Camera lens helps bring gifts into focus

For a while now, my life has felt like this — like a toddler got into my carefully crafted bouquet.

My plans just haven’t been working out the way I imagined them, and when I do get things the way I want them… well, someone else seems to redecorate. It’s not that things are bad, just different than I pictured. And I have a tendency to hold on to my mental picture until it crinkles under the pressure of my grip. I forget to open my hands to the gift of something else. I forget to be thankful.

But what helps me, ironically, is taking pictures with my camera. When I’m  looking through the camera’s lens, I’m purposefully seeking beauty. I’m trying to capture poetry before it slips away. I’m documenting the everyday moments, savoring them now and saving them for later. If I look through my camera lens often enough, it changes how I see.

I notice the light making Colt’s curls glow.

The tiny flowers at the base of the grape vine.

The bright red against the cool blue of the strainer.

And, on really good days, I can watch the broken flowers from the bouquet become something else beautiful.


Trying out a new — thankful — bedtime routine

We aren’t the most structured family. I blame it on the number of kids. I blame it on my creative genes. I’ve even been known to blame it on my husband, poor guy.

But we’re trying something new. A few times a week, we’re gathering as a family to read before bedtime. We light the candles on the mantle and we bring our pillows into the living room.

Jessie, our 13-year-old, fills out a journal page and can then doodle as we read. (We found these amazing, free journal printables here:

Then, 4-year-old Benjamin is responsible for bring out the wooden cigar box that holds our notebooks. The rule is that we start by opening up our own notebook and writing something good about ourselves. Then, we pass our notebooks around so that others can write what they like about us.

The first night I took dictation for Benjamin, who whispered to me that he thought Jessie and 19-month-old Colt were his best friends.

“Did I tell Jessie that he was a big chunk of help?” Benjamin asked as I tucked him in to bed. When I told him no, Benjamin said he was pretty sure that’s what he would write the next night.

We’ve missed nights here and there, but I’m trying to not get too hung up on that. We just want to focus on some of the great gifts God has given us — each other.

P.S. I borrowed much of this idea from author (and all-around-gracious-person) Ann Voskamp. You can read how her family uses journaling as a spiritual discipline here:

P.P.S. Within 30 minutes of writing this, all three boys got in trouble. Perhaps I’ll wait 20 years or so before writing about parenting again.

Grace and gratitude: Counting ‘One Thousand Gifts’

Photo courtesy of Ann Voskamp

The beauty of purple hyacinths in the snow.

The smell of a granddaughter’s hair after her bath.

All tiny blessings scratched in Lida Merrill’s gratitude journal so she can cradle the moments just a little longer and thank the one whom she believes created it all.

Water droplets off a shale wall.

The stillness of a lake as the morning mist rises and the loons call.

Gifts that once would have been missed are now counted and celebrated in preparation for their Easter observance and in the hope of a life well lived — a life renewed by gratitude and joy.

“The practice of journaling keeps me focused on who I am grateful to and who is the source of what I am grateful for — God,” says Merrill, who along with dozens of other people in the Rochester area, recently read One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.

Voskamp’s story of writing down 1,000 things she was grateful for has earned her a spot onThe New York Times bestsellers list for more than eight months and has inspired countless others to take note of their own gifts and to trust the giver.

In the book, Voskamp references the Greek word eucharisteo, which is the word used to describe what Jesus does when he breaks bread at the Last Supper before his death on a cross. The word means “thanksgiving.”

“But guess what root words are embedded in that word, eucharisteo? Charis — and charis means ‘grace.’ Jesus took the bread and saw it as grace and gave thanks,” Voskamp said in an interview. “And the other word embedded in eucharisteo, is the word chara, meaning ‘joy.’ See it? The triplet, that three-braid cord? Charis. Grace. Eucharisteo. Thanksgiving. Chara. Joy.”

Easter is about joy, about fresh hope and new beginnings, she says. And it all begins with being grateful.

“This tremendous response to the gift of Easter, what can it be but thanksgiving?”

In all things, give thanks

For years, Merrill took note of the kind things that other people did. She filled notebook after notebook in her Rochester home with thanks for the neighbor who shoveled the driveway and the daughter who folded the laundry without being asked. But now, since reading the book, that is changing, said Merrill, assistant pastor at Zion United Methodist Church in West Walworth and director of spiritual life at Heritage Christian Services.

