Being thankful

Psalm 103

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

There was a Rabbi who once remarked that every morning people should get on their knees and thank God that they’re still on their two feet.

Today we’re saying thank you, thank you to everyone in the church and thank you to God.  Our psalm is an outpouring of thanksgiving and praise to God, and Paul challenged us to ‘give thanks in all circumstances’!

Of course, this may be wisdom you have already taken on board, or you might have long ago decided that it’s a redundant piece of naïve piety unsuited to a world in which justice needs to be striven for and in which there is much to complain about.

I think being thankful is actually an integral part of what it means to be human, and also a fundamental way of knowing God.  When bad things happen to us, or when we see bad things happening in our world, it can be very easy to find ourselves saying thank you to God despite the crap that we feel or see, perhaps feeling hypocritical if we manage to say thank you through gritted teeth. 

Yet, there are other ways of looking at things.  I once visited someone in hospital who was very ill, riddled with cancer, who quite genuinely said, I could be a lot worse, there are plenty of people here who are far worse off than me.  And he actually meant it.  And he wasn’t a church goer, either.

Perhaps saying thank you is not for gritted teeth after all, but a way into seeing in all things the givenness and graciousness of life.  Not for a moment do I even suggest that God causes bad things for a reason, but somehow God’s Plan B (theologians call this ‘redemption’) brings out of someone’s tribulation far more good than if the tribulation had not occurred.  This, I think, is how we can give thanks in all circumstances. 

Over the years I’ve learned that you can’t take people’s responses to hardship for granted.  Tough times can make you bitter and twisted, or they can refine your humanity into pure gold.  We’re all work in progress, but we get to choose whether we will repay evil for evil or whether we will live lives of forgiveness and gratitude.

Perhaps we shouldn’t speak so much of ‘being human’ as ‘becoming human’, that how we respond to situations and circumstances form part of a journey, a journey of becoming more who we are called to be.  Cicero commented that ‘a thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues.’

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the leaders of the Confessing Church in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, reflected, ‘In ordinary life, we can hardly realise that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.’  In a Nazi prison cell on New Year’s Day 1945, he wrote a poem which looked with faith towards an uncertain future, a future which, in the event, was to end with a hangman’s noose a few months later.  In Fred Pratt Green’s hymn translation of that poem we read, or sing:

And when the cup you give is filled to brimming

with bitter suffering, hard to understand,

we take it gladly, trusting though with trembling,

out of so good and so beloved a hand.

I think that part of being a Christian is living with a built-in connection between living thankfully and trying to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, because lives of thankfulness blossom into lives of generosity.  And so, I think that becoming thankful and generous human beings is also a way of coming to know something of the true nature of God: the generous, creative, life-giving, gratuitously gracious God who’s made known to us in Jesus Christ.  If you like, the more we acknowledge the generous love of God in heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving, the greater becomes our capacity to be trusting and generous.

A concert pianist still needs to practice scales, and likewise so our repeated discipline of offering prayers of thanksgiving is what gives us strength for living generous lives, celebrating the goodness of God.  The prayers of thanksgiving in worship can become a kind of rehearsal in which we practise how to live.

Today we gather at our Lord’s Table, and we’ll remember that night in the upper room, the night before Jesus was crucified.  Jesus not only took bread and wine and indicated to his disciples that these elements in some way were his body and blood, soon to be broken and shed, but then, with their meaning linking to his impending suffering and death, he took the bread and the wine and gave thanks for them.  Not only that, but he said ‘Do this in memory of me’ and each time a group of his followers take bread and wine in this way we’re opening ourselves to being shaped and formed into Christ’s likeness, a likeness of sacrificial love and thanksgiving.

Hence, giving thanks in all circumstances can become part of what it means for us to learn and grow as Christians, a step towards entering into some awareness of the nature of God.  If we can experience and celebrate life as a gift, that can lead us in a small step to seeking the Giver of life.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there are different ways of knowing.  There’s the knowledge that comes from books and the knowledge that comes from experiment – in laboratory and life.  There’s the knowledge that comes from meeting people and listening to their stories, weeping and laughing with them.  There’s the knowledge that comes with loving and being loved…and then there is the knowledge which comes from knowing that you don’t know and that you can’t know, or rather that you can only know in certain ways.

Approaching life with thankfulness can lead us to a way of knowing something more of who God is and what God is like.  Thankfulness recognises generosity, and engenders trust.  It recognises faithfulness and leads to a way of knowing which is from the heart, that is the whole person.  This isn’t naïve piety, or even hypocritical politeness.  Rather, it’s a different way of knowing God, a practical way of knowing in the same way as knowing that someone who is loved knows.

In the climax to his Divine Comedy, Dante realises that he can never understand the how of Jesus Christ revealing both divinity and humanity, but he somehow grasps intuitively that his soul can be aligned with God’s love. He writes,

But already my desire and my will were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed, by the Love which moves the sun and the stars.

Today the church attempts to say to thank you to everyone for all the different parts that you play in its life, and we can say thank you to God, through our prayers at his table, and through our Gift Day.

I think that being thankful means grasping of the generosity and faithfulness of God, and our being shaped into a full humanity measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ.

Bless the Lord O my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and forget none of his benefits…

Bless the Lord, all his works,

in all paces of his dominion.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.

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