It may seem an oxymoron, but I usually find bike rides relaxing. Riding over country hills is a way to release stress and let my mind wander. A bike ride is a brief period of time when I feel free from the obligations and responsibilities of life. By some trick of the mind, I live in the moment. During the years I cared for Grandpa and Grandma my weekly bike rides were a brief escape. Those years have ended, and as I biked through this summer I noticed a greater sense of freedom--I no longer had to escape a dark cloud. In that lightness I have felt thankfulness, deep in my bones.
Then I look a little closer at myself. Feeling thankful is pleasant, far better than feeling bitter or any such ugly sensation. But I consider how fleeting thankfulness so often is in our lives. When are we thankful, and why? Is what we so often call thankfulness true thankfulness?
Coming through a difficult time can spur thankfulness. I remember how after Grandpa died I was deeply thankful for God's preserving hand. I recognized the many answered prayers, I saw grace even in Grandpa's sickness and passing. But that thankfulness later gave way to bleakness and bitterness--perhaps even a black brew of exhaustion, depression, and despair. Is thankfulness really so fickle and passing, or does this mercurial presence reveal something I still need to learn about a thankful heart? In ancient days when Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt the people were very thankful--until they gave way to grumbling. What God gave wasn't enough and instead they wanted what they had in misery. It seems a far too common pattern in the human heart, a madness for misery and a blindness to grace.
Remembering how I have walked that circuit from gladness to gloom, and finding myself at present feeling thankful, I consider what all of this means. What is the reality of true thankfulness? What is my thankfulness, what is it not, and what ought it be? Jacob met God and piled up stones. I pile up words.
Surviving a bad relational experience gives a sharp contrast for good relationships, their worth, and their meaning. It is a worn cliché to hear, "I am thankful for my family," but beyond vague sentiment what is meant by that? Perhaps for some the statement goes little beyond warm fuzzy feelings, but I am thankful for what my family has been both past and present. Being is teaching by deeds, a learning that is inscribe on our hearts in ways lectures never can. As I have grown older I have grown experientially aware of the spiritual, emotional, mental, and relational foundations that came to me through my family. What I experienced in my formative years laid the foundation for my understand of, and attitude toward, relationships. Like peering into a dirty mirror and seeing a reflection dimly, so I see faintly the person I could have been if I had grown up in a family filled with avarice, bitterness, envy, or hatred. My parents, and my siblings, are far from perfect, but there are many burdens of wounded emotions and thinking that I do not carry--which many people do carry in life--all because of the shaping brought through family during my childhood.
Eight years spent caring for Grandma and Grandpa gave me a personal peak into what family meant for other people. It is one thing to hear or see such things from a distance, a different thing entirely when your faced is pressed up against the reality in all its messiness. Over the course of those years I learned something about what "family" meant in the formative experience for both Grandma and Grandpa. That exposure birthed a deeper reflection on my part about how those personal experiences shaped their views, and then the vision of "family" they went on to create for their own children. Picking at the tangled vines of family history gave me a greater sensitivity to how every person's formative years greatly contributes to the loads they carry in life, and how they view people. This impacted how I consider everyone; their story is fuller than just who they are today--they are more than job, education, amusements, and social status.
In coming to a deeper appreciation for how wounds and broken thinking fester within damaged relationships, and especially damaged family relationships, I have come to a richer appreciation, and thankfulness, for the family I have been given. This family has made me a far more stable, mature, capable, and thoughtful person than I would otherwise be. What I am able to do, and be, for others springs from what has been done for me.
And the impact of my family continues. Another great gift brought through family, wrought in the sublimity of grace, is this: the ability to live in peace. Again, eight years ago I might have been able to say that without understanding it so personally as I do now. My family has never been a blissful family--we have our measure of scraps and disagreements, and generally you won't find us all dancing around holding hands and singing "Kumbaya"--and so I never particularly thought about my family in terms of peace. But having spent eight years living in a different climate I understand better. The presence of disagreements says far less about peace than people might think. There can be more peace in a house of sometimes heated disagreement than in a house where a cold silence dwells. Living in peace is the absence of bitterness, demanding, begrudging, measuring, justifying. The list could go on, but the point is that being able to live in peace with people requires having peace with them. This does not mean agreeing with them on everything but it does mean harboring no resentment in any of its forms. To live without hounding resentments from other people gives a real liberty, a freedom to live, breathe, and relate, unencumbered.
