By Eddie Pipkin
Traditionally, we embrace this season of family, friends, and glorious food by counting our blessings. We gather together in celebration of one another and the good things in life. We are thoughtful about expressing our appreciation. We take the “gratitude challenge,” and post something new to be thankful for each day on social media. But allow me, for a moment, to flip the script. In addition to expansive feasts, visitors from afar, and time to catch up, let me also encourage us, as the Bible reminds us, to be thankful for clogged toilets, house guests who won’t leave, and Uncle Ned’s joke that we just heard for the 757th time.
I wrote this stranded at the Tires Plus, waiting for the tire techs to put a couple of new tires on my wife’s SUV as the sun went down. This was not a scheduled errand – it was the result of a slow, non-patchable leak, courtesy of my wife’s ability to magically attract any construction screw in the greater metro area. They could get the new tires on before closing time if I got over there immediately, and that’s how I ended up sitting outside at a table at the Wawa next door with no jacket as it got dark, a couple of days before Thanksgiving, when I needed to be doing a hundred other things except the little emergency that insistently demanded my attention. A perfect opportunity for a case of the gripes.
But, as followers of Jesus, we have a pesky mandate to thankful in all circumstances. I quote chapter and verse to you, 1st Thessalonians 5:16-18, first from the NIV, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus,” and for a slightly different perspective, from Eugene Peterson in The Message: “Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.”
This is one of the singular challenges in our lives as disciples (and leaders of disciples), this admonition to be always thankful, always rejoicing, cheerfully forging ahead in all circumstances. I’ve been working on it for half a century. It involves slowing down, practicing a heightened presence and a humble perspective in the moment – which is why Jesus was so impressively good at it. He was so intensely present in each moment of his ministry. Slowing down, breathing deeply, being aware is a gift born of the Holy Spirit. I have been surprised to find t is one of the bonuses of getting older – I, who have famously bounced willy-nilly from one “critical” thing to the next, forced to take it more slowly by mind and body, and realizing, “Hey, wait a minute! I don’t get into nearly as much mischief if I take more time.” A gift.
It turns out a little tire emergency and a Wawa parking lot offer some interesting opportunities for reflection and the counting of blessings:
- A staff at the tire store that was helpful beyond the norm.
- Enough money in our bank account to buy a couple of tires right before Christmas without it throwing us into financial turmoil.
- Free wifi! And a reminder of how amazingly easy it is to work remotely these days.
- A great view of people going and coming at the end of the work day, some clearly worn out from work, some singing along to a song on their headphones, some with adorable kids in tow, all sorts of languages to overhear, all sorts of cars and their implicit statements of economic well-being, from luxury SUVs to beaters held together with duct tape.
- The realization that it was cold out there with no jacket, but for me only a temporary cold. I could anticipate a warm house and hot meal in an hour or so.
- A truly spectacular sunset over the parking lot – and that’s free, isn’t it?
Yeah, I know, corny blessing counting. But it’s all true! And I could have just as easily sat there fuming and listing the ways the universe had wronged me.
I really enjoyed blogger Carey’s take on this and especially this quote:
The tragic truth is that some of the things we are complaining about today are the things we were praying for yesterday.
She frames the gratitude question from the perspective of faithfully understanding the nature of the relationship between us and God, then she offers some practical tips:
[C]omplaining is a lack of reverence. It’s a way of saying, God is not doing a good job running things, and if it were up to us, we would do a better job. It might sound extreme, but in essence, that’s what we tell God every time we complain against Him.
So how do we stop complaining? Well, I have been working on eliminating complaining from my speech, and from my experience, merely trying not to complain doesn’t work. It’s like telling yourself not to think about something; you will inevitably think about it.
A better way is by cultivating a heart of gratitude and praise for the Lord and renewing our minds by taking every thought captive and making it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). And this is done by transforming your complaints to gratitude!
Pretty straightforward. Here’s a more subtle, but super-helpful analysis of presence and the power of language to frame our thoughts at Vox. The words we use to frame our experiences (both externally and maybe even more importantly, internally) are crucial:
Psychologists have adopted a term for the ability to distinguish between feelings in an extra-nuanced way: They call it “emotional granularity.” For example, English has words like pleasure, satisfaction, and pride, but they don’t allow you to differentiate between the pride you feel for a friend whose accomplishment you’re also a tad jealous of, and the pride you feel for a friend whom you’re genuinely, 100 percent happy for. Yet Hebrew has a word for the latter — firgun — which describes total ungrudging and overt pride in another’s success. And German has a word for the opposite of firgun: schadenfreude.
Several studies suggest that increasing emotional granularity is good for our mental and physical health. It makes us more aware of our subjective experiences, which in turn makes it easier for us to regulate our emotions and maintain equanimity. It’s a souped-up version of what we do with preschoolers: We teach them to identify their feelings — “I’m mad” or “I’m sad” — which is the first step toward learning how to manage them.
Useful tools in our perspective-shifting move from gratitude to complaint. Also highly biblical: Jesus, as role model, extraordinarily thoughtful with his words. All of this commentary is offered as a way to remind us, as leaders, to be thankful for the very things that drive us crazy in our ministry work. If we use these unavoidable scenarios (familiar to all) as a springboard for experiencing grace and sharpening our leadership and discipleship skills, we avoid burnout and bitterness, even as we grow the ministry.
Consider these common opportunities to thoughtfully celebrate when our natural impulse is to cringe and groan “why me”:
- People who complain.
If we can listen, even in the midst of the noise, very often there is a valuable kernel of truth in the issues being raised.
- People who are needy.
This is an opportunity to be reminded that we can develop other leaders to help meet the needs of others.
- Tight budgets.
More opportunity to talk with people about generosity and more opportunity to talk about priorities. More chances to be creative.
- Crowded facilities.
It’s good to be popular. Maybe that’s an opportunity to get off our campus and into the community where the people are.
- Technology failures.
It’s good to be reminded about the wonder of old-school approaches. Plus, it’s an opportunity to think about best-practices and who’s leading our technology initiatives.
- Young people who don’t show up.
Maybe we have an opportunity to go where they are, and meet the young folks on their own turf. Maybe it’s a great opportunity to have deep conversation.
What are you have found to be thankful for that was not something for which your original impulse was to be thankful? How do you experience and express gratitude in your ministry? How do you encourage your team members and congregation members to live lives of gratitude? We here at EMC3 are grateful for your readership and engagement! Happy Thanksgiving weekend!