“Now I am noticing what God does in my life; I am noticing the beauty he gives to me.”

It’s a refrain heard time and time again at local book discussion groups where strangers became quick friends as they dug into Voskamp’s poetic writing and questions, her struggles with anxiety and the death of her younger sister.

Laura Bates of Penfield, has been making it a point to write at least three things a day she is thankful for – most often on the “One Thousand Gifts” free app that she uses on her phone.

“I have multiple myeloma (treatable but not curable cancer) and I am finding ways to be thankful for the good this has brought into my life,” said Bates, who attended a book group led by Merrill. She’s thankful for “my closer relationship with God, my appreciation for my family and friends, the fact that I was diagnosed early and the wonderful advances in treatment for this disease over the last several years. Seeing the good in everything also releases you from anger and bitterness.”

For some, the book discussion group became a gift as well.

“People felt safe to share their stories,” said Joan Weetman of Brighton. “Discussions launched by literature can be very rich and personal.”

“My life will be different,” said Char Ipacs of Irondequoit. “I met some wonderful women…  I count each one of these women as one of my 1,000 gifts.”

And while Ipacs expected to learn about gratitude, she was surprised to find how much the book dealt with joy. But the two are inseparable, Voskamp said.

“This book – this really is a dare to fully live – to find joy, right where you are. Because the thing is too often we think joy is ‘out there’ around some elusive next corner. But remember eucharisteo, that Biblical Greek word for thanksgiving? Joy is embedded right in that word. Joy is a function of thanks,” Voskamp said. “If thanks is possible then joy is always possible.”

Thanks in hard times

But giving thanks isn’t always easy, said Benjamin Lipscomb, associate professor of philosophy at Houghton College.

“To be grateful is to acknowledge myself indebted,” he said. “And that is to acknowledge that I’m not self-sufficient, that I’m a receiver and not only a giver.”

Aristotle says that great people, in particular, love to be reminded of favors they’ve given but hate to be reminded of favors they’ve received, Lipscomb said.  Being givers can make us feel strong and superior.  Being receivers, or admitting that we are receivers, destroys illusions of self-sufficiency.

“We’re taught in the Lord’s Prayer to ask even for our food — presumably even if we have a pretty good idea where it’s coming from, and that there will be enough,” he said. “To ask is to put ourselves in the position of receivers, and to prepare to receive in gratitude. Of course, it’s harder to receive things in gratitude that we anticipate.  And harder still to receive things in gratitude that we see as rightfully ours.”

But Jennifer Hopper of Brighton will try, thanks in part to a passage in “One Thousand Gifts” where Voskamp describes keeping hands open to receiving God’s grace.

In all of the book’s pages, “The idea of a closed hand pointing to self and shutting out God is what I will remember most,” Hopper said.

And that hand must remain open, even in the toughest of times, said Merrill.

“Just within the past few weeks of Lent there have been fires, murders of innocents, run away children and drunk driving accidents,” she said. “In the midst of these overwhelming tragedies God is present.”

While God doesn’t orchestrate these events, he is present even when people make decisions that hurt each other, Merrill said. So, she can be grateful that he brings comfort, peace and wisdom, grateful that she can pray for grieving families and know that God is there with them in their suffering.

“I cannot change what I see, but I can change the way I see it,” she said.

That’s how gratitude worked in Voskamp’s heart, too.

“Counting gifts powerfully resurrected me, rose me to the possibility of beauty in places I wasn’t even looking. Awakened me to grace and loveliness in places and moments I was just speeding through, in this relentless hurry,” she said. “Counting gifts slowed me down and resurrected me to really, fully living – attentive and mindful to all the ways God loves me. It was like a budding, an unfurling.

“And once you’ve experienced fully living? You never want to go back.”


Make room for God’s gifts

Some books beg to be discussed — and that’s the case with One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. Right now all of Rochester has been invited to read the book and local discussion groups are under way. But if you can’t make it to one of the groups, or if you live out of town, consider downloading the free study guide that’s offered by the publisher. You can find it here:

In the meantime, enjoy what the leader of my book group shared this morning:

For years she has kept a gratitude journal. When she recently flipped through those pages she noticed that she wrote down when her kids picked up their toys without being asked or when someone said a kind word, but she didn’t take as much notice of the gifts that seem to come directly from God. Now that she has read One Thousand Gifts, that’s all changing…

What are you learning?