Gratitude: A Quiet Discipline, An Offering, A Setting Down, An Unfreezing of the Heart, A Spiritual Continuum


I wake up every day tired, mostly of me. This is how depression repeatedly exposes itself to me, in exhaustion. With each breath and step in the day, with every mundane activity only reinforcing my life’s obvious lack of direction. It is sad. I seem unable to enjoy life.

Sometimes I think this is easily solvable.  Do I have a lack of gratitude for all the good in my life? It might look like that if you saw my beautiful life.


If pushed I can name all the things for which I am thankful. In my bleaker moments, I imagine that I don’t know how to live out this gratitude.

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” Meister Eckhart  (c. 1260 – c. 1327)

I don’t completely agree, but I know that it is up there in importance in the spiritual formation of a believing heart. Anne Lamott says help, thanks, wow in her tiny book by that title.

To implore, to give thanks and to offer praise create the liminal places preparing us for a deeper spiritual life. This allows for a vulnerable, more exposed and prepared spiritual self.

It is lost to us when we get caught up in over thinking and not allow ourselves moments in the day when we let go of that rigid way of spirituality in the form of dry and useless ingratitude.

The wonderful Catholic visionary and author of more than 40 books Joan Chittister says:

“Gratitude is not only the posture of praise. It is also the basic element of real belief in God.”

This convicts my aching, thankless, over thinking mind and heart.

One of my favorite spiritual fathers, a gently resplendent author, the late Henri Nouwen, is the most convincing to me today. As a recovering alcoholic I seem to have many resentments that crowd in before I know it. I can go through a whole day, my brain buzzing with one resentment or critical thought after another, and then before I realize it my physical body and spiritual heart and heartless brain are full.  I am brimming with bitterness and judgement.

In Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit he said:

“”The opposite of resentment is gratitude (from the Latin gratia = favor). Gratitude is more than an occasional ‘thanks be to God.’ Gratitude is the attitude that enables us to let go of anger, receive the hidden gifts of those we want to serve, and make these gifts visible to the community as a source of celebration …” When I think about what it means to live and act in the name of Jesus, I realize that what I have to offer to others is not my intelligence, skill, power, influence, or connections, but my own human brokenness, through which the love of God can manifest itself. Ministry is entering with our human brokenness into communion with others and speaking a word of hope.”  (My emphasis)

My bleak spiritual state is so obvious to me when I am depressed. But to dwell there deciding my life is useless would be the real tragedy. Even with and perhaps because of depression, even with some of the things that plague so many of us including spiritual doubt, incessant fear or anxiety, the self-hatred so many struggle with, our life’s deep regrets and our brokenness.

Before God these are my questions. Am I am able to let go of them and lay them in prayer at the Cross? Can I set them down to pick up the communion bread and cup? Can I find, as a daily discipline, a few things for which I can say thanks? If this is hard, especially for a melancholic person like myself, I think it’s paramount to express thanks as a part of our life of spiritual discipline.

Gratitude it’s an offering. Gratitude is a discipline. It is a setting down of bitter burdens to try to trust God with our brokenness.

Gratitude I think is the ultimate trust.  This isn’t a formula; rather it is a part of life’s spiritual continuum.

celestial snow

Wisconsin has had more than 30 days below zero already this winter.  It’s a hard place for me to live. It’s a cold, wrecked bitter place. But it also has great beauty such as snowflakes falling this morning; dancing as they fall, whirling playfully and slowly, and dropping to the already covered ground.  I have to admit, sitting here in my warm house it is beautiful to see the snow form into an angel.

Gratitude is a spiritual or life discipline that can bring health and heart healing.


For the next 30 days or so, through the bleakest whitest part of winter, I’m going to keep track in writing. Want to try it with me?  Perhaps the last activity before sleep or first thing in the morning with a cup of coffee.  Take a moment to write five things (or even one) for which you are grateful.

Will this cause an inner shift in my frozen, depressed heart caught up in its own gloom? It may not.  It may simply get me through this frozen winter.  Whatever the outcome, I’m a little more hopeful today.

