I recently had one of those days. You know, you can’t really put your finger on it, but you just feel emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of it. It’s getting colder and darker, and daily life is looking more like a slog. As I do every night, I took the dog for a walk in the church cemetery. There’s a spot I aim for in the corner by the creek, and there I stopped and admitted to God, “I am having a hard time right now.” No sooner had I said that then I felt a tug at the leash, at the end of which the dog was rolling on his back in the dirt. I responded with all the dog-owner-telling-the-dog-to-stop clichés I could think of, and he jumped up to his feet, shook off, wagged his tail, and (if dogs could do it) smiled. At first I was annoyed and jealous (all he does is sleep all day, then the first chance he gets rolls in a pile of dirt). Then it hit me: roll in the dirt.
I could pray that God would please take away the things that burdened me. But if I were to pray for that, I would have nothing and do nothing—no job, no family, no purpose for being. Sure, of all the paper cuts that make up the thousand that kill, a few could always go; but mostly they are necessary parts of my life. I have so much to lose because I have been given so much. I have so much to complain about because I have been blessed so much. I can look with disgust at the dirt on my hands and try to wash them clean, but even the stupid dog knows better: it is easier and happier to give thanks for the dirt.
So I did. I started thanking God. I started at home, and thanked God for my family—each of them, by name, with a pause between each name as I pictured them in my mind. Then I thanked God for our school’s teachers—each of them, by name, with a pause between each name as I pictured them in my mind. Then the support staff of the school—each of them, by name, with a pause between each name as I pictured them in my mind. Then I moved on to the church: the elders, the school board, board of business management, youth board, stewardship, evangelism, trustees, council, planning committee, building committee, musicians, screen operators, greeters, ushers, janitors. You know the drill—each of them, by name, with a pause between each name as I pictured them in my mind. I simply said, “Thank you for X,” for literally everyone I could think of who has anything to do with my regular life. As I turned to go home, I topped off my list with that which we all should be most thankful for in December: the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who takes away the sin of the world.
It was not magic—it’s not like I suddenly felt eternally grateful and danced a jig of happiness. I was still tired, just not despairing. I gave thanks in the way you force yourself to exercise, and it was exercise in that it was good for me, and it turned the weariness into endurance. Instead of being frustrated at someone at home or work who failed to meet my expectations, I can give thanks for them. Instead of being defensive over someone’s criticism of me, I can give thanks for them. Instead of complaining about the amount of work I have in the next couple weeks, I can give thanks for it. Instead of bemoaning the number of gifts and parties to get and go to, I can give thanks that I have so many people to give to and celebrate with.
It is incidental that my entire list of people has something to do with church (go figure, I’m a pastor). You can make your own list. Try it and let me know how it goes. As you pause and thank God for each one of them, you may find that your mood changes from despair to contentment, from bitterness to empathy, from seeing people as annoyances to seeing them as people for whom Christ was born, died, rose, and ascended.
Photo (c) Daniel M G Gray/Lightstock