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Corrie Ten Boom in The Hiding Place relates an incident which taught her something along that line. She and her sister, Betsy, had just been transferred to the worst German prison camp they had seen yet, Ravensbruck. Upon entering the barracks, they found them extremely overcrowded and flea-infested. Their scripture reading that morning happened to be the one we read a moment ago - rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances. Betsy told Corrie to stop and thank the Lord for every detail of their new living quarters. Corrie at first flatly refused to give thanks for the fleas, but Betsy persisted. She finally succumbed. During the months spent at that camp, they were surprised to find how openly they could hold Bible study and prayer meetings without guard interference. It was several months later when they learned that the guards would not enter the barracks because of the fleas.(1) Hmm.
This past Monday evening, distressed at having missed my Sunday evening "fix" of good television writing because The West Wing had been pre-empted the night before, I turned to the Bravo cable channel that was running its weekly West Wing marathon. One of the episodes was the one that was broadcast shortly after the September 11th attacks entitled "Isaac and Ishmael" and was an attempt to put the horror in some perspective. The scenario was a lock-down of the White House because of a perceived terrorist threat which happened to detain some high school students who were on a tour at that moment. Several of the White House senior staff, also stuck in the lock-down, were talking with the kids.
One brief vignette jumped out at me in conjunction with this morning's theme. White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler was talking about Islamic extremists and their relationship to the teachings of Islam and how seductive the movement toward evil could be. Toby is Jewish and he was recalling an incident from his childhood. "A friend of my dad's was at one of the [concentration] camps. He used to come over to the house, and he and my dad used to shoot some pinochle. He said he once saw a guy at the camp kneeling and praying. He said, 'What are you doing?' The guy said he was thanking God. And my dad's friend said, 'What could you possibly be thanking God for?' He said, 'I'm thanking God for not making me like them.'"(2)
Giving thanks in a concentration camp...for anything? Actually, the most intense moments of thankfulness seem to be found, not when the sailing is smooth, but when the waves are rough and threaten to drag us under. Think of the Pilgrims that first Thanksgiving. Half their number dead, a world away from hearth and home, no guarantee of a better future, but still there was thanksgiving to God. That same sense of gratitude led Abraham Lincoln to call for a Thanksgiving Day in the midst of a disastrous civil war, when the list of casualties seemed to have no end and the nation struggled for its very survival. Or after the hurricanes this year, over and over again, statements from survivors, not lamenting what was lost, but giving thanks for what was left.
"Give thanks in ALL circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." I wonder what the Thessalonians who first heard these words thought about that. They were probably Gentile converts to Christianity living in a prosperous port city astride a major trade route. It was the capital of the province of Macedonia and thus the seat of Roman administration. It was a melting pot with a variety of cultural influences and many gods. And, of course, there was the imperial cult of the Caesars, which would prove to be socially and commercially dangerous to ignore, regardless of any other gods you might worship.
The story of Paul's visit to Thessalonica is found in Acts, chapter 17. It was a short visit - the text says he preached in the synagogue for three Sabbaths. But he obviously made quite an impression and had such tremendous success at winning converts to Christ that the Jews were enraged and raised so much trouble that Paul had to be smuggled out, in peril of his life, to Beroea. But in that brief time, a wonderful bond of affection had been built. Paul called the little congregation "our glory and our joy."(3)
But some problems had cropped up. The preaching of Christ's Second Coming had produced an unhealthy situation in which people had stopped working and had abandoned all ordinary pursuits to await the Lord with a kind of hysterical expectancy. So Paul tells them to be quiet and to get on with their work.(4) They were worried about what was to happen to those who died before Jesus' return. Paul says don't worry, they will miss none of the glory.(5) There was the ever-present danger that they would relapse into immorality - it was hard ignore or escape the contagion of the heathen world. There were some in that little fellowship who questioned authority, even hinting that Paul himself only preached the gospel for his own personal gain(6) and that he was something of a dictator.(7) As one commentator noted, "These were the problems with which Paul had to deal; and they show that human nature has not changed so very much."(8)
"Give thanks in ALL circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." No qualifications. ALL CIRCUMSTANCES. As hard for the Thessalonians to hear as it is for you and me.
But then we think about it, and we find a way. Houston Hodges is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Alabama. He is a wonderfully down-to-earth gentleman (in the very best sense of that word) who had hip-replacement surgery a couple of years ago. Not long after, he posted a note on PresbyNet. Listen.
"I still go to the lovely warm therapy pool...three days a week, to prepare for the US Gymnastics Team at the Tokyo Olympics, or to keep my titanium hip-joint mobile, whichever comes first. We regulars like the water at a robust 95 degrees, and complain when it gets down around 90; it is an entirely salutary experience to immerse oneself in it up to the neck, then stretch and move and waggle one's appendages. The scenery is nice, too, since the place is inhabited by a coterie of trim and athletic young people, mostly of the female persuasion, in their attractive working garb, which consists of one-piece swim suits.
"There I was this morning, thoroughly enjoying upping my self-righteousness points, when an attendant wheeled in a young man about 30, in a full-fledged and formidable contraption looking more like a light tank than a wheel-chair, with rods and tubes and braces all over it. He's evidently a quadriplegic, whose muscular control is limited to his head, though there was a brace to support his head on his neck. The attendant started disgarbing him from the layers of February coverings, while Andie, the mother superior of the therapists, did an assessment session with him, right at the side of the pool, three feet from where I was paddling my innertube.