Let me know if you’re going to try 30 days or nights of private gratitude. Let’s step toward this hope together.

{Life and Death in 25 Lines}


His homework was to write a poem.
Tell us a childhood memory. He wrote,
The Week my Grandpa Died in 25 lines.
Over two sautéing onions, tears.  I’m choking on them and the meat and spices,
Mom, is this too hard?
Mom, do you need a hug?
Mom, I need to give you a hug he says coming around the stove. He is kind
like his grandpa, I want to say. A grandpa he’ll never know and I cannot be
the Memory Keeper,
but if not me, whom?

Taco casserole is easy.  I can do this dinner while the world’s crashing,
Spirits and hearts cracked open, still but beating
on and on.
This wasn’t life as I expected, messy and smashed
down like our fifty year old house, neglected
and falling down.  We’re patching souls, daily.
Kissing away tears.

A warm bath washes gone the youngest’s stinky boy smells and the heaviness of weeks and months of strain,
we’re rinsing off sorrow again.
How are you faring, I ask.  His shrug says more than words.  “It’s okay.”
He finishes quietly.
“Sometimes I want to yell, …”

Oh, how I want to yell and holler at God, What are you thinking?  If you’re thinking of us at all.
I’m waiting,
in this mixed-up, broken space
lost in time.
Wishing, sick dizzy from the spinning!
And knowing,
it won’t end. Knowing I must let go my fear, the idea that God
isn’t listening;
fearful that life is

emptiness, pain and endless sorrow.

Henri Nouwen sayswe long to be occupied.
We fear our endless emptiness. YES.

The snow outside reflects a cold calm I don’t feel.
Inside I am holding, still.
My emptiness an offering
to the Holy Spaces of In Between
(belief and disbelief)
I do not understand.

He sits down hard by the sink, in the way kids they often do.  Asking
“Mom, do you believe in heaven?”
What he’s asking I cannot know – is there a space there outside of time and cosmos.
A space where we will see Grandpa again?

This, the place
of unknowing, is uncomfortable for me, for him.
It sits down hard between us,
the air thick and heavy with our mutual wondering.

We stop, just for a moment and look into each other’s eyes.
Comforted by the solidity of his teenage boy body, I take from him.
Another hug and wait.

all a part of the human condition. Not even this
can I keep from him but I long to teach him too.
About trust, surrender and continued openness

to the Unknown.


My Spiritual Eyes are Stinging

From listening to a QIdeas talk with Eugene Peterson on the Sabbath.

I must stop trying to be God.  

Which means also stop trying to prove myself.  Stop with the interminable, frantic burden of finding my place in the world.  Yes, there is a dignity to work – any kind of work—even house work.  But when we inflate our worth by acting like what we do is everything  — it’s something, then we put ourselves above God.

When our “moral sweat” brings our sense of value, it blinds us to God at work and our spiritual eyes are left stinging.

“We want to be like God.” said Eugene Peterson.

Sabbath living is … to show up.  Then, shut up.

Knowing  that God is doing something, we are to live in response it.  Otherwise, it’s only an oppressive ritual.  Religious devotion deprived of meaning.  Eugene Peterson even asserts that programs sometimes can keep us from finding community in churches.

I’ve reflected for a long time on what it means to be Christian community to one another.  Unabashedly knowing that I’ve lived most of my life feeling as if there’s a giant, lonely even gaping hole inside me that I cannot seem to fill up.  Family didn’t do it.  Work didn’t do it.  Creating doesn’t do it.  Motherhood didn’t do it.  Being married didn’t do it.  Drinking really didn’t do it.  Being a part of things doesn’t do it.  Serving doesn’t do it.  There will never be enough friends — the right sort of friends.  Work.  Hobbies.

Nothing fills it that gaping, God sized hole.

Shutting up and showing up is how God fills that gaping hole inside us.  It is the most repeated commandment in the Bible.  And ironically Jesus was accused, of all the radical things he did which were many, of not keeping Sabbath well.

