November 2008

When is Thanksgiving?

“Give thanks in all circumstances.” Paul is believed to be the author of these words in the letter we call I Thessalonians. What was he thinking?! In all circumstances…? But what about the tanking economy? What about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? What about the growing number of foreclosures on mortgages, the layoffs, the disappearance of job opportunities? Are we really supposed to give thanks in ALL circumstances? What is he, crazy?

Maybe he is. Maybe Paul is a little nuts, too many imprisonments, too many beatings; maybe he sustained a head injury! But maybe not. For Paul, gratitude was an attitude of faith; perhaps the most central attitude of faith. We find this theme of thanksgiving scattered throughout the literature attributed to him. “Give thanks in ALL circumstances,” we read in I Thessalonians 5:18, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Or “Do not worry about anything, but in EVERYTHING, by prayer and supplication, with THANKSGIVING, let your requests be known to God” (Philippians 4:6). On the negative side, Paul attributes the heart of darkness, the heart of sin, to a failure to acknowledge and “give thanks to God” (Romans 1:21).

Virtually every letter in the New Testament begins, or includes early on in the text, words of thanksgiving. We must not take these words lightly or dismissively. They are not written in moments of ease or luxury. They are shared in contexts of trial and tribulation. This is most pointedly seen in the letter to the Philippians, a letter suffused with joy. Take a pen or a highlighter and go through the letter marking every time the word joy and rejoice, and related words and sentiments, appear in these four brief chapters. It is an electric current that runs throughout, and all the more astonishing when we remember his “circumstances.”

Paul is writing to the Philippians from prison. It is not certain when or from where Paul is writing, perhaps the first of his two imprisonments in Rome. The point is that he is in difficult circumstances. Yet he writes to the Philippians with a heart that is full of joy and gratitude. As they read his words, they may well remember when he had first come to them. He had ended up in prison there in Philippi also. He had been flogged and put in stocks in the innermost cell of the Roman prison. Yet he was praying and singing hymns at midnight when an earthquake set him free. Paul was someone who practiced what he preached! His spirit has an infectious quality to it; it is catching!

I want to catch it! I want to have a heart that is grateful for all that is good in my life. I want to be able to see the glass as more full than empty, no matter what the water level. I want to have a faith like Paul’s that sees the grace of God present and working in our world and in my circumstances at all times. I must say that it is only occasionally that I am in such a state of mind and heart. I pray I may grow in my gratitude for God in my life and all my blessings. Thanksgiving, the holiday, invites me to remember that I want to be more grateful, and it gives me opportunity to practice what I seek.

High on my list of blessings, for which I am deeply thankful, is this congregation. You have blessed me with your welcoming trust for my ministry, your warm embrace for my family, your dedicated service to our community, and your genuine journey of faith. As Paul gave thanks to God for the community of faith at Philippi, so I give thanks to God for the community of faith at United Church of Spring Valley. “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” (Philippians 1:3).