Ways of Giving Thanks

WAYS OF GIVING THANKS – Colossians 1:3-14

                The Rev. Dr. Richard W. Reifsnyder
1st Presbyterian Church
Winchester, VA
November 24, 2013


Be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully
                                            giving thanks to the Father who has enabled you to share in the
                                            inheritance of the saints in light.
                                                                                                                                                Colossians 1:12


When last week I saw the Christmas trees being unloaded at Food Lion, and the garland and lights being put up on the mall, and the first Santa Claus depicted in a TV ad, I knew Thanksgiving could not be far away.  And here we are, ready to celebrate the quintessential America holiday, in many ways my favorite.

Thanksgiving wraps us in so many evocative memories and experiences—-hearing again the story of the pilgrims  surviving  because of their Native American neighbors,  watching a 14 story high Woody Woodpecker being marched down the cavernous streets of  Manhattan during the Macy’s parade, receiving  permission to overeat and have 2 desserts to finish the meal off,  watching nonstop football and enduring the commentary of the family experts, greeting neighbors on the obligatory post dinner attempt to “walk it off,”  negotiating around the table the sometimes complicated family dynamics.   All these things get wrapped up in Thanksgiving.

Of course, before and beyond all that is the recognition that this is a day set apart for no other reason than to give thanks, to express gratitude for the life we have been given, the world in which we live.  What may not always be apparent, however, is thanks to whom?   I suspect you are here on this Sunday because you want God in the equation.   You have a deep and abiding sense that thanksgiving, if there is to be any at all, must begin and end with God.

That is what our text from Colossians tells us.   Paul begins this letter, as he does nearly every letter with an expression of thanks to God, for the people of the church.  “We always thank God in our prayers for we have heard of your faith and of the love that you have for the saints.”  Equally characteristic of Paul’s letters, however, is he almost immediately will turn to problems he sees in the church—theological confusion or ethical lapse—and offers a warning that they better get this straightened out.   Paul is thankful not because all is well and everything proceeding smoothly; he offers thanks in spite of the problems, in the face of their flaws.   He offers no glib promise of smooth sailing as the basis for offering thanks.  Indeed, he urges the Colossians at the end of today’s passage to stay “strong” and “endure everything with patience” while joyfully giving thanks to the Father.  Thanksgiving to God is the foundation of being able to grapple with the hard edges of life.

Such an attitude of gratitude—at least to God—is unfathomable to some.  As a young minister, at my first church, unmarried at the time, I was invited to dinner at the home of one of our most active women.  She was Sunday school superintendent, and on several of the church boards, a lay speaker active in denominational matters.  I did not know her husband Tom, since he never came to church, but I knew his reputation as a prominent lawyer and the town attorney.  Fran asked me to offer a blessing, at which point Tom blurted out, “if you’re going to thank anyone be sure to thank me.  It was my hard work that put this meat and potatoes on the table. That’s where the thanks ought to go.”  There was an awkward silence,  Fran was embarrassed, but finally, as spouses can do, said to her husband, “now Tom,  behave yourself. “ and to me “now pray.”   And I muttered some kind of thanks, novice that I was, somehow including Tom’s hard work as well as God’s blessing in the prayer.

The ability to acknowledge a power beyond our own and offer thanks to a God who transcends our own pluck and good fortune, is a spiritual discipline, an attitude which is shaped and formed over time by practice.  “O give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good,” says the 100th Psalm.  It is not something we know by birth, but by rebirth.  The theme of gratitude is part of the ongoing melody which undergirds the whole biblical song.  It is not an episodic expression in the Christian life, taken up at certain times and set aside at others, but is a whole way of life, one of those good biblical habits, akin to finally getting into the habit of flossing after many false attempts and backslidings.

Sometimes it is said that all prayer can be boiled down to two types “Help!” and “Thanks!”  Writer Anne Lamott, author of Traveling Mercies and other social commentary, in her new book titled Help. Thanks. Wow: the Three Essential Prayers adds a third—WOW—the prayer of adoration, in which like Louis Armstrong we just bask in the recognition we live in a wonderful world created by a loving God, declaring “wow” in the face of mangoes, and fun loving nieces, Bach preludes, and quiet ponds—gorgeous, amazing things which come into our lives when we pay attention.

