Sunday, November 29, 2009

"What Do I Have To Be Thankful For?" or "How Can I Get Rid of Canker Sores?"

Twenty years ago life seemed to be moving us around fast. Within the last 4 years, I’d had a heart attack, lost my mom, got called to Central Asia, Ann and I were engaged, then separated for language school, then we married, more language studies, Islamic studies, had our first baby, training in Scotland and Turkey for the summer, and then we were off to Urumchi city, in Northwest China with 4 month old Joseph. Within six months I’d lost 50 pounds, mostly due to stress and illness. And there were these painful canker sores that were constantly and persistently breaking out inside my mouth!

Note: For my British friends, I mean "mouth ulcers." As I understand it, only your dogs get "cankers."

They were so painful, that whatever remedy anyone suggested, I tried. I had no rest from them. Between language learning and my job teaching English, I had to talk all day and evening. And talking hurt! Eating hurt! Each sore lasted 5 days, painfully peaking around day three. I usually had three or four at a time. Just as one would ebb, another would emerge elsewhere inside my cheek or on my tongue. I was discouraged!

Then we were expecting our second child. In China we were told that if the first child was a c-section then we’d not be allowed to even try natural childbirth for the second. We were advised to have our baby in America.

Home meant living among friends in Pennsylvania. The hospital in town would deliver our baby without insurance. So with Ann almost seven months pregnant we went to Pennsylvania, via Hong Kong. Without a car, we didn’t plan on traveling at all while in the States. We’d have just enough time to have our baby, and head on back for school.

These years, I had become a complainer. I complained a lot! I complained about life in China: about co-workers, about local people, about my lack of progress with the local language. Holidays were the worst! They were to me a huge distraction from work. Between Socialist holidays, Muslim holidays and pressure to keep our own, life seemed one big long stress filled holiday. Carving out time was hard enough, then add those cankers and talking anytime became a painful chore. Not a happy time for this evangelist! I was tired, frustrated, and now we were returning to America to have our baby.

I actually thought that my complaining would stop when we came back to America. Old friends, family, familiar foods and customs, would mean no stress. But we got home, and I was still complaining. ‘Maybe this is a nervous breakdown,’ I feared. We lived in a community that prayed daily, had Bible studies daily, ate together daily (and the food was good). Ann's doctor said that she and the baby were healthy. Joseph was going on two and healthy. But still I complained.

Then someone gave me a set of car keys. It was a donation, and would we like to have it while we were in the States? This was not expected! Suddenly, the clouds lifted. Life was good again! I was happy! We could now visit our family and friends. I told Ann the good news, and we decided to celebrate, taking the car for a spin. Joseph, now two years old, was excited too.

We drove down the long driveway and out to the main road. As we drove along it began to rain. I put on the wipers. And after 4 or 5 wipes, the driver’s side wiper blade popped off. I had to pull over. And boy was I mad! I pounded my fist on the steering wheel and spewed negativity. All my so-called “joy” was gone, replaced by upset anger. As I sat there, Ann remained silent, and Joseph said, “Oooh, I like the car!”

What was wrong with me? I'm given a three thousand dollar car and am elated. Within 20 minutes I’m having a fit of rage over a missing wiper blade? If this was not insanity, I didn’t know what was.

My excuse overseas, to be annoyed with life, was off. I was home now and still grumbling. If anything, being home again only highlighted the fact that the problem was not in others, but in me. And so I sought counseling from Dr. Marks, a man whom Ann and I both knew to have wisdom and in whom we trusted.

After hearing me out, Brother Marks said: "Well, you know, Tom. You've never been a very thankful person." That rather took me off guard. I didn't realize that psychologists started their therapy with insults. But I was desperate for help. Seeing how he was implying that I should be thankful, I came very close to asking, "What do I have to be thankful for?"

