I’ve not been what you would call a grateful person. The truth is, for most of my life I’ve been a surly, critical, stew-on-the-inside-when-things-don’t-go-precisely-my-way kind of person. In the movie Sling Blade, Dwight Yoakam’s character Doyle indicts himself as “assholish.” Yeah, that shoe fits.
I probably don’t have to tell you ingratitude is like a poisonous wick running through the middle of a man. My burning-man tale is a whole other story, and you can nose around here and find bits and pieces of it, or pay me a princely sum to come speak to your small group or beer-brewing club or whatever if you want to hear more.
But what I want to tell you about now and for free is that I’ve been carrying around in my heart for a couple of years now something I read in Deuteronomy. Now, that may not surprise you, but it sure surprised me. I mean, those of you who are Bible readers, let’s be honest: most of us kind of doze off around Leviticus and don’t really wake up again until Joshua starts tearing down walls and cleaving infidels in two and whatnot.
So there I was in Deuteronomy, and I was gripped by the context, which basically is an old man trying to get his children to listen one last time. That’s something I can increasingly relate to, and perhaps you can as well, if your kids are growing as fast as mine.
To set the scene, we’re on the eastern shore of the chalky green Jordan River, north of the Dead Sea. Thirty miles, maybe, from the hillside cattle pen where Mary will labor in about 1400 years. The Israelites have assembled to gaze across the water at Canaan, at their destiny and their heartache. The elders gather around Moses. He’s seen 120 hard-fought, tragic, wonder-filled years, and probably feels twice as old as that. He has a mountain to climb before he can rest, but only after offering this final instruction.
So he lays out for them, again, the law and the path to life within it. The path is narrow, narrow as a man’s shoulders and so fitted to a man, but only navigable if his heart is right. And therein lies the trouble, as Solzhenitsyn will observe in a hellish prison 33 centuries from now, because every human heart has carved down its middle a line dividing good from evil. Here by this river that is in many ways such a boundary, Moses begs his children to choose.
Embrace good not evil, home over wandering, life over death. There is probably disgust in his voice. He already knows their hearts will stray.
These words will be a testimony against you, he tells them, for you were rebellious while I was with you, and God only knows how much worse you’ll be once I’m gone. He knows evil will come upon them, in those latter days, because of the works of their own hands. He tells them so. Already they are forgetting, as they gaze across the water.
If you read enough Bible stories, it starts to occur to you that these people were really, really dumb. I mean, they walked with God’s pillar of fire. Saw miracles and smitings and so on. The blessings and curses weren’t distant promises, they were present guarantees. Yet still they gobbled up the world’s poison like it was manna. You almost have to be brain-damaged to be that forgetful.
“Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a good heart, for the abundance of everything; therefore, you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness, and in need of everything; and He will put a yoke of iron on your neck until He destroys you.” (Deut.28: 47-48)
Ah, it’s not the brain that’s damaged, but the heart of man. That region of our being the prophet Jeremiah, according to some translations, calls “deceitful and desperately sick.” The Masoretic text is a little more cryptic: “The heart is deep beyond all things, and it is the man.” No matter how you look at it, the heart has always been the root of the matter, hasn’t it?
And here was the thing that struck me: that Moses, after laying out in alarming detail the horrors to follow if they turned their backs on God, predicted exactly why they would choose destruction. Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a good heart, for the abundance of everything.
In other words: Because you are ungrateful, you will forget, and you will fall away, and you will destroy yourselves.
I’ll wager that rings true to every mother’s son and daughter of you who’s drugged yourself sick or squandered a friendship or lied until the truth feels like a foreign language on your tongue. To everyone who’s woken up one morning to feel the weight of your choices bearing down on your chest like a full coffin. To each of you who looks into the mirror and sees your worst enemy stupidly blinking back at you.
So what I’ve been thinking about these past two years is that gratitude is a kind of inoculation against self-destruction. Which maybe isn’t so consequential to those of you who’ve never lit that wick, but which is everything to a life-wrecker like me.
There are books on this, in particular my friend Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, but if you want to start right now, by having gratitude I mean recounting to yourself, out loud, good and true circumstances that are specific to your life, like: Thank you for how my child chuckles in his sleep.
Thank you for clean water with the turn of a faucet.
Thank you for heat that works and a job that pays and a car that doesn’t break down.
Thank you for teachers who care about my children—my noisy, stubborn, smart-mouthed children.
Thank you for how this rising sun shatters the gloom outside my window.
Thank you for second chances and third chances and forgiveness seventy time seven. For this world that is more than I understand and more than my sorrow and more than me, that I bear in my throat power to bless or to curse and that in this moment I choose this blessing, this thanksgiving, this eucharisteo, this life, these lives intertwined in mine, these hardships and these heartaches and the sun coming through and hope beyond reason and every reason for hope and the sun shining through into this window this house this life into me and the darkness I’ve carried, this darkness even now being sundered with grace, with grace, with grace.