In Everything Give Thanks? You Must Be Kidding!
November 23, 1995 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando |
Some years ago, while on a speaking assignment in another state, I was invited one evening to have dinner with a family in their home. When we sat down at the table, the mother called on 4-year-old Christopher to say grace, the prayer of Thanksgiving before the meal. She had whispered to me earlier that they were trying to teach their children how to pray—not just memorized prayers, but prayers of gratitude to God straight from the heart. So as we took our places at the table, this conversation ensued:
“Christopher, will you say grace tonight?”
“Oh, Mom, do I have to? I don’t know how.”
“Sure you do, son. It’s your turn. Just tell God what you are grateful for tonight.”
Well, like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, 4-year-old Christopher began to pray. With one eye devoutly closed in prayer, and the other eye discreetly open so that he could look around as he prayed, Christopher proceeded to thank God for everything in sight. “Thank you, God, for the roast beef, the rolls, the brown gravy, the potatoes, the tomatoes, the green beans, the salt, the pepper, the knives, the spoons, the forks, the tablecloth, the napkins.” On and on he went naming everything on the table. His brothers and sisters began to snicker. His parents and I had to fight to keep from laughing as well, but Christopher, undisturbed and unperturbed, one eye prayerfully closed, the other eye surveying the room, began to thank God for the table and the chairs, the carpet, the curtains; and then he moved on to the people at the table … calling them all by name except me … he referred to me as “this new man.” Finally, he ended up by thanking God for his dog, Spot, who was under the table, hoping to catch some food that might fall. He thanked God for everything he could see … everything except the carrots. He told me later that he didn’t like carrots!
When at last he finished, his brothers and sisters began to tease him, but his parents thanked him for such a glorious prayer. He beamed in response. I sat there looking at this heart-warming scene and thought to myself: “Isn’t this wonderful? Here’s a little 4-year-old boy, encouraged by his parents to be thankful to God, and he winds up being thankful for absolutely everything—except, of course, those carrots! And he was so happy about the whole thing.
I have to tell you that the happiest people I know in life are grateful people. The strongest, most fulfilled people I know in life are thankful people. Those who have a genuine spirit of appreciation in life are the most zestful, the most radiant people in all the world. Even in the midst of difficult circumstances in life, they know that because God is with them, they cannot ultimately be defeated. They know that for all of life’s hurts and hazards, heartaches and heartbreaks, God will give them victory in the end. They live the words Paul wrote: “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. In all circumstances give thanks. Whatever happens, give thanks.”
Now I know you may be thinking to yourself: “Give thanks for everything? You must be kidding! There are some things in life I am just not thankful for.” True. But let me hasten to point out that Paul does not say give thanks for everything. The key is to underscore the preposition “in,” not “for.” Paul does not say give thanks for everything, instead, he says give thanks in everything; and there is a big difference between those two. Obviously, we don’t give thanks for cancer or for heart attacks, or for unemployment or for tragedy, or for accidents, or for violence or for war. Little Christopher couldn’t give thanks for those carrots, and I’m not so wild about them myself! We don’t have to give thanks for everything, but in everything, we can give thanks. You know why, don’t you? It is because God is with us. In every circumstance in life He is with us, and if we open our hearts to Him and hold on to Him in faith, then He will see us through. Someone has put it like this:
“Rich is not what we have, it is who we have beside us.”
Not material things, nice as those are, it’s the people we hold dear and the God who holds us dear … that’s the real reason for Thanksgiving. Rich is not what we have, it’s who we have beside us. And when we have God beside us and within us, then in everything we can give thanks. When we have God beside us and within us, then gratitude becomes the theme, the motif, the watchword, the hallmark, the overriding spirit of our lives.
In other words, for the Christian, gratitude is the language we speak.
