The Last Thing I Expected

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Last week was pretty terrible. It started with a death that was particularly tragic even by the standards of someone who works as a hospital chaplain, and it would have ended with a funeral, except that I could not bring myself to go. So much of my own emotional baggage resurfaced in the wake of this situation that I knew I would be no good as a caregiver if I went. The sadness weighed so heavy on me that I could hardly get out of bed. And then, mercifully, there was the weekend, and a friend’s birthday to celebrate, and unexpected moments of grace. Yesterday morning was good, in real and simple ways that I don’t want to lose.

My dog, Hurley, and I spent the night before at my friend’s house. I woke before my alarm went off (very unusual for me), even before the sun was up, and slipped out as quietly as I could, trying not to wake my sleeping friends. As Hurley and I made our way out, I heard one of them snore and I smiled, grateful for my “urban family” and the fun I had with some of them this weekend. I was ravenously hungry, so I went through the drive-thru at McDonald’s for breakfast on the way home, a rare treat. I watched the colors grow richer little by little as the new day’s light bathed the marsh and the bridges and the steeples of the Holy City I’ve grown to love. Every now and then, I would break off a small bite of my breakfast sandwich and reach toward the backseat until I felt Hurley gently pull the food from my hand. The next few seconds would be marked by the metronome of his thumping tail against the back of the seat, so that even without taking my eyes off the road, I knew he was happily devouring his treat.

By his second or third bite, I couldn’t stop smiling, surrounded by the warmth of his companionship and the beauty of the Charleston landscape. “I’m so happy to be with you, buddy,” I told him. “There’s nothing better than sharing a sunrise drive and breakfast with my sweet Hurley.” I was rewarded with more tail wags and one of his happy noises that told me he felt the same, and I was grateful for his love for the millionth time. When we got home, Hurley got a walk and a proper breakfast, then jumped up on my bed to take a nap. I settled into the living room chair by the glass patio doors, an upholstered rocker that once belonged to my great-grandmother. While I went over my notes for teaching Sunday School, I watched birds hop around in the backyard, foraging for worms in the wet ground. It began to rain again, and I looked out at the garden I planted last month, grateful that my flowers and vegetables were getting watered. But mostly, I think I was grateful just to be for a few moments, with no rush to get anywhere, no agenda. It was peace and it was prayer.

A few days ago, I didn’t think there was any way I could teach a Sunday School class this week on “Thanks,” of all things. That is the second of Anne Lamott‘s three essential prayers from her book, Help, Thanks, Wow. It started out such a dark week, I wasn’t sure I would be able to authentically talk about gratitude. It felt almost frivolous. But I was so wrong. And as I finished preparing for Sunday School, I remembered having that same feeling during a chaplain visit with a patient facing huge losses and battling depression. “I stopped going to church a long time ago,” he told me, “but when I was younger, it used to be important to me. I was hoping maybe you could give me some specific ideas of how faith could help me cope now, help me get through all this.” He looked at me intently, a mixture of fear and hope in his eyes.

I took a long breath, trying to think of spiritual coping techniques I had learned in classes and seminars, but then I went with my instinct instead. I practiced some careful self-disclosure, told him that I am walking through depression myself these days, talked about the support of people in my faith community and how finding the right church could be a great resource for him. “And I challenge myself,” I said, “to find five things every day to thank God for. Some days it’s easier than others. But I always find five. And then depression doesn’t win that day. God wins. The good stuff wins. I win. It might sound like a really small thing, but it helps me. Maybe it could work for you, too.”

He put his head down, closed his eyes. I’ve disappointed him, I thought. He was expecting more from me and I let him down. But when he raised his head and opened his eyes, he was smiling. “That’s so beautiful,” he said. “I was afraid you were going to tell me something impossible and this would be a dead end. But I can do that. Just five things. And I’ve already got one for today. Thank you.” The darkness was no less real, but he suddenly saw a crack that let in the light. He found hope and grace in the simple, powerful act of gratitude. So did I this week, when I needed it desperately. As Anne would pray, “Oh my God, thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou.”

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5 thoughts on “The Last Thing I Expected

  1. kevin hall

    I ran across this quote yesterday morning.
    ” Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”
    John Milton

  2. Jason Ratliff

    Every day this week, I would see the bookmark I have for your Blog and something kept saying go read it. Today was the first day I was actually able to do that and it always seems like you’re blog is there for me, right when I need to hear exactly what I need to hear when I need to hear it. Thank you and thank God for pushing me to read. You made me cry today, But in a good way. 🙂

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