I plunked my elbows on the counter with a thud and leaned into my hands, covering the better part of my face, fighting to maintain the joy that has been so graciously given and required such fervor to maintain. I could hear that still, small voice. “Fight for your joy, Space. Fight for it. That’s what’s at stake here. You know how to fight. Fight with thanksgiving.” I had no idea how significant my joy would be, how many folks were watching my faith buried in the palms of my weary hands. I was only trying to keep my head above water, fighting to ignore the wind and the waves.
It was our beloved Honda CR-V, the one we had only-just-last-week put a new engine in … twice, because the first engine was no good. God had been really gracious to us with that. The first engine was warrantied, so we only had to pay for one of them. And Paul, who owns the shop that installed it, was extremely kind and only charged us for one of the installations. Mercy.
This broken-down-on-the-side-of-the-road-moment, however, had us stranded three and a half hours from home, five hours from where we were going, and with a huge, thawing turkey in the trunk. The night before Thanksgiving (oh, the irony!). We were on our way to see our college-aged son, who we hadn’t seen for three months!
The turkey! A 25-lb. beauty, gifted from a couple of sweet farmers that I love. Raised, nurtured, and offered to us. A love offering for our first Thanksgiving with Forest, now living in a different state. Since he had opted to stay in Illinois to care for his friend with Cerebral Palsy over the break, we decided to join him and become the Surrogate parents of Fischer Hall for the young people there, who couldn’t celebrate with their families, possibly for the first time in their lives.
Our precious turkey was buried on the side of the road in the back of a CR-V, along with countless other feasting ingredients, pots, pans and silverware and anything else I may or may not have needed to prepare a feast in the dormitory’s communal kitchen.
It was dark outside and we were too loaded down to hitch-hike (yes, I actually considered that, and I’m guessing it crossed Smiles’ mind as well). Besides, we had two minors with us, and the law tends to frown on hitch-hiking with minors. So here we were, stranded in Indiana, on a chilly evening in November.
Only hours before, I had been scratching down, on this eve of Thanksgiving, that the thing I am most thankful for is not the pleasantries of home, family, farm and friends, but of a good God who serenades His creation by redeeming suffering! A God who spins majesty out of ashes. I could hear it, the whispering, wooing voice reminding me that “It was for this moment” when our car lost power and died along the side of the highway, halfway to Illinois, that I was dwelling on these things only a few hours earlier.
We sat on the side of the road praising, remembering, encouraging each other, while my husband opened the hood, and called our mechanic back home… The one that had been looking under this very same hood only a week prior, attaching wires and filling reservoirs… Installing an engine. His diagnosis from a state’s width away: A distributor. It sounded like a distributor. Sigh. The first sigh since the breakdown. We had a spare distributor in our barn, back home, three and a half hours away, that we had taken out of the car to make room for the tubs of food and kitchen supplies. It’s a $250 part. We gathered our wits again by remembering the Lord knows what He’s doing and He’s always in control of the situation. It’s only $250 (which still felt like a lot of money). Doesn’t everything belong to God, anyways?
Next step, tow the car. We could not help but smile at Providence. We had acquired AAA a few months prior. We used our first tow to get to the auto parts store in Richmond, Indiana.
It just so happened that Chad, the tow truck driver, really loves Jesus. He picked us up on the side of the road. Since we wouldn’t all fit in his truck, he decided to take three of us on the first run, and come back for Smiles and the car (and not to charge us for any of the extra miles that he was supposed to charge us for!). We enjoyed a phenomenal conversation for a few miles about the goodness of God, even in suffering and trial. What providential encouragement for me, as I encountered the next stage of my story… the one where I end up with my face-in-hands, leaning into the counter.
As our boys and I dawdled our time away in the “lobby” of the auto parts store (because lobby sounds a little better than what we were really doing, which was pacing awkwardly just inside the doors), I became aware there was a real concern about what may be actually wrong with our engine. Ben, who Smiles had been conversing with over the phone, was actually a specialized Honda mechanic, disguised as an auto parts store employee. He promised to diagnose our engine for us once it arrived, so we could be certain not to buy a non-refundable part we didn’t need for a whopping $250. His concern was it was not actually a distributor that we needed, but another new engine. He feared we may have snapped a timing belt. If that were the case, it would have almost certainly destroyed our engine completely. We would be stranded in Richmond, Indiana for the holiday. A day when no mechanic shops would be open even if we did have the money to keep pouring into the underbelly of our hood. I prayed harder.