Recently, I saw a cartoon that showed a tough-looking dog running toward a small cat, obviously spoiling for a fight. Suddenly this cat rose up and began, not to meow, but to bark and snarl ferociously. The cat’s angry barking so startled and surprised the frightened dog that the dog tucked his tail between his legs and turned and ran away and hid under a nearby house. With that, the cat turned to the reading audience and said: “Sometimes it helps to know a second language.” Well, that’s true, I’m sure. However, I’m equally sure that the first language, the primary language, the native language of the Christian is the language of gratitude. Do you remember the old Hasidic story recounted for us by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book, Who Needs God? It is the story of a tailor named Mendel, who came to his Rabbi and said: “Rabbi, I have a problem with my prayers. If someone says to me ‘Mendel, you are a wonderful tailor,’ that makes me feel good. I feel appreciated. I can go on feeling good for a whole week—even longer—on the strength of one compliment like that. But if people came to me every day, one after another, hour after hour and kept saying to me over and over and over ‘Mendel, you are a wonderful tailor,’ why, I think it would drive me crazy. I think I would get to the point where I didn’t want to listen to them anymore. I would tell them to leave me alone and let me do my work in peace. Then this is what bothers me. It seems to me that if we told God how wonderful He is just once every week or so, and just one or two of us at a time, well that’s all that He would need. Surely God is not so insecure that He needs all of us—millions of us—thanking and praising Him morning, noon, and night. It seems to me that it would drive Him crazy.” The Rabbi smiled and said: “Mendel, you’re absolutely right. You have no idea how hard it is for God to listen to all of our prayers hour after hour, day after day, but you see, God knows how important it is for us to utter that praise and thanksgiving, and so in His great love for us, He tolerates all of our prayers.”
Oh, the wisdom of the Rabbi. God does not need our flattery, but we need to be thankful people, and we need to express our gratitude continually. How can we glimpse the manger scene at Bethlehem and not feel a surge of gratitude? How can we remember what Christ did for us on Calvary and not be filled to overflowing with the spirit of thanksgiving? How can we draw breath, lift a hand, take a step, speak a word, enjoy a meal, experience a sunset, kneel at an altar, walk into a church, kiss a loved one, hold a baby, and not feel gratitude? Gratitude is the stuff of which Christians are made. Gratitude is the language we speak.
And for the Christian, gratitude is the fragrance we reek.
Back in the early days of the church, a rather strong-smelling incense was burned in the worship services and the aroma of that incense would saturate the clothing of all those present. And therefore, when people left the church, they literally reeked of the smell of incense, so that wherever they went, people could tell by their fragrance that they had been to church. People could tell by the aroma that they had been in the presence of God. Isn’t that a beautiful thought? So let me ask you, can people sense the aroma of thanksgiving in your life?
I think it’s fascinating to note that so many of the greatest expressions of thanksgiving in history have come from people who did not have much in the way of material things. They did not have a lot of earthly blessings to count: Jesus, who had no place to lay his head, Luther in hiding for his life, Francis of Assisi who was voluntarily poor, Helen Keller who was blind and deaf, Mother Teresa who lives out her days in a leper colony, and the pilgrims—cold, hungry, scared and homeless at Plymouth Rock. And yet, from them all poured unconditional gratitude—gratitude with no strings attached. That was the fragrance of their lives because they knew God was with them. Life was hard, times were tough, but God was with them and that’s all that mattered. Gratitude is the language we speak and it is the fragrance we reek.
And for the Christian, gratitude is the lifestyle we keep.
Noted minister Roland Perdue keeps an old rope in the trunk of his car, but in addition, he cut off a small link of that rope, and he keeps that—in of all places—his pulpit. It’s a dramatic reminder. You see, the car he was driving slid off a slick road and landed in the ditch. A farmer came by and tied a rope to the car and pulled him out. “How can I ever thank you?” Roland Perdue said to him. “Well,” said the farmer, “there are a lot of ways to say thanks, but the best way is to pass it on.” He then tossed the rope to Roland Perdue, and he said: “Why don’t you take this rope—maybe someday you can help somebody. Maybe someday you can pull somebody else out of a ditch.” That’s why Roland Perdue keeps that rope in his car, and in his pulpit.
Many years ago, Jesus Christ tossed us a rope—a lifeline—or better put, a cross, to pull us, not just out of a ditch, but out of death. And the best way for us to thank Him for that is to pass it on. That’s why I carry a cross—this little cross—in my pocket. It was given to me more than 25 years ago by LeRoy Raider, one of my great fathers in the Christian faith. Maybe it was because he was a funeral director, I don’t know, but he understood death and the power of Christ over death better than almost anyone I have ever known. When he gave this cross to me, he told me to carry it always, and I have. He said: “Whenever you put your hand in your pocket, that cross will be there to remind you of the price Christ paid for you.” He was right. I never touch that cross in my pocket without remembering with gratitude that Christ has given me life—life here and life forever.
Gratitude—that’s what this day is all about. Gratitude is the language of the Christian. Gratitude is the fragrance of the Christian. Gratitude is the lifestyle of the Christian. Paul had it right all along.
“In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”