16 Always be joyful. 17 Never stop praying. 18 Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NLT)
The day to give thanks is upon us and --suffice it to say -- we're not always skilled at expressing gratitude. Our hardships often feel like a perpetual stubbed toe. Although small in comparison to our blessings, they are still painful and demanding.
Most of us in this privileged western world are in the unique position to view our suffering as the dreaded exception rather than the rule. For our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, heartbreak eats up a majority of their daily pie chart and they plug along expecting nothing different.
Paul, the writer of the words in Thessalonians, would relate better to them than us. He and his buddy, Silas, walked 70 miles to begin their ministry in this city of 200,000, where the busiest Roman expressway ran right through town. The guys were likely still bandaged and bleeding from the flogging and subsequent prison time they'd recently endured in Phillipi, their ribs evident, like the keys of a xylophone.
Paul's letter to the new Christians in Thessalonica came years later, after Timothy reported trouble in this seaside city. Apparently, thanks to their status as Christ-followers, the citizens there had endured such harsh persecution and attended so many funerals that this question arose: Did we somehow miss the whole rising in the clouds to meet the Lord thing? Are you sure we're NOT in the middle of the tribulation?
So, let's recap. These fine people were not facing a show hole,unbearably slow service at the drive-thru, or a poor selection of pant sizes at Kohl's. They were confronting persecution of epic proportions: their property seized, their businesses closed, family shunning, public insults, beatings, and death. Simply braving a normal day in Thessalonica caused them to question their faith. Did we miss something? What exactly is the advantage of following this Jesus guy?
Who could blame these "Little Christs" for losing hope? For asking questions? For spending a bit too much time lazing on their couches in a drunken stupor?
Enter Paul's letter of encouragement to his pupils. His entreaty to "keep on keeping on" because God is still good even in the midst of the crap life throws at you. Sound familiar?
The more things change, the more they remain the same and in this current age, our "stubbed toes" bear the names cancer, infertility, divorce, estrangement, Alzheimer's, suicide, cultural whiplash, loss, homelessness, prodigal child, chronic illness, anxiety about the future.
Paul's divinely inspired instructions are not the words of a delusional man out-of-touch with our painful realities, but of a man who holds the God-given prescription for seizing life in the epicenter of death.
Pray every second.
Because this is what God wants for you.
And since we know God desires for us only what is good, our obedience to this to-do list will result in the abundant life Jesus promised and for which we ache.
So how do we get there? How do we make the leap from believing in Paul's to-do list to actually achieving it? How do we live the joyful, prayerful, thankful life in the midst of our doubt and pain?
I have some ideas.
But first, you must admit:
That life can feel like a dumpster fire.
That we're living on this side of heaven.
That although your hurts matter to God, he will not always remove them from your life.
Admitting to The Bad Things--being real about them--clears the way for celebrating The Good, which is what giving thanks is all about.
How to Give Thanks When You Don't Feel Like It
Recognize the good and admit that it exists. Give a nod to your comfy bed, that hot cup of coffee, the shoes on your feet. Every grace you count is a deposit in your joy bank.
Once you've acknowledged the good, express your gratitude for it. If you're a cynic, this will feel unnatural or--even worse--fake, but don't give the devil his due by keeping gratefulness to yourself. Honor God and multiply joy by telling people about your godsent discoveries.
Enjoy a challenge? Start your day as a treasure hunt with the goal of identifying as many specific gratitude gems as possible. Write them down as you go. 1. Uplifting song on the radio when I woke up 2. Hot water right out of the tap 3. A dishwasher that does the work for me. You get the idea. Try to top your number the next day.
Start others on the gratitude path by pointing out their blessings. Your barista's great smile, the crossing guard's "go-get-em" attitude, your friend's knack for listening with her whole heart, your husband's great taste in shoes. Encouragement is thanksgiving's cheerleader.
Turn your blessings into opportunities to serve. Thankful for your rescue dog? Offer to help clean kennels for your local shelter. Can you afford enough groceries to feed your small army? Schedule a date to serve lunch at the homeless shelter. Do you love how efficient your riding lawn mower/snow plow gets the job done? Spend a few extra minutes and surprise your neighbor with one less job to do.
The act of sending notes and letters via snail mail has all but disappeared. Why not scribble a few lines to that doctor with the exceptional bedside manner or the pastor with the thought-provoking stories? These under-thanked people will be grateful for your gift.
It's no coincidence that "never stop praying" is on Paul's to-do list. In addition to inciting us to trust God with our worries, sending arrow prayers of gratitude heavenward declares that he is, in fact, responsible for the good we experience. We are not entitled to our blessings, nor are we the cause of them. Rather, we praise our creator who generously provides for us every good gift.
How are you planning to show gratitude this week and in the days ahead?
When I'm counting my blessings this year, you--my readers-- are on the list!