Dear Church: Thanksgiving for the Suffering

Dear Church is a semi-regular blog featuring pastors and other church leaders. This entry is a guest post by Pastor Bill Hurst of First Lutheran Church, Torrance.

 

A friend wrote me this morning, in response to a Thanksgiving greeting, to share that her Thanksgiving’s are anything but joyful. When families gather, it can feel more like a battlefield than a prayer meeting. And the inventory of our sorrows and discontent can make this “holiday of thanks” feel more like a cruel irony than a time for rejoicing.

This sense of disconnect from what Thanksgiving is proffered to us – and the hollowness of the “merry, merry” season to come – is probably a more common reality than most realize. How do we give thanks when thanks seems elusive, when the present moment seems as far from joyful? Such are the challenges so many feel at this time of year.

I’ve been reflecting on thankfulness in the past few weeks, and (at long last) it’s dawning on me how ironic and painful our gestures of “thanks-giving” can be when there doesn’t seem to be a lot to be thankful for in the moment. In fact, “give thanks” can almost feel like an injunction to slap on a cheesy grin and pretend when times and relationships feel like anything but thanks-worthy.

So that’s got me thinking about Philippians 4, perhaps the most commonly used Thanksgiving scripture.

Rejoice in the Lord always; I repeat: Rejoice!
Let your good character be known to everyone.
Since the Lord is near, don’t fret about anything,
but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving,
let your needs be made known to God.
And the peace of God, beyond all human reason,
will safeguard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)

We trot it out all the time – I’m sure as a tool for encouragement – yet I’m sure it can ring really hollow for many who are finding joy and thanks an elusive goal. Yet, the more I think about it, this is a word that embraces our sorrows and discontents as well. Paul, imprisoned for crimes against the Empire, old and arthritic (from multiple beatings and the rigors of travel and persecution), and facing what would turn out to be his execution not much later, can write to his friends in Philippi of joy and thanksgiving.

He seems to know this, since he includes caveats about the nearness of God, the reality of worry and sorrow, and every person’s need of peace and comfort even when times are hard and hearts grow heavy. He urges prayer, with thanks and with honest yearning for a better world, a better circumstance, a better future, whatever our current moment may be telling us about hope, joy, and the prospects for something more and something better to come.

And, finally, he doesn’t promise some fantasy of “happy days.” Reminds me of one of the most popular song lyrics from the days of the American Depression –

Happy days are here again
The skies above are clear again
So let’s sing a song of cheer again
Happy days are here again

Of course, the days weren’t happy, and the skies above were filled with dark portents. Such a song feels more like whistling past the graveyard, and we sing it best when we recognize in it the sound of deep irony. We may wish for happier days, but the reality of what’s around us, and inside us, may be quite different than the lyrics seem to suggest.

Instead, our old friend Paulus moves us to trust in something deeper than transitory “happy days,” or of Thanksgivings dropping like manna from the pens of happy-talkers, or the flourishes of some Rockwell’s brush. He assures the sufferer in us, the discontented among us, the sorrowful heart inside us all, that “the peace of God” which is beyond the rational or evident, will cradle our aching hearts in the broken and loving heart of the suffering, merciful heart of the Christ who is ever near, ever understanding, ever faithful and evergreen.

That’s the thanksgiving I pray for you, for me, for all. A blessed and merciful thanksgiving, even when all seems more bleak than radiant. Again I say, even though clenched teeth or aching heart – rejoice!

 

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