This past Monday night as I drove home from Bible Study Fellowship, I was listening to a local radio program “Think Out Loud.” On this broadcast they had the rabbi of the largest Jewish synagogue in Portland, a Muslim educational leader, and the retired minister of a prominent downtown church all speaking about faith and its place in our lives.
At the very end of the broadcast, the host Dave Miller asked the three guests what they were thankful for as Thanksgiving approached.
What the Unitarian minister said really made me shake my head in wonder/anger/sadness. Marilyn Sewell is the minister emerita of the First Unitarian Church here in Portland. She is a prominent community fixture and the author of many books. When asked what she was thankful for, she replied, “You know I have trouble being thankful these days. I’m very concerned, for example, for global warming. I’m very concerned about the injustices in our world. So when it gets down to being thankful, I start getting very personal: I’m thankful for my dear husband, I’m thankful for my children, I’m thankful for the church that I led for many years. So those are the things I am thankful about.”
I am glad that she is thankful for her husband, children and church. But to say that she has trouble being thankful for anything because of global warming and world injustice is a crock. Now don’t hear me to say that I think that global warming and social justice are unimportant issues. They are very important. I have been willing to rant about the idiocy of fundamentalist preachers who use the Bible to minimize those valid concerns. But it is also important to criticize progressive preachers when they spout nonsense as well.
Thankfulness is something that we can (and are to) have regardless of circumstances. Her words fly directly in the face of what is taught and modeled in the New Testament.
I Thess. 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 5:20 “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Philippians 4:6: Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
If my thankfulness is conditional about my situation or the situation of the world, I will NEVER be thankful. There is always more that I wish were better in my life and in our world. We live in a broken world and I am a broken human being. We are not in heaven yet: our hearts long for perfection. It is for that for which we were created. There is a holy discontent which will never be completely fulfilled on this earth…it will only be filled in the direct presence of the Father.
And I’m OK with that.
(That doesn’t mean we should stop working to better our circumstances and work for peace and justice in our world, but we need to realize that they will never be totally fulfilled on this earth).
But the New Testament doesn’t teach us to be thankful FOR our circumstances or FOR the condition of the world. We are, in the words of I Thess. 5:18 to “give thanks in all circumstances” and Phil. 4:6: “in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present [our] requests to God”.
We see that modeled in the life of Paul who wrote these words:
- When Paul was in prison…he was thankful to God.
- When Paul was beaten…he was thankful to God.
- When Paul was stoned and left for dead outside the city gates…he was thankful to God.
- When Paul was shipwrecked and spent a night and a day in the open sea…he was thankful to God.
- When Paul could barely see because of his bad eyesight…he was thankful to God.
- When Paul was abandoned by those who were closest to him…he was thankful to God.
- When Paul saw the huge social injustice and abuse that happened in the Roman empire…he was thankful to God.
- When Paul saw the extreme poverty of his age and disease wracking the bodies of innocent men and women…he was thankful to God.
- When he saw his Hebrew brothers and sisters (for whom he said he was willing to be cast into hell) still out of relationship with Christ…he was thankful to God.
Sensitivity to the hurts and needs of others did not keep him from being thankful. Deep personal pain and heartache did not keep him from being thankful.
Thankfulness is an attitude of humility. It is a recognition of our place in the world. It is a recognition that everything we have and are is a gift to us from God. Even in the way that Rev. Sewell worded the personal things she was thankful for: “I’m thankful for my dear husband, I’m thankful for my children, I’m thankful for the church that I led for many years,” there was no recognition of the one to WHOM she was thankful. God is the source of providing and sustaining her husband, children and church. Now she may have meant that she was thankful TO her husband and TO her children and TO her church. But that is not the way she worded it. But if that is what she meant, that itself is a self-condemnation of her lack of her understanding of the source of all good things in her (and my) life and a willingness to express thankfulness to God.
OK…negative blog post. Hopefully I don’t do this a lot. (at least publicly!) But really I think Rev. Sewell’s words (no matter how embarrassing and insufficient) can teach us a lot: we are to (and we have the ability to) be thankful despite our own circumstances and the circumstances of our world. Thankfulness is not a day. It is a frame of mind…an attitude that is to permeate our entire life.
May that be our reminder this Thanksgiving.