"Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."
Maybe the most important attitude for anyone to have, to teach our kids, to be known for…is gratitude. But it’s such a hard attitude to develop. It’s so hard to be truly grateful in our Western culture where we have so darned much. How can we be truly grateful for our food when we seldom ever suffer real hunger? How can we be grateful for health when the finest healthcare in the world is available to us and most of us would say we have been essentially healthy most of our lives? How many of us have ever been truly grateful for having a home and a bed and a safe haven from the pressures of the world?
Sadly, perhaps the only way to ever truly appreciate these things is to lose them all, or never have them in the first place.
I went through an extended period where I would not say “Grace” before meals because I had come to realize that I was only going through the motions and was not really thankful for my “Daily Bread.”
Homelessness changed all that.
What is a home? Is it four walls and a roof? Is it a designer address in a pricey neighborhood where just your zip code will get you into clubs and restaurants that wouldn’t admit you otherwise? Is it a cabin in the woods?
For me, home was my five acres in the country. I have owned two homes in my lifetime, both while I was living in TN. My first house was special because it was my first house. It was nice, but certainly not my “dream home.”
My second home was everything I’d ever wanted. A 2500 square foot ranch house on five pastoral acres. I had a detached garage where I could build furniture and work on my cars. I could plant a garden. Our two beautiful Springer Spaniels could frolic in the yard. On winter nights I would stand under the stars at midnight and peer into the Milky Way and pray and feel as if God were looking down. In the summers, the grass was alive with lightning bugs and my daughter and I would capture them in glass jars to serve as a nightlight in her bedroom.
No matter how bad my day, how much pressure I felt at my office, how good or bad things were at the moment, when I turned that key and shut the door behind me, the world was kept at bay, outside of those four safe walls. The sound of the latch reverberated with security and sanctuary. I had my chair and my glass for tea. My coffee mug in the morning, the sheets on my bed smelled of fresh air and sunshine.
There was pride in owning my own place. I was an adult now. A homeowner. I was a dad and I was providing my daughter with a wonderful place to explore and discover and contemplate.
And then it was gone…
Even as I typed that last line a lump formed in my throat. I miss my home. I miss those two beautiful Springer Spaniels and that garden and those long, cold walks with God beneath the canopy of a million stars.
I lost that house on January 27, 2008. It seems like a lifetime ago and perhaps it was.
The years that followed were the most heartbreaking, frustrating, painful years I’ve known. The first two years I was homeless, I slept in a 1995 Volvo 850. I am 6’ 4” and that is a small car. I hid it in tall overgrowth so nobody would see me. When you have a home, you are welcome. When you’re homeless, you are a trespasser. When you have a home, you have comfort, safety, security, warmth or cool, food, clean clothes, a bathroom. You have your favorite chair and your favorite coffee mug and you can sit on your porch on cool spring evenings and watch the stars come out.
A homeless person has none of that.
It was 5 ½ years before I’d have a home again. I have a two bedroom townhome that I rent here in Lynchburg. It is small, cramped, devoid of all but the most essential furniture for my daughter and myself. I rent, I do not own it. But it is home. I am welcome. I can shower, cook, wash clothes, and watch TV. I have a bed again. We have a small kitchen table where each morning I drink coffee (from my coffee maker…the only appliance I retained from home ownership after almost 6 years in various storage facilities.) We have a dog. My daughter is a freshman in college and I have a good career here at Liberty University. I stay busy with my side business, building decks and doing trim and finish work. I am writing more books and speaking to groups big and small about the things I endured for my daughter’s sake.
But there was one morning…
We hadn’t been here long, just a few days. I still didn’t have a bed yet. We’d come here with only enough money for two months’ rent and some groceries and necessities. My daughter had a brand new bed someone had given us before we left Nashville, but I had nothing but the foam bedroll I had been sleeping on in my truck. (The Volvo died in 2011 and I purchased a 1996 GMC Yukon, which was far more comfortable for sleeping in) I had almost nothing for furniture…an old couch someone had given us, that rickety kitchen table. But I sat there very early on that first Saturday morning, my daughter was asleep upstairs and I was looking around my kitchen, considering where I had been for the last 6 years. How many mornings I woke up to single digit temperatures and frost inside my car windows. How many times I was at the mercy of public restrooms, or the county rec center being open in order to just take a shower. I thought of how I had to buy coffee at Dunkin Donuts and now I was drinking my own coffee in my own mug in my own kitchen again. I was getting ready to make strawberry pancakes for my daughter for the first time in those six years. My daughter was with me again. We had almost nothing, but when looked at in perspective…I had everything.
That Saturday morning, I broke down and wept. I am fighting tears right now as I write. The gratitude was so deep in my heart that morning that it moved me. I prayed my way around that kitchen. “God thank you for my table and chairs. Thank you for this cup of coffee and my coffee maker that somehow survived six years and multiple storage sheds. Thank you that Morgan is sleeping upstairs. Thank you that I have an upstairs…”
I have never been as grateful as I was that first Saturday when I finally had something again after six years of literally having nothing.
The truth is that almost no one who reads this will ever experience that sort of overwhelming, encompassing loss. I’m glad you won’t. Losing your home is the worst feeling imaginable. Only losing a loved one could be worse. Our home is our hub. Our Headquarters. The fixed end of our compass. Without a home -as simple as it might be- we are adrift on the sea. I had come home to the safe harbor of this small house in Lynchburg and I was more grateful than I’d ever been.
So how can someone replicate that I their own life without experiencing the loss firsthand?
I’m not sure.
I remember reading a marriage book one time and it said that the counselor started marital counseling for his clients by having them write an obituary for the other. Sometimes, just penning the words you would say if they were really gone is enough to spur appreciation. Maybe you could try that. Imagine writing a eulogy for your spouse.
Write a letter to your child…the letter you’ll give them as they drive off to college someday. The next time your beloved dog comes over and lays her head on your lap and lets out a plaintive sigh, begging for just a scratch behind the ears, imagine not being able to do that anymore.
The other – and I think better- way to build your gratitude, and take your eyes off of all that you’d don’t have is to take out a sheet of paper and list everything you really love about the things you do have. What are the best things about your job? Your family? Your boss? Your friends? List everything. Do they pay you well? If not, does the check bounce or do you at least never have to worry about the bank calling you with bad news? Does your boss value your input? Do you have great co-workers who make your tasks easier? Are the difficult coworkers at least pleasant? If not…do they at least bathe and wear clean clothes? It sounds funny but you need to build the habit of finding something good and then being truly grateful for it.
Your kids aren’t perfect but are they good kids? Are they healthy? Do they do reasonably well in school? Your wife isn’t the best driver but she’s a great wife, she’s your best friend, she gave you wonderful children, she cheers your successes and rallies you when you have a tough day. Your husband works hard, protects his family, sacrifices himself for the good of the kids, he’s faithful, he may not be the best talker but he lets you know he loves you.
You don’t have the biggest house but you are sleeping indoors tonight? If it’s cold you can turn on the heat. If you’re dirty you can shower. You can clean your clothes when you need too without a pocketful of quarters.
You won’t be hiding your car in dense overgrowth behind a church so nobody finds you and you can get a few hours of restless sleep.
There is so much to be grateful for but we miss it if we don’t practice gratefulness.
The great Zig Zigler always said: “If you aren’t thankful for what you have, soon you’ll find you have nothing to be thankful for.”
Be thankful for everything!