An Attitude of Gratitude: In Everything Give Thanks

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Giving thanks is easy when a new job comes along, or a new baby.  Giving thanks is easy when we are sailing along, and life is good.  But, then “disaster” strikes, and our natural inclination to thank, flies right out the window.  And, we are left feeling abandoned and asking God why.

As Christians, it’s very easy to feel that the initial act of salvation, belief in God, and “following” Him is enough to create a reliant relationship upon God.  Often times I think we feel that we have trusted God with our ETERNAL life, and that’s enough.  I find it odd that we are so willing to allow Him to control our eternity, but we struggle with mentally allowing Him a role in our daily lives.  We trust Him to allow us to enter Heaven, but we get upset when we don’t get the job we REALLY wanted, and we seem to think that we know best.  We forget that following Him means accepting His will, even if it’s not what we envisioned for our lives at that time. Up until June of 2013, I thought God and I were sailing along just fine.  I trusted Him, he blessed me.  I had a few hiccups in my life, and then they were fixed, but nothing major.  No real test of faith… and so, until then, it was easy to accept God’s will and be thankful for it at the same time.

A long-time friend of mine challenged us to come up with one word to focus on for 2014.  I liked this idea much better than a resolution.  And, so, I chose:

Gratitude

I debated on many words: determination, faith, confidence, but my mind kept coming back to gratitude. I found myself reflecting on the past almost 8 months, and trying to pin point what brought me out of the fog I felt after losing J.  After some reflection, it occurred to me that I finally truly started thanking God.  It started out small at first, but the more I practiced, the easier it became.  I developed an appreciation, and turned all situations back to praise. Which makes it sound like a 5 step process: step 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and now you have an attitude of gratitude; however….

An attitude of gratitude isn’t an occasional thought process, and it isn’t a thought process that is natural for us as humans.  It’s something we have to work towards daily.  When we signed up to trust in God, and receive eternal life, we signed up to follow Him, and accept His will – no matter the short-term outcome of it.  We signed up to allow God to be in control of our lives, and to trust that in the end, all things work out for the good of Him.

I agree, believe me, it’s beyond difficult.  I’ve OFTEN times, thought, and sometimes even voiced out loud: “God, you want me to thank you for losing my husband?” Yep, I’ll admit my faults, and in my opinion, I think God expects them. As a human, when I watched J take his last breath, I wasn’t thanking God.  I didn’t thank Him when I attended the visitation, the funeral, the many events that occurred afterwards.  I didn’t thank Him when I had to explain to C how his daddy died, or why he would never come back. I spent a good while angry. Gratitude is difficult to express when we don’t see any potential good in a situation.  And, I’ve written frequently on finding the purpose for J’s death, and how I need to weigh it on God’s scales and not my own.  My scales are overweighed with doubt, insecurities, and grief.

Our doubt is just one of the many reasons we needed to trust in Him to receive eternal salvation.  I do find it difficult to have an attitude of gratitude when it comes to J’s death.  I find it difficult to be thankful for something when I can’t see the purpose or the outcome of it. When I look into C’s eyes and see hurt, or I lay in bed at night wishing for one more “I love you,” my human mind doesn’t immediately thank God.    I’m still working on finding gratitude in all areas of my life.  For now, I’m focusing on thanking Him for the smaller pieces of it:

  1. The incredible family and friends I have gained.
  2. The doors that are opening and allowing me to help others as a result of J’s death.
  3. My ability to grieve but still try to give C as normal a life as possible.
  4. The ability to seek justice in the court system.
  5. Wonderful therapists who go above and beyond to ensure we are doing as well as possible.
  6. An understanding and supportive family.
  7. My ability to see my strength, to believe in my ability, and to use this experience to find ways to praise our God.
  8. The numerous memories I have of J and how grateful I am for the years we were given together.
  9. That I get to watch J’s legacy and beliefs impact our community.
  10. Finally, that God gave me C – he’s my reminder daily of how great my life still is.

Honestly, the list could continue on for much longer, but the idea is that while I may not can thank God for my husband’s death, I can thank Him for the opportunities that have came out of J’s death, and maybe that’s the point.  If I truly trust God, then I trust that all things work for HIS good and his purpose.  And while I didn’t want to lose my husband, I can be thankful that I have chosen to make positive out of a negative situation.

