”In everything give thanks.” This exhortation found in Paul’s letter to a church in Greece, has become wall art in countless homes. In fact, its available for 50% off this Black Friday weekend. I wonder if that’s because selling people on constantly giving thanks has become a bit more challenging in 2020? This verse seems, on the surface, to be one of the most unrealistic and outlandish exhortations ever made. What’s more, if it was already a fairy tale call to live in the fantasy of denying the realities of suffering and loss, and pretend lament doesn’t exist, 2020 has amplified the decibel level of its absurdity. Here’s what some honest folks say:
Seriously? Give thanks for a global pandemic that has:
Killed nearly 1.5 million
Infected over 38 million
Led to economic hardships, which themselves have given rise to unemployment, foreclosures, a rise in destructive addictions, relationship breakups, loss of trust among friends, anxiety, depression, isolation, conspiracy theories, and a general overall anger that leaves many with a fuse so short that one offense breaks relationships.
Infected Native Americans and people of color disproportionately
While we‘re at it, shall we also give thanks for: ?
Ongoing issues related to race. ?
The growing hunger and homeless crises in America?
A political divide that‘s fractured friendship, family, and national trust?
Are we to give thanks for personal challenges too, such as:
Loss of loved ones?
Disillusionment with faith, and/or faith institutions?
Doubts about God’s character, or even for some, God’s existence— both on the rise in 2020?
Family challenges, particularly visible for some at this time of year, and more so this year?
“I can’t ’give thanks in everything’ and be honest - so I’ll choose honesty”
That’s why it’s important to dig a little deeper, because without taking a closer look, things like this in the Bible became the basis for very unhealthy and dishonest states of being, and we know that we’re called to wholeness, not fragmentation. So here are two points to consider when wrestling with the meaning of “in everything give thanks”:
FIRST: YOU NEED HONEST LAMENT AND ANGER - You must be honest, and have the courage to lament and shake your fist at the heavens, if that’s what it takes, because any honest assessment of 2020 is that it’s been a terribly hard year, filled with pain, loss, and injustice. When we’re told to give thanks in everything, let’s recognize that taking this verse about giving thanks in everything out of context and just spouting it as an absolute truth is, to my mind, spiritual malpractice. The Bible’s full of lament over loss, and injustice, and suffering. Saints in the Bible lament as they wrestle with the mystery of why some die so young, while some of the seemingly worst people seem so happy and prosperous, while some of the best are hit with wave after wave of suffering and injustice.
So Rage. Mourn. Cry out. It’s all part of what it means to be human in this fallen world. In fact, your longings for things to be other than they are good. They’re a sign your spirit is vibrantly alive. It’s those who say, “I‘ve got my piece of the dream, so I’m fine” that, whatever they might profess to believe about Jesus or faith, reveal by their callous heart, that something vital is missing. That vital piece is equally missing when we try too hard to paint a veneer of goodness around the Covid death of a loved one, or the eight minute tape of George Floyd, or the millions of acres burning this past summer, or the floods leaving so many destitute in Central America. NO! When Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, they were tears of anger and frustration over the reality that our world is still broken. “Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus, because that’s a sign that you know we’re made for more. You mourn what’s lost in a Zoom world, because you know you’re made for human contact. You mourn homelessness in Seattle because you know every person is made to belong and be part of a community that cares and those living under trees offer visible evidence of the relational poverty that is afflicting our land. You mourn the divisions because you know that we’re all from “One Blood” as John Perkins so powerfully writes - Natives and Immigrants, and the true natives, the Native Americans; Liberals and Conservatives, poor and rich, married and single, God made us all and the suffering of one, or one people group, is the suffering of all.
So mourn. It’s always the first step in becoming part of the justice solution because that’s part of what it means to be the people of God. There’s a second truth as well, equally important:
SECOND: LOOK, LISTEN, AND GIVE REAL THANKS - This is where the challenge comes for those who have grown comfortable with rage and bitterness. Stay there endlessly and it will become toxic, just like too much of any good thing (exercise, sleep, turkey, even bacon) becomes toxic. Paul’s words about giving thanks in everything can’t be taken literally and absolutely, but they’re still true. Here’s how:
We give thanks for God’s capacity to shape us through hard times. This is the real genius and beauty of the gospel. You were never promised entrance into some sort of insulated bubble when you decided to accept God’s invitation to be join God’s story of hope found in Christ. To the contrary, Jesus said, ”in this world you will have tribulation”. Stuff happens, because the world is broken. The brilliance of the gospel is that for those with hearts that are open to learning, God uses sufferings and setbacks to make us better people; people who look more like Jesus. I find this miraculous and so when challenges come, I find myself praying, first of all, “God, thank you that you can shape me to be more whole because of this isolated Thanksgiving, this stay-at-home time, this health challenge, this marriage challenge, this loss. Give me the grace to learn what you want to teach me here!”
We give thanks as we begin to understand the things we gained in the fire. God, for example, is my rock. The ONE entity in the universe I know will never leave me alone is my Creator. With me when I’m alone in the forest; with me when I’m anxious about work; with me when I travel; with me in plenty; with me in want. I didn’t always believe this though, and certainly didn’t know it in my experience. This reality grew from my story: my adoption, (filled with challenges) and the death of my adopted dad when I was 17. The two elements combined plunged me into a period of loneliness and isolation in my late teens, and this become the soil in which the seed of companionship with Christ took root because I needed it so badly. I don’t give thanks for the death of my dad or the losses I experienced. I give thanks that in the fires of loss, I eventually gained an intimacy with God that would both fill me up, and change the course of my life. I wonder what you might be gaining through the fires of 2020? Maybe you already know, as some have said to me that their marriage has been strengthened, or that they’ve been awakened to racial issues in our world that wouldn’t have been on their radar had it been ‘normal time’ rather than ‘Covid time‘. On the other hand, you might not yet know what you’re gaining, because the change that’s happening in you is still buried under layers of the present circumstances. But here’s the thing: you WILL know, if you’re listening, and teachable, and open, and when you know, you’ll look back and say “Look what God has done! Even in the midst of _____ I’ve been able to grow and change and strengthen. Thanks be to God.”
We give thanks for what we DO receive and enjoy, in spite of it all. We’re not all at the table for Thanksgiving as our grown children are each in their own "pods" out of an abundance of caution. But we do have a 94 year old mom living with us, bringing us joy, and fresh mountain air, and a turkey slathered in bacon, and friends we can text, and the ability to Zoom with family members, and great coffee, and health (a gift at any age, but which grows bigger in appreciation with each passing year), and I could go on for a thousand words!! There’s always a reason for gratitude, and some think this was at the heart of what Paul was saying anyway - that he was pointing us to a great need to SEE the gifts that are continually washing over us like waves.
Of course there’s loss in the fire, and with loss there’s lament, maybe even anger. But none of that is incompatible with our invitation or, I’d even say, our responsibility to give thanks for God’s capacity to use dark times to change us for the better, and to see that even in the darkest of seasons, the light of Christ falls on us in countless gifts of grace.
May we be people of honest hope, right in the midst of all that’s unfolding around us - for God’s sake, our own sake, and the sake of our world. Amen?