Are we truly thankful? Maybe it’s a good question to ask ourselves from time to time. It’s easy to lose sight of tphankfulness in the busy moments of life, in tough situations and seasons, in the polarized world we live in. Are we truly thankful?
This is something that I wrote a few years ago for a community Thanksgiving service. I decided to share it again because I need a reminder and, maybe, you do as well. So, with that I share these thoughts:
Thanksgiving is like the Rodney Dangerfield of holidays – It’s just doesn’t seem to get much respect.
Even before Thanksgiving gets here, we’ll start to get the tons of sales papers that tell us Black Friday – the biggest shopping day of the year is almost here. Even the Pilgrims had to knock off Thanksgiving early to get in line for the big sale at “Ye Olde Mercantile.”
And then there’s the so-called Thanksgiving Day Parade. The turkey just doesn’t get its props because there’s always that dude in the red and white suit to pull up the rear. It’s just our way of saying, Thanksgiving, we love you, but we don’t want to stay with you. Christmas is on the way!
Families get together and do more assault on the waistline than one could possibly imagine. A meal that took 18 hours to prepare is consumed in 15 minutes with enough leftovers to supply a small army, for a month.
And then, people spend the rest of the day falling in and out of a turkey-induced coma while the NFL puts on some generally lopsided matchups.
Oh Thanksgiving, how we love thee and how we love to see you go away – just so we can get to Christmas.
But what if Thanksgiving was more than just a day on the calendar? What if every day was a day of thanksgiving – real thanksgiving – not the manufactured holiday kind?
What if our thanksgiving could somehow connect us to real joy and real peace in God?
If you think that sounds like something you could go for, then let me tell you, Paul has a letter for you.
Philippians is one of those books of the Bible that along with Colossians, Philemon, Titus and others we can just glance past. But if we want to understand something about joy and thanksgiving, then we’ve got to check out this book.
This book was written by Paul and it helps to know a little more about him. Paul was once someone who took pleasure in tracking down, arresting, persecuting, generally just tormenting Christians. He has this moment on the road to Damascus when he comes face to face with Jesus and, well, everything changes. Paul gives his life over to God and he becomes one of the greatest missionaries in human history.
But something goes along with it. For the success that Paul had in telling others about Jesus and in setting up churches, Paul paid a personal price. He was beaten, he was stoned and left for dead, he was arrested, he was shipwrecked. Some of those who once had been his friend turned their backs on him. Paul gave up everything of himself, to hold on to God.
And as he pens the words we are about to read, Paul is sitting in a dirty, musty prison cell. He’s probably wearing chains or leg irons and receiving very little in the form of human comforts. The conditions are probably terrible.
And it is in the darkness of that prison that Paul puts pen to paper and writes this passage we’re going to read from Philippians 4:4-9. Imagine Paul’s conditions as he writes these words to you now.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Knowing the conditions that Paul finds himself in as he writes that, how does it speak to you? What about all of those situations that you face each and every day?
Paul is giving us a real Thanksgiving recipe and it begins with a healthy dose of joy. In fact, he likes rejoicing so much that he tells us to rejoice and then to do it again. What is joy about and how could someone in a dank prison cell find it?
We can confuse two very different words – happiness and joy. Notice that Paul does not tell us here to be happy – he tells us to have joy.
To understand these two words, we can see them, especially in the sense of what the Bible talks about, as coming from two completely different directions.
Happiness comes from outside of us. It is a feeling and it is related to the situation and circumstances in which we find ourselves. I can be happy about my team winning, getting a good grade, getting the job I wanted or needed, getting a gift from a family member I really wanted. Happiness is a product of emotions and circumstances.
But joy comes from a different place. It comes from the heart and mind, it comes from within. Joy isn’t simply an emotion or a feeling; joy is a way of living, a way of seeing the world around us. Joy is rooted in knowing Jesus is Lord and in God’s amazing love for us. Joy is not temporary and passing like happiness; joy is permanent.
It is perfectly possible, and often can be the case, that we have joy in God, despite finding ourselves in the middle of a complete storm. It is possible to have joy and be sad at the same time.
That’s why we can praise God even when everything around us is falling apart. Sure, we might not be happy about the circumstances we find ourselves in, but we can still praise the God who promises to be with us always. We might not be happy, but we can certainly have joy.