“God is working when we are sleeping.” said Eugene Peterson. “We live in a toxic culture that doesn’t understand the need for Sabbath – our world is full of compulsively and insecurity.”

Rarely do we sit, play, see, breathe  in slowly, and just be. 

Creating active space for nothing,

knowing that when you pray you are not accomplishing.

Learning an awareness that God is doing something and you don’t have a clue what it is—

it is a constant surrendering.

I keep being struck reading the Torah (the first five books of the OT) by when Moses and Aaron are confronted by the failings of the people of Israel – the abject poverty of soul, their errors, constant rebellion and the sinful nature of the people, they fall face down.  Moses and Aaron, that is — over and over again.  (I wonder how many times it is repeated?)

They fell, face down.

How do we fall face down—letting go—surrendering ourselves?  Literally.  Figuratively.  Moses and Aaron did it over and over again.

I’m starting to think,  just possibly,  that I’m meant to live with that hole in my heart.  Perhaps even, I am supposed to acknowledge it and

let God do the filling up.

Just maybe, he made me that way for a reason, so that I would never okay without him— never totally content — never fully joyful— never imagine that I’m in control—living always humbled by my need for the Holy encounters with him.

It’s living in constant surrender.  Face down, a kairos surrender to the Holy One.

“Take my tired body, my confused mind, and my restless soul into your arms, and give me rest, simple quiet rest.” — Henri Nouwen


Advent Lament: My Endless and Voluminous Need

Some have said Advent is an opportunity to walk into the dark night of the soul, as Nouwen called it. This works for me.  As I sat in church yesterday I felt unsettled and angry.  Stirred by the challenges of my life I felt a heightened awareness of my need — my endless and voluminous need.

For some weeks I have had a growing sense of discomfort.  This happens to me from time to time, though years can pass in between.  It is a strange unwelcome melancholy that affects me emotionally, spiritually, and physically.  In can bring a new level of understanding, a softening, an unfolding of my heart.

But in what I have come to know as predictable, my inner self resists.  I find myself becoming angry, distrusting, and irritated.  I do not know why I respond this way, only that it has come enough times in my life that I recognize it.  It may take me a while, days or weeks to finally see it for what it is, but then as I face it, the unsettling of my soul, I understand why nothing seems right, no one pleases me, and everything is causing a level of increasing frustration.

Especially expectations of Christmas, stated and unspoken.  I am overly aware of money or lack of it, kitsch or classy decorations, who is spending or not, and how special I can make things for my children and family.  This focus on material becomes enormous, crowding out what’s going on inside me.

My every sense is magnified. My heart tells me it is impossible to resolve all the conflict in my heart.

For the first time in a while I responded by writing a lament to God.  Restricted by the scenario at church of time and space, everyone jotting down on a small piece of paper their gratitude, praise or a lament, I resisted at first.  Then, I quickly wrote from my heart:

Tell me what you want me to do.  Speak.

Hearing God speak is one of my greatest places of doubt as a believer.  Oh, God does speak to me and when he does I am always totally blown away by its clarity.  But still I live mostly in the in between riddled with unfaithful doubt.

As a voracious reader, the world of blogging has opened up to me an instantaneous flood of information and I’ve gorged on it of late.  As is my nature, I tend to go to the extremes.  I have found hundreds of insightful people and blogs.  I wish I could read them all daily but my world around me would fall to pieces in disarray if I did.

Early this morning I read a summary of a presentation by the Rev. Dr. Christopher Beeley, professor at Yale Divinity School.  It put into words this cycling of despair, response, growth in a way I have not been able to understand or summarize myself. Don’t you love it when that happens?  Beeley presented:

“a three-step process of faith formation offered by John Newton and developed from a reflection of Newton’s on the parable of the sower. The first step is “Desire.” A person might feel “elation” and “joy” or “relief.” The sense of desire propels one into church with a sudden surge of awareness of God’s grace and love. This first phase is like the Hebrews freed from Egypt, it brings with it a sense of elation. While the sense of desire and God’s love persist they also change with time leading to the second phase.”

