Hornbill or Nightingale? Cultivating a Grateful Heart
A Painful Jab
As I sat on a ‘frustration’ bench outside the 844 Building, at University of Nairobi, I might as well have looked like the statue of Socrates, pondering the complex riddles of life. The Joint Admissions Board (JAB), now KUCCPS, had sealed my fate. Somebody in the sanctums of that old facility had decided that it was going to be a Bachelor of Anything (BA) for me. Sociology to be precise. By hindsight, I should probably have just obliged, with thanksgiving. But no–that wasn’t going to cut it. For me, it was either Law or bust! Of course I must admit that I had the ambition of a war horse with the horsepower of a less-endowed animal. So JAB gave me a nasty shot of truth: My weighted cluster points lacked gravitas! You now see why I wasn’t about to sing Amenitendea, Immanueli! Catching the drift, my sister Margaret told me with a severe big-sisterly admonishment that I should have been a little more grateful. After all, there were thousands of hustlers who couldn’t make it to Kambi, that is, Campus. Eventually, JAB dragged me to KU screaming and kicking, to train how to analyse syntax and Shakespeare.
Of course, now I know better.
The vocational pathway God led me was critical for the person I have become. Twenty years later, I know that papers alone could never accomplish what God has done in my life.
When I think about it, I realize how easy it is to be a grumpy hornbill that gripes just about anything! Remember the story? Mr. Hornbill Hondohondo was such a public nuisance! He complained about his beak, his tail feathers and more. True to Lady Bird’s warning, one day trouble came to the forest. The Hunter shot down the noisemaker, and took along the nearby Mushroom, Mr. Snail and Bush-rope, all who had refused to tell Hondohondo to shut his yap. It was a sad ending of a community. Lady-Bird’s friends were ferried to the happy Hunter’s dinner table, wrapped in banana leaf. Moral of the story? Even if you are Ndugu Jero and can write an Encyclopedia of life’s troubles, there is still so much to be grateful about. Not least the well-meaning ladybirds and snails of your neighbourhood!
In Exodus 16:2-12, we find a different breed of hornbills. Even before the enzymes were done digesting the sweet dates of Elim, the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, ‘If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death’” (Exo. 16:2-3). And so began their beef with God. When you read Exodus 15-16, there are at least 8 instances where the grumpy ‘G’ word is used (15:24; 16:2, 7, 8, 9 and 12). Later, when their craving for the ‘free’ fish and salads of Egypt drove them bananas, the LORD heard their complaining and showed them thitima! Without waiting to skin them, God roasted some of those hornbills live, and it was named Taberah, lest they forget (Num. 11:1-3ff.). So, next time you go crazy with Tambira Jehovah moves, it might help to remember that the original Taberah was not a worship, but a barbecue experience!
As these dreary, COVID months drag along, believe me, there are enough ‘legitimate’ reasons to grumble against God. Boy, you have no idea how much hondohondo potential you have! Prospective job interviews have been cancelled or frozen indefinitely; studies have been put on hold; painful pay cuts and unpaid leaves have been effected; stress levels and depression have increased in homes; relationships are straining, and the future looks bleak. Without trivializing the severity of our experience, this season is a fertile ground for seeds of bitterness, ingratitude, and abandonment of treasured values. Instead of singing with gratitude like a nightingale, we can become squawking hornbills!
The Hornbill Spirit
Considering Israel’s experience, I see four factors underlying the grumbling, ‘hornbill spirit.’
- Losing sight of the bigger picture of what God is accomplishing in our lives.
- Forgetting or taking for granted what God has already done in our past.
- Idealizing false pleasures of a past life from which God seeks to redeem us.
- Losing trust in the wisdom and goodness of God in our present frustrations.
Despite our current realities, God still challenges us to rise above our natural inclination to complaining, and cultivate a grateful heart that sings like a nightingale: Whether it’s summer days or winter nights. This doesn’t mean being happy-go-lucky clowns, escaping from reality–no. Rather, we are to sing a new song because God is our salvation, our incomparable treasure, and the hope for new beginnings beyond the wilderness of COVID-19 (Hab. 3:17; Psa. 73:25-26; Ps. 96:1).
So how can we cultivate this sweet, nightingale spirit?
The Nightingale Spirit
Firstly, we need to reflect on our life’s journey, see the providential hand of God in the experiences, and count our blessings. While there are bad things we may see, still, God’s been good to us. If we look, we will see it (Psa. 103:1-4). Secondly, let us envision with eyes of faith the future promises of God, and embrace them. The heroes of faith did it (Heb. 11:13-16). Thirdly, we ought to approach every day and moment as a gift of God–even when it comes in ugly packaging. God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our own (Isa. 55:8-9). Lastly, we can establish creative practices of thanksgiving. I have found journaling about God’s work in my life very helpful. Spontaneous acts of generosity, and sharing of testimonies of God’s goodness also have an important place. One other practice is keeping a thanksgiving bucket. Every last Sunday evening of the month, I have made a habit of gathering my family to thank God and deposit “Thank-You-God Notes” in the bucket. Our Thank-You-Notes include all manner of things, not least my daughter’s milestones in toilet training! At the end of the year, we plan to open our “Give Thanks Bucket,” celebrate all God has done for us, and determine who to bless with the cash we’ve been ‘banking’ in the bucket every month!
Whatever it is, begin something creative and fun to cultivate a heart of gratitude. Done consistently, such practices can help us nurture the soul-cleansing grace of thankfulness.
So, will you be a grumpy hornbill or a grateful nightingale?