I hadn't thought about it much, but when the new year arrives, you tend to embrace it like a jumbo bag of M&M's... and look on the year past as a stale bag of potato chips. (I'm pregnant; you're just going to have to forgive the food analogies.) Human nature tends to like to number the grievances and the hurts vs. the blessings. But, as much as 2011 devastated my heart, on more than one occasion, what came alongside to guide and to heal has made it all precious, in a sense. Bittersweet, really.
We had some definite hard times this past year. The aunt I was closest to unexpectedly passed away. Just like that. I got a phone call in the middle of the night saying they didn't know what was wrong and she was going to the ER. The next call I received was from my Dad, saying we lost her. And it makes my eyes sting with tears remembering my disbelief and the memory of locking myself in our bathroom to cry, so afraid my grief would scare my little boy and praying he couldn't hear my sobs as he and his Daddy played in the living room.
My Grandmother suffered a stroke just prior to my aunt's passing. I remember vividly sitting in the room with her and my sister and how Grandma just didn't know us. And I bit my lip and kept my tears between me and the ladies room. Family members and friends both received diagnosis of the scary "C" word: Cancer. My sister had a myriad of undiagnosed health issues. We suffered an early miscarriage. My grief spiraled me into depression and my fear turned my heart anxious to the point that I contacted my doctor: Something had to be wrong with me and couldn't we do some labs? Everything came back normal, but the weight was still heavy.
Then there were the "little" things. The days when I was impatient when I needed to be anything but. The misunderstandings that occur when living day to day life with another human being. Disappointments of friends and family and of self. The feeling of it all seeming so pointless and scary and just too much. Desiring a true church family and feeling, instead, so hungry and bereft and alone.
And I could look back on 2011 and think, man, that was a hard year. And that would be honest. It had some seriously trying times. But what it wasn't was something that left me bitter and tainted. It could have. God knows that if there are enough blows and if you continually poke and prod the sore spots, wondering if they still hurt (and yes, of course they do), you never heal. It's not about not feeling pain, it's about not numbering the scars left behind.
This past year taught me how to ask for help. It made me open up to close friends and to my spouse and even to my doctor that things weren't okay with me. I've always felt I was a very vulnerable, my life is an open book kind of person. But as wordy as I can be, it wasn't easy for me to articulate and to admit and to work through the tangles. And there were many times when I didn't want to work through it. I just wanted to be over it.
In thinking about goals and New Years resolutions, I was left wondering: What was so wrong with the past year? What did I do right, essentially? What things did I want to keep on keeping on with? I could choose to look back on this year and say, hey, this year taught me that life is hard. I could allow it to make me, to keep me, broken and bitter and despairing. But in the midst of all that hurt, God was. He was there and He was faithful and He taught me how vital it was to the life of my heart to give thanks in all times.
"When it's dark and it's cold
and I can't feel my soul,
You are so good.
When the world has gone grey
and the rain's here to stay,
You are still good
So with every breath I take in,
I'll tell You I'm grateful, again...
And the storm may swell,
even then it is well...
and You are good."
~ Nichole Nordeman, "You Are Good"
It's more than just numbering simple things in a pretty journal. It's a conscious effort to look at the situations I am in and say, "Can I thank God for Who He is even when everything else is so unstable and pain filled?" It's not about what is actually happening - it is always about who God is. And giving thank morphs all of that together into a delicious cake-like batter (I'm sorry, I warned you about the pregnancy and food correlations) and not only does your thanks-giving remind you of God's unwavering character and faithfulness... what it stirs around and bubbles to the surface is that you discover in all of those things, all those ways, all those moments that bless and break... you find how much you are loved by a holy God.
It doesn't mean you don't hurt. It doesn't mean your spirit doesn't writhe with pain and that you don't struggle for air in the middle of the night when the anxiety and the dark gang up on you. Believing in Christ doesn't exempt us from pain, but it also doesn't leave us in our bondage. It may hurt to breathe for a long, long time, but is God bigger than the hurt? Do you believe He loves you more than the unfair and the ugly and the messed up that you're feeling, that's happening, right now?
Hunger and God's providing ways pushed a book into my hands that I devoured with my eyes and wanted desperately to soak into my very skin. I remember as clear as day, sitting on my couch during one of Joel's blessed nap times and reading, reading and then stopping cold on page 177. I grappled for my highlighter but sat stunned and paused and aloud I said, "Oh, God." It wasn't a curse, it was a plea. Two sentences stopped my heart:
"Only self can kill joy.
I am the one doing this to me."
I am the one doing this to me.
I. I am the one. Doing this.
Grief and sorrow are not "bad". It's a natural part of life and our soul ebbs and flows with the emotions of blessing and loss. And it's natural to grieve loss and okay to admit fear or burdens too heavy to carry on your own. Being a Christian doesn't mean you're smiley-happy 24/7. That's not authentic and even Jesus wept and had a heart heavy loaded with grief. But what Jesus did - and what we all must learn to do - is to submit to the authority of God the Father. To say, "If it be Your will, remove this from us." But if He doesn't... if He doesn't... then what? More tears? Rage? Blind acceptance with tag-along bitterness?
What I have found in giving thanks is not that I have a lot to be thankful for (although I certainly do!) but it has made me conscious of a God Who sees me. It has put my heart in a sensitive place where I am learning that giving thanks in all things and praying at all times (ref: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-19) are somehow, possibly, mysteriously knotted together.
And things don't always go smoothly just because I'm thankful. Tonight I realized I hadn't said prayers with Joel over his dinner before giving him his first bite and so I thought about it and then paused and went to hold his hands to give thanks. And what happened? He slammed the sippy cup straight into the middle of his bowl of oatmeal. Seriously?! And my first thought was, "Lord, I'm TRYING here!" But my efforts are not what it's about... it's the fact that God is faithful even when situations are not ideal.
And that's what I've learned and that's what I hold tight to and that's why I have a pretty journal where I list out the simple and the surprised and the thankful. And I learned all of that in a year that was hard and tearful. As I worked through my thoughts and fears of death and loss, I came to love more than ever the God Who sits on the throne and the Son Who sits at His right hand.
So, 2011, I will remember you. I will recall the heart wrenching times, the scared times, the praying on the floor in a tight ball times. But what I will ring-around and remember forever is how God was faithful to see and to hear and to heal. One day I may forget many of the small things I numbered as thanks in my journal, but I will not forget the One who has loved me every day of my life.
That's what thanks does... it builds an altar out of our heart and all day long, you come back and back again, offering more and more incense... because you are constantly finding blessing and returning to tell Him you noticed. You don't just walk away healed. You come back as did the tenth leper to say, "Thank you." and in doing so, you are truly, truly healed (ref: Luke 17:11-19).
And that makes you thankful all over again...
"Gladness and grief,
both are in Your hand
And sufferings brief
carry out Your plan
And our fleeting sorrows will yield
an endless prize, when some bright
tomorrow we'll see You with our eyes
Grace upon grace
flows down, flows down...
through the precious blood of Christ."
~ Sovereign Grace Music, "Through the Precious Blood"