Giving Thanks In All Things

You’ve surely heard the Biblical instruction “give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God for you.” It is Verse 18 of I Thessalonians 5. You certainly heard it if you were in a Christian church on Thanksgiving Sunday. Most people who point to this verse emphasize that we are instructed to give thanks IN all things, not FOR all things, indicating a prevailing attitude of trust and gratitude that we should maintain no matter what is going on in our lives.

But I would like to point out something else that I don’t usually hear mentioned. This verse is one of three exhortations in one sentence. They are verses 16, 17, and 18 from I Thessalonians 5, and together they form a single sentence. It reads: “(16) Rejoice always, (17) pray constantly, (18) give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” That’s how the NIV puts it. The International Standard Version reads, “(16) Always be joyful, (17) continually be prayerful, (18) in everything be thankful, because this is God’s will in Christ Jesus for you.”

If all you read was the International Standard Version, you might think that only the third part, giving thanks in all things, is God’s will for you, but if you see the NIV, you can’t miss that semicolon—which brings both of the earlier two parts under the same umbrella. All three are God’s will for you.

The Message makes that last point especially clear. Set off in a paragraph by themselves are verses 16–18: “Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.”

Happy Thanksgiving, joyfully, prayerfully.

           

Making Your Life Vast

During my long stay in Florida, while my partner of 26 years was very ill and declining more and more each difficult day, I had two resources with me that became my main reading material for the quiet evenings. One was Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet on my Kindle and the other was the Bible in ESV (English Standard Version). One could argue that both made for somber reading, but both provided me with needed and appreciated solace.

Rilke’s Letter #8 seemed almost to have been written for my circumstances and I read it more than once. As for the Bible, I had settled on studying the book of Isaiah. Each night I would read from both books as a way to calm myself and try to get ready to sleep.

Isaiah and Rilke seemed quite unlike each other ordinarily, until one evening when it seemed to me that I was finding the same message in both. Rilke’s Letter #8 addresses how to deal with sadness and being solitary, especially when they come upon us suddenly. He wrote: “But it is necessary for us to experience that too. We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.”

After reading that from Rilke, I picked up Isaiah, where I happened to be in Chapter 54, and it told me: “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left….”

To me then and also now, these texts offer the same message: you must enlarge and expand your sense of your life, your emotional and psychic selves, so that they are vast enough to encompass and absorb whatever comes your way. Even something as devastating as the death of your partner. There will be no avoiding it, no shrinking away from it, no running away. All that is left is expanding enough, enlarging your tent enough, to accommodate it and let it be part of who you are.

My partner, Helene, passed away two months ago today, on July 22, 2016. I miss her more than I can say.

           

The Value of a Good Book

The monthly newsletter for Parkplace Books, Kirkland, Washington, featured a quote from Oscar Wilde that I want to share:  “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”

Is that nothing more than a clever twisting of phrases? Or is there something worth thinking about here? I voted for the latter because of the inherent point about building character.

The various kinds of media engagement have impacts on who we are. Certainly films and songs and social media can affect us deeply, or can be simply passing entertainment. But generally a book requires a commitment of time, of living with one story or one point of view for some duration of time, and that is formative by nature. It subtly shapes the attitudes and outlook of the reader as it broadens his or her experience of life. This, in turn, alters who that person becomes.

There are all manner of books that we can choose to read, but what if we spend time every day (or at least very often) reading the Bible, even though we don’t have to? With no effort on the reader’s part, other than the simple act of reading, the messages, the themes, the guidance, the perspective, the promises of the Bible begin to shape who that person is, how that person thinks, and how that person reacts to life. Or as Oscar Wilde put it, it determines who that person will be when he or she can’t help it.

The next time you are choosing a book to read, maybe it would be wise to consider the kind of person you want to be.


           

Retroactive Grace

One of the evidences that spirituality is an “everyday” thing is how frequently spiritual or religious references show up in our culture.

I happened to see the 2006 movie Freedomland recently. The link will take you to a Wikipedia page that explains the plot. In brief, a young boy is missing, then found dead. Accusations are made against innocent people until the tragic truth is discovered. The lead characters are Julianne Moore as the boy’s mother and Samuel L. Jackson as the police detective. When the detective visits the boy’s mother in prison, he reflects upon his own personal history and tells her: “God’s grace is sorta like retroactive.”