“The good news”, he reminded me, “is that your engine is warrantied”. What he failed to comprehend, in his ignorance of our situation was that Cyrus, who had sold us the engine, had already replaced it once. We didn’t want to force him out of a 3rd engine in two weeks’ time, especially if it was due to a timing belt and not a faulty engine. Besides, that didn’t solve our dilemma of having a full Thanksgiving feast in the trunk of our car. If we were stranded in Richmond, there would be a lot of disappointed boys and girls on the other side of the mountain. Unlike The Little Engine that Could, it really wasn’t about whether or not I believed in my own capabilities, but whether or not I trusted in God’s capabilities, resources, and goodness regardless of what He chose to do with our vehicle. I fought to remember He already had a solution in mind. What a paradigm shift. God always has the solution in His everlasting hand. Sometimes we don’t like His solution, but it’s really not about whether or not we like it, but whether or not we will surrender to and rejoice in it.
After much awkward, anxious pacing, the car arrived on scene and Ben quickly went to work diagnosing. My heart raced, pounded and then sank… “Crap! It’s your timing belt!” (In all honesty, he didn’t say “Crap!” but for the sake of not making anyone stumble, I will take some liberty and modify his vocabulary).
I was given the task of calling our firstborn with an update. “Forest, I really need you to pray for my joy. I know that’s what’s at stake here.” I could hear the cheering whispers. “Fight for it, Space. You must fight for your joy. You are a witness of My goodness here. Fight for it with thanksgiving.”
That’s how I ended up here, with elbows pressing down on counter and face buried under hands. “It’s going to be okay”, came Ben’s voice from the other side of the counter, from the other side of my hands.
“I’m not crying, I’m praying,” I muffled through my own flesh. I pressed in harder. “Thank You that You have a solution. You are and always will be a good God. Thank You that I can thank You.” These are the things I preach to myself when I don’t like my circumstances. God is always good, always sovereign and always working all things together for my good. Always for His glory. Always for my good.
For more years than I can count it, this lesson of thanksgiving in trials has woven itself into the fibers of my being. I am surprised at how naturally it comes now. I know exactly how to do this. It feels true. Right. Supernaturally normal. It has become a habit. I exhale, with true gratitude for habits that sustain our souls and that this has become one of mine.
Thanksgiving is one of the things that turns my heart towards God.
I pulled my hands away to glance at Ben. Through a few more moments of conversation, it appeared there would be an ever-so-slight possibility (about a 1% chance) that our engine had not been utterly decimated by the timing belt rupture. He would check. This is more hope than we had before, and probably wouldn’t feel like even a glimmer of hope, except that I’ve seen God’s power too many times to discount the 1% chance.
Hopelessness was still fighting hard to conquer my heart and at one point I muttered my discouragement to Smiles, “The devil really knows where to kick us. Right in the vehicle.”
Our 30-acre farm is home to at least six broken vehicles. We look like a junkyard!
A year after buying a car I was certain was going to save us from a 6-year long vehicle-curse, we had to replace the engine, the engine that only had 115,000 miles on it.
But in these cracks and crevices of life, in these struggles were a million tiny sparkles. For one thing, we did have friends that loved us enough to loan us vehicles when we didn’t have a single running vehicle. For another thing, it was only our automobiles. There were a million and three things I could think of that would have been much worse than yet another dysfunctional vehicle littering our land and taunting us. At least a couple of them are old Volkswagens, so they are at least enjoyable to look at, and the bus makes a good storage space.
I could also see some of God’s redemptive purposes for our shared vehicle usage. Smiles has been blessed with jobs that feel more like family than factories. As a result of all of the countless miles that felt like wasted gas, I was able to build friendships with the people he works with.
Possibly the greatest benefit has been the chance to learn to give thanks and praise. How much better to exalt the good and glorious Name than to avoid what Paul calls “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17). I believe he was in prison, when he wrote that.
Years before, I had memorized Psalm 119:71-72, which says “It is good for me that I was afflicted that I may learn Your statutes. The law of Your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.” Whenever I ponder this verse, I always decipher it through the Transitive Property of Equality which states if A=B, and B=C, then A=C. This passage teaches me that affliction (A) is better than tons of money (C) because through it we come to know God’s ways more fully (B).
This habit of thanksgiving began to transform my soul when our kids were young and malleable. My husband, in a moment of exasperation, called me a “pessimist”. It felt like a gut-punch. In all my life, I’d never been called a pessimist. When I was a kid, I was known for perpetual optimism. During my teenage years, I’d begun to look at life through the scope of negativity.
I was devastated by his comment and began praying about changing my thought patterns. Sin doesn’t come out of our mouths before it’s conception in our hearts and minds. I knew the remedy for complaining must be giving thanks, so I started to scratch down blessings on spiral bound notebooks. I wanted to notice His graces. I’d scratch down simple things, like “breeze on exposed skin” or “giggling children”, or overarching things like “mercy”. And it all became holy territory.
