My youngest daughter turned eleven last month. In the days leading up to her birthday, she regularly skipped into the living room to study a wrapped present that had her name on it. Her eyes lit up as she told people about the really big box her sisters wrapped for her and how she couldn’t wait to open it. Finally, on the evening of her birthday, she tore into that box, threw the wrapping paper everywhere, reached inside, and pulled out a purple penny board. (A penny board is a type of skateboard, just in case you are like me and thought it had something to do with actual pennies.)
She screamed with delight and ran around the room, clutching it in her arms, hugging her sisters over and over. Her excitement and gratitude made us all giggle. She shared the news with her friends, took pictures, and spent hours joyfully learning to ride this new-found treasure.
And then she went to her friend’s house…a friend who also had a penny board. A penny board that apparently turned better and rode smoother and “didn’t make the rumbling sound” that my daughter’s penny board made. And just like that, the best gift ever wasn’t quite as remarkable as it was just three weeks ago.
My first response is to rant and rave and lecture my daughter for her lack of gratitude, and I want to ask how will her sisters would feel about her spoiled reaction to such a thoughtful present?
But then I walk into a friend’s house for dinner and run my fingers across the beautiful, granite counter-tops, admire the abundance of cabinet space and return home with a sigh as I look at my small and cluttered kitchen which didn’t look quite as small and cluttered when I left for dinner. And I wonder if the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.
I just hide it a lot better than my daughter. And in hiding it, there is often a discontent that surfaces in every conversation whether I intend it or not.
But it isn’t just about counter-tops, is it? Discontent can ooze its way into much more significant places. We compare our children, or our spouses, or our jobs. We read someone’s status on Facebook and wonder why we can’t get our act together like THAT person. I hear about how someone’s young son just saved enough of his own money to build a village in Africa, and I bemoan the fact that my daughters can’t seem to make their own beds in the morning. Not only can discontent lead to great relational damage, it often throws in the added bonus of self-degradation and defeat.
One of my favorite books is One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. To quote the book jacket, Voskamp discovered, “in giving thanks for the life she already had, she found the life she’s always wanted.” She writes about how she started writing an actual list: “Not of gifts I want but of gifts I already have….to learn how to be grateful and happy, whether hands full or hands empty.”
This isn’t a woman who loves pat answers and only wants to think happy thoughts. She has faced tragic loss and pain in her life and deeply understands the healing power of a grateful heart.
I am not saying this is easy, nor am I saying that we should all walk around like plastic people, smiling and saying, “Oh isn’t this great! I am so thankful for every blessing in my perfect, wonderful life.” I want to be authentically grateful. I want to acknowledge that life can be incredibly difficult and painful, but I also don’t want to be blind to the incredible gifts that are standing right in front of me every day.
What does that look like? How do we do this?
In Philippians 4:12-13, Paul writes, “12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.”
Growing up as an athlete, I used to quote verse 13 all the time. There was something encouraging about repeating this verse over and over again to myself, whether it was before a tennis match when I was extremely nervous, during a basketball game when I really wanted to make a three point shot, or during a long run, where I just didn’t feel like I could run another step. I think many athletes have quoted this verse about how we can do everything because God gives us strength. I believe it’s true, but I think it is important to think about verse 12 too. I never quoted that during a competition, but now as I read this passage, I think it is quite important to not leave verse 12 out of the mix.
Three words stand out to me this morning as I think about thankfulness: “I have learned…”
Contentment doesn’t always come naturally. If I take the athlete theme a little further, I wasn’t able to make the last second basket because I just thought about it a lot. I had to learn how to shoot the ball, and then I had to practice. I can’t just sign up for a marathon and show up in new shoes, never having run a mile before the race, and hope that the experience is going to be a good one. No, training is required, and even for those who train, the race can still be difficult.
I think the same is true with contentment. Gratitude takes practice. And as verse 13 says, it is through God’s strength that we can learn to do this.
As I mentioned earlier, Ann Voskamp keeps an actual list. She grabs a pen and writes down the things in her life that she may have taken for granted if she didn’t take the time to write them down. Over the last few years, I have been keeping a list too, and I believe it makes a difference. It is something that I have to keep reminding myself to do, especially on those days when someone else’s penny board seems much more incredible than the one I was given. Some days I am better at this than others, but one gift that I continue to write on my list is just the gift of a new day. A new day to start again when I screwed up the day before. A new day to begin again when I went to bed the night before feeling weary or exhausted or overwhelmed. A new day to be thankful for the gifts I already have.
What could you write on your list today?