“The second phase is “Conflict.” This is the “dark night of the soul” phase where one wrestles with God, with faith,and often faces challenges that were not experienced in the first phase of Desire. If Desire is marked by elation like that of the Hebrew freed from slavery, this phase is marked by a sense of being lost, the Hebrews wandering in the desert for 40 years. This is a time of growing more dependent on God and deepening our trust as we travel through one challenge after another.”

“The second phase leads to the third phase. Newton is careful to spell out that one is not necessarily a better believer or person in one phase or the other, rather one’s sense of dependence on God increases through each phase. To me this phase sounds a bit like what the Buddhists call “Detachment.” This phase is marked by a shift in emotions where one becomes less emotionally engaged in the challenges and more able to view them with some distance, having put one’s trust in God.”

“…These phases, A, B, and C were not linear but perhaps a spiral that repeats over and over through life.” (emphasis mine).  Grace in the Blade by John Newton, three phases beginning on page 171.

As I sit fully within the Conflict stage, naming it helped me immensely.  I can say that my spiritual path has wound around and around in that spiral my entire life.  It wasn’t until I read these thoughts of Newton that I understood what was happening.

Much of my spiritual journey has involved doubt, restlessness and pain.  As I listen to those believer’s whose ‘faith’ seems to be pure saccharine goodness, I’ve felt constantly in revolt!  That has not been my experience!

My spiritual experiences have been marked by questions and confusion as I wrestle with the strange truth of this radical person Jesus and the rest of scripture and reconcile them with real life; Christians whose lives are tinged with hypocrisy, the weakness of my own dark heart, and a life riddled with iniquity.

As I learn to cry out as I did yesterday, I am certain that He will respond.  Advent for me will be a time of listening, and so I wait.  I wait for him to speak and tell me what to do.  I wait for Him to speak.

There is No Just War

I went to bed a few hours ago and woke with this ringing in my ears:

“There is no just war.”

I’ve no idea where it is coming from; it seems totally out of the blue.  Sometimes things come to us from what we were reading or talking about before we fell asleep.

I was reading Henry Nouwen’s book Lifesigns.   It has nothing about war, but rather is an invitation to Intimacy, Fecundity (which sounds rather like a dirty word to me, but isn’t …) which is openness to a life of change and growth, and Ecstasy, the fullness of joy!

And before that I cleared my email.  I did a little research on “poverty in the US and the world” for my essay written for my church’s blog Advent Conspiracy.  Before that, I was reading about different women’s roles in the development of the early male philosophers. (Don’t ask me why.  I’m sick.  I can read whatever I want.)

I’ve been sick for three days and my bed has been my constant companion; sleep, as well, at times but more often then not I am left with the warm covers and my cold thoughts.  The “I should be doings” ringing in my ears.  It’s good that this doesn’t happen to me too often (getting sick, I mean) because I don’t do sick very well and I have a propensity for getting Pneumonia.  Thankfully this doesn’t feel like Pneumonia just a simple flu.

Anyway, “war” is ringing in my head right now and I don’t know why, but when this happens I can’t help but go to my bookshelves and see what I have.  If I find nothing I go to the web but I was looking for a little book I knew I’ve had for years, but haven’t had the courage to read.  It is titled: WAR: Four Christian Views.* I guess I know what I’ll be doing for the next few hours.

Why does it take courage to read about war?  Well, as a Christ-follower I have to face that the Church doesn’t exactly have the best record on war.  Neither does the Bible.  And, I just hate hearing what some people (Bush/Cheney) say to justify certain wars.  How they justify the Iraq war is beyond me.

But now that my spirit has been nudged.   I am going to read this book once and for all and then see what I am thinking.  I’ll let you know.

* WAR: Four Christian Views.  Edited by Robert G. Clouse with contributions by Herman A Hoyt, Myron S. Augsburger, Arthur F. Holmes, and Harold O.J. Brown.