What he means by this is that God’s grace has touched his life, giving him a chance to make up for past failures. That he can recognize this in his own life suggests that the same grace is available to her.

Even for people (like all of us) who have made mistakes, done things for which they have difficulty forgiving themselves, entrapped themselves in spirals of guilt and regret, God’s grace is available. It’s present; it’s future; it’s even retroactive. And if we think that our mistakes reveal our weaknesses, all the better.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes of asking God to rid him of a particular torment, a thorn in his flesh, but in response to his pleading, God said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (NIV). The Amplified text spells it out more clearly: “My grace (My favor and loving-kindness and mercy) is enough for you [sufficient against any danger and enables you to bear the trouble manfully]; for My strength and power are made perfect (fulfilled and completed) and show themselves most effective in [your] weakness.” [2 Corinthians 12:9]

Our only role when it comes to God’s grace is to accept it.

           

Off the Cuff

In a short article in the September 18 issue of The Christian Century, I learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was not from a written, rehearsed text but was instead extemporaneous. The singer Mahalia Jackson stood near as Dr. King rose to speak at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and she said to him: “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” Hearing her, King folded up his prepared speech, put it away, and instead spoke from his heart.

The result was one of the most famous, most quoted, most remembered, most cherished speeches of all time. Chances are, if he had ignored the prompting of his heart and read the text printed on the paper, the speech might have been a good one, but with nowhere near the impact and reach of the one he gave.

So, can we say that “I Have a Dream” was impromptu? Not if we consider King’s background in faith and religious studies. The same Divinity Who said to Moses: “I will help you speak and will teach you what to say” [Exodus 4:12] and to the 12 disciples : “At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” [Matthew 10:19-20] could certainly have whispered the same message to Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963, on the heels of the exhortation from Mahalia Jackson.

           

Bible-reading as Mystery

I might as well go ahead and admit that Bible-reading is a mystery to me. Last week I commented that I never try to defend the Bible, nor press it upon people, but I still return to it every morning and usually find reason for peace. The peace is part of the mystery, as is my urge to spend a little time daily with Scripture. Some days I hurry through, some days it doesn’t seem to amount to much, some days my perspective feels forever changed.

Several years ago I attended a presentation by Bishop John Shelby Spong, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church well known in Christian circles for writing books that seem to be deeply critical of the Church and the Bible – books like Why Christianity Must Change or Die. The main thing I recall from his talk is his deep reverence for the Bible, despite his controversial public position on it. He, too, continued to find solace in returning to the pages of Scripture.

More currently, there is The Christian Century, which features in each issue a column entitled “Living by the Word.” In the 16 October 2013 edition, Scottish writer Sara Maitland, after discussing lessons to be learned from the scoundrel Jacob, gives this frame of reference for Bible-reading:  “So when we go to the Bible we have to go alert and cunning about the fact that it is not a single text. It may very well all be inspired, but it is inspired to a variety of purposes and therefore comes in a variety of genres and calls for a variety of reading skills.”

I like her suggestion that readers be “alert and cunning” in approaching the Bible. I don’t expect that such an attitude will expunge the mystery; I wouldn’t be surprised if it deepens it.

           

Gladness

Maybe it’s the rain. When it’s relentlessly wet and stormy, after a while I start to think about gladness – how to get some, how to keep it. I’m one of those people who need gladness.

So I was especially pleased this morning to notice something new in the Bible that I never saw before. It’s in John 17, with Jesus addressing God in prayer: “And now I am coming to You; I say these things while I am still in the world, so that My joy may be made full and complete and perfect in them [that they may experience My delight fulfilled in them, that My enjoyment may be perfected in their own souls, that they may have My gladness within them, filling their hearts]. John 17:13 Amp.

There’s so much in the Bible that is intolerable to friends of mine, even the deeply spiritual folks for whom things of this nature are important. I never try to defend the Bible, nor press it upon people, but I still return to it every morning and usually find reason for peace. Maybe that’s because after so many years, I know where to look and where not to! All I know is that I feel better about today, even with its rain, when I consider that there is a sacred intention that I have divine gladness filling my heart.