We are staying in a swiss-style chalet in Estes Park this week. If I set out walking, I could get lost in thousands of acres of pine forest, maybe get up close and personal with some elk. But I’m sitting by the fire, drawn like a moth. I remember sitting by a fire at about age 8, reading Pippi Longstocking and howling with laughter. I remember making breakfast over a Girl Scout campfire (burnt on the outside, doughy on the inside) circa 1987. There have been marshmallows with some of my favorite people, chardonnay with the Furman girls, many a soggy, smoky, drizzly event with kids in tow, and several memorable choruses of “Pass it On” from the teen years. I don’t know why the lighting of a match can change a mundane evening into a lifetime memory, but it can. It’s a little thing, but beautiful.
The other day as I was driving, a phrase popped into my mind: “The skill of small praises builds.” Small praises. Hmmm. Why is it hard to be thankful for small mercies, small graces, little things? Because they are everywhere and always lavished on us, piled up like the fall leaves composting in our yard. But to sing out praise for candlelight or cardinal or cantaloupe is to have always some new reason to sing, to never run out of praise. And so, like a hundred freckles that finally meld into one nice tan, a hundred little praises become one big hallelujah.
Annie Dillard tells a story of a rabbi seated to hear Scripture read. I may bungle the details here, but the gist is this: the reader began, “Thus saith the Lord,” and the little rabbi, ecstatic, leapt up to holler, “The Lord spoke! The Lord spoke!” until they had to carry him out. I love that story. What a gift, to see the gift! Wouldn’t really matter what He said, now would it, if God showed up and spoke? But we forget.
Small praises teach us, like repetitions of small exercises build strength. Small praises tune our hearts to praise. And hearts prone to wander need tuning. Here we are, plunked down in lives so tangled it’s like cosmic silly string has been sprayed all over us: bills and hospitals and petty crimes and mean words, all of it hindering us, dragging us back. But if we are to “throw aside everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles and run with perseverance the race marked out for us,” somehow we have to cut loose the ugly. Somehow we have to see the gifts piled up, layer upon layer, all around us.
My son, reading a Percy Jackson book, giggles where he sits by the fire. It’s a small thing. And it’s huge.