Many people ask me how I do that.  How can you be so positive? Well, it’s a choice.  Being positive doesn’t mean that you never see the negative, it just means that you chose to make the best out of every situation. When I find it difficult to go forward with a positive attitude, when I just simply want to lay in bed and cry, I try to envision the verse:

“For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.”

Isaiah 41:13

How can my life not work out if one of God’s hands is holding mine, and the other is overseeing my life?  When I think that there’s just no way to see the good, and to thank Him for a situation, I have tried to envision this verse.  And, while I know God understands my doubts, my questions, and my attempts to just “do it myself,” I still try to find the good- my attitude of gratitude.

So, maybe you think I’m crazy to try to find the good in the death of my husband.  But, I don’t have to find it, when I am a part of creating it.  My attitude of gratitude is easier because as God is holding my right hand, I’m working on using my left to create some good in the world.  And no, this post isn’t meant to praise myself.  I promise, I have my fair share of doubts, insecurities, and independent streaks.  Instead, this post is to remind you that accepting Christ isn’t the last of our trust in Him; it’s just the beginning.  And in order to trust Him, you simply have to be thankful.

As I continue on this journey of gratitude, I would like to thank you for all of your prayers, support, and belief in me!  You all know how to make a girl feel loved, and I hope you know that I pray for you as well. I pray that you will be able to find moments of gratitude in your own life.  Anger at the situation doesn’t change it, but being grateful for the opportunity to turn it into something good does change it.

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The Greatest Gift J Ever Gave Me

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Sunset strolls along the beach…
Small notes in the pocket of your jacket…
Flowers on the table after a hard day at work…
Cupcakes made just because…
The way my hand fits perfectly into yours, and immediate sense of safety that follows…

All examples of the love we show someone else. I’m sure you could come up with a million more ways we demonstrate our love for others. And each time we initiate an action, there’s always some kind of response from the person receiving the “love.” Grant it, the response may not be exactly what you are searching for, but a response is generated nonetheless.

We spend our entire lives demonstrating our love for others: the daisy the little boy picks and runs to his mommy when he should be catching a ball in the outfield, the adorable and quite “perfect” pair of shoes the mom slowly returns to the shelf because her daughter needs new dance shoes, or the birthday flavored ice cream and root beer the husband returns from Wal-Greens with at 12:30 am. Each relationship we enter into by choice or birth requires demonstrations of our love for that person in order for the relationship to prosper. And each time we show our love, a response is given….

7 months ago today, I lost my response. And, in traditional me fashion, I’ve been reflecting quite frequently the past few days on love. I have been pretty down because both my 30th birthday and Valentine’s Day are quickly approaching, and for the first time in 8 years, J won’t be there to demonstrate his love, and I won’t be able to give him a response. Now, for those of you who knew J, you know that the love he showed me on my 30th birthday would have been in the form of teasing me to no end about the “old” lady I am becoming. But, my birthday and Valentine’s Day have always meant more to me than just the events, J proposed to me on my birthday, and we celebrated Valentine’s Day on the same day. So, for the first time in 8 years, there will be no flowers, no reminiscing of the day he proposed, no “happy birthday” texts, and no responses back from me.

J proposed at the very end of my birthday party. I thought we were there for a birthday...

J proposed at the very end of my birthday party. I thought we were there for a birthday…

And, it’s easy to get caught up in all the “ways” we demonstrate our love to one another. It’s easy to become upset that those physical or verbal demonstrations will no longer happen. To wish with all my heart that roses would appear on the doorstep, or we could lay on the couch, hands intertwined and watch a movie. To try to force myself to believe that one more “silly love poem” he would write to me could somehow make its way down from heaven.

And so the past few nights, I’ve found myself praying before I go to sleep that God would just let me dream about J, that maybe in my dreams I could hear his voice again, feel his touch, and in turn feel his love for me radiating through my dream.

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Each night before going to bed, I’ve focused on all the different memories from our times spent together, and I replay them over and over until I finally fall asleep. You see, when I met J, I was determined I was finished with trying to find “love.” That it was just about me and God; together, He and I would be just fine without marriage. I was a strong and independent girl, we could handle it just fine on our own. And while I’m sure that was true, God had different plans. And, slowly throughout the years of our marriage, almost all of me became wrapped up into who J was, and who we were as a couple. I now look back and can see how that “strong-willed, independent” girl slowly became a wife who gave herself over to her husband, and sought his validation, opinion, and desires. And, we grew together because of that. Each day demonstrating our love for one another. Through the ups and downs of our marriage, we still found ways to demonstrate our love…and each time the reaction of the other kept us going. And in time, all of me was wrapped up into our relationship, being a mommy, and loving the two most important guys in my life.