Her order of these basic prayers should probably be reversed—Wow, Thanks, Help, with thanks taking precedence over help—gratitude over request.    Learning how to give thanks is not only a spiritual discipline; it is also an art, an act of imagination.  We start by giving thanks for meals, or saying simple bedtime prayers, but beyond that we tend to stumble.   Before long we find that our prayer lists are filled with many more petitions than reasons to be thankful.   And that is the opposite of what ought to be.  Thankfulness ought to be the foundation for all other prayers.

Anne Lamott suggests a good place to begin is by cultivating an attitude which replaces any tendency to grumble about people in your life with a litany of thankfulness for them—even the difficult or frustrating ones.  It is humbling she suggests to “comprehend the life saving gift that your pit crew of people has been for you and all the experiences you have shared—births, collaborations, deaths, divorces, rehabilitations, vacations,” work projects, even committee meetings “Every so often you realize that without all of them your life would be barren and pathetic, it would be ‘death of a salesman’—though with e-mails and texting.”

A life of thanksgiving, biblically speaking, is lived in view of the hard things of existence.  As we mature our thankfulness becomes less a matter of rejoicing that we have avoided the messy stuff, and more a recognition of God’s sustenance in the midst of messiness.  We learn to move beyond obvious blessings to “gratitude for obstacles overcome, or insights gained, for lessons learned, for increased humility, for help received in time of need, for strength to persevere, for opportunities to serve” and be of help to others.  (Fleming Rutledge. The Bible and the New York Times, p.23)

I heard Roland Bainton, Professor of Church History at Yale Divinity School and author of best biography of Martin Luther, powerfully testify to the role of thanksgiving when he preached in our chapel shortly after his wife died.   He used the text of Habakkuk: “though the fig tree does not blossom, nor fruit be on the vine; though produce of the olive tree fail and the fields yield no food, I will rejoice in the Lord and give thanks for my salvation. (Hab 3:17-18)   Thanksgiving   not because we escaped the hard edges of life, but as the antidote to yielding to discouragement and complaint, an attitude shaped by years of practice in being thankful in all things.   After all, life is like the game of Chutes and Ladders, with no guaranteed gains, even as we progress toward the goal.

The great Dr. Samuel Johnson, author of the 1st English dictionary, renowned conversationalist, and clever wit, was a man of deep biblical faith.  He was also notoriously a tough taskmaster, not always easy to work with.  A1fter years of hard work, he finally finished his dictionary and sent off the last pages of the manuscript to his publisher, Andrew Millar.  Millar exclaimed to the messenger, “thank God I am done with that pest!”  When Dr. Johnson heard this report, he smiled and said, “I am glad he thanks God for anything.”

There are ways of giving thanks which hardly seem gracious, and there are ways of experiencing gratitude in the most unexpected places. I learned a valuable lesson in that this week when I visited one of our long time members in a nursing home.  I know the hours are long and lonely and he has been there nearly a year.  Despite my good intentions, my visits have been erratic and I was feeling guilty.   But when I walked in I was greeted with an effusiveness far transcending the value of the visit.  Instead of upbraiding me for not coming frequently enough, he thanked me profusely for coming at all, for fitting him into my schedule and not forgetting him.  His gratitude was soul expanding, dissipating my guilt, freeing me to see the visit as an opportunity to be enjoyed instead of a duty to check off. Gratitude is like that.

At times in our lives when it seemed as though it was hard to find reasons to be thankful,

Lynn and I realized the need to commit to the practice of thanksgiving even more.  For a while we adopted discipline of not going to sleep until we had identified two or three  reasons to give thanks at the end of day—sometimes it seemed we were stretching—thank you  Lord that the toilets didn’t overflow today.  Thank you Lord that I didn’t break a leg when I tripped and fell.  Thank you that the woman smiled at me in the supermarket when the kids were acting like the horrible Herdmans.

Give thanks with a grateful heart, we sing.  What could be simpler than that?  What could be

more important not only at this season but everyday?  What could provide more of a challenge

than to let the spirit of thankfulness shape us in all circumstances? Ultimately our goal is to

develop the most important thanksgiving of all, the one that transcends all contingencies,

thanking God for being God, recognizing what he has done, meditating on his wonderful

works, building a faithful life upon the recognition of his acts of deliverance.

We may still be a long way from that, but I wish that this Thanksgiving will provide yet another opportunity to develop your skill in  fine art of giving thanks.






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