“I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart. Where? Down in my heart. WHERE? Down in my heart!”
When I was a child, my classmates sang this on long bus rides. We sang it in a round, our voices tumbling over each other, and then we introduced the second chorus to the round:
“I’ve got the peace that passes understanding down in my heart. Where? Down in my heart. WHERE? Down in my heart!”
Joy and peace. I believe these are the products of gratitude; an action of noticing and appreciating what is good.
Yogis know that practicing gratitude cultivates a sense of contentment and peace. Scientists have even been able to see how gratitude positively changes the structure of our brains.
In the New Testament, Paul encouraged the Philippians by telling them,
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:4-7, 11-13 NIV
Struggles and storms are inevitable, but gratitude helps us to experience joy and peace in the midst of them. As believers in Christ, we choose to fix our eyes on Jesus, who has authority over the storm and will carry us through it. Gratitude will move us from a mindset of “I have to” to “I get to.”
Paul gave the Philippians detailed instructions on how to practice gratitude.
“In conclusion, my brothers and sisters, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable.” Philippians 4:8 GNB
Even though I grew up singing a song about joy and peace, as I grew older, I confess they began to feel out of reach or dependent on my circumstances. Last days messages from well-meaning Christians, intended to make sense of evil and disasters in the world, were frightening and depressing. My childlike joy and peace became eclipsed with long shadows cast by those who seemed to only see and talk about what was wrong in the world. Becoming an adult meant endless responsibility and work. I forgot that I was a lamb, with all my needs provided for by a loving shepherd.
But God had plans for me. His plan included allowing me to become the mother of a special needs child. My first-born daughter was delivered following a long and complicated labor, which should have been an emergency c-section. She arrived with the cord around her neck, which we saw she had been clutching with her tiny hand. Her skin was a dusky blue color, her eyes wide open and that same color. At first glance, my mom, who was in the room, thought she was stillborn.
But God. With oxygen she began to breathe, and her skin turned pink. We returned home. Her delays were not apparent at first. She has good motor coordination and met her early milestones. And then she went silent at 16 months. At her next checkup, the doctor told me not to worry because she was “working on other things” and to come back in six months. When we returned and she was still not talking, I read the fear in his eyes. We saw the necessary specialists and got the diagnosis that I had suspected. An Autism Spectrum Disorder, the neurologist said, and gave me a list of things to do. I like lists and if you give me one, I will do all the things, so I was hopeful. Some people were talking about children with autism ‘recovering.’ But at only 26 years of age, I remember standing in my kitchen when God placed on my heart to feel grateful for this unexpected path. My life up until that point had been sheltered and He was going to use this child to teach me His compassion and how to hold space for other people’s pain.
Her name is Allegra Nicole. I picked it because I liked the way it sounded. I didn’t realize the power that names have, and how God had ordained this special child to reshape me. Allegra means “joy”, and Nicole means “people of victory.”
At one time, I would have thought that our story was only worth telling if she made leaps and bounds in her therapies and God healed her. She worked very hard, close to 40 hours a week of therapy. At times a word would come, but then, frustratingly, the word would go, never to be heard again. Progress was incremental. Little glimpses of connection became an occasion to call family members to share praise. There were times in conversation with other parents that I felt a little alien. I recognized that God was giving us new eyes and a gift of learning how to practice gratitude. There were times I struggled with fear about her future. But as I turned my eyes heavenward, I grew closer to God than ever, even in the midst of uncharted territory and occasional sadness and isolation.
We realized that she was aware that something in her brain would not let her mouth form her words. Three years later, when she was five, as we sat at dinner and laughed at something her two-year-old brother said, she started to cry. She took my husband’s hand and placed it on her mouth, as she implored him with her eyes to ‘fix it’. We had been praying for years, but we decided then to also begin fasting regularly for a breakthrough. A few months later, when she was six years old, we decided to introduce sign language, which she took to immediately. ASL made the connection that her brain needed, and within three weeks of signing, the verbal words also began to come, and they were sticking. After almost five years of silence, we were so grateful, humbled and amazed at God’s goodness.
Mike Donehey, in the book Finding God’s Life for My Will (His Presence is the Plan), writes about the development from salvation into rock solid faith. Mike notes that when we first decide to accept Jesus, we invite him to become our Savior. Often, it takes time until we allow Him to become our Lord. But what Jesus wants most of all, is to become our Treasure. Because it is in His presence that gratitude becomes as natural as breathing. It is in the presence of God where we experience joy, where we rest and find peace, and where victory is found.
I believe God used this victory with my daughter to strengthen and encourage us on this early leg of our journey as parents and as followers of Jesus. Our daughter is now a young woman and still needs 24/7 care. Her pure, unaffected joy during worship brings our family joy. When I am walking close with the Lord, caregiving feels like an opportunity to minister and serve, a holy “get to” instead of a duty I “have to” do. I soften and rest in God’s command to honor the Sabbath as life-giving freedom and wisdom rather than a limit or restraint on my time.
Last year in my Holy Yoga teacher training, we learned about the liminal space. My faith in these spaces continues to grow. I continue to work through putting my faith not on what is seen, but what is unseen. After many years, I have victory over anxiety and insomnia. I’ve been able to find restorative rest, joy and peace during more recent stressful seasons as I remember Jesus sleeping in the ship during the storm.
“Suddenly, as they were crossing the lake, a ferocious tempest arose, with violent winds and waves that were crashing into the boat until it was all but swamped. But Jesus was calmly sleeping in the stern, resting on a cushion. So they shook him awake, saying, ‘Teacher, don’t you even care that we are all about to die!’ Fully awake, he rebuked the storm and shouted to the sea, ‘Hush! Calm down!’ All at once the wind stopped howling and the water became perfectly calm. Then he turned to his disciples and said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Haven’t you learned to trust yet?’ But they were overwhelmed with fear and awe and said to one another, ‘Who is this man who has such authority that even the wind and waves obey him?’” Mark 4:37-41 TPT
Is there something in your life that has weighed you down; that feels challenging, frightening or heavy, or something you “have to” do?
If you reframe that by considering that you “get to” do it, and that Jesus has authority over it, how are your eyes opened to joy, to opportunities to grow and serve or see what God sees?
How will you wait for His power and glory to manifest?
I invite you to try this gratitude breath prayer. Find a quiet place and get still before the Lord. Perhaps read one of the scriptures here or another that reminds you of His goodness.
With your eyes closed, gently turn the corners of your mouth up.
Visualize something in your life or about God’s character that you are grateful for.
As you inhale, say “I am grateful for….” Allow the breath to fill your body as the feeling of joy fills your heart.
Then as you exhale, imagine sending the joy and gratitude from your heart back to the Lord and to those around you.
Do this as many times as you need to.
Rest in His presence.
Feel the peace that passes understanding.
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, God, the Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.” Habakkuk 3:17, 19 ESV