Surprised by Joy

I’m terrible about establishing desirable habits or changing negative ones, but I was reasonably successful about a year ago with an endeavor. I forget who told me about it—I’m so sorry—but I was reading Anna Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are. This book not only hit me in the gut as a mother, but as a person experiencing life in ways I can’t imagine other people dealing with (though I know for sure they do, and much, much worse)—from an abusive childhood to depression to an autistic, epileptic child—and all the other issues which arise from going through a divorce, managing large families, etc.

I felt encouraged, but what I walked away with from this book was that Voskamp’s life began to change when she compiled a gratitude list, even on days when she felt ill or rooted in poor mental health. Bad news came, but she learned, even in anger and rage, to add to that list. Slowly at first, but it grew over time.

I decided to make my own. And let me tell you, it is not easy.

The first few scribbles I wrote down were me being grateful the way one does when the sun is shining, children are napping, bills are paid, and all the questions on Jeopardy are in familiar categories—you know, when you’re convinced you are a super genius.

1. Making muffins they destroyed

2. Making dinner with my son

3. The smell of rain and incense

Then things started happening. My mother-in-law passed away from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in February 2019, and the stress of that sent me into a lupus flare for the next four months. Gratitude was hard to find. Whys and anger at God for taking this beautiful and important-to-me woman home, in one of the worst ways to end I can imagine, was too much.

23. The ravens that fly on the eaves

24. A weeping cherry outside the vehicle while waiting at piano lessons

25. Dreams of the Mother

In January, right before my mother-in-law passed, my mother was diagnosed with very invasive breast cancer for the second time. Sometimes I had to dig deep to uncover anything to be thankful for, but the digging yields insurmountable treasures—because what was changing wasn’t my circumstances, but me. By keeping my eyes on Christ, on God’s provision of camaraderie and love, somehow, in that mess, I was able to find joy.

40. Laundry detergent on sale for a bigger bottle than we usually buy.

41. Baths and shampoo and clean clothes.

42. Husbands who love and say having anxiety and doing nothing because of it are totally okay.

Joy is in the list of spiritual fruit: ‘…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22, NRSV).

But joy always seemed fleeting to me, or at best, reliant on positive, uplifting emotions. It wasn’t until I realized that joy is a substantial thing, a literal effect of a Divine being inside you—a gift directly from God—that I knew that I didn’t need my environment to be stable or sufficient, my life to be in my control or predictable, my finances or health or my children to be ideal.

What I needed was gratitude. And here’s why.

Voskamp discusses this in her book, about how the word eucharisteo, a verb meaning ‘to give thanks,’ is actual communion with God. Whichever Eucharistic practices you have are personal and inarguable in this context, but however we do this, by whatever means, the act of giving thanks to God in spirit, soul, and body, enables us to experience his graces—and in this case, joy. As a person who struggles with clinical depression, this practical exercise and what it manifested for me was worth more than all the money on earth.

70. A washer and dryer that work.

81. My daughter was brave and tried a roller coaster.

105. Good doctors.

            I learned the habit of when I felt I wanted to complain or rage amid one thing or everything going wrong, instead of questions or complaints, I made declarations. After a hysterectomy in which I nearly bled-out during surgery,e developed a post-op, internal hematoma, and endured a three-month recovery:

114. Visits to the hospital from friends.

118. My daughter’s prayers for healing.

142. The God of answers.

            It doesn’t make the pain go away. Gratitude isn’t a superhero method of attaining impenetrable armor and spiritual invisibility. What it does is allow one to maintain a receptive posture of God’s grace. Being thankful will enable us to see the beauty in pain—not to romanticize our ashes, but rather, demonstrate the type of love God extends to his children, to reveal we don’t belong to a God of an oppressive hierarchy, but a God who hurts and weeps and extends arms to the lost, low, and suffering.

II Corinthians 1:7 says, ‘We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us.’      

The comfort God gives us. This extension of God comes by communion, and communion by the act of giving thanks. In that act, there is love, joy, peace, and all the other graces by which we are sustained in a world often dark and uncertain. If we see the lights God leaves on, no matter how small in our nights, we will see how He is a ‘lamp for [our] feet and a light for [our] path’ (Psalm 119:105, NRSV).

160. Coffee

171. The writer’s block is gone.

179. The deep knowing that you’re here.

            I encourage you, dear friends, to lift your heads for only a moment, and I know it’s so tough for some of you, but find one thing today. Find one, small, insignificant-to-anyone-but-you thing, and whisper, Thank you.

            He hears you. He sees you.

            You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record? (Psalm 56:8, NRSV)

            Be well, comrades.

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