And then, 7 months ago, it abruptly stopped. The day we spent in the hospital, I prayed, and prayed for him to be able to give me one more sign of his love. One more syllable, squeeze, blink- anything. And the harder I prayed, the less likely it seemed it would happen. And, I remember vividly thinking, I pray he knows I love him. I hope he can feel it. That time in the hospital, I did everything I could to demonstrate my love, in hopes that he would feel it, and that somehow that would change the outcome. Maybe if I just squeezed harder, or said it with more “love,” this could be over, and he could show me once more just how much he loves me. That somehow my love would penetrate his wounds, heal them, and bring him back to us.

I recall a dear friend who was a nurse on J’s floor, trying to prepare me for the worst, and I remember being rude to her and saying, “no we’re going to be optimistic. I’m not ready to say goodbye.” And, I curled up on my small couch, and I just willed him to feel this love that I had tried so hard to demonstrate to him all day. I remember laying on the couch, alone (by choice), and willing him to feel my love.

And, then less than 45 minutes later, another knock on the door of the room I had barricaded myself in. Immediately, the anger rose up, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. And, as I looked into the face of the man who had knocked on my door less than 25 hours before, I heard him speak in what seemed like slow motion. I heard him present the same facts I’d heard 45 minutes before, and he stopped me before I could retort. And he said, “Stephanie, I want you to tell me what you have to do. I want you to say it out loud.” And, my world crashed before me.

I want you to say it out loud…
I want YOU to say it OUT loud..
I replayed the words over, and over, and over in my head. But they weren’t in my voice, or even the officer’s, they were in J’s.
The response I had prayed for 25 hours for, was sitting there before me…not through J’s actual voice, but through words the exact words he had said to me years before when we miscarried, and the pain was just too much. So overbearing, that I just wanted to forget that it happened, to pretend that my world was perfect, and to erase the pain. But, he coaxed me into talking, deciding, and working through the pain….
And, reflecting back on that moment today, I can see where my view of love started to change. Where it changed from relying upon actions to demonstrate it, to feeling it within my own body. J couldn’t demonstrate it himself that night, but I know God placed the words I needed to hear into my life. And, in the early hours of June 15th, I got to perform the greatest act of love I could ever show J – I made the decision to let him go. And no, that act doesn’t make the world’s “top 10 best ways to demonstrate one’s love to a person.” It isn’t going to win a Valentine’s Day “romantic getaway.” Even though, in my book, it was the single greatest act of love I could have ever shown J.
And, in the hours that followed my decision to let him go, we waited for the doctor to come around to inform him of the decision. As we waited, I had an overwhelming feeling that J would in some way be able to reciplicate his love for me one more time before he left. He did…
J in his death, showed a love for me that I could never deny. J defied the medicines he was on, and he chose to die.
And in doing so, that final act, gave me peace that could never be described. The peace that the decision was his; no guilt on my own. No selfish thoughts of “hold on just a little longer.” Just pure love. I firmly believe that in those moments J made a choice out of love – despite what the doctors ensured me was impossible. And, maybe I just have to believe that because it makes my life bearable, if so, that’s fine.
J’s decision, although it means he’ll never get to “demonstrate” his love for me again, or give me a response when I demonstrate my love for him, was the greatest gift he could have ever given me. The past 7 months have been difficult enough, but the peace I’ve felt about the decisions made in those early morning hours, is priceless.
As I find myself “down” the past few days, a close friend asked me yesterday, “are you really okay…” and all of these thoughts I’ve just elaborated upon came spilling out. Word after word, and as I sat last night, unable to sleep, I thought about all of the words I typed through text message earlier in the day, and I realized the journey I’ve made. How the past few days, I just wanted a sign, a response, of J’s love. I wanted to feel his touch, hear his voice, so much that I prayed to dream about him. And, then it hit me. Nothing would ever demonstrate his love as much as his final action. The outcome of death was inevitable, yet, J chose the way that made it the easiest on us. My decision to let him go, and his decision to go, weren’t “demonstrations” of our love. They weren’t flowers, cards, hugs, “I love yous…” they were sacrifices.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