But I knew this was wrong. I’ve been given so much! I knew that. I just didn’t feel thankful. “Isn’t it hypocritical to smile and say, 'Thank you!'” when in fact I don’t feel thankful?” I asked. And he replied, "We don't thank God because we feel thankful. We thank Him because He is worthy of thanks."

Silence followed as this truth regained its footing in my soul. He was right of course! I knew that. I needed to be thanking Him; because it is right to do so.

"For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise:"
1 Chronicles 16:25

Brother Marks was letting this sink in. 'How many thanks had I withheld from God these past months?' I wondered. I was out of God’s will, living this way.

“Be joyful always, pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
1 Thessalonians 5:18

For homework, I was to daily make a list. Numbering 1 to 100 I was to write a sentence per line, each beginning with, "Thank you God, ..." Brother Marks seemed quite confident that this activity would break this misbelief in me, that God was due thanks only when I was satisfied with Him. Honestly!

In, “The Four Spiritual Laws,” on page 12, there’s a diagram of a three-car train. On the engine is written “Fact.” The middle car is called, “Faith,” and on the caboose is labeled, “Feeling.” The point of the diagram is that the blessed joy of one’s salvation may not be felt right away upon conversion. We come to faith believing certain “facts;” that God is holy, and we sin filled, and that Christ came to Himself pay the penalty for our sin. Then “faith” has us living accordingly, praying, getting to know God, obeying what He says to us, etc. Then, with our “facts” and “faith” in place the blessed “feeling” will follow. I’ve learned that this same principle applies with thankfulness.

As I looked to write the first of my 100 “Thank you God for….” sentences, I actually drew a blank. That is how far gone I was! I couldn't even think of one thing! But here I was, going by my feelings again. I needed to start with the facts.

Seeing my dilemma, Dr. Marks suggested, “How about starting with the air you are breathing?” I had to smile. As simplistic as it seems, I wrote, "Thank you God for oxygen." I then thanked God for other “facts:” I thanked Him for Ann, then for Joseph, for each meal that day, for the car. "And the wipers," I felt the Holy Spirit say. 'The wipers?' Oh! Yes, I thanked Him for the wiper which God used to show me how far I’d slipped. Filling 100 lines was done rather quickly.

Each day, by “faith,” I wrote out my list. Soon whenever I'd start crabbing, God woke me to it, and I’d repent. He knew I wanted healing from my ingratitude. As habits go, my thoughts still suggested I complain when things didn’t go my way. Praising Him at these moments was crucial to ultimate victory. Sometimes the Spirit would bring to mind a song our church used to sing, based upon Jeremiah 33:11:

"We bring a sacrifice of praise, into the house of the Lord.
We bring a sacrifice of praise, into the house of the Lord.
And we offer up to You; the sacrifices of thanksgiving.
And we offer up to You: the sacrifices of praise."


Since God is always good, we can always thank Him. However my day is going, and regardless of situation, His love and mercies endure forever. Believers have every reason to thank Him, no matter what is going on around us.

Hey! Within 2 weeks of making these lists, all of my canker sores were gone! Today, almost 20 years later, they are gone. Even if one hints at starting, I simply begin thanking Him. And that canker wannabe soon disappears!

I thank God for those cankers! Indicating my inner storms, they worked better than bunions. If my thinking went off, cankers would help keep me sane. And as I praise Him, God would bring to mind, what negative thing I was thinking.

Then too, during the third week of list making, the joy of the Lord and the joy of my salvation came bursting through me. Though I’d been a disciple of Christ for ten years then, that “feeling” of love for God again was so strong! I could not praise Him enough.

Not that everyone's ailments are due to ingratitude; but my cankers certainly were. It makes sense. We were created to glorify God. He would give us joy. Fact is that He is wonderful. Faith has us responding accordingly. And Joy the feeling, comes along in its order. Whatever is going on outside, we in Christ have everything to be thankful for.

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God."
Philippians 4:6

Note: I'm not sure if British people have bunions. They may still use barometers there.