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A Debt of Gratitude

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But as for me, afflicted and in pain—may Your salvation, God, protect me. I will praise God’s name in song and glorify Him with thanksgiving. — Psalm 69:29,30

As I face the prospect of two more years in the Army, and the experience of deployed motherhood, there are days when I believe I can do it all with panache…and then there are days when I am tempted with despair. I have been fairly certain for most of my life that my true vocation lies outside the Army and in a high school class room. This keeps me looking for a light at the end of the tunnel during dark days; and on brighter days, I believe that everything I do is contributing to some future endeavor—that nothing learned or experienced in uniform will go to waste. I came into the Army both to finance that goal and to ensure that I would have experiences from which to draw within my pedagogical practice. The privilege of serving my country and the joy of being part of something bigger than myself were also motivators. The Army has not disappointed me in this, but the road has been fraught with disillusionment and burnout that I did not anticipate.

Although the Army has currently embraced “resilience” as a watchword that nods at spiritual fitness as a factor, there has been little in the way of practical, functional advice of how to become resilient when all the odds seem against you. Piecing together a strategy, I find my best examples in my Soldiers and in my peers. The answers I have sought for stress management, resiliency, and coping with authoritarian bosses are still emergent, but I am now grateful to have had the experience of burnout so young. I have the opportunity, in the context of Christian, family, and military community, to avoid the road to despair in future tough assignments.

My next job promises to be sleepless and grueling, and I am unsure what the rewards will be while I am separated from my family. Of course, I want to do my part to ensure we all come home without violating rules of engagement, with our values and consciences intact. I want to help Afghans in a situation where it is increasingly unclear how we can have any lasting positive impact. I have few answers for how to tackle this next challenge, but there is the seed of something that I intend to cultivate more of: gratitude. I have this gut feeling that it might be the antidote to despair. There are phrases that circulate repeatedly in military lingo, such as: “Train as you fight,” “We need to nest our mission with higher,” and “I would offer to you,” but one that I have not listened to through all its echoes is “we owe a debt of gratitude.” It may sound trite, but it accurately describes the state of affairs: what we have been given each day in goodness far outweighs our payments of thanks. I become aware that I have not always had eyes to see this reality.

Scripture is replete with verses about gratitude and thanksgiving, but this morning I need one that addresses two different visions I have—one is on the other side of deployment, a triumphant and energetic overcomer in that high school classroom of my future—the other, of a dusty deployment full of tired computer-screen-eyes and the presence of real human suffering, both Afghan and Coalition. This is what I found in Psalm 69:

29 But as for me, afflicted and in pain—
may your salvation, God, protect me.
30 I will praise God’s name in song
and glorify him with thanksgiving.
31 This will please the LORD more than an ox,
more than a bull with its horns and hooves.
32 The poor will see and be glad—
you who seek God, may your hearts live!
33 The LORD hears the needy
and does not despise his captive people.

What I immediately notice is that God is not like a capricious boss out to make a name for himself, but takes more pleasure in our songs of thanks than in our sacrifices. This assures me that while my blood, sweat and tears do not go unnoticed, the condition of my heart is the focal point for pleasing God. If I can recall this more often, perhaps I can avoid getting on the hamster-wheel of pleasing others through my hard work and accomplishments. If my work offerings to others are really just a way to give thanks to God, I might be able to renew my best energies rather than depleting them with little to show for it.

What I notice next is that this burst of hope comes in the middle of a litany of corruption, societal vice, disillusionment and failed human relationships. The psalmist knows all too well what life in a fallen world is like. It is just possible that my deployment will be different than this, but it is likely that it will be a very mixed bag.

I have decided to explore how gratitude can inoculate me against the most toxic things I might experience:

  • Today, I will focus on the fact that I will deploy with my sister; that my daughter is healthy; that my husband is my best friend; and that as he carries out the duties of full-time dad, he will enjoy the support of our family and friends, as well a Reserve job he loves while I am gone.
  • Today, I will be glad that I get paid to get back in (and stay!) in shape every morning, that there are always a handful of people to really enjoy working with in every organization, and that we are going to wear the more practical and comfortable MultiCam uniforms and not the stiff Army Combat Uniform we currently endure.
  • Today, I will start a “Gratitude Wall,” where among the mail I need to answer and the ink cartridges I need to recycle, I will write or add anything that makes me glad to be alive. I will go to the wall and meditate on something to add regularly, and any time I feel defeat at my shoulder. I will let nothing be too small a cause for thanksgiving.

I will see if remembering that God is on the throne and that I have much more than I need to survive will lead to thriving in difficult places.

Editor’s Note:  Heather McColl Morgan’s blog “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed” can be found at: http://liquorneverbrewed.blogspot.com/

Questions to Share:

1. Taking up Heather’s challenge to “let nothing be too small a cause for thanksgiving,” name three things for which you are grateful today.
2. Heather’s premise is that gratitude might be the antidote to despair. Can you recall an experience in which that was true?

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