Our capacity to be thankful is greatly influenced by how we “see.” The great challenge for all of us (though for some it is greater): Can we “see” beyond and through the chaotic circumstances that threaten to envelop us? Can we find some stability in God’s mercy and love, even when all hell breaks loose? Can we discover the underlying thread of God’s grace and presence beneath the rough, jagged texture of suffering and hardship?

One thing that helps is to remember that whatever tragedy or tumult we experience, God’s attitude toward us is one of acceptance and love. Even when God is upset with us, God loves us and will never banish us from her presence.

“To Catch an Angel” by Robert Russell is the autobiography of a young blind man who lived alone on an island in the middle of a river. He went rowing on the river almost every day by means of a fairly simple system.

To the end of the dock, he attached a bell with a timer set to ring every 30 seconds. In this way he was able to row up and down the river, and every 30 seconds judge his distance by the sound of the bell. When he’d had enough, he found his way home by means of the bell.

In the young man’s words, “The river lies before me, a constant invitation, a constant challenge, and my bell is the thread of sound along which I return to a quiet base.”

Life is like a continually flowing river. God calls us to venture out on it where there is frequent danger and challenge. Unexpected storms arise. Our security, however, rests in God’s unconditional love, which enables us to find our way back home.

We can find reasons for being either grateful or bitter. We have to determine the attitude that will permeate our spirit. The late Henry Nouwen spent the last years of his life working with developmentally disabled adults who had every reason to be bitter. They experienced loneliness, rejection from family members, the unfulfilled desire to have a partner in life, and the constant frustration of needing assistance.

And yet, observed Nouwen, most do not choose to be bitter, but grateful for the many small gifts of their lives – an invitation to dinner, a birthday celebration, a few days of retreat, and most of all, for their daily community with people who offer friendship and support. The more we decide to be grateful, the easier it becomes to live a grateful life.

Even when our problems are unsolvable and mountains unclimbable, God is with us. As we cultivate an attitude of gratitude for God’s sustaining grace amid all the tensions and pressures of life and as we learn to live through our disappointments and let go of our frustrations, then we will become more aware and alive, more whole and complete – more fully human.

Our hard places may become “thin places” where we can catch a glimpse of God’s glory and grace.

Chuck Queen is pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky. He blogs at A Fresh Perspective. These reflections drawn from Chuck’s blog have been adapted from the first chapter of his book, Shimmers of Light: Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season, published by Wipf and Stock Publishers.

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