So we have our two big cups of Joy. What happens next? Well, Paul tells us that we don’t need to get sidetracked with anxiety.
Confession time! I’m a worrier. But, Paul is telling me that I don’t have to do that. He has a cure for my worry issues and it is for me to pray.
In our everyday lives, how do we get to know someone? We talk to them. We are around them. We experience them living their lives. The same thing is true with God. If we want to know more about this God who can remove our worry, then we have to talk to God. We have to open ourselves up and have that conversation on a regular basis.
By the way, this is not about repeating a prayer over and over again, it’s not about saying a prayer because I’m Christian and I’m supposed to. This is about opening yourself up and having an open and honest conversation with the God who loves you.
In the videos that accompany his book, “Crazy Love,” Francis Chan provides this image. He’s talking to the camera while his young son is playing in his lap. His young son moves over and hugs and kisses him and he asks, “Is this what your prayer life looks like?” It’s prayer that builds our relationship with God. It’s us hugging our heavenly daddy talking about the things that are on our mind, completely in love with our father. That’s prayer that I want to have. That’s prayer that Paul says is going to help us to take away our anxiety. It’s prayer that expresses our thanksgiving and love to God and prayer that opens us up to receive God’s love, mercy and grace right back.
What’s at the heart of this kind of relationship? It’s trust. We can’t open ourselves up to others, expose ourselves and our weaknesses, make ourselves vulnerable if we aren’t willing to trust that person we’re talking to. And we can certainly trust a God who creates, sustains, redeems, loves and is there with his children through thick and thin.
God’s peace shows up in circumstances and places where we wouldn’t expect to find it.
So take two cups of joy, add in prayer that helps to remove our anxiety and then we get to this third thing. And this isn’t something that we do. This one isn’t about us. This is one in which God adds something to the mix – God’s peace.
It’s described in the Bible as peace that passes all understand. It’s peace that’s so incredible that we can’t even comprehend it. And why is that?
God’s peace shows up in circumstances and places where we wouldn’t expect to find it.
Let me see if I can explain what I mean. In many ways, visiting those who are sick, those who are dying or those who have experienced loss can be a very draining experience for me. I walk out of those situations many times feeling as if what is in me has been completely poured out. These situations can be exhausting or draining. They can be so emotionally charged because there are so many questions, or we don’t understand why something happened. And you can feel as if someone has reached inside you and absolutely pulled your emotions out.
Each time we walk into that situation, we can experience that feeling.
But have you ever been in a situation where the opposite has happened? You walk into a room with someone who is dying and they start talking and sharing with you. You came in expecting to walk away exhausted and drained, but instead, you walk out feeling better than you did when you went in. It’s almost as if you could literally feel God’s love pouring out of that person you came to see. That’s God’s love and peace in a nutshell. It’s incredible, it’s life-changing and it can show up even in situations where all earthly hope has seemed to fade away.
On the surface it seems kind of simple doesn’t it?
- Rejoice and praise God.
- Don’t worry – pray with thanksgiving!
- And experience the peace of God.
So, why do we struggle with this so much?
To be able to truly experience thanksgiving, we have to truly give our thanks where it is due. Just think about the way we sometimes answer that question on Thanksgiving of what are you thankful for?
I’m thankful for family, for this meal, for my job, my school, my home. I’m thankful that I live in America. I’m thankful that my team is going to a bowl game. And those are all things that we can be thankful for.
But aren’t we missing the source of our thanksgiving?
The reason that a guy named Paul, who is locked in a prison cell, who has lost so much and experienced so much in his life, can have joy is that he’s got this right. Paul views it as a privilege to experience what he has gone through for the sake of God. He sees it as a privilege to have been beaten and to suffer and to be locked up in a prison cell. At one point in his writings, he looks back at everything he had before knowing God and he says it is manure. For Paul, ultimate joy and ultimate thanksgiving don’t show up once a year in a meal on a table. They are a way of life. It is something that is in your very DNA. It’s Joy that pours out of you from the inside out.
To truly experience thanksgiving, we have to place our trust in God. We have to rejoice and rejoice again. We have to pray and talk to our God Daddy like a child talks to his or her father.
To truly experience that joy and thanksgiving, we have to be willing to take our hands off of things we cling to, to let them go, to hand those anxieties over to God in prayer and to let God’s peace work in us.
And, that’s still a work in progress.
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