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493 || When Gratitude Becomes a Platitude

It was mid November 2010. I was a newlywed with a husband in Afghanistan, and the Department of Defense (DoD) website had just listed another casualty from his battalion. The family had yet to be notified, so while the list read, “3rd Battalion, 5thMarines” and “Helmand Provence,” the name slot had yet to be filled in.

When my husband first deployed, I heard God tell me everything would be okay. But as I looked at that nameless space, I began to doubt what I’d heard. Would I be the widow that empty space made?

Fear and anger at God had become my go-to feelings. In my old life, I was known best for my sunny disposition. But because of those feelings, my once continuous conversation with Jesus had turned into a steady stream of one word, “Please. Please, please, please.”

At the time I was living in an apartment my parents had built over their separated garage. In that moment, I meant to walk into the big house and talk to my mom. Instead, I stopped on the enclosed apartment stairs and looked out of the window. My view was clear to the end of the driveway. If my husband had been killed today, a car would soon appear, carrying a chaplain who would inform me of my loss. For now, though, the driveway remained empty.

Pinterest 

I was married exactly three months before Pinterest became a thing. Which, as any young bride now can tell you, is a true tragedy in and of itself.

On many days, instead of openly wallowing in my deployment-newlywed-very-young-bride angst, I delved into the inner regions of this new phenomenon — looking at the cute wedding poses I never considered and searching for some post that would share wise words that might illustrate what I couldn’t speak. I pinned a lot of fitness routines, smoothie recipes I would never try and really cliché quotes like, “Without the rain, you can never have a rainbow.”

Unfortunately, a lot of the really inspiring pins at the time circulated around one word: gratitude.

That was not the word I wanted to lean in on. However, it was the word that wanted to lean in on me. So, with or without my consent, weary promises of a grateful heart began to worm their way in.

One pin in particular pressed unshakeable words into my head. “I will be grateful for this day,” it read. And unlike the borderline defenses I’d put up between conversations with me and the God who could take my husband back, those words moved in me unchecked.

It was those words I spoke out loud for the first time while sitting on the staircase that day, waiting for a car that didn’t come for me.

Breaking Point 

I had been on the stairs for roughly half an hour, just watching the road in front of my house.

“I will be grateful for this day,” I said in a whisper to a very empty space. Then I sat down hard and felt real tears begin. My angry heart heard the words that had continuously surfaced in my mind over the last several days, and it rebelled. Suddenly I wasn’t just speaking to God; I was yelling at Him.

“I heard You say it would be okay!” I screamed at Him with every inch of leftover emotion I could feel. But things weren’t okay. Fifteen Marines in the unit my husband was attached to had been killed, and we were only eight weeks into this deployment.

God let me ramble at Him about how impossible this life was. I told Him about how this would affect me forever. I told Him about how mad I was that He put my husband, of all people, on this godforsaken mission. I told Him how mad I was that my friends were losing fiancés and brothers and how mad I was that none of my old friends even wanted to be near me. Then I told Him so much more.

It was the truest hurt I had ever felt, and because I was a believer and had always trusted His will was perfect, I believed He had betrayed me.

Finally, after I’d said every word and sat there, raw to the bone, I told God I would follow His will — because I believed His will to be the best for me. Then I fell silent and heard the words repeated almost audibly.

“I will be grateful for this day.”

Later 

Over the course of that deployment, I spent many midmornings on that staircase, eyes glued to the end of the driveway, waiting for the bad news that never came to me. Ten more men would lose their lives, many more their limbs, before I would see my husband again.

Battles are funny things, especially from the home front perspective. People change drastically in the face of the unbelievable. That’s what war is, it seems to me. Unbelievable — and all too real.

In the aftermath of that deployment, I forgot about the day on the stairs. Occasionally the words occurred to me — most often on good days, when I really believed them — and I would smile for their obvious truth. I did my best to leave the doubt in God, behind me.

Now 

Six years later, I spent a weekend in middle Georgia at a writer’s convention, discussing a book proposal about that deployment, when that story suddenly came to mind. As we walked through the green hills on our way from lunch to the next lecture, I told a new friend about my day on the stairs and how it brought me to the struggle with God’s ability to give and take and how both were worthy of gratitude. I said the words to her out loud.

“I will be grateful for this day.”

She responded with a question I’d never asked myself. “And were you?” she asked.

“Was I what?” I responded.

“Grateful for that day?”

The thought left me in silence, I spent several weeks mulling over that question before I felt I could answer truthfully. Since I wasn’t able to offer her a solid and functional answer, I will put it here.

I am grateful for that day. Grateful because the notification officers didn’t show up on that or any other day. Grateful because the walls I’d put around God to keep Him away were all broken down on those steps. Grateful because God is big enough to hold all of the anger I held at Him and to forgive me for it when I came to Him with it. Grateful because many more deployments are behind and before my husband and me, but I have already wrestled over this with God. I have been humbled and taught this painful and necessary lesson.

For the remainder of that deployment, when anyone asked how I was doing, my response to the world — and the response I use to this day — was to use the words of Sara Groves, “God has been faithful; He will be again. He’s always been faithful to me.”

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