So I'm not just thankful for bike rides with no burdens to pick up on the return. I am thankful for a sound body, and a sound mind--two things I have seen vividly stripped away. I am thankful for the opportunity to do and to be, to go and to say, to live and to strive, and most of all to rest. I'm thankful for the ability to neaten and the option of being messy. I'm grateful for a large house I could not have imagined, and for a house being large and yet still full. I'm thankful for the car I could not afford and yet have at no cost, the bed and the sleep with no agitated nights. I am thankful that I have been taught, I am being taught, and will never be alone. And, yes, right now I am very thankful for family.
But if that is a quick survey of thankfulness it only makes sharper the question of why our hearts become so weighed down by the cares of life so that our eyes become dim and our hearts thankless. If I can see all this goodness now, and it was true before, why has it seemed so far away in the past and might yet again in the future? If true thankfulness is but a vapid emotion, here today and gone tomorrow when stiffer winds come, then isn't it meaningless? And if true thankfulness is more than that, what does it say that I find it so fickle?
True thankfulness is more than shallow emotion, but understanding that requires plumbing the depths of what we call thankful to find the source of thanksgiving, and thus from whence flows our stream of praise. If we are thankful for what we can quantify, a list of things however ephemeral or solid, and the measure of our thankfulness can then be marked by the amount of our quantity--then even in uttering thanks for our list we have swallowed the bitter pill of thanklessness.
How so? Because things come and go, they are simply the means of communicating deeper truth. If our thanks comes to rest on the things rather than the truth conveyed by them then we have turned the situation on its head and by dint of such a feast becomes emptiness while the true food passes by. This, at the heart, is why so much thankfulness becomes vapor under scrutiny. You are thankful for family? A family given can be taken away. You are thankful for your able mind? Knowledge gained can be lost, strength fail, health crumble. Cars break, pain robs nights of rest, money fails, destitution comes. I paint a picture of calamity, but the point is this: if we are ultimately quantifying our thankfulness in the discrete things, then so also we can quantify what we have not (or have lost). Thankfulness then becomes a judging, a weighing on our scales, and in that view what is to say that a sufficiency of things for thankfulness today is sufficient for tomorrow? If what we ultimately see are things then in the end our eyes will come to see that all things pass away, we haven't enough, and the thankless spirit will return.
We must learn the lesson found in the Israelites who came out of slavery in Egypt. They were delivered out of bondage, they saw God's mighty acts, they walked through the Red Sea, they heard God speak in audible voice, ate the bread He provided from heaven, and saw Him go daily before them in a pillar of fire and smoke. Yet in all that they became thankless and complained, "Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic [...]" (Numbers 11:4-5). They kept a good list. They knew well all the things they had lost, and all the things they didn't have. What good was God, so present as the pillar of fire, if they didn't have cucumbers? They valued a good meal, but not God being with them.
They were blind to God.
That same blindness is at the root of our own fast fading thankfulness. Are we looking at the pillar of fire before us, or the things clutched in our hands and tasted in our mouths? Israel rejoiced greatly when they were first delivered from slavery, but it faded quickly in the want for cucumbers. So also we can rejoice greatly in the things God does for us, and gives us, but it fades quickly if our eyes are fixed on the things and not the Giver. If you are thankful for the Giver then you are thankful for who is with you, not how much you have from Him. The heart of a true thankfulness does not sum up in the length of the list but rather in the person of the giver. If thankfulness rests on who your family is rather than who gave you that family--or health, house, life, freedom, or any thing--then such thankfulness will turn to dust. Each of these, and many more, come and go. It is only in being truly thankful for who the Giver is can we really have any enduring thankfulness for the things given. Otherwise what we think is thankfulness is only pleased greed which will soon hunger for more. It is such a heart that values cucumbers over God, and His bread from heaven.
It is right to be thankful for all we are given, if all of it is known as words of divine love given shape, and the heart responds with thankful praise to the giver. Emptiness follows where thankfulness is nothing more than sweaty hands greedy grasping that which we horde--even if we call it not such. Only when we truly mean the words, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you" (Psalm 73:25) are we truly thankful. If thankfulness fails or fades it is because we have desired more, and so less, than the One in whom is summed up all we can truly be thankful for.