In the end, our decisions during those early morning hours, meant that we’d never be able to demonstrate our love to one another again in person, but it ensured a lifetime of peace in my mind. And, in those quiet moments, when I stop and let myself truly feel that peace, I know that I still feel his love as well. The greatest demonstration of love, is sacrifice. And there’s no greater example that God sending his own son, sacrificing him out of love for us – as flawed as we are.
In those moments of peace, J’s last gift to me, I feel “death ends a life, not a relationship.” And I just have to remind myself that those moments of peace are the best I can get, and honestly, maybe you think I’m crazy, but those are better than any dozen roses I ever received.

A few months ago I asked a friend of mine, Katherine, to write a blog on forgiveness.  Katherine is the creator of the blog Proverbs and Pacifiers (www.proverbsandpacifiers.com)    I asked her to write on a topic that frustrated me.  You see, if you were able to browse through all of my draft blog posts, you would notice a trend: forgiveness.  You might also notice that each of them were still in draft status.  I never could write exactly how I wanted to feel.  I wanted to write about forgiveness because it is something I am striving for, no matter how unrealistic and impossible it generally feels.  God used Katherine to deliver in a way that my heart needed at that moment.

As I made the trip last weekend to Officer Deckard’s funeral, I optimistically thought how much the trip was going to help me bring about more closure, as well as demonstrate support for a family who was forced to feel a hurt that no one should ever feel.  I attended visitation, the funeral, and instead of closure I felt a heavier heart.  I witnessed once more the outpouring of support, the beauty and honor that could only describe an officer’s funeral.  All around me was support and gratitude for our sacrifices; yet, in my heart, I felt burden and heaviness.  And it angered me because I should be feeling gratitude for the support and prayers.  Throughout the entire experience I kept feeling resentment towards the fact that God would allow our loved ones to be taken by such senseless actions.  And, all of the feelings I worked so hard to eradicate in the past months bombarded me.  I retreated, as I generally do when I feel overwhelmed, and I slept for over 14 hours in my hotel room.

Throughout the duration of the incredibly long waiting time in the airport, I found myself focusing on the “nevers” in my life.  The reality that my future is littered with “nevers.”  Never hugging him again, never hearing his laughter, never seeking his advice or affirmation, never knowing with absolute certainty  that I’m raising C the way J and I decided together we would, and never getting to watch him smile in pride as C grew into a man.  And the thoughts of never weighted me down.  Throughout my stay at the airport, and my flight home, I frequently found my thoughts gravitating towards forgiveness. In my mind, I was writing a letter to the person, whomever that may be, who is responsible for J’s death.  I was always writing the end of the letter,   and it always ended in statements such as, “the forgiveness I feel is for me.  It’s so I can move on, eradicating the anger and bitterness I feel.” And, I got angry with myself for even thinking about forgiveness.  Forgiveness has always come easy to me, yet, this time I couldn’t fathom how to begin. I knew I needed to, but I didn’t want to actually forgive.  To put it simply, in my mind forgiveness excused the actions, it smoothed it over, brushed it under the rug, and in a sense, it felt like dishonoring J’s memory.  And, almost in the same breath, I feel an urge to forgive, to understand that people make mistakes, and to live my life as happily as possible. There’s never a balance: never a day when I can just feel indifferent about forgiveness.  On the last flight home, I stared at the horizon, and once again the nevers overtook my mind. And I prayed that something in my heart would change, and that I could eventually be positive without a constant reminder and battle within my own heart.

Below you find the post Katherine wrote.  Thank you for your prayed over words Katherine.  I now pray that they touch others lives as much as they have my own.  I also pray that in some ways I can start the forgiveness process, however long it may take.

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“…as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Colossians 3:13

Forgive as you’ve been forgiven.

It sounds easy. In fact, many of us are probably guilty of making it seem a little too easy.

The Bible is clear that if we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). He promises to remove our sins from us as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12). He forgets our sins and remember our iniquities no more (Is 43:25). He makes us white as snow (Is 1:18).

God then tells us to forgive others, just as we have been forgiven. Brothers, friends, enemies, no matter how many times they hurt us we are supposed to forgive…

…to let it go.

…to forget it.

…to move on.

…to wipe the slate clean.

