The Ugly Sweater

When what you’ve asked for doesn’t arrive as expected

It used to be that the morning after Thanksgiving, families across the country would get dressed up and go downtown to look at the store decorations. In the windows along the streets, works of art, mechanical and sometimes with real people or animals, the displays would draw thousands inside the store. There, the consumer would be wowed with an even bigger surprise. The purpose was for the store owners to express their gratitude for the support for the previous eleven months. Feeling appreciate, the consumers made even more purchases, the act an expression and receipt of gratitude.

This reciprocity between retailer and consumer was so successful, that the Friday after Thanksgiving became known as black Friday, because retail stores operated for eleven months of the year at a loss, or being “in the red,” then on one day, the store finally made a profit, or went into the black.

Sadly, this tradition of showing thanks has lessened, gratitude replaced with expectation, the expression and receipt of gratitude gone.

Theologian Thomas S. Monson said that “feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”

Ugly sweaters and gratitude

At times, it’s hard to feel gratitude if what we have sought through sincere prayer doesn’t match what the Lord has delivered. It’s like asking for a sweater you expect to be soft, beautiful and well-made. When the big day comes, the wrapping is wrinkled, the bow not tied properly, and within, is a sweater, yes, but it’s doesn’t fit, the material is coarse and doesn’t fit quiet right. It’s an ugly sweater.

Looking back on my life, I’ve had plenty of gifts I’ve hated, real or figurative, but it wasn’t until the last ten years or so that I started to look beyond the delivery method and my disappointment to focus on the positive aspects of what I’d received. Roger, my husband of nearly 21 years, has often coached me (scolded? demanded?) to be grateful for the gift, regardless of whether or not we like it. Easy in principle, harder in application.

In a recent example of this, I’ll refer to my family. Over the years, our strong personalities and life decisions were like a lake gone dry. Without the replenishment of understand, the land grew cracked, then scorched, many spots barren. My parents prayed for reconciliation, certainly without asking or expecting additional heartache for each child, but that’s what occurred. Within six months, challenging issues with a teenage or adult children arose of a severe nature. The package of the sweater was awful and the garment inside horrid.

But then the miracles occurred. Previously unresolvable issues with siblings and in-laws were set aside, pride and ego associate submerged as the parents came together and held a fast for these precious children. We were united in heartache and strengthened in faith, ultimately incredibly grateful for the hard circumstances that finally brought us together in the spirit of Christ. The Lord, in His wisdom, knew that these challenges brought us together when nothing else could.

We all learned that an ugly sweater can still keep you warm.

Over the years, I’ve found three principles are consistently associated with gratitude. The are trusting in the Lord, keeping perspective and practicing remembrance of our blessings.

Trust in the Lord

Dieter H Uchtorff said that: “True gratitude comes from acknowledging that we do not always understand the trials of life, but trusting that one day we will.”

Trust was required when not long after I was married, my husband decided he didn’t want children. He enjoyed the financial freedom we had, and didn’t want to be tethered to the home for any reason, including a pet. Years passed, and when I was thirty-two, I’d passed through periods of anger, hopeless, apathy, and then resignation. I loved him, and not having children wasn’t going to change that. One night, while I was praying, I recall turning it over to the Lord, asking him to fill the void I was feeling. I distinctly thought the words: “Thy will be done,” hoping to find contentment in my situation.

The nights were warm, and our home was without air conditioning. Rog was awake and working but I was tired and went to the basement where it was cooler, falling asleep quickly. I woke up to a figure at the end of my bed. Assuming it was Rog, I mumbled something, turned over and went back to sleep. Sometime later, I woke again, and this time, the person was very close, leaning over me, wearing all black. I sat straight up, tried to scream but was voiceless with fear. By the time I could yell, he was out the door. When the police sat with us, they said intruders hate lights and dogs. The very next day, we got a dog, my husband’s prior proclamation about no pets in the house long forgotten.

“Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things,” is a phrase often repeated.

All things means just that: good things, difficult things—not just some things.

While I was unspeakably grateful for my safety (and to finally get a dog), it took me a while to see that this event was the first step in many the Lord had to orchestrate in our lives. The second step was more gradual in nature, but far more devastating. At the time, I owned a business with a dozen employees that had been thriving for a decade. For some inexplicable reason, our projects were drying up, some naturally concluding while new ones were stalled or cancelled. Having never been through an economic down cycle, I didn’t realize we were on the leading edge of the 07/08 recession. My stress level rose as one employee after another was recruited by clients who could offer more long-term stability. One day, Rog looked at me with a bit of pity.

“You are trying to put out the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he began. Seeing I wasn’t getting the reference, he continued. “You’re the religious one, not me,” he pointed out. “But I don’t think God wants you to be in business anymore.” Rog then joked something to the effect of: “We haven’t killed the dog, and have to be home with her anyway, so maybe you should go to the doctor to get checked out.”

