(PERSONAL NOTE: The last Sunday in the church year can focus either on Thanksgiving or on Christ the King as it anticipates the beginning of the new year and the season of Advent. This year’s Epistle text for November 20 could be used for Thanksgiving or Christ the King with its focus on giving thanks and the nearness of God. What follows is my musing on that text and how those two aspects of reality might relate to one another.)
“The Lord is near; do not be anxious, but in everything make your requests known to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving. Then the peace of God, which is beyond all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:5b-7, REB)
It sounds too easy, “in everything make your requests known to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving.” This is not something you simply will yourself to do; it is not as easy to learn as your ABCs. Sometimes we preachers speak glibly about this challenging, daunting imperative issued by St. Paul; we turn gratitude into yet another thing we must do if we are to be good Christians, and as a result we are given yet one more reason to feel guilty because we don’t measure up to this high standard. Apparently we can’t pull ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps, so if we are not able in everything to be thankful, it’s our fault or our own failure of faith, or a spiritual work we are too weak to accomplish.
But seriously!? In all things pray with thanksgiving? How is that possible? How is that possible for Syrian refugees who have fled for their lives only to meet a wall of hostility and suspicion? How is that possible for the Palestinian farmer whose olive trees have just been bulldozed by Israeli Defense Forces with no excuse needed or legal recourse available? How is that possible for the person wrongly imprisoned but lacking funds to pursue DNA testing and the needed legal counsel? How is that possible for the mother mourning her dead child, or the man who recently received the news that his cancer has returned and he needs to get his affairs in order? How can a child of color or a GLBTQ young adult or a Muslim give thanks in all times and all places when their welcome and place in society is not as sure and certain as it was a month ago? There are times when we cannot on our own imagine giving thanks always, and the thought of doing so dries our mouth, clogs our throat, and turns God once again into a cruel taskmaster who asks the impossible of us.
Perhaps that is the clue. It is not left solely to us; such gratitude is not a task but a promise; not a burden but a blessed gift. Perhaps the solution to the riddle is found in the beginning of the text: “The Lord is near.” Perhaps that is how we can be thankful; we are not alone and the Lord is near us even in our most godforsaken circumstances. It is a great mystery, but a deep truth – when we feel most abandoned, alone and forgotten, God is most near to console, comfort, strengthen and encourage. One of the most powerful scenes in the Jesus story, as told by Mark and Matthew, is when Jesus on the cross cries in agony and despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And yet it is there that an onlooker is persuaded that he truly is God’s Son, God’s messenger to us, God with us in the flesh. As a modern affirmation puts it, “In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone; God is with us. Thanks be to God.”
In seminary one of my professors told the story of receiving news on Christmas Eve that a young father in the church had died suddenly and unexpectedly while shopping that afternoon; now he was needed to go to the man’s home to break the news to his children and wife. My professor recalled walking with a heavy heart up the sidewalk toward the house bright with decorations and lights; through the glass door he could see children scampering before the tree, awaiting with expectation and excitement the father who would not be coming home. With one word my mentor knew he could destroy their Christmas joy, their hopes and dreams, and extinguish the light in their lives. But he also knew another Word that could somehow see them through: Immanuel, God with us. The father would not be returning home, but by God’s grace and generosity they knew a Father who would love and comfort and strengthen them and would never leave or forsake them, even in their most forsaken time.
It is that nearness that allows us to be grateful – not for every thing that happens to us but for the promise that we are not alone and today’s disappointment and distress will not have the final say in our lives. The Lord is near; there is another Actor on the stage beyond us and today’s terrors, and beside us with a mystical holy Presence and in the nearness of others in Christ’s Body we have been given to “bear the load and hold the Christ light for us.” The Lord is near – somehow we are given a gift to know and trust that promise – and can count on other faithful folks to claim that hope for us and to trust it for us when our faith is frail and our hope is dim. And the promise is not that we can achieve all this on our own – we can’t. The promise is that as we lean into those everlasting arms and rest in that near Presence, we are given one more gift – peace that is beyond our understanding and comprehension, but real nevertheless, to guard our hearts and minds and see us through. And for that we can always give thanks.