Thankfulness Through Tears
The title for this week’s Personal is taken from the title of a sermon I heard last week in Indianapolis, Indiana, by pastor Joshua Creech. At this time of year, a Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated in various places around the world and his sermon placed a thought-provoking emphasis on gratitude in the times in which we live.
This has been a difficult year for many of us. An infectious coronavirus has encircled the world creating the COVID-19 pandemic and it appears that its effects will soon continue into a third year. During this pandemic, we have experienced disease, disappointment, depression, despair, division and death. The pastor’s own father tragically died a few months ago of COVID-19. Those of you reading this may know someone close to you who now has an empty chair at the dinner table in their home as well as an empty place in their heart. Lately, I have sent numerous cards to and made many phone calls consoling friends who have lost loved ones. On the Google search engine, “hopelessness” and “suicide” are currently high-trending keywords.
Can you cope and really be truly thankful and even be joyous in a time of year when we are supposed to be expressing thanksgiving? Can we find comfort and relief with all the severe trials, including death, in our midst?
Recorded history shows that the first-century Church was consumed with many trials. There were threats from the outside as well as from inside the Church. The apostle Paul summarized his trials: “Far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-29 2 Corinthians 11:23-29  Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft.
 Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.
 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;
 In journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by my own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brothers;
 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
 Beside those things that are without, that which comes on me daily, the care of all the churches.
 Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?
American King James Version×, English Standard Version).
Yet, he could also declare: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-19 1 Thessalonians 5:16-19  Rejoice ever more.
 Pray without ceasing.
 In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
 Quench not the Spirit.
American King James Version×, ESV).
James, the half-brother of Jesus Christ makes this imperative statement in his letter: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4 James 1:2-4  My brothers, count it all joy when you fall into divers temptations;
 Knowing this, that the trying of your faith works patience.
 But let patience have her perfect work, that you may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.
American King James Version×).
James states that good ultimately comes from the hardship that we may have to endure. In the world, there is hopelessness because people cannot see and understand the bigger perspective of what life and death mean.
When the apostle Paul faced death (which was often), he thought about life: “I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live” (Philippians 1:21-24 Philippians 1:21-24  For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
 But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labor: yet what I shall choose I know not.
 For I am in a strait between two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better:
 Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.
American King James Version×, New Living Translation).
Paul grasped God’s view. From this vantage point, he was able to live each day with confidence and even joy. He knew full well that his next moment of consciousness after death would be living eternally in the Kingdom of God—of which God had shown him a vivid preview in 2 Corinthians 12.
I would like to relate an experience that has powerfully etched an important illustration of thanksgiving into my mind.
In 1992 I visited Ukraine and stayed with Sabbath-keepers whose beliefs were similar to ours. This was one year after Ukraine tore itself away from the Soviet Union and became an independent nation. However, the economy was in shambles. Stores were empty; food was scarce. I stayed in the home of one of the leaders and his family.
My host asked if I would be willing to stand in a line the next day to help their family with bread for the week. Word was that a bread truck was coming and everyone who could get to the truck was allowed two loaves of bread. I obliged. I stood in a long line. The door on the back end of the truck opened revealing many unwrapped loaves of hard-crusted bread in large bins. As I moved along in the line, I saw two women giving out the bread. When I got to the truck, one of the women shoved two loaves of bread into my chest, took my money out of my hand, and then pushed me out of the way. What a shopping experience! This brought new meaning to “Give us this day our daily bread.”
After returning to our host’s home, the Sabbath was approaching and the family gathered. As the sun was setting, we all kneeled down in a circle. Each member of the family was asked to pray and specifically thank God for the blessings of the past week.
What I heard brought tears to my eyes.
I did not hear one word of protest or anger. I did not hear one complaint about the government and shortages of goods. What I did hear was gratitude to God for life and relationships and that they had enough to eat over the past week. The children all expressed thanksgiving and love for everyone in their family. Everyone was focused on God’s goodness and presence and their human relationships because that was what was most important in their lives. They all thanked God for the ability to now worship publicly that they had been denied under the Soviet regime. Their gratitude was so sincere, intense and expressive.
When it came for my turn to pray, I had to quickly reprogram my thinking because my thanksgiving gravitated naturally more to physical things. After all, we have so much inanimate “stuff” in our Western world. Appreciating and sustaining living relationships is often not as high a priority in thinking and even prayer. I will never forget how these impoverished people who lived under Communist oppression could sound so joyful about one another and God.
The lesson? It’s best answered here: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7 Philippians 4:4-7  Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.
 Let your moderation be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.
 Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
 And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
American King James Version×, ESV).