The passage from Philippians begins “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” How uplifting. I don’t think I do nearly enough rejoicing. I do a lot of complaining, especially around the holidays. It’s supposed to be a time to celebrate, find joy, love and peace. I find it can instead become focused on who is going to cook what and whose house are we going to or why did she pick that restaurant and I don’t have enough time to get everyone presents. You know how it goes. But the message of the day is rejoice in the Lord always and in the big picture, from a God’s eye view of the world, all the little details, frustrations and complaints don’t really matter as much as we think they do. There is so much more to rejoice about than to complain about.
When I think of the orphans that I worked with in Brazil after college, I feel guilty that I am not more grateful. I wonder how I could possibly even think of complaining when I have a loving family, abundant food, a comfortable house. In places like Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo there are millions of children struggling just to survive. After having worked with them I ask myself, how can I still be ungrateful?
But I am. I forget and somehow I find myself losing sight of what matters most. We all do. I’ll be the first to admit I take too many of my blessings for granted. I find myself needing a day like this to remind me not to do that. Instead of one day of Thanksgiving, can we learn how to embrace living, giving thanks every day? As Christians that is what we are called to do.
Paul wrote “rejoice always.” How can we, ALWAYS rejoice? He suggests that we should start by not worrying about anything. Don’t worry? I’m good at worrying. I can find something to worry over in just about any situation. So I hear Paul’s encouraging words to the Philippians and I wonder if what he is saying is even possible. Paul’s promise of God’s peace intrigues me to find out how not to worry. The letter to the Philippians says that in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let our requests be made known to God. I question whether I could pray to God about everything with thanksgiving.
I was struggling with this thought when I posed this question to the senior high youth group a week ago. We reflected on our lives in light of Paul’s letter. We challenged ourselves to see what would be some of our hardest experiences to thank God for. Then we talked about finding a way to be grateful for it. I was surprised when, after thinking for a while, one of the youth said, “I am thankful for being grounded.” Now, I would think that many of you who are parents might share my surprise at this statement. I would guess your kids may never have thanked you for grounding or punishing them. But here was this teenager who looked at a frustrating situation differently and realized that being grounded had given him time to rest and think about the way things were, the way he wanted them to be and how he might need to change. This young person probably complained to his friends about being grounded and got mad at his parents for punishing him, but he found a way to be thankful for this experience.
I’m guessing most of you haven’t been grounded lately. But what is going on in your life that you find frustrating, that you wish you could make go away or not happen? Can you find a way to be thankful for it? In the midst of our struggles, loss or suffering, how do we find the inspiration to give thanks even then? You might be struggling with an illness, separating from a loved one, having financial difficulties. In these circumstances thanking God would most likely be the last thing on your mind. Have you ever felt as if God is punishing you? There have been times when I think to myself, maybe God is not happy with me. It can feel as if God is punishing me. And I wonder, does God ever act like an upset parent and ground us? Maybe in some ways God does.
In the rush and chaos of life, I don’t take enough time to listen for God’s still, small voice. I forget to stop and look into the faces of those around me and catch sight of Jesus. There are times when God may be grounding all of us, trying to get us to see that we need to slow down and take time to think, discover a new perspective, see the world from a God’s eye view.
I invite you to explore this other sense of God’s grounding. We reach out for God’s love to root ourselves and be nourished from a strong foundation. We are grounded in God. The well-known Yale Universtiy Chaplain William Sloane Coffin wrote that we should “recognize the need for roots while insisting that the point of roots is to put forth branches.” Grateful for our grounding in God, we can explore the freedom to become the people God calls us to be, a people who rejoice always, who are not anxious and who thank God in all circumstances. We come to find that the most frustrating experiences can often be the experiences that teach us significant life lessons.
I found an interesting story about this from the book How to be Decadent. In ancient Budapest, a man went to the rabbi and complained, “Life is unbearable. There are nine of us living in one room. What can I do?” he asks. The rabbi answers, “Take your goat into the room with you.” The man was incredulous, but the rabbi insisted. “Do as I say and come back in a week.” A week later the man came back looking more distraught than before. “We cannot stand it,” he tells the rabbi. “The goat is filthy.” The rabbi then tells him, “Go home and let the goat out. And come back in a week.” A radiant man returns to the rabbi a week later, exclaiming, “Life is beautiful. We enjoy every minute of it now that there’s no goat — only the nine of us.” Sometimes being grateful is just a matter of changing perspective. Gratitude for everything, in all circumstances is a challenge. If we face that challenge, life’s difficulties can lead us to a greater fullness of being, even if we don’t always see that at the time.
An example of someone who lived an incredible life full of gratitude for God even in the most awful of circumstances is Corrie ten Boom. She is known to readers of Christian literature for her words of inspiration written in her book The Hiding Place. Corrie was a woman of strength and character who risked everything to hide Jews in her house in Holland. She and her family devoted themselves to protect the welfare of strangers and they paid a terrible price. She and her sister were sent to a work camp and eventually to Ravensbruck, an extermination camp in Germany. Throughout their time in the camp, Corrie’s sister Betsie insisted that they must be grateful for all things, even the fleas in the barracks. The fleas made the already horrific environment even more uncomfortable but the guards refused to enter the dormitories because of the fleas and so there was no supervision in the dormitories. This meant that in the evenings, Corrie and Betsie were free to hold worship services, lead prayer and Bible Study. They prayed to God with thanksgiving for the fleas. Can you even begin to imagine being in an extermination camp and being able to thank God for fleas? In the end, Bestie died in the camp but Corrie rose above the devastating experiences and became an example of all the human spirit should aspire to. She is truly an inspiration and shows that it can be possible to thank God in ALL circumstances. Another well known woman and writer who lived a difficult life but still managed to spread a message of hope, strength and perseverance is Alice Walker. She was born in Georgia, the 8th child of sharecroppers and throughout her life struggled against racism and sexism. She received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 for her critically acclaimed novel The Color Purple. In the book she wrote: “I think it [makes God angry] if you walk by the color purple somewhere and don’t notice it.” Every day, we walk by the color purple, or green, or yellow, or blue and we don’t notice it. Every day, we refuse to hear the sound of laughter, or footsteps, or birdsong, or weeping. Every day, God’s extravagant gifts surround us and fill us and connect us with every one and every thing. We are never alone. We need to look with our hearts to see that.
We often try to do too much by ourselves. We fall under the illusion that we can do everything on our own and do not need the help of others or God. Paul’s letter reminds us to go to God for everything. We are God’s beloved and God is always present to us, but God does not control us. We have the choice to open our hearts to God’s loving presence or close ourselves off. When we risk loving God, we create an opportunity to let God’s peace hold us.
Notice in the passage in Philippians, Paul calls it a peace that surpasses all understanding. So it is not to say that after we offer our concerns to God they are all figured out, solved and resolved, but because we enter into the heart of God, we can rest in God’s peace. When we worry, we can remind ourselves that it is a choice we make to worry, and we can just as easily choose to be grateful for life the way it is. On this Thanksgiving day we remember the Pilgrims. They made seven times more graves than houses. No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving. Giving thanks unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. Gratitude turns a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Thanksgiving makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates hope for tomorrow. God never said life would be easy. He only said we would never have to go it alone. That is reason enough to give thanks.
It has been said that if the only prayer you say in your whole life is, “thank you,” that would be sufficient. I pray that today would be a day full of gratitude that might lead us into a lifetime of thanksgiving. For all that life holds, thank you God. Thank you.