Richard Niell Donovan
When I was growing up in Kansas, the town fathers lived in another world. I knew their names, but I didn’t know them. Sometimes I would walk by their homes and wonder about life within those walls. I would hear their air conditioners hum on muggy summer days, and imagine the quiet, cool rooms inside.
I envied those people of privilege—the men who dressed in suits and played golf at the country club. I envied their children too. I tried to imagine life as a child of privilege—spending the summer at the pool—having time for sports instead of sacking groceries. It sounded wonderful, but it was a different world.
One of the men of privilege was a bank president. He had a private plane. A friend of mine played high-school football, and the banker took him for a ride in his plane. Then I envied both the banker and the football player.
During the late sixties, I was back in town. Those were the days when the Vietnam War was raging and the country was badly divided. I met the banker at a luncheon, and he seemed approachable. When I needed financial advice for a young man with whom I was working, I called the banker. We talked about the young man’s problems. Then the banker said:
“I have been asked to speak at a Thanksgiving service,
and I am trying to figure out what to say.
Frankly, I don’t feel very thankful.
The country is in such trouble.
We are torn apart by war protests and race riots.
What would you say
if you were speaking at a Thanksgiving service this year?”
He took me by surprise. This man of privilege—this man whom I so admired and envied—this man who had everything—this man who had so much for which to be thankful. Now he was saying, “I don’t feel thankful!” Those were indeed terrible times! I could understand how the man felt! And I can understand how we might not feel thankful at Thanksgiving. Life is not always easy. Times are not always good.
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Last week, I noticed a construction-paper poster on our dining room table. At the top it said, “Things I Am Thankful For—Elizabeth.” It had only one entry. What would you think a four-year-old might be thankful for? Mom? No. Dad? No. Brother? No. Food, clothing and shelter? No. Health? Of course not! There was one entry on her Thanksgiving poster— Disneyland. When I saw that, I thought, “I wish that I could insure that she would always have a Disneyland in her life at Thanksgiving. I wish that I could insure that her Thanksgivings would always be good, but I can’t. Will she be able to give thanks when there is no Disneyland in her life?”
What about you? Do you feel thankful this Thanksgiving? No doubt you can list things for which you feel thankful—food, clothing, shelter, friends. But making a list is different from feeling thankful—from being joyful.
Which brings me to our scripture text. Paul wrote the Christians in the little church that he had established in the city of Thessalonica. In this letter, he said:
“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In everything give thanks,
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
“In everything give thanks!” I mentioned this text in our Bible study group a few weeks ago, and one of the people said, “‘In everything give thanks!’ Does that mean that we should give thanks for hunger and poverty and illness.” I reminded her that this text doesn’t ask us to give thanks FOR all circumstances, but IN all circumstances. God doesn’t expect us to give thanks FOR hunger, poverty and illness—but we can give thanks EVEN WHEN we are hungry, poor or ill.
I am reminded of an incident from the 16th chapter of Acts. Paul and Silas had been preaching about Christ, and had offended a local businessman who had them thrown in prison. This was the same Paul who tells us to be thankful in all circumstances. Before the jailers locked Paul and Silas in their cells, they removed their shirts and beat them severely with rods.
At midnight, Paul and Silas were sitting in their cells praying and singing hymns to God, when an earthquake rocked the jail and opened the doors. I find it less amazing that the earthquake freed them than that they were praying and singing hymns. Can you imagine being beaten and thrown in prison? Would you feel like praying? Probably! Would you feel like singing? Probably not! We might pray that God would help us, but we would probably not sing hymns. Singing is a joyful enterprise! But Paul and Silas were singing hymns. Why?
• Paul and Silas certainly were not singing hymns because they enjoyed punishment. They were not from the “Beat me; it feels so good” crowd.
• They were singing hymns because they felt the presence and the power of God.
• They were singing hymns because they knew that, however the game looked at that point, God had already scored the winning touchdown at the cross and the open tomb.
• They were singing hymns because they knew that the darkness of Good Friday is followed by the sunrise of Easter.
• They were singing hymns because they knew that, though God might permit their enemies to lash their backs, he would not permit them to win.