We often paint a picture of forgiveness that’s all smiles and love and happiness. Someone apologizes, someone forgives, and then we walk off into the sunset holding hands. Now, this method might work when someone steals your pencil or cuts in line at the water fountain, but honestly, it feels painfully inadequate when it comes to the real struggles in life.

What about those times when we are cut to the core and our hearts are broken, when someone else’s actions, their words, their attitude, changes the course of our lives forever, when someone else’s sin robs us of joy and security and leaves us spinning out of control? Sometimes people apologize and sometimes they don’t, but in either case, the pain doesn’t just go away because the damage can’t always be undone.

It’s then that we learn the truth. Forgiveness is anything but neat and clean and easy.

The Cost of Our Forgiveness

The forgiveness and grace offered to us by God came at a great price. God sent his only Son to the cross of Calvary, to be beaten, mocked, and tortured. Jesus died a painful, messy, bloody death. But more than that, he allowed himself to feel the full weight of our sin and punishment. He who knew no sin became sin for us.

So we could be forgiven.

Let that sink in for a minute. The grace offered freely to us, was anything but free. It wasn’t easy. God didn’t wake up one morning and just decide to “let it go”. He didn’t just take a big magic eraser and pretend that none of it every happened.

Instead, God chose to sacrifice, to suffer and die, so that you and I could know what true love is all about. God paid a price that we will never be able to truly comprehend. The forgiveness we enjoy came at great cost to him.

So when God tells us to forgive others, it’s not a commandment he takes lightly. He knows what’s it like to be hurt by sin. The perfect people he created disobeyed him and turned their backs on him. And he knows what it’s like to forgive. He had the choice of throwing us all in hell, giving us exactly what we deserved with no hope for redemption, but instead he decided to sacrifice so that we could live in freedom and grace.

The Cost of Forgiving Others

When people hurt us our natural inclination is to be angry and bitter. We struggle with hatred and malice while our hearts cry for out for justice. Forgiveness is unnatural for our sin nature.

And choosing to walk in forgiveness is going to cost us, just like it cost Jesus. When we choose to to set aside our anger and bitterness, we are choosing a very difficult road.

Except we aren’t bearing the weight of other people’s sins. We are dealing with our own.

When you and I choose to forgive others we are humbly acknowledging that their life, their actions, their sin is no worse than our own. It’s a hard truth to stomach but we all deserve to bear the full weight of our disobedience. Not one of us is righteous. We are all bad people. (Romans 3:23)

In order for us to really forgive others, we first have to understand just how merciful God has been to us. And when our hearts are focused on the love God has given us, then we will be equipped to love and forgive others.

The love of God empowers us to daily die to ourselves. Die to our anger, our bitterness, and hatred. The Holy Spirit will slowly and often painfully cleanse us of our self-pity and our selfishness. As we daily turn our hearts toward God, we will learn to control our thoughts, to dwell on those things which are good rather than allowing ourselves to dwell on hurt and anger.

Becoming Like Christ

This is our sacrifice. We turn from our sin nature, die to ourselves, and let God daily make us more like him, full of love and forgiveness.

It’s far from easy, and it’s far from immediate.

The process of sanctification, becoming more like Christ, is a life long process that starts when we willingly confess that God’s way is better than our own. When we are hurting, it’s easy for us to focus on our pain and frustration. We cast blame on others and demand payment for their wrong doing.

But God’s way is better.

“And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.” Luke 23:33-34

At the height of his pain and sacrifice on the cross, Jesus looks upon the crowds of those who scorned him and prayed for them. He was hurting. He was heartbroken. And yet, he extended forgiveness.

My prayer for you today is that you know first hand the forgiveness that Jesus offered on the cross. I pray that you have been set free from sin and been made alive in Christ.

But I also pray that no matter where your heart is, no matter how deeply it’s been broken, that you understand the joy and peace that comes by forgiving others.

It is joy, not because it is easy, but because it is right.

It is peace, not because it is simple, but because it allows us to live free from the bondage of hatred and sin.

The truth is the deeper we’ve been hurt the harder it is to forgive, and the longer it takes for that joy and peace to make themselves at home in our hearts. However, we serve a God who understands our struggle. Jesus knows very well the pain and anguish we experience from other’s sin, and he also knows just how difficult forgiveness can be.

And he promises to give us the strength we need to walk daily in his footsteps. Forgiving others just as we have been forgiven.

“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:15-16

The Cost of Forgiveness