This life is imperfect and painful. Mostly, however, this life is routine and mundane. Dull. Uneventful. As we grow older, the events are often not as happy as the eventfulness of our youth. Also, our eyes are opened wide to all that can and does happen in this world. How easy it is to grow weary and cynical, how tempting to entertain away the rest of our lives. Entertainment, with its canned laughter and mindlessness. Then we don’t have to think about anything, especially our fears and uncertainties and regrets. We don’t have to make changes—we can just keep trucking along, doing what we’ve always done, whether or not it’s good or right or God’s will or working. We don’t have to consider our chronic lack of joy. As if we’re paralyzed and helpless, we can simply allow the dullness to dull us, allow life to turn us lifeless, allow the pain to not profit us, allow the banality to make us blank inside. What’s the point, really? That’s what we ask ourselves even as we slip on our dress shoes and head to the office once again.
We’re in good company, because these thoughts echo King Solomon’s, who questioned everything and tried it all too.
I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. (Eccl. 2:1–3)
After considering the point of life, he came to this conclusion: “I perceived that there is nothing better for [people] than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (Eccl. 3:12–13).
What stands out to me in Solomon’s words is that God is handing out good gifts, and these gifts are the basic, even mundane, things of life: food and drink and fulfilling work. We’re told we must make it our goal to enjoy the simplest of things, like strawberries and coffee and teaching multiplication tables to second-graders. In other words, the routine and the mundane that we rarely think much about. But they are gifts given to all people—the bread, the water, the work of our hands—and Solomon, who went around the block a time or two, says this is it. This is where beauty is found. This is where joy is found. And it’s available to all who receive it from God with grateful hearts.
If you think about it, this makes sense. These very parts of life—food, water, creation, dominion—are remnants of Eden that, although marred and groaning, recall a better time when man and woman walked with God, their joy unhindered. To receive the simplest building blocks of life—relationships, nurture and nurturing, sustenance, opportunities for cultivation, sun and rain—is to walk with God with joy unhindered.
We don’t quite believe this is enough. The rich, the social media mavens, the leisured, the pampered, the hustlers and bustlers—they don’t seem to be complaining. From the perspective of our broken-down lives, they provide our happiness goals, so we busy ourselves up, dress ourselves up, fill ourselves up, grasping and seeking and climbing up, up, up. We seek after more, more, more. We try this, try that, and when it’s not immediately to our satisfaction or a step toward what we want out of life, we’re on to something else. What beauty we’ll find when we get there—wherever the elusive there is.
This kind of living is head-down, always moving, rarely thinking kind of living. In effect, when we do this, we put on beauty blinders of busyness, distraction, and consumption and then wonder why in the world we are so prone to despair and cynicism. We’re walking among man-made concrete when our hearts were made for the small wonders of God’s creation.
Our hearts are made for thankfulness.
Thanksgiving Requires Noticing
Creation still speaks—of God and who He is and what He does and what delights Him—and one of the things it speaks is that there is a time for stillness and silence.
In the cycles and seasons of creation, loud gusts of wind flow over prairies, storms make cauldrons of waves, and cicadas cry out in summer heat. The cycles and seasons teach us that created things have volumes that can turn high and low. The ocean’s water, in the most far-flung sea, settles. The ocean’s water, pushed and prodded by hurricane winds, churns. Rain falling from storehouses in the clouds or frozen into dropping ice pellets, loud as it hits the roof, turns soft and mesmerizing when the water is formed into tiny fluttering snowflakes.
It’s the snow, especially, that hushes the earth like a librarian moving among the shelves calling for quiet.
When it’s snowing outside, I stand at the kitchen window with my coffee mug and try to watch individual snowflakes fall. Prior to the snow’s arrival, when the forecast’s been calling for 8–10 inches, there have been trips to the store for bread and milk, salt has been poured on the driveway, cars have been moved and wipers raised, shovels and sleds have been gathered from the shed, and e-mails have been received from schools regarding inclement weather plans. At the sight of the first snowflake, my boys run through the house ecstatically, begging to put on their winter boots and head outside. When they go, I stand still again at the window, waiting for the quiet to descend.
After a few inches have accumulated, I go outside and listen. In our community, inches of snow shuts everything down and shut everyone up in their homes. I hear no cars, no trucks on the highway a mile away. I hear only the snowflakes calmly falling to their final resting places, and this is precisely what I’ve come outside for—to hear the sound of peace.
After all the bustle of store runs and firewood gathering and chatter with neighbors regarding the forecast, there is rest.
In God’s world, there are times when He directs the ocean to roar and the thunder to clap, but the snow is God’s message to us that there is a time for silence.
On snow days, all work and strivings cease. My senses are awakened from their dull slumber to wonder at the design of a snowflake or the crackle of a fire in the fireplace.
This is what happens when we are silent—we notice. Like covering our eyes and having our hearing suddenly made more alert, our purposeful silence and stillness offer us the opportunity to recognize beauty all around us just when we’ve found it difficult to see.
When was the last time you savored a bite of food? Took a walk in the woods? Listened to a bird’s call? Held a child’s hand? Smelled fresh-cut grass? Stood under falling rain without an umbrella’s covering? Looked someone you love in the eye and really noticed them?
Friend, life isn’t all doom and gloom. Certainly, there is pain. Certainly, mundane tasks require our attention, and, in general, we navigate uneventful days. However, let us have eyes to see and ears to hear. The invisible hand not only paints the invisible artwork of soul redemption but very visible beauty as well.
Let us be people who still ourselves so that our senses come alive, for we must think in order to be thankful. And we must be thankful in order to experience joy. The greatest tragedies of our age are our constant motion, our overscheduled lives, and our obsessive attachment to screens. We tend to believe we’ll be robbed of happiness if we fail to match the world’s pace step for step when, in fact, the pace robs of us of the simplicity that displays beauty, which in turn leads to thanksgiving and, after thanksgiving, joy.
If busyness mutes beauty, what mutes busyness? Beauty, of course. Paying attention to the small gifts of everyday life helps us see and savor and, in turn, makes our distracted, numb hearts beat with thankfulness.
Thankfulness will lead to joy, because when we’re still, we understand: This is what we’re made for.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on August 8, 2018.