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How To Find The Holy Grail of Joy

Posted: 02/13/11 05:17 PM ET

I think the fall in Eden was ultimately a failure to give thanks.

It's strange how we'd rather live tripping and stumbling than murmur that one word.

I came into this world the way every person on the planet does -- with clenched fists. Gratitude's not a natural posture. The prince of darkness is ultimately a spoiled ingrate and I've spent most of my life as kin to the fist-shaker.

Oh, I've had my reasons to gripe. Bad days. Broken dreams. Bickering kids. And long before all that, a sister's skull crushing under the tires of a truck. I was standing beside my mother and we witnessed it all, all her blood seeping into the thirsty ground. We buried her and any remaining notion of grace. Losses like that can bring the worst kind of sickness -- the bitterness spreading.

Augustine claimed that "without exception ... all try their hardest to reach the same goal, that is, joy."

The wild crusade of my life has been just this -- this straining after elusive joy while the virus of bitterness, of ungratefulness, keeps destroying.

I wasn't feeling particularly in need of a cure when I took up a friend's silly dare to write down a thousand things that made me happy. I knew she was just goading me, a way to prove that I had plenty of things to enjoy. So I grabbed a notebook. And began scribbling down whatever made me smile. Morning shadows across old floors. Jam piled high on toast. The cry of a blue jay high in the spruce.

It didn't seem I was fixing anything in the beginning. But each day I kept at it. It was easy and it made me happy, so I kept going.

Every day I'd number another five, another ten, and the game became a hunt, to see if I could find a bit of God's glory in my days. Washing dishes, at the stove stirring soup, I'd see the afternoon light spark on the rim of a pot and it'd spark me. I'd wipe my hands on my apron and reach for the pen. Although the world is ugly, it is beautiful.

I was waking up. Something in me started to stir. I realized how numbed and jaded I'd become. And I couldn't stop scratching it down -- blessings, graces ... God in the moment. Why hadn't I realized that joy was right in the middle of life, unlocked in the moments? Where did I think it should be? After all, it's only moments that make up a life. And if the riddle of life isn't unlocked in the moments, where is it found? Do not disdain the small. The whole of the life is made up of the minute parts, and if the infinitesimals are missed, the whole is missed too. Maybe I was starting to find what I couldn't miss?

Because what if the holy grail of joy isn't somewhere else but in the small things, in the moments? Maybe the secret was just this: to keep seeking God where we doubt He is.
For more than a decade research has been confirming it: "People are 25 percent happier if they keep gratitude journals compared to persons who are not keeping these journals, achieve up to a 10 percent reduction in systolic blood pressure, and decrease their dietary fat intake by up to 20 percent." I've found it true too: ink and a gratitude list can be cheap, potent medicine. It's written directly into our DNA, this need to give thanks, to give God His due.

Counting one thousand gifts, I discovered I could count on God. But this wasn't any Pollyanna-journey but a pilgrimage to the table of the Last Supper and Christ giving thanks for the incomprehensible, a journey right into the crux of the Christian faith and the very essence of what faith means. How can God be intimately experienced in circumstances of great suffering? How do we deal with the pain of our losses authentically and honestly? What if saving belief means something very different than what we've lived?

I was chronicling my second thousands of blessings when I sat at my sister's grave in spring. I still don't know why little girls die violent deaths. Why babies are born in filthy shacks and garbage dumps, and why mothers are ravaged with cancer and tragedy rips open whole nations to bleed. But I do know this: I only deepen the wound of the world when I neglect to give thanks for grace. Rejecting joy to stand in solidarity with the suffering doesn't rescue the suffering, but rather it's the converse that does. How does it save the world to reject joy when it is Joy Himself who saves us? I have yet to see bitterness better the world.

It's only when we wake to how blessed we are, when we take life as grace and give thanks for it, that we become the bread to be given to a starving world. This is our great weapon in the war.

I ran my hand across the engraved letters of my sister's name, her name that meant beloved. Instead of bitterness, I felt a new thing. I felt my hand opening to receive the gift of His will, the gifts He brings out of it all. I could live like this, I thought, that one word "thanks" on the tongue.

The grail, there at my lips.

Ann Voskamp is the author of 'One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are' (Zondervan)