"She was talking with him about measurable objectives for his next phase in his therapy -- questioning, rephrasing, prodding, analyzing behaviors. His head remained absolutely motionless; his voice, which I could not not hear, was labored, almost mechanical. I tried not to hear some of the things they were discussing, about suctioning breathing passages and the mechanics of chewing and swallowing. But I could not not understand when they talked about having 'normal, ordinary conversations, without strain.' He had trouble quantifying what he'd like to achieve; Andie pressed him into fantasy role-playing: 'Just imagine what you'd like to be able to do, and tell me what I'd see and hear if you did it.'
"They finally worked around to describing what he's going to work on: 'Three five-minute conversations a day, without strain.' Three. Five minutes each. Fifteen minutes. A day."
Houston concludes, "I don't have any problems, any problems at all."(9)
I loved hearing last week about Bob Clark's daily practice of beginning each morning by writing down five blessings from God that he had experienced the previous day, and his encouragement to you to do the same. What a wonderful way to begin the day! Bringing that kind of perspective to what might lie ahead makes all the difference in how you meet what comes. Then it is EASY to "Give thanks in ALL circumstances..."
Once upon a time, in some far away mythical world, there was a group of people that gathered for a community thanksgiving service. All the churches in the area got together and planned the service. Everyone in all the churches was invited. They would do this every year, and every year it was the same thing. They would gather and sing hymns that everyone liked and there would be a sermon that no one would remember, they would take an offering for some worthy cause and after the service they would visit with friends and neighbors while they ate cookies and drank coffee. Year after year the same. They enjoyed it, it was a chance to get all the churches, and all the people of the community together. So year after year they would have their community thanksgiving service.
Then came one unusual year. There was really nothing unusual about the planning - they planned to have the same kind of service they had in previous years. The beginning of the service was the same. The sermon was the same...then after the sermon they started to sing one of their favorite hymns. They all sang out, "Count your blessings...name them one by one..." And that is when everything changed because, suddenly, in the middle of the chancel, there was an angel. Everyone knew it was an angel...and slowly as people realized who was there, they stopped singing and just stood and waited to hear what the angel had to say.
Finally the church was silent and the angel spoke: The angel said, I have come today with a message for you. The message is: "Count your blessings, name them one by one. Now." Well, they thought that was a pretty strange message, but well, when an angel speaks you should listen and do it, so one brave person said, "I am blessed to be in good health." And the angel said, "One."
Someone else said, "I am thankful for a promotion" and the angel said, "Two." Another person said, "I have been blessed with a loving family" and the angel said "Three." Someone else said friends, and another said neighbors and the angel said four and five...and then a farmer said a good harvest and the angel said six. And then there was a long silence as people tried to think of more blessings. The angel looked around at the 96 people that were there and said again "Six? Only six? Count your blessings, name them one by one." And everyone was silent, because no one could think of any more blessings to name.
Now as it happens sometimes, there was a young man in one of the pews - not a child anymore, not yet an adult though, and he was bored with all of what was going on. He heard the angel say count and name and so he started thinking of names of friends. He started trying to list all his friends names in alphabetical order in his head. He really wasn't paying much attention to what anyone else said. Then the angel said again, "Name them. Now." And the young man, almost without thinking, said, "Arnold and Billy and Bob and Dad, although he is Dad and not really a friend, and Frank and Gary..." And the angel smiled and said, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Well, that started people going...and everyone was calling out names of family members and friends and neighbors, some even called out the pastors' names. And the angel just kept counting.
Then someone said, "I'm thankful for flowers," and that started them going again. They gave thanks for violets and marigolds and mums and poinsettias and lilies and petunias and roses and morning glories and the name morning glories reminded someone of something else and they said, "I'm thankful for sunrise," which, of course, led someone else to say sunset, and that reminded them of birds singing and that reminded them of other animals, so the angel heard dogs and cats and birds and giraffes and dolphins and whales and snakes and spiders and mice and hamsters and gerbils.
By now of course people were really getting into the spirit of things and they were excitedly calling out blessings. Well, that mood caught on and one small and very young voice said, "I like turkey...and they were off again, giving thanks for dressing and potatoes and cranberries and sweet potatoes and corn and green beans and home made rolls and butter and milk and jelly and peanut butter and pumpkin pie and mince meat pie and cherry pie and chocolate pie and the angel just kept on counting.
This was beginning to be a fun game now and so another young voice said, "I'm thankful for my teddy bear... and others mentioned sleds and bikes and games and cars and dolls and puppets and crayons and paper and pencils, which led one lady to think about writing letters and how good it was to get letters in the mail so she said stamps and envelopes and someone else said telephones and another said e-mail....and so it went. One remembered blessing led to another and everyone shouted out blessings or with a quiet voice said something near and dear to them and the angel took time to listen to everyone until they had all named the blessings in their lives.
Finally the angel said "6,782!" and the people applauded. Then the angel looked out over the crowd and said, "Now you can finish singing the hymn" The organist struck a chord and they sang, "Count your blessings name them one by one." And people smiled as they sang, for they knew just how many blessings they had.
Of course that is a made up story. That would never really happen. Nah. But, then again, who says we have to wait for an angel?
The word of God: "Give thanks in ALL circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."
1. Bible Illustrator for Windows, diskette, (Hiawatha, Iowa: Parsons Technology, 1994)
2. "Isaac and Ishmael," Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing, NBC, original air date 10/3/01
3. 1 Thessalonians 2:20
6. 2:5, 9
7. 2:6-7, 11
8. William Barclay , Daily Study Bible Series, CD-ROM edition, (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press
9. Houston Hodges to the PresbyNet meeting H SQUARE, 2/19/03, Note #3722