Monday, January 18, 2010

On talking fish and grateful hearts

“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!...Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”--- Philippians 4:4 & 6-7

In their collection of fairy tails, the Grimms brothers have a story about a fisherman and his wife who lived together in a small shack. One day when the husband was out fishing, he happened to catch a flounder who could talk.

The fish explained that he was really an enchanted prince and begged the fisherman to let him go. Being impressed by the occasion of a talking fish, the man gladly consented and put the fish back into the sea.

That night when the fisherman got home and told his wife Ilsebill about the strange encounter, she was indignant that he hadn’t asked the fish for anything. If he was really an enchanted prince, she explained to her husband, he would surely be able to grant wishes. The wife insisted that the following morning her husband should call for the fish and ask him to give them a nice cottage in which to live.

Being content with their small shack, the fisherman was reluctant to follow his wife’s bidding. But she insisted so forcibly that he eventually relented.

The next day on the sea, the man called up the founder and told of his wife’s request. The fish assured him that the wish had been granted, and that he would go home to find Ilsebill living in a nice cottage instead of the filthy shack.

The wife was satisfied with the cottage for a while, but soon she grew discontent and asked her husband to go back and find the fish again. This time she wanted her husband to ask him to give them a palace.

The husband was even more reluctant than before, but the fisherman received no peace until he agreed to his wife’s request. Once more he sought the talking fish and once more his wife’s wish was granted.

At first Ilsebill was grateful for the palace. However, after a few weeks even this proved not good enough, and the fisherman’s wife decided that she wanted to be king of all the land.

Once again the fisherman reluctantly set out to find the fish, who granted his wife’s request and made her king of all the land. Of course, this did not satisfy her for long and soon she wanted to be made pope. That too was granted in turn.

After a few weeks the wife realized that she could never be content until she was like God, having the power to tell the sun and moon when to rise and when to set.

It was with a heavy heart that the man went to seek the founder the next day. As his got into his boat, such a storm was raging that he could hardly stand on his feet. Houses and trees were blowing over. The mountains were shaking, and boulders were rolling from the cliffs into the sea. The sky was as black as pitch. There was thunder and lightning. In the sea there were great black waves as high as church towers and mountains, all capped with crowns of white foam. Then, calling to the fish, he said:

Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!

Flounder, flounder, in the sea!

My wife, my wife Ilsebill,

Wants not, wants not, what I will 

"What does she want then?" said the flounder.

"Oh," he said, "she wants to become like God."

"Go home. She is sitting in her filthy shack again."

And they are sitting there even today.

Gratefulness is a Choice

Many of us think there is a direct correlation between our circumstances and our gratefulness. You know how it goes: if only I had a bigger house, a better job, a nicer car, then I would be grateful and content.

But if circumstances really did have the power to make our hearts grateful, then our society should consist of the most grateful people on earth. You may not be able to afford the latest iPod, but when was the last time you went to bed wondering where your next meal was going to come from? You may not have a car that is reliable, but when was the last time you had to worry about finding clean water to drink? You may wake up in the morning and find that you have to change all your plans because it is wet and muddy instead of dry and sunny, but when was the last time that your ability to feed yourself in the next year depended entirely on the weather?

Compared to most people throughout history, we have it so easy that we take our blessings for granted. When our circumstances are consistently good, we get used to it and want more. Like the fisherman’s wife in the tale, after a while we cease being grateful for what we have and start fantasizing about everything that we don’t have. If this near universal tendency proves anything, it is that gratefulness is rooted in something far deeper than the circumstances we are subject to.

Gratefulness is rooted in a choice that we make. That is why the husband in the story could be happy and content in the cottage: he simply chose to be grateful.

We can make the choice to be grateful regardless of what is going on in your life. Paul told the Philippians to rejoice always. He didn’t tell them only to rejoice when good things were happening to them. Now rejoicing is closely related to gratefulness since you cannot rejoice unless you are first grateful. To be grateful is to recognize that you have something to rejoice about.

But what if we don’t recognize that? What if we can’t find anything in our lives to be grateful about? One way to cultivate gratefulness in the midst of life’s difficulties is to reflect on the fact that no matter what may be happening, you are always doing better than you deserve. That sounds trite but it’s true. Let’s face it: if God gave each of us what we deserve, there isn’t one of us who would still be alive. Every breath we take, every thought we think, every friendship we enjoy comes as an act of pure grace from our Father above. We don’t deserve any of it!

That is why the choice to be grateful doesn’t have to be an act of blind faith. It isn’t like the girl in the movie Miracle on 34th Street whose mother encouraged her to grit her teeth and keep repeating to herself, “I do believe in Santa Clause” until she finally convinced herself that it was true.

On the contrary, choosing to be grateful in the midst of a difficult life is very different than choosing to believe in Santa Clause or the Tooth Fairy. There isn’t any logical reason to believe in Santa Clause but there is plenty or good reasons to be grateful. When you decide to be grateful, you are making a choice that is as rational as believing that two and three add up to five.

This is because there is always something to be grateful for.

If you can’t think of anything to be grateful for, then just be grateful for your salvation. Be grateful that even if you were the only person who existed, Jesus would still have chosen to go to the cross to redeem you.

When we choose to be grateful during difficult times, we find that if things do improve, we have all the more reason to overflow with gratefulness. If you have mastered the art of being grateful while things are going bad, then when things begin going right you will find more gratefulness than you know how to contain.

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