Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What God Is Teaching Me: Giving Thanks On The Hard Days As Well As The Good Days

You may have noticed on our Facebook posts that we will often share what we are thankful for that day. We do this for good reason. Before we left for Tanzanian, my mom handed me (Linda) a book that she had been reading with her small group called A Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are written by Ann Voskamp. I read it over the course of my first month. While I don’t think the book fully addressed the problem of pain or the process of grief, it did provide some deep beautiful insights. The premise of the book is that a friend challenged the author, Ann Voskamp, to write down 1000 of the gifts in her life. As she began to take note of and thank God for the little things, she experienced a remarkable change in her perception of the world and her perception of God. She chronicled her journey and revelations about God in this book.

In the book, Ann encourages the readers to recognize the gifts that God has put in our lives as exactly that, gifts. She observes that in many of Jesus’ miracles, before the miracle occurred, Jesus gave thanks. She believes that the “Eucharisto” (thanksgiving) is directly linked to the miraculous ways God works in the world. Alternatively, she observes that “non-eucharisto, ingratitude, was the fall— humanity’s discontent with all that God freely gives.” (p. 35). We can find great joy if we take the time to notice and give thanks for all the little things in life:  the color of the bubble floating up from the dishes, the full round moon, the freckles on a child’s cheeks, jam on toast, mail in the mailbox…

She also discovered in her journey that when giving thanks becomes a daily practice, we are more prepared for the hard times— the times when we wonder if we have made a terrible mistake, the times when it is difficult to believe that God could possibly use this for good, the times when God seems silent, and the times when it’s hard to believe that God loves us. The lists of ways God has visibly made His presence known can remind us of His presence when ugliness and pain invade our lives. We can come to God, not as a being who is required to give us all that we want, but as the Giver of all good gifts. God knows the whole picture, and we know only a part. This is not to say that we should never feel hurt, sadness, or anger at injustice in this world. Ann Voskamp encourages that we come to God with our raw emotions, honest and vulnerable. She makes this helpful distinction: “Lament is a cry of belief in a good God, a God who has His ear to our hearts, a God who transfigures the ugly into beauty. Complaint is the bitter howl of unbelief in any benevolent God in this moment, a distrust in the love-beat of the Father's heart” (p. 175).

So how does all of this intersect with my life? Life has not been easy since we arrived in Tanzania. If you have not heard the term “culture shock” before, it is defined as “the psychological disorientation that most people experience when living in a culture markedly different from one’s own.”[1] Another definition of culture shock is “the anxiety that results from losing all the familiar signs and symbols that help us understand a situation.”[2]  Some of the potential symptoms of culture shock are homesickness, loneliness, depression, anxiety, irritability, excessive sleeping, lethargy, withdrawal, compulsive eating or loss of appetite, and stereotyping of or hostility towards host nationals. Symptoms typically peak around the third or fourth month of being in a new culture, though they can reappear at any time. Since our first three months in Tanzania were spent in language school surrounded mostly by expatriates, our timeline was slightly altered. Around the time we left language school, we were starting to feel the effects of culture shock, and it has been a gradual incline since then.

Thankfully, Eric and I have not experienced all of these symptoms as we step away from the familiar, and like children, learn how to speak, live, and interact with people. Yet, culture shock is a present reality. As my body adjusts to a new setting, sometimes I am sick of being sick, whether from mouth sores, malaria, intestinal parasites, chest cold, or some other unknown malady. Sometimes I’ve wondered what else could possibly go wrong with or further delay fixing our house and making it our home. Sometimes I get weary of not being able to understand what people are saying to or about me and weary of not being able to get across what I want to say. Sometimes I feel very lonely when a room full of people laughs, and I don’t understand the joke. Sometime my plans go out the window due to unforeseen complications, and I feel like I am simply treading water. Sometimes I crave the familiar foods of home and the ability to cook dinner in less than an hour. Sometimes I desperately miss family and friends back in the United States and grieve that I am not there to share in their big life moments.

To be perfectly honest, there are days when if I didn’t know that culture shock is completely normal…if I didn’t know that there are people both locally and internationally that love us, care about us, and are rooting for us…if I didn’t know that this is where God wants us right now… then I would toss in the towel and book a flight back to the US. BUT, I do know all these things, and as we look back on our day each evening, even on the toughest days, we can see how God has blessed us. We are grateful for the people He has placed in our lives, for the beauty around us in both the simple and grand, for progress in our journey, for the opportunities God gives us to minister to others. We have found that giving thanks to God— on the days when we feel like it and on the days when we don’t—is one of our best weapons against the advances of culture shock. I recommend the book A Thousand Gifts, but more than that I recommend the act of writing down thanksgivings. It can reframe a whole day—perhaps even a whole life. 

[2] Kalvero Oberg, “Culture Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments,” Practical Anthropology 7, no. 4  (1967): 177.

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