On Sunflowers, Gratitude, and Joy

About a month ago, I bought sunflowers.

Our local CSA had them on offer for $1 a stem, five-gallon buckets full of bright beauty, cut fresh that morning.

I’m no home-decorator. Flowers aren’t my love language. I don’t fawn over bouquets. But they caught my eye when I picked up our veggies for the week, and I couldn’t help myself. I stuffed five crumpled one-dollar bills into the jar and walked away with an armful of sunshine.

It was the best decision I’ve made all summer.

You think I’m exaggerating. And perhaps I am, a bit.

But I do know this: for the next ten days, whenever they caught my eye, I smiled.

A virus sweeps the globe. Millions are out of work. Racial tensions are at a boiling point, spurred by horrifying videos and accounts of police brutality. A contentious election season is in full swing. And, if my social media feeds are any indication, we’ve all lined up on our sides, content to listen to those who agree with us and to demonize those who don’t.

2020 has been an apocalyptic year. (I mean this in the original, biblical sense of the word – an uncovering, an unveiling, a revealing – though there are moments where the popular understanding feels true, too.) Our divisions, our weaknesses, our sins – both as individuals and as a nation – have been laid bare.

And here I am writing about sunflowers.

In a recent podcast of The Holy Post (which, along with BibleProject and The Next Right Thing, makes my don’t miss list), neurotheologian Jim Wilder presented the idea that the gospel is more about attachment than it is about knowledge – that is, that spiritual growth and a life of discipleship happen not through believing the right things or instituting the right practices but by loving the right Person.

In the course of the conversation, Dr. Wilder explored how love for God translated into love for others. He likened it to a marriage: when you choose a spouse, you also choose their family, and, as you become more deeply attached to the one you love, you also become more and more entwined with the people they hold dear.

And, of course, the people whom God holds dear is everyone.

The path, then, to being a better neighbor, to loving those who are not like me, to being a conduit of the Spirit of the living God in this world, is to fall more deeply in love with Jesus.

Like many revelations, it sounds so obvious in retrospect, like something I should have known all along.

Not long after our adoption failed and we lost our daughter, I had lunch with a friend who had been suddenly and unexpectedly widowed the year before.

We talked about grief, about how it felt all-consuming at times. She shared how hard it had been to pray, to listen to worship songs, to open her bible, in the months following her husband’s death. She told me how God had seemed far away, distant.

What she said next stuck with me, though, in a punch-me-in-the-gut kind of way.

She told me that her way back to God was gratitude for the small things. In the wake of devastating loss, she noticed the sunshine on her face, the song of a bird outside her window, the smile of a friend – and she said thank you.

At the time, it struck me as incongruous, impossible, disconnected from the reality of suffering. Laughable, even, to think that gratitude was a path forward through such overwhelming pain. At the time, I had a hard time believing such a thing could be true. I still do.

And yet, in the remarkable, unbelievable, upside-down Kingdom of God, it is.

Dr. Wilder said something similar, in his conversation on The Holy Post. When asked how we might strengthen our attachment to God, he didn’t talk about prayer or singing or quiet times, good as all those things are.

Instead, he talked about gratitude.

Back to sunflowers:

Is it possible that seeing those petals on my counter might inspire conscious thanks to the One who created them, which would draw me closer to Him, and, therefore, result in me having more patience with my kids, more grace for the person who holds different views than I do, more desire for justice and peace in the world around me?

Is it possible? I believe that it is.

I’m not so simple as to claim that buying myself a few stems each week is some grand moral gesture. There is real work to be done in the world, work that won’t be accomplished through kind words or pretty flowers or heartfelt hugs. I’m well-aware that healing the divisions in our nation and in the church and that moving toward a more equitable and just society require efforts at both the individual and systemic level.

But those flowers on my counter are a reminder of beauty, of the God who delights in giving good gifts. And if I use that reminder to cultivate a deliberate, humble posture of gratitude, if I allow that gratitude to fuel my relationship with the Almighty, if I use that relationship as a foundation and an inspiration for the ways I move in the world and interact with others, then perhaps that impulse decision to buy some stems wasn’t so trivial after all.

I’ve reread my post to this point, and I realize I’ve spent a lot of words justifying how those flowers might make me a better person.

I believe what I wrote is true.

And yet, this simple fact is also true: those flowers bring me joy.

And, in a broken world, that, all on its own, is enough.

2 response to "On Sunflowers, Gratitude, and Joy"

  1. By: Jamie Watkins Posted: July 31, 2020

    Thanks Jenn. I need this reminder right now. Its been a rough week and I think I’ve lost sight of all there is to be grateful for.

    • By: Jenn Posted: August 2, 2020

      It can be so hard to hold onto gratitude in the midst of those rough weeks. Hang in there.

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