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).