Gratitude: The Road Less Travelled (Part 2)

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The next time you come over to our house for dinner, you’ll notice a large bowl of rocks at the center of our table. We call it our Joshua Basket, a shorthand title for a basket full of memories. Each rock has a date and a brief description written on it.

Dec. 30, 1997: God provides us with our first home.

Feb. 2009: We saved enough money for a new wii, but gave the money away so that our heart could grow bigger (Kiale, Hannah, and Noah)

Feb. 12, 2015: Hannah suffers a severe concussion.

And so it goes. Rock after rock after rock. As far as I know, the genesis of this idea comes from my Uncle Paul who decided to emulate the Israelites when they crossed the Jordan river.

You can find the story in Joshua 4. God parted the river Jordan so they could cross to the other side. Joshua commanded that twelve stones representing the twelve tribes be carried out of the river bottom and arranged as an altar at Gilgal. And Joshua explained that the stones were to serve as a visual cue for the generations to come. Someday, when children saw those piled stones and asked about them, God’s people were to tell their children the story of how God parted the waters and helped them cross to dry ground. Those stones were memory prompts.

Every time we sit down to eat around the table, we’re reminded of our stories. And if something especially noteworthy took place during the day, we mark another rock. Taking a moment to remember has the benefit of slowing down time. Most of our days rush past at such high velocity that we hardly remember half of what happened today, let alone what happened yesterday. Slowing down helps the moment to sink in. This isn’t a foreign concept for most of us—often, we slow down time in order to marinate in some personal slight. We want to rehearse whatever events pricked our pride so we can relish self-pity and justify our bitterness. None of us would come out and say it that way, but that’s what we’re doing much of the time. As a side note, social media has become a favorite place to marinate in our personal slights. We can transform social media in the same way that we can transform our lives: by taking the road less travelled and noting those events for which we should give thanks.

Staring your own Joshua Basket is one way of building a habit of gratitude. It’s a visual reminder to give thanks whenever you sit down to eat. We don’t become thankful people by giving thanks once in a while. Gratitude has to become habitual. Whatever we practice well, we get better at doing. By the time we reach old age (whatever that is!), many of us will have perfected the art of self-pity and ingratitude. Ironically enough, the people most adept at ingratitude and self-pity think everyone else is selfish and ungrateful. It’s like the old saying, “A card cheat suspects everyone at the table of hiding cards.”

As I mentioned in Part 1 of these posts, the Bible focuses so heavily on thankfulness that one gets a sneaking suspicion that we’re hardwired to self-destruct if we stop giving thanks. The real battle, the one we’ve been losing for generations, is with our own unthankful hearts. I feel so trite saying this in light of the massive tectonic changes happening around me, but just because everyone (and I mean everyone) is trying to shout down their chosen opponent doesn’t mean that this biblical truth has changed or that it has lost its potency. Don’t get baited by your favorite talking head into forgetting where the real battle lies. Don’t get baited into blaming politics for your unthankful heart. None of these things justify ingratitude.

What's the biggest effect of not habitually giving thanks for God's blessings? We stop telling our stories. We start seeing only what's right in front of us.

Ben Palpant

The fearful, selfish heart looks inward, always beholding itself. It cries foul at the slightest provocation. The thankful heart, on the other hand, always looks upward and outward. The thankful man is the blessed man “who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so.” (Psalm 1)

I’m not saying it’s easy. What I am saying is that an inch of thankfulness (if you can just start with that small step), given time, can become a mile of gladness. A mile of gladness, given time, can grow into fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety miles of joy. Start with one small rock and start filling your Joshua Basket.

I saw a picture of an olive tree growing out of an abandoned house. Searching for light, it became the centerpiece around which the house seemed built. Against all odds, this little plant kept seeking the light. Look at it now! This is the human heart when it gives thanks, growing in nourishment. The unthankful heart shrivels and dies for lack of sunlight.

Let me put it another way: What’s the biggest effect of not habitually giving thanks for God’s blessings? We stop telling our stories. We stop remembering what he’s done in our life. We start seeing only what’s right in front of us. We get tunnel vision and this tunnel vision, given time, leads to utter blindness.

C. S. Lewis paints a vivid picture of this blindness in The Last Battle. You remember, of course, the end of the story. The battle is over. Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace find themselves under a beautiful open sky in Aslan’s country. They see a group of dwarves huddled in a circle. It becomes clear that they still think they’re in a dark stable into which they had been flung. For those of you who know the story, this logic makes a certain kind of sense, but it wasn’t true. They’re sitting under a beautifully open sky. One dwarf says to Lucy, “How in the name of all Humbug can I see what ain’t there? And how can I see you any more than you can see me in this pitch darkness?”

When Aslan arrives, Lucy asks what Aslan can do for them. He conjures up a feast for them. But they cannot be convinced that it is anything but hay and trough water. Their singular goal is to escape being duped by anyone about anything. They will not be deceived, all the while deceiving themselves. Aslan says, “You see, they will not let us help them. . .Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. But come, children. I have other work to do.”

You and I can be like those dwarves with relatively little effort, especially in our current political climate. The unthankful heart is finding fault everywhere these days except in itself. The unthankful heart prides itself in being more realistic, more politically aware, more with it. The unthankful heart finds everyone else a little soft, naive, simple-minded. And here’s the most devilish part of the unthankful heart: while I list all of its traits in HD clarity, it’s thinking I’m describing someone else.

You can’t point to God if you’re always pointing at yourself. The people who effectively point to him are the ones so overwhelmed with gratitude for what he’s done in their life that they can’t stop talking about him. They can’t stop telling stories to each other, testifying to God’s faithfulness and goodness.

The people compelled enough to do the hard work of heralding the good news with a strong and courageous voice, saying, “Behold your God!” are people who love God and love people enough to do so. These are selfless people, hopeful people, glad people, storytellers who delight to tell their stories because God’s story is the very source of their thankfulness!

Take the road less travelled. Start a Joshua basket. Next time I come over for dinner, tell me your stories one stone at a time.

Ben Palpant is a memoirist, poet, novelist, and non-fiction writer. He is the author of several books, including A Small Cup of Light, Sojourner Songs, and The Stranger. He writers under the inspiration of five star-lit children and one dog named Chesterton. He and his wife live in the Pacific Northwest.


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