"Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands!
Know the Lord is God!
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
For the Lord is good:
"Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let all know your forebearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you."
Today's scripture is a remarkable outburst of gratitude and joy. It is an appropriate passage for the Thanksgiving holiday, a time set aside to be grateful for the many blessings in our lives. A harvest festival is celebrated by many cultures as a way to give thanks for the bounties of the earth and our life. A time set aside for "Thanksgiving" reminds us of the importance of giving thanks for what we have been given.
Sometimes a simple thanksgiving
ritual allows us to express things we otherwise may be reluctant
to say. Perhaps the FCCB members noticed in last week's Carillon
the thanksgiving shared by parents and their junior and senior high students in last Sunday's
parent/youth meeting. Some words of thanksgiving were:
You might make it a point to
share with somebody something you appreciate about them. Give
thanks. It's a wonderful gift.
Let me say it again: giving
thanks for people in our lives and for the many blessings of our
lives is very important. It is good for our relationships. It
is good for our soul. I don't mean to slight this kind of thanksgiving
at all. But when we read this passage from the letter to the Philippian
church, Paul clearly refers to a radical shift of gratitude, a
type of thanksgiving that has nothing to do with recollecting
our blessings. "Rejoice in the Lord, always," says Paul.
A way of giving thanks: in the Lord and always.
Always. A friend of ours has
cancer. It is malignant. He is given three to 18 months to live.
He is not yet 50 and has a wife and two sons. Rejoice always?
mention of friends and family
here. Usually we give thanks for something: I am thankful
for good health, an education, a loving family, good friends,
an autumn maple tree flaming red. We have been taught from childhood
to "count our blessings," to be grateful for what we
In contrast, Paul invites us
to be grateful. Simply be grateful. It doesn't mean we don't
rejoice in the blessings we can count, but that our sense of gratitude
is not dependent upon these things.
"Rejoice in the Lord always."
With these words Paul helps us live into a different understanding
of what gratitude is, of who God is and who we are.
If we give thanks only
when we have scored the goal, received a raise, received a healthy
grandchild, then we are in danger of turning God into a Santa
Claus divinity. We give thanks to a God who bestows gifts. We
receive a present: "Thanks, God!" Something goes wrong:
"Why, God?" Our gratitude becomes conditional. We get,
then give thanks.
Paul invites us to see God
in a different way.
A friend of mine grew up on a farm in Montana. Every year, Santa would come for a visit. Every Christmas Eve, the younger children would huddle by the window and strain their eyes to the night sky to see if they could spot the sleigh and magical flying reindeer. They never saw the reindeer, but they always saw Santa, tromping through the snow from the barn with a sack full of presents. Every year Santa would burst through the door with a resounding "Ho! Ho! Ho!" The children would be in awe. Wow! Santa has come again!
"Mom, look! It's Santa!"
"Dad, look! Where's Dad? Dad misses Santa every year! Mom,
where did Dad go?" And every year, Mother would say, "He
is in the barn, holding the reindeer for Santa."
At a certain age, young Lance
began to notice an uncommon likeness between Santa and his dad.
But when he understood their shared identity, it was no great
loss. After all, Santa only came once a year. His dad was with
him every day.
This is what Paul communicates
to us. God is not the one who comes occasionally, bearing gifts.
Rather, God is the One who is with us at all times. "The
Lord is near at hand," says Paul. It is God's very Presence,
not merely God's blessings, for which we give thanks. "God
is here! Rejoice! Give thanks!" You have God with you every
day, in all things. To be awake to the presence of God brings
rejoicing and gratitude. It is of this gratitude that Paul speaks.
"In the Lord and always."
In this way, the invitation
Paul extends is not so strange. God is no longer seen as the bearer
of good gifts as a reward for good behavior, but as everywhere
present. We are changed, for we no longer are merely happy for
what we have, which is a precarious happiness. We notice within
us a sense of an abiding joy that strengthens us in times of hardship
and allows us to fully celebrate when times are bountiful. And
our sense of gratitude changes, from being thankful for
to simply being thankful. In this understanding, gratitude
has nothing to do with things going right. It is about changing
the object of gratitude from God's blessing to God's very presence.
Janet tells me often of the
grammar lessons her English teacher father used to hold at the
supper table. Frequently she and her sisters were asked to parse
sentences spoken during dinner to reinforce their knowledge of
the grammatical structure. She recalled an occasion when she was
even asked to parse grace. "We thank you, God, for supper.
Amen." Pause. "Janet, parse that sentence."
We = subject; thank = predicate;
you, God = direct obj.; for = prep.; supper = ind. obj.
It occurs to me that Paul is
teaching us a new theological grammar, wherein God is both the
object and the indirect object. Thus the sentence that lies at
the heart of gratitude would be: We thank you, God, for God.
That is enough. It is good
to be thankful for. But that is not all. There is another way
to be thankful--thankful for the presence of God. And with this
sense of gratitude that exists without a why, without a reason,
comes a strange sense of peace. Paul says it is a peace that passes
understanding. A peace that goes beyond what we have. A calm that
we cannot contrive. A stillness that we cannot shackle to our
hearts. Perhaps it is the peace to which Jesus referred when he
said, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not
as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled,
neither let them be afraid." (Jn 14:27)
The peace that passes understanding
depends upon nothing but trusting in the presence of God. Even
when God appears to be absent, even when anxiety fills our hearts
and peace is flung to the remote horizon, to live as if God is
near is to give thanks. Perhaps living into this truth
makes room for this truth.
The Lord is near at hand. Always. Rejoice. Always. In the Lord. Always. Give thanks. Always.