“Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name”
November in the United States is a month focused on gratitude and thankfulness. The Thanksgiving holiday is a time to be grateful for what we’ve been given. I enjoy this time of year – all the thankful signs, the pumpkins, the food, the family gatherings. Yet to me, this month can also be a reminder of shattered dreams, intense fear, pain – and God’s faithfulness through it all.
Once upon a time, my family and I sold most of our belongings, packed our bags and decided to become missionaries in Madrid, Spain. Our children were two and four at the time. About a year into the new adventure our lives turned upside down. Back pain quickly led to an inability to walk which led to the discovery of a tumor in my spinal column. Doctors urged me to get surgery right away, so we packed our bags and flew back to Boston and had emergency surgery a few days later. The tumor caused irreversible damage to my spinal cord and central nervous system. A few days after twelve hours of surgery, I learned that I was paralyzed from the waist down on the right side of my body. I spent the next month in the hospital as I started my rehab, and the next six or so months living with friends, while I continued to relearn to walk. It took about four or five months for us to realize that we were not able to move back to our apartment and church family in Spain. Our lives were turned upside down and our dreams were shattered. Each day was filled with intense pain, sadness, and questions about our future. Yet through our grief and pain, each day was surprisingly also filled with something else – joy and gratitude.
This experience has shaped who I am today. It has taught me the power that gratitude has over my heart simply by choosing joy and thankfulness!
Sad and thankful at the same time
During that time in my life, my daily times with God took on a whole new shape and meaning. Due to intense physical pain, my attention span was much shorter, and my memory was affected as well. Yet I wanted my heart and mind to be filled with God’s promises. I knew that was the only way not to give up hope and not to lose heart during this desperate time of suffering. When I opened my Bible, I found myself reading in the books of Psalms or Philippians most days. I learned something very valuable that I continue to hold onto through my journey with chronic pain. I learned that I can be sad and thankful at the same time. Life can be difficult and yet my circumstances do not need to define me. Challenging times do not need to negatively affect my joy and gratitude. While happiness is based on circumstances, joy and gratitude come from knowing Jesus. I was learning and continue to learn the power of gratitude in my relationship with God and closeness with Jesus.
In Philippians 3:1 it reads, “Whatever happens, my dear brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. I never get tired of telling you these things, and I do it to safeguard your faith.”
The repetition of the word “rejoice” in the book of Philippians gets my attention. Paul was imprisoned for his faith as he writes this book. How was he able to talk about rejoicing and thanksgiving? He knew where his joy came from – his love for God and gratitude for knowing Jesus. Paul goes so far as to say that joy and gratitude will protect our hearts and our faith in God. When I took time to meditate on this Scripture, I realized gratitude protects me from bitterness, isolation, and cynicism. Gratitude has allowed me to not miss the blessings but instead to rejoice in them!
Mindfully treasuring little moments
Gratitude has taught me to enjoy the once simple things that I no longer took for granted: taking a single step, standing in the shower, and playing in the yard with my kids. Gratitude continues to teach me to slow down enough to remember why I do what I do and to enjoy this life I am living. A moment to pet my dog, enjoy a sip of my coffee, a smile from a friend, are all little moments I can miss when I don’t slow down long enough to appreciate them. When I stop long enough to take in those moments something inside me changes. My heart awakens and my soul feels more alive. I feel thankful! Not because my life has necessarily turned out the way I always thought it would, but I am able to appreciate what God has given me and not take this life I get to live for granted.
For gratitude to have great power in our lives, we must choose to see life this way. Thankfulness is a perspective shift from focusing on what is going wrong in our lives, to the blessings God continues to provide. Life is a journey full of many ups and downs. I pray that this holiday season, we can choose joy over bitterness and thankfulness over defeat, to experience the power of gratitude.
About the author
Maria is originally from New Jersey and has been a disciple for over 22 years. She has a master’s in social work as well as her clinical license. She worked as a foster care social worker for several years before going into the full-time ministry.
Maria and her husband Cash have been married for over 14 years and have two kids, Isabella who is 13 and Hunter who is 11. She has served in ministry for the last 16 years in Baltimore, Maryland; Madrid, Spain; and Boston, Massachusetts, where she currently serves as a Women’s Ministry Leader in the South Coastal Region.
Her life took a radical turn while living in Spain when she was diagnosed with a spinal tumor that left her unable to walk and in tremendous pain. After a quick flight home and two surgeries, she was partially paralyzed and her journey to relearn to walk began. She still deals with chronic pain and fatigue, but she is passionate about women’s ministry and inspiring others to persevere through life’s trials. Maria is grateful for opportunities to share her story and help women grow in their trust in God. For more on this, you can check out her podcast “Painfully Faithful” found on Spotify, Apple, YouTube or another platform you choose to listen to podcasts!