Summary: A reflection on the appropriateness of thanksgiving and glorifying God, even in the midst of intense personal suffering. Contrasted with the First World expectation of self-actualization.
“But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? 6:31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, —What shall we eat?’ or —What shall we drink?’ or —What shall we wear?’”
Today is a day about gratitude, about being deliberate in order to give thanks for all that God has done for us. It is maybe something that should form a part of our daily bread, as one of the callings of the Christian is to be thankful for God’s grace. So let’s talk about this calling of those who follow Christ, and what it means to be thankful and to experience gratitude, and why it is so important that we live in that mode always. This is one of the things that can allow some handle on the age of anxiety that we live within today…as anxiety is really the defining characteristic of our era. I’m not suggesting a magic technique that will free you from anxiety, or that the right attitude will solve serious challenges with anxiety – that’s not it at all. What I am speaking of is what the Gospels tell us about contentedness, and how that forms a challenge to our culture’s fixation with happiness at all costs. There is also a question of suffering tied up in the question of thanksgiving, as in how can we give thanks in a world full of suffering. Our reading from Genesis speaks of the cradle of humanity bounded by the four great rivers: Euphrates, Tigris. This is the area current under the torment of ISIL, so there is a certain tension present. Also, if I may quote Gandalf, there are those who died who should have lived, and those who lived who should have died. The world is not a fair place. How then to we give thanks when we’re walking with suffering?
I’ll start by telling you a story about my friend who was a Manitoba farmer, one of those “salt of the earth” types of guys who is the image of the men and women that build, and continue to build this country. I met him as the husband of one of my seminary classmates. He came from mixed farming, understood in a way that this contact with the land teaches you, the cycles of life and death and our ultimate powerlessness to effect change in those circumstances. Not long after we developed a friendship, my friend was diagnosed with cancer. It was cancer that would ultimately result in his death a couple of years later.
I visited him in the hospital a number of times, including once in the ICU right after his second or third surgery. I anointed him each time, and prayed over him, including a prayer I almost always include in healing prayer – thy will be done. Ultimately, much of what we seek to have control over is far beyond our control, and only in the hands of the Lord. So while we pray for healing, we know too well that healing might be something entirely unexpected from what we had in mind.
As a personal aside, this is very true in my own struggle with chronic pain arising out of a back injury with my military service. Many have prayed for healing, and there has been a ton of healing, but the pain remains. I’m thankful for all that the pain has taught me, and how it requires that I slow down to be more deliberate about life…to focus on the things it allows me to see, that I wouldn’t in a rush…and to understand what other people experience in their suffering. My chronic pain has been kind of a post-graduate degree in suffering, and it makes me a better person. Am I happy for the pain? Not at all, but I am grateful that God has entrusted me with such a burden. Even after 16 years of pain, I’m thankful and content.
Now my friend was an amazing believer, who spoke openly about his faith both in and out of season. After one of his earlier hospital stays, we had them over for dinner, and he explained to me how grateful he was for hospital stays, and particularly hospital stays where he was in a semi-private or ward room. I was a little surprised and asked him why. He told me that his prayer each time he entered hospital was that God would place in his path people that he needed to speak with, to witness to them about God. Sure enough, each hospital stay that he had, even when he was very ill, he would come back with stories of amazing discusses with other patients and with staff about faith. My friend, even in the midst of his terminal condition, was always thankful for those opportunities. Wow.