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Giving thanks amid uncertainty

Thanking God is easy when things go right, but hardship can foster a more radical kind of gratitude

By Trisha Elliott

Caught up in the Exodus story, I slide my index finger over the thin pages of my worn Bible. My eyes close, and I’m surrounded by screams of terror. “Pharoah will never let us leave!”

“He’ll hunt us down!”

“He’ll kill our children!”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Our release from Egypt was supposed to be all arm-in-arm and elated laughter. Instead, there are anxious attempts to instil order in the chaos. Orders to gather food and flocks. Orders to take the dough, anyway. Orders to fill every basket, every cranny with silver and gold. Frantic orders to “Calm down!”

A pillar of flame descends, so bright the stars blink. It is God’s signal. We instinctively follow it out. Straight line, 600,000 strong. Heels padding down, every step a move to freedom. We pass from Rameses to Succoth, camping at Etham on the edge of the desert. Then circle back to Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea.

Out of nowhere, the Egyptians appear in the distance, the wheels of their chariots kicking up dust, hoofs hammering the ground. About me, Israelites — friends — steel themselves to die: “It would have been better to serve Pharoah than die here in the wilderness!”

The Exodus story has given rise to thanksgiving ever since it was first told. Often, however, we are only grateful for the triumphant outcome, skipping through the story’s weighty uncertainty and hopelessness. Yet the degree of thanksgiving at a journey’s end is directly proportional to the toll of the passage — to arrive at thanksgiving for the Exodus requires trudging through despair as deep as the Red Sea.

In her book Radical Gratitude, Mary Jo Leddy, a theology professor at Regis College in Toronto, recounts the moving stories of people who express gratitude in extremely difficult times. “Through their acts of gratitude, they did not let themselves be defined by death and destruction,” she writes. “Because of gratitude, death did not have dominion.”

Radical gratitude is more demanding than checking off a list of life circumstances we are thankful for when things are going well: good health, a bit of money in the bank, stable relationships. Radical gratitude counters expectations. Radical gratitude is thanksgiving come what may. The conditions don’t have to be right. In fact, it’s more radical when they aren’t.

The Apostle Paul embodied radical gratitude when, rotting in a hellish prison, he wrote to his beloved church in Philippi: “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.”

Paul claimed to have learned the secret of being grateful a couple of millennia before chocolate and peanut butter were put together, before bubble bath and air conditioning made life more bearable, before Dulcolax and Viagra were a glimmer in the pharmaceutical eye. Sure, Paul might not have seen 5,000 advertisements a day slyly dredging up his inadequacies, but he was about to get his head chopped off — or worse. His secret to happiness wasn’t “Get More!” or “Be More!” His secret was a profound relationship with the God who created him and from whom his life derived worth. Paul’s sense that he was living for God enabled him to make the conscious decision to shift his focus from his need to his faith, from the despair of his potential death to gratitude for the life God had given him and was still calling him to lead.

Radical gratitude doesn’t deny pain or grief. No one can ignore an advancing army or prison bars, whatever modern guise they might take. Radical gratitude is knowing all that, feeling it deeply and yet choosing to rest in the gracious presence of God, “in life, in death, in life beyond death.” It is knowing that we are more than the sum of our pain.

I notice a little boy, five years old at most, crouching under a tent, his round eyes following the bronze tips of Egyptian spears as they flicker across the horizon. Around us adults are sobbing, arguing, hugging, terrified. I cast about for a quiet place to be still and wait on God.

The child begins to cry. I stoop down, pick up a stick and fill my hand with small smooth stones. Now, ducking beneath the tarp, cross-legged beside the boy, I drag the stick across the sand and draw a cross-hatch game board. When I’m finished, I drop the stones into his hands, counting: one, two, three, four. We play. There’s no pounding in the quarry. No lugging bricks. No choking heat. It’s not the land of milk and honey of which I had dreamt, but I’m grateful for this patch of freedom.

It’s one thing to have “learned the secret of contentment,” as Paul puts it; it’s another to put it into practice when the sea rages, the Egyptians are coming and there’s nowhere to turn.

In those times, radical gratitude is acknowledging the bad while actively looking for the good. It’s asking yourself, “Where am I experiencing God’s blessings in my life, even now?” As Leddy writes, “It may be that there are some realities for which there is no obvious or acceptable reason to be grateful. In these cases, it may be that we can be grateful only for the opportunity to help make the world a place in which it is a little easier to be grateful.”

Sometimes it’s easiest to start by stating our gratitude for the obvious: This tent. This child. This game. This breath.

Gratitude takes practice. It requires a constant shift of attention from the drone of negativity and despair within and around us. Being grateful for the small stuff enables us to ask the bigger question of God’s claim on our life and our claim to live a life for God: “In this moment, where are You calling me to act, O God?” Looking at life through the lens of gratitude propels us to transfer our focus from our brokenness to the personal vehicle of God’s blessing that we can yet be.

Paul felt called to write a letter of encouragement to his flock in Philippi. He could have wallowed in a prison of self-pity, but he chose to use what time remained to write a letter that would become an enduring testament to radical gratitude centred in God. “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death,” he wrote.

The stories of our faith assure us that there is always divine calling, and that through accepting God’s divine call upon our lives and expressing gratitude for it, we are renewed. Whether we are stuck in a prison or caught between sea and spears, there is always potential for exodus, for breaking loose and forging out, for beginning anew.

The Egyptians are upon us. The time for play is over, child. Come now, run hard toward the sea. The others will follow.

Quickly now. Hop on my back. That’s it. I’ve got you.

Don’t worry. Ours will be a gentle passing. The water will skim the sides of your ankles, but it won’t touch the pads of your feet. You’ll feel the warmth of the sun on your face; it’ll be bright, but it won’t burn. Trust me. I know where we’re going. It looks like the end of the road, but it isn’t.

I’ve travelled this line before. It’s a few verses away yet, but I will raise my staff and the sea will split. It’ll split wide open.

It always does.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a writer in Ottawa.

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