Confession: I never stop listening to Christmas music. I’ve been going strong for about three years. Before you call me a freak, a caveat: it’s not the only music I play. I’ve just found that my taste for it isn’t affected by the calendar. You’re just as likely to hear Christmas music in my car in July as you are in December. Please don’t walk away. I can explain.
2018 has done a ringer on me and my family. It’s more than I care to list.
Everything from health to loneliness and insurance adjusters to hospital bills has one-two (and three-four, and five-six) punched my family right in the mouth. It’s enough to make me not want to get up again.
You drink coffee for a pick-me-up? Or eat candy? Or go for a walk? I listen to Christmas music. It keeps me going when things are difficult. Because, for me, Christmas is hope. It’s personified as a long-awaited baby, a messiah comes to reconcile us back to the God who makes all things right. And the music that celebrates that, for me, is always in season.
But this year, I’ve discovered a new problem—Christmas music isn’t working anymore. It doesn’t pick me up like it used to. 2018 has been too difficult, too full of heartache and loss, too infuriating. It buried me too deep. I can’t hear the music anymore. I need something stronger. And I’m pretty sure it’s gratitude. Especially in the moments when I don’t feel a shred of thankfulness.
A guy named Paul was a titan of early Christianity—still is. In a letter to his mentee, Timothy, he encourages him to pursue “godliness with contentment.” In that combination, Paul says, there is “great gain.” Godliness—right living—is a good choice. But it’s not enough by itself. And contentment—right thinking—is also a positive. But by itself, not enough.
I’m beginning to see that 2018 has been more difficult than it needed to be, and I’m at least partly to blame. I’ve been pursuing godliness. But I left contentment far behind. And so I’ve screamed at God for the bad things he allowed to happen to me while ignoring the many blessings he quietly put into my life. I’ve worried myself sick over bills and forgotten the fact that my children have never had to miss a meal. I’ve cursed extra jobs I had to pick up because we needed the income but failed to thank God that I even had that option.
When I start to focus on my year, God’s been reminding me of Paul. It’s utterly frustrating because his sufferings trump mine pretty well. In another letter, he gives an overview of his life since choosing to follow Jesus. There aren’t many rainbows and certainly no unicorns.
He writes, “ I have worked harder…, been in prison…, been flogged…, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.”
Wait, this is the same guy imploring Timothy to practice contentment? To add gratitude to his godliness? Cause if I was living Paul’s life, I know for a fact that contentment would be the last thing I was thinking about.
And yet, this same Paul, the guy who was shipwrecked and almost killed more times than I can count, also writes this:
“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
That’s right. Before it was co-opted by sports stars, this verse was originally about living a life of contentment.
This Thanksgiving, I’m going to take my cue from Paul, and from my favorite singer-songwriter. In Sister Winter, Sufjan Stevens sings that he’s “begun to worry right where I should be grateful, I should be satisfied.” That’s become true of me this year. I’ve replaced contentment with worry; gratitude with fear. And so I’m seeking to add contentment to my godliness by pointing gratitude right at my worry areas.
I worry about finances, but I’m going to choose to be content with the house we have; the food we can buy; the clothes that keep us warm; and the fact that (right now) both our cars are working.
I worry about the health of my daughter, but I’m going to choose gratitude for a year of relative health considering her lifelong diagnosis; for doctors who care for her like family; for 24-hour nurse lines; for medical assistance that makes her medication affordable.
I worry that my children aren’t having the best childhood possible, but I’m going to choose thankfulness for adults who teach them at church and preschool; for grandparents that adore them; for their immense creativity and love of art; for the smiles, hugs, and little kisses.
I worry that, despite my best efforts, I won’t be able to provide for my family, but I’m going to celebrate the job that God has provided; the side-gigs that come through in a pinch; a wife that raises kids and has her own side hustles; and the fact that while we don’t have everything we want, we have what we truly need.
This Thanksgiving, if you’re feeling heavy; forgotten; frustrated—try aiming your gratitude at that place in your heart and soul where worry is growing. I’ll be trying to do it too. And I’ll trust for both of us that, if we do that, we’ll find the words of Paul to be true—that on the other side of this hard work there is “great gain” to be had.