patio.

No chewing holes in books or sucking on the covers till they disintegrate.

No putting keys or pens in Mom's coffee.

No sticking playdoh in your nose.

No sticking playdoh in your brother's nose.

No lighting campfires with candles.

No chewing on Mom.

Arggggh! No campfires, period! And no chewing either unless it involves Toasty O's or teething rings.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Praying in the Fray

I read somewhere that Susanna Wesley would pull her apron over her head as a signal to her children (all 19 of them) that she was praying and was not to be disturbed. This was held up by the historian as evidence of personal devotion and a deep commitment to spirituality. That take on things is possible. On the other hand, I find it easier to imagine a scenario in which a frazzled Susanna reaches her saintly limit and cowers under her apron pleading with God for enough grace not to strangle little Johnny or Charlie. It is said that her children knew not to disturb their mother when she was praying. Of course they did. All children know when their mother has completely had it. Susanna employed her trusty apron. My mom brandished her wooden spanking spoon. I get a big red "V" on my forehead. No one wants to disturb Mom when she's reached such a pitch of desperation that she is relying on divine intervention to bolster self-restraint.

I'm probably not doing justice to Susanna Wesley, but these days history is anyone's ball game. We make of it what we can. I'm not necessarily advocating this approach, just taking advantage of it. Somehow it is comforting to imagine a mother who raised the likes of John and Charles Wesley needing to hide behind her apron to salvage a few quiet moments for reflection or prayer or a ten minute doze.

That said, I do admire Susanna's tenacity. She didn't retreat. Instead she found ways to worship in the thick of life. She did it behind her apron or while she taught her children their lessons. Worship was a part of her busy life not a diversion from it. Sometimes it seems that we treat worship like yoga. It is something we do to take a break from our day, to calm ourselves, and to prepare to jump back into the fray. It's as if God is reserved for quiet moments, scenic hilltops, and church auditoriums. We're lost without an overhead and guitars. We forget that God is with us. He is near, even when pea soup is scorching on the stove and the baby is screaming for attention.

Don't get me wrong, there are times when we do need to withdraw from all the noise of life. We need to carve out crevices for solitude and reflection and prayer. I'm just uncomfortable with a tendency I see in myself to think of retreat as the only way to meet God. I forget that he is in the midst of the fray as well.

Yesterday I read the Bible and prayed in a tent constructed from a bed sheet stretched between a couch and chair in our living room. It's a new tactic. I've discovered that if I put Nathan down for a nap and set Caleb's imagination going down some path, I can eek out a few moments to read and pray and otherwise collect my thoughts. Gone are the days of lengthy vigils in the campus prayer chapel or long, solitary walks in the woods. For a while I feared that this meant my days of sensing God's nearness were gone as well. It's hard to praise God while cleaning cereal off the floor for the hundredth time in a week or to pray with a three-year-old playing horsey on your leg. Most days I fail miserably at it. I am learning, though, to meet God in the thick of things. Yesterday this meant praying in a tent while Caleb sang campfire songs. Some days it means just remembering to thank God for the things that bring me joy or keep me sane--Nathan's slobbery kisses or Daniel washing the mountain of dishes I'd put off till the day of reckoning (aka. the morning of empty cupboards). I worship in the fray imperfectly, but I hope I am getting better at it.

Surely Susanna and I are not alone in our mad attempts to celebrate God and turn our attention toward him in the thick of life. Do you have any strategies of your own? If so, leave a comment below. I'd love to hear your suggestions.