As it is Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, and I’ll be speaking at the St. Croix Vineyard tomorrow morning, I thought it might be good if I got down my thoughts here on the blog on the theme of thankfulness, and more specifically, on the cultivation of the fragrant, sweet flower that is a Grateful Heart.
CULTIVATING A GRATEFUL HEART
A. A Model Of A Grateful Heart
“Sweet flower” is what her name means. Grandma also told us it was the name of an ancient Armenian princess. Grandma’s first name was Siranouche. My wife’s middle name is Siranouche. My daughter’s middle name is Siranouche. “Sweet flower.” So appropriate in each life it adorns.
As my children encircled her feet, Grandma would tell the old stories. On one occasion, I taped an hour of those stories, and the harder questions were asked. “Grandma,” queried my daughter, “How did your mommy and daddy die?” I interrupted, telling Grandma she didn’t need to answer that question if she didn’t want to. Her response was matter-of-fact. “They must know, honey. They must know such things.”
At 95 years old, Siranouche was one of the last living survivors of the Armenian death marches under the Ottoman Turks at the turn of the 20th century. A mass genocide that the world ignored, Adolph Hitler is infamous for a statement made to a German commander: “Who remembers the Armenians; who will remember the Jews?”
Siranouche and her family lived in a small Armenian village called Orphah. She recalls the beauty that was once her family’s estate. “I remember playing among the fruit trees in the orchard,” she says with a smile. At around age 10, young Siranouche and her family were awakened in the middle of the night by Turkish soldiers. She, her mother and siblings stood and watched as the fathers and husbands were huddled into their small Armenian churches – which were then burned to the ground. The screams still haunted her now aged mind.
She remembers the death marches through the Syrian Desert. How her mother would spread her skirt over her five children in the desert’s cool, night air to keep them warm as they slept. She remembers the Syrian women lining the march, hoping to help save some of the children by taking them as their own. Though the youngest died along the march, Siranouche’s mother (my wife’s great grandmother) gave away the rest of her children in one day – such a horrible joy for her – to know they might live, but that she would die soon, far away from her precious jewels.
Her new Syrian family treated her well, though she was a servant. One night, she had a dream. In her dream, Jesus came to her with outstretched arms. Using no words, she could see in his eyes that everything would be alright. From that point on, she knew she worshipped a different God than those around her, and she knew that someone was taking care of her.
Despite her life of hardship, Grandma ‘Anouche was known to her family as one of the most grateful human beings they had ever known. It seemed as though every breath she took marked another moment to be celebrated. Her great pain as a young girl had taught her the “art of appreciation” – the capacity to look deep into every moment, person, place or thing she encountered, and to find something worthy of celebration.
B. Cultivating A Grateful Heart
Becoming a truly grateful person is a life-long maturation, and it comes as no surprise that the scriptures are riddled with calls to thank, be thankful, offer thanksgiving and give thanks. It comes as no surprise that we are commanded by God to give thanks, in all circumstances. It seems as though God knows something that we don’t – that the giving of thanks, the cultivation of gratefulness, is the only remedy for the heart’s propensity to become bitter, petty and distracted in the wear and tear of life.
It also seems as though cultivating the art of gratefulness is not an option for the follower of Jesus – it is a matter of life and death. Grandma seemed to understand this “life-in-the-balance” quality of gratefulness very well.
Because life is a see-hear-touch-taste-smell affair, let’s use the language of the sensory life to reflect on what it takes to become a truly grateful human being.
1. See Through Every Situation, To The Gift That Dwells Within It
“…Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thess. 5:18
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Phil. 4:6
As I watched the latter years of Grandma’s life, I observed something. Her way of thankful living created a great contrast between her ever-expanding spirit and the slowly-contracting spirits of others I knew. She was somehow able to forgive and move beyond the greatest atrocities committed against her, and yet to also focus in on the moments as though they were the most precious seconds on earth. In the midst of one moment where my little children were screaming and I was longing for their grown-up years, she said, “Enjoy these moments, Dan; don’t wish them away. This is life. Embrace it.”
The contrast her life created felt like this: Some people live their lives in an endless poverty, always looking past the wealth of the moment to the riches that might lay beyond.
Others live their lives in endless wealth, always striking deep into the riches of the moment, and assuming that riches beyond will come as they may.
In other words, some people find it easier than others, by gift, nature and/or experience to be cynical, judgmental and critical, looking beyond the immediate now into a better future. Yet, if we unthinkingly give ourselves over to these postures, helpful though they can be in correcting and honing, our hearts will become blinded over time to the ordinary moments that must be celebrated as miracles.
Gratefulness and appreciation will slowly give way to bitterness and skepticism, and we will lose our capacity to see God actively engaging in our daily experience. We must actively look for the gifts in the daily grind, in order to find them. This habit must be cultivated, and allowed to become part of our character.
2. Hear God’s Voice In Every Conversation.
“I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers.” Philemon 1:4
Grandma intuitively recognized the reality that all human beings are made in the glorious, magnificent, radiant image of God. She understood brokenness, and often overlooked it (to her detriment), but was guided by the reality that there is no such thing as an “ordinary mortal” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight Of Glory).
Treating people with dignity and with appreciation for every act of kindness they gave was her modus operandi – the way she did life.
3. Touch The Broken Hearted And Allow Their Weakness To Touch You.
“All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” 2 Corinthians 4:15
Most psychologists understand that one medicine for depression rises above the rest for most of their patients – serving others who are weaker than we are. Grandma saw her circumstances as just that, moments in time that, when viewed from a higher vantage point, were teaching her compassion for any who were oppressed – be it by a nation, an addiction or a relationship.
When we touch another’s weakness, we are reminded of our own, and we become exceedingly grateful for the rescue that God has initiated on our behalf.
4. Taste The Feast That Awaits Those Who Live Generously.
“You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.” 2 Corinthians 9:11
“This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.” 2 Corinthians 9:12
The generous life is marked by an almost distant awareness that it is in giving that we receive, that it is in dying to ourselves that we truly taste the fullness of living. To live generously is to taste the fruits of the age to come, and to gladly give away what we have now in order to gain greater joys, shared in community, in the coming days.
“He is no fool,” said Jim Elliot, “Who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he can never lose.” A generous life cultivates gratefulness by allowing the resources of this life to run through one’s hands into the waiting hearts of others.
5. Smell The Fragrance Of Life Everlasting, And Follow The Scent Daily.
“For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving….” 1 Tim. 4:4
“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign.” Revelation 11:17
The far-away look that Grandma had in her eyes most of her life became more pronounced as the day of her passing drew nearer. She would call me to her side in her nursing home, asking me to come close enough for her to see me. As I looked deep into her failing eyes, they seemed to say, “I won’t be here long, honey; I’m on my way home.”
Truly thankful people seem to be in touch with the fact that there is a transcendant reality running behind the most mundane of life’s activities. With this vision of eternity in their hearts, and this fragrance of eternity filling the air they breathe, they move forward into otherwise normal tasks with a sense of the immortal and eternal guiding their choices.
C. The Choice Ever Before Us
“If you live wide-eyed in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. Keep your eyes open, your lamp burning, so you don’t get musty and murky. Keep your life as well-lighted as your best-lighted room.” Luke 11:33
“…That my heart may sing to you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever.” Psalm 30:12
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Romans 1:21
To be thankful to God is to have a brightening and increasingly radiant spirit. To be thankful and grateful to people is to secure, again and again, an attitude that appreciates and values the most mundane moments life has to offer.
See, Hear, Touch, Taste and Smell – toward the growth of gratefulness in the garden of your heart.