Could it possibly be that through the ugly sweater of first, the intruder and then the business winding down were to result in what I’d been wanting for…praying for seven years would happen? No, the sweater wasn’t pretty, but it certainly was warm.

Keep perspective

A Christian philosopher said: “The Lord’s hand in our lives is often clearest in hindsight.”

Within the year of Rog telling me to “get checked out,” I was in high risk pregnancy. Yet I still tried to conduct business with a few remaining clients I could handle myself. One day, the doctor told me I was “A zebra in the Serengeti, being chased by lions.” He said I was pushing my body to the limits, even by working from home. He warned that if I did not stop all activity, save going to the restroom, I would lose the baby.

Now, for those of you who know me, I’m not really the type to sit still, let alone lay bone straight, in bed, for months. Yet, in hindsight, the Lord knew I needed to have a long period of time alone and without distraction as a transitionary period to prepare me for the life-altering situation of motherhood, and to be grateful for the gift of staying at home.

Dieter Uchtdorf  said that: “Being grateful in times of distress does not mean that we are pleased with our circumstances. It does mean that through the eyes of faith we look beyond our present-day challenges.”

The rule of Threes

This was highlighted when I was nine months pregnant, and was finally allowed to drive. It was a clear, blue and happy day in Seattle, which is a rare and wonderful occasion. Although the recession was in full-swing, I felt all the gratitude that eight years of praying to have a child and receiving an answer could bring. In other words, I was now wearing the warm sweater, but was I wearing it with pride? No, not yet. In fact, I was going to get another ugly top.

Cruising along that sunny day, I received a call on my cell phone, and the first words my husband said to me was that he was out of a job.

At that moment, I purposefully lifted my foot from the gas pedal. It was not possible. The company he founded was profitable, employed many employees and growing. The board however, decided they wanted an older, more experienced person to take it to the next phase in its life. Rog was devastated and I was worried sick.

In an April 2014 talk on gratitude, Uchtorff counseled us “To be thankful in our circumstances…not to keep score by counting the number of things to be grateful FOR.” He was talking about the overall spirit of gratitude.

Practice remembrance

In an October 2007 talk, Henry B. Eyring said the key to gratitude is remembrance and specifically, the hand of God in our lives. He related a time in his life when he was discouraged. An associate counseled him to write a recall and write few lines for those things he was grateful for—every day. Eyring said he  specifically asked himself: “Have I seen the hand of God reaching out to touch us or our children or our family today?”

If we do this, “Gratitude will grow in your heart as it did in mine,” Erying promised.

In that moment of driving on the freeway, knowing neither of us had a source of income, telling myself to breath, I remembered the hard experiences that had brought us to that point, for what I counted must have been the fiftieth time.

The break-in of my home had led to a dog. My company had effectively shut down, but I became pregnant. Bad had been followed by good; what had occurred was orchestrated in the Lords way and in his timing. I had to purposefully set aside temporary fear, the journey, have gratitude for all we had and importantly, continue the faith. As Eyring has promised, remembrance of the blessings truly grew the gratitude grew in my heart.

Within a few months, Rog started a new business, allowing our family to grow and prosper. He also had a newfound empathy and compassion for others; that very hard trial evolved him from a good man to a great one.

Still waiting for the pretty sweater, and I got what…another ugly one that doesn’t fit!

If you’ve been following my summer journeys, you know I landed in the ER in Verona, Italy, tumors were discovered, an infection controlled and lots of pain was to be endured. Upon my return, I’ve spent the days seeing different specialists; the tumors have grown, I have a different (and yuckier) issue, the hysterectomy and tumors removed but the “yuckier” issue will be with me perhaps permanently for-the-rest-of-my-life. Really?? At times like this, denial is a good thing, but it’s temporary. As my 13-year-old daughter pointed out: “We were praying for change. Don’t you think this is the Lord’s way of answering our prayers?”

“Yes,” I replied, “I do.”

That’s where the faith and trust comes in to play. These two items create the cement of faith that dries, and I rely upon it every day as I put one foot in front of the other, trusting in the Lords plan . It’s what I lie upon when the tears come because I must decline being active with my family due to pain. Downtimes come, I acknowledge the emotions, take a break, then get right back up and get going. Time, health and money are not entitlements; they are a privilege. That too, is another mantra.

I am grateful for my challenges and wouldn’t take them back, because each one has led me and my family to a better place. And in truth, if the only way I can better understand the gospel of Jesus Christ and become more like Him is to get knocked around mentally, physically or financially, then this will likely continue.

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Feature image: the Italian Alps, which seems appropriate when talkin about the cliffs of life; you are either staring up, scaling them or falling off.