Soon after my journaled praises, I was gifted a headache which wouldn’t relent for six solid months. I actually thought I might have a brain-tumor. I woke up every morning, and fell asleep every night, with a bantering headache. The worst part was not the pain but the accompanying exhaustion. I was a stay-at-home mom, whose main job description seemed to be keeping our small, rambunctious torpedoes safe. It was a fearful thing to be so exhausted, to the point of falling asleep midday with sons who seemed to wait for opportunities to engage danger.
After a few months of complaining about my headache and exhaustion, the Lord began convict me of my sin with 1 Thessalonians 5:18 and Philippians 4:4-8.
I noticed that prayer and thanksgiving are often synonymous in Scripture.
Giving thanks felt like lip-service at first, but soon enough I began to feel a true sense of gratitude for my headache, a perpetual reminder to turn my gaze up. Sometimes we have to put our finger deep into our festering wounds and thank Him for the thing we hate the most. If we’re His, we’ll be blessed by the trial. He promises to work it out for our good (Romans 8:28) and that the sufferings of this present time aren’t even worth comparing with future heavenly delights (Romans 8:18).
When we endured half a decade of a very difficult relationship, we were able to see God’s kindness and majesty in that, as well. It became another thing to thank Him profusely for. There are some lessons only learned in suffering.
When my teeth began to become painfully infected and I had to have many teeth extracted, the praise stirred up a little more easily.
When our family of five lived in a school bus for more than three years, I learned that thanksgiving births contentment, and contentment births joy!
When our vehicles broke down, one on top of another, the habit solidified.
I later discovered praise and complaining create literal, habit-forming channels in our brain. Complaining and giving thanks don’t coexist politely, so we must pick one habit or the other to form.
The truth is the practice is helping me see God above my struggle. It’s reminding me of the character of God, who is both sovereign and good. Faithful and unchanging. He never leaves or forsakes me, and He certainly doesn’t fail in His mission to bring glory and goodness out of everything.
I remember the words of Proverbs 9:10b, and it casts light. “the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding”. Somewhere deep I know that this is sometimes the glory of suffering… it helps and trains me know and trust Jesus.
Doesn’t it say something in Romans 8 about us being His children if we suffer with Him? Perhaps this is because we are entering into a greater story. The story of Christ who purified His people through suffering. Who learned obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8).
I flip to Romans 8 and see something else. I see the Spirit helping my weakness because I don’t know how to pray as I should, so He intercedes for me with groanings too deep for words. I see that He intercedes for me and all the other saints according to the will of God (vs. 26-27). But I am left speechless when I see where Romans 8:28 lands. It is after these glorious truths that the Spirit of God helps my weakness by praying for me according to the will of God where we find that savory promise that “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
I can feel my shoulders softening and my clenched fingers softening their grip. No matter how this turns out, it is by God’s sweet design, for my good and for His glory.
But, you know, I don’t need to pretend my circumstances are awesome when they are not. Sometimes I need to put my finger directly into the thing that is grieving me and give thanks. Thanksgiving can co-exist with lament. Philippians 4 encourages me to bring my supplication to God with thanksgiving. My need and my thanks.
Thanksgiving always seems to bend my heart toward contentment. But sometimes the pain is so deep that thanksgiving feels cheap without it’s bedfellow lament. Lament ought to lead me towards praise. It did with David, and Job, and Jeremiah. Because it led them deeper into knowing God.
His grace is sufficient. He has promised to work it out for good. Thanksgiving gives me heavenly vision to comprehend, in the midst of the furnace, that God is always faithful and trustworthy and near.
As our fight for joy broke forth into victory, our night began to shift. It appeared as though God had rolled out the red carpet! Super-hero Ben surveyed our car and sure enough, we fit the 1% possibility of our engine surviving. He hauled us by tow strap back to his house. To his garage which held countless spare parts and even engines that fit our specific car. He was not only a specialized Honda mechanic, he specialized in our exact engine! It felt otherworldly!
After enjoying a few hours of beautiful conversation, Ben’s mom, who had been watching their children, leaned in and told Smiles she had been praying for God to bring Christians along. She had seen God ripening their hearts! Oh glory! So, this is really why we were here!
Thank God for the conviction of the word “pessimist” muttered under the breath. It had changed the trajectory of my life, and sent me on the path of joy-recovery.
Our joy validates the Gospel. We can tell people Christ is lovely, but our beliefs are tested and proven when our circumstances are extremely unlovely and we still rejoice in Jesus. Ben and his family had a chance to bear witness. I have to wonder if that’s the real reason our engine broke down on the eve of the holiday named “Thanksgiving”.