Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today, it's the final clause of a long sentence from Paul that catches my eye.
[give] thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
That seems to me a bit much to ask. Yes, I know that gratitude is the appropriate state of mind when confronted with the power, magnitude, and glory of God's love, God's mercy, God's grace for me and for each and every human being on the planet. Yes, I have heard and prepared what sometime seems like way too many sermons on the topic of thankfulness and gratitude—at Thanksgiving Day, for example.
But, "gratitude at all times and for everything?" Let's be reasonable!
I can certainly understand turning often to gratitude. The love and care of a good parent, the help of a fine mentor, the lessons of an effective teacher, the grace of God—these all come repeatedly to mind in the course of one's life as flashes of gratitude.
Paul Harvey tells a story of this kind of life pattern:
It is gratitude that prompted an old man to visit an old broken pier on the eastern seacoast of Florida. Every Friday night, until his death in 1973, he would return, walking slowly and slightly stooped with a large bucket of shrimp. The sea gulls would flock to this old man, and he would feed them from his bucket.
Many years before, in October, 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was on a mission in a B-17 to deliver an important message to General Douglas MacArthur in New Guinea. But there was an unexpected detour that would hurl Captain Eddie into the most harrowing adventure of his life. Somewhere over the South Pacific, the Flying Fortress became lost beyond the reach of radio. Fuel ran dangerously low, so the men ditched their plane in the ocean...For nearly a month Captain Eddie and his companions would fight the water, and the weather, and the scorching sun. They spent many sleepless nights recoiling as sharks rammed their rafts. The largest raft was nine by five. The biggest shark...ten feet long.
But of all their enemies at sea, one proved most formidable: starvation. Eight days out, their rations were long gone or destroyed by the salt water. It would take a miracle to sustain them. And a miracle occurred. In Captain Eddie's own words, "Cherry," that was the B 17 pilot, Captain William Cherry, "read the service that afternoon, and we finished with a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise. There was some talk, but it tapered off in the oppressive heat. With my hat pulled down over my eyes to keep out some of the glare, I dozed off."
Rickenbacker continues: "Something landed on my head. I knew that it was a sea gull. I don't know how I knew, I just knew. Everyone else knew too. No one said a word, but peering out from under my hat brim without moving my head, I could see the expression on their faces. They were staring at that gull.
"The gull meant food...if I could catch it." And the rest, as they say, is history. Captain Eddie caught the gull. Its flesh was eaten. Its intestines were used for bait to catch fish. The survivors were sustained and their hopes renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically hundreds of miles from land, offered itself as a sacrifice. They did, of course, make it.
And he never forgot. Because every Friday evening about sunset on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast, you could see an old man walking-white-haired, bushy-eyebrowed, slightly bent. His bucket filled with shrimp was to feed the gulls to remember that one which, on a day long past, gave itself without a struggle—like manna in the wilderness. (Paul Harvey's The Rest of the Story "The Old Man and the Gulls" 1977, adapted)
This is a fair example of regular, faithful, ritual giving of thanks for a deliverance. Captain Eddie's sacrifices of appreciation are much like the time we spend in worship, returning thanks and praise each week to our God for a multitude of blessings and deliverance. Indeed, Paul speaks to this in chapter five of Ephesians: "be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts." His subject is gratitude before he mentions the word.
But being grateful always—"at all times," and "for everything?" Surely that's beyond human capacity. It's easy to give thanks for a new job; it's not so easy to be grateful when faced with being fired. It's easy to be grateful for life when the beating of our heart is strong and steady. It's not so simple when the heart-attack strikes and we face the need for surgery.
And still, we're confronted, judged, and called by these powerful words. "At all times." "For everything."
How is it humanly possible to give thanks for "everything?" Can one express gratitude for a disastrous accident? Wouldn't it be unethical to give thanks for an event of misfortune in someone's life? Or on the occasion of the death of a young person?
Perhaps Paul meant to say we should give thanks not for everything but for everything good. The addition of just that one word would satisfy some of our confusion. And such an addition wouldn't strip the text of its meaning. There would still be an implicit judgment at work. It wouldn't erase the fact that we often fail to give thanks for the manifest blessings of God's bounty. And we would remain challenged by the reminder that we ought to give thanks for every blessing we receive.
It's true, isn't it, that we're often less than content with what we've been given? We grouse about the state of the economy and of our investments. We gossip about friends while many people are desperately lonely. We bicker with family members because they won't or can't be what we want them to be. No matter how prosperous we are (and we are indeed, compared to billions of the world's people), our "needs" and our sense of deprivation seem to escalate with our incomes.
Thankfulness for the good things we've received is always a bit soured by the sins and violence and horrors of existence. Gratitude to God requires that we live not by evading the real nature of existence, not by denying the violent character of nature and history, but by facing reality as best we can, finally affirming the whole of life in all its sorrow and pain as a great gift.
But Paul doesn't use the word "good." His injunction to give thanks "always and for everything" still confronts us. Most of us, in the more poignant moments of our lives, have experienced powerful personal signs of God's presence. We know that God is love. But then, in the face of the world's evils, we can't help crying out or moaning silently, in the spirit of Job: just what is the God of love doing?
There are many things in life for which thanks simply seem inappropriate—concrete events that cause us to recoil and for which we could never forgive ourselves if we did give thanks. And yet, it may be that these too stand within the providential scope of the God we name as love. As we teeter between denying God and praising God, between the horrors and delights of life, Paul's words "always and for everything give thanks" seem to mock us.
Of course, we can't view all things in the serene context of God's redemptive purposes. We know what it is to be shattered by personal loss. We can barely stand to contemplate the genocidal furies that rage even in this new century. We understand the ire of those who, far from giving thanks, shake their fists at God. (adapted from Ronald Goetz, Christian Century, July 30-Aug. 6, 1997, p.689)
Yet our struggle with Paul's words is not without redemptive benefit. For example, our struggle humbles us before the majesty of God. It teaches us empathy for those who have no faith, because we can identify with their inability to comprehend evil. Our struggle to be grateful to God "at all times and for everything" can inspire us to understand every human example of ingratitude, injustice, and lack of mercy. We know in our hearts just how high the bar has been set by our Lord. We know how far we ourselves fall short. We know intimately yet how far God must go with us as we work to conform our lives to the life of Christ.
Be grateful at all times and for everything? In the end, yes. God is at work in all things to bring good—regardless of how little we understand. Our failures of gratitude are in part expressions of how much we want to be the ones in control, and how much we rely on our own judgments rather than humbling ourselves in the face of the inscrutable and unsearchable ways of God.
When Paul says that we should give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, he isn't lapsing into some kind of pollyannaism. He is touching the most sensitive nerve of our Christian existence. The Lord is God, and not we ourselves.
And so, give thanks and be grateful to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And let that thanksgiving turn your hearts ever more to the God of all. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.