• They were singing hymns because they knew that they had victory in their hands.
• They were singing hymns because the Lord was their shepherd, and they would never want.
• They were singing hymns because, even when they walked through the darkest valley, they need have no fear—because God was with them. His rod and staff would comfort them.
• They were singing hymns because they knew that God would prepare a table before them in the presence of their enemies.
• They were singing hymns because God’s goodness and mercy would follow them all the days of their lives.
• They were singing hymns because they would dwell in the house of the Lord forevermore.
Perhaps that explains how Paul—the same Paul who had been beaten and thrown in prison—could exhort us to give thanks in all circumstances. He had not given thanks for his imprisonment, but had given thanks that God was with him even in the bowels of that jail. He does not ask us to give thanks for poverty, hunger, illness or grief. He does call us to give thanks in the midst of these circumstances, knowing that God is with us through them all.
When I lived in Miami in the early seventies, I attended the evening services at the Cutler Ridge Presbyterian Church. It was a beautiful church in one of the nicer Miami suburbs. They had recently called Bob Davis to be their pastor. Bob was a former All-American football player who had been offered a chance to play for the Chicago Bears. He had decided instead to study for the ministry.
Bob was a huge man, six feet seven inches tall. He was about my age––pretty young. During the time that I was attending services at that church, I envied Bob. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a football hero! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to serve as the pastor of a large, rich church in the Miami suburbs!
Paul Harvey used to say, “And now for the rest of the story!” I happened to run across the rest of Bob Davis’ story the other day. It illustrates very well what I am trying to say in this sermon, so I want to share it with you.
In August 1987, after fourteen years of ministry at the Cutler Ridge Presbyterian Church, Bob Davis stood in the pulpit to announce that he was concluding his ministry there. He told the congregation that he had discovered that he had Alzheimer’s disease. He had reached the point where he could no longer continue his work. In the pews, eyes were wet with tears. Bob went on to say:
“A Christian can do nothing greater
than surrender completely to the Savior.
My life is not mine but Christ’s.
Today my ministry draws to a close….
I stand at the finish line
because God himself has set the distance I must run….
Bob Davis did not ask prayers for himself, but for his family:
Pray for Betty, as I turn the guardianship over to her.
I will not suffer nearly as much as she will.
Pray that I be spared a personality change.
Pray that I in no way inadvertently disgrace my Lord,
this church, or the people I love.”
When asked about healing, Bob spoke slowly. He had to concentrate on each word. He continued:
“Well, we all want magic, I guess.
But the Lord made it clear to me
that I’m no different from Paul.
You remember he prayed three times for….
(then he lost his thought)
whatever it was to be removed, but it wasn’t.
Yet he was able to say—what was it he said, Betty?”
Betty quoted these words from the Apostle Paul, who said:
“I have learned in whatever state I am,
to be content” (Philippians 4:11).
Bob then left the room and returned with a picture that a friend had given him. It was a picture of Jesus clutching a lamb to his cheek. The lamb had one eye open and the other eye closed. The lamb seemed to be saying, “How safe it feels!” The former football star wiped his eyes and said:
“The picture gives the only possible answer.
It seems as though the lamb is showing me
how it should be done.
I don’t have to know any more about this
than the lamb knows.
I am just as safe as he, whatever my circumstances.”
That’s the answer! That’s the answer to the question, “How can we give thanks in all circumstances?” We can give thanks because, no matter how terrible the circumstances, God is with us. We can give thanks because we don’t have to know any more than the lamb knows. We can give thanks because we are just as safe as he is, whatever our circumstances.
This Thanksgiving might be a truly wonderful time in your life—or it might not. It might find you in the sunshine of the mountain top, or it might find you in the shade of the valley.
Whichever place you find yourself, remember that God is there with you. He will never fail you or forsake you. Cultivate his presence. Speak with him often in prayer. Kneel in his presence. Offer him all that you are and all that you have. Give him thanks for all that he is and all of his love. Then you will find this—and every season—can truly to be a Thanksgiving for you—and that your thankful spirit will make every season a Thanksgiving for those whose lives you touch. So:
“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In everything, give thanks,
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you.”
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan.