In All Things Give Thanks! Really?

“In all things give thanks!” That sounds like superficial pious nonsense, a sugary platitude spoken by an armchair philosopher or prosperity gospel preacher surrounded by gilded opulence.  Who would dare offer such advice to a world filled with suffering, conflict, evil, violence, poverty, and death?

Before we dismiss the counsel, we best listen to the author’s description of his life’s experiences:

“Five times I have received. . . the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods.  Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, . . ., danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11:25-27).

While he was languishing in prison, waiting execution, he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians  4: 4).

So, we can’t dismiss the Apostle Paul’s advice as some Pollyanna denial of reality or escape into a fantasy world of contrived positive thinking or feigned faith. He knew something we desperately need to know!

We all know hardships and struggles. Sometimes life’s suffering and anguish overwhelms us. For many, loss and grief are constant companions and tears frequently flow uncontrollably.

We live in troubled times: lost public decency and civility, hateful political warfare, desdaain for people who are different, mistrust of institutions, widespread shameless deception and crudeness, violence and threats of violence, needless poverty and injustice.

It is hard to hear someone admonish us to “in all things give thanks”.  Perhaps, though, we need to learn some of the Apostle’s secret.

Paul doesn’t say that we are to be thankful for all things! He wasn’t giving thanks for shipwrecks, persecution, violence, suffering, hunger and poverty, dangers, and his own imprisonment and future execution.

He said in all things give thanks! The preposition makes a significant difference. Paul was convinced that within all circumstances there is potential good for which gratitude is an appropriate response.

The Apostle’s advice is grounded in his faith. The core of that faith is expressed in these words: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV).

There is more at work in our circumstances than meets the eye. God, whose very being is Love, is working with us to bring some good from whatever befalls us and the world. He was adamant that nothing in all creation, in life or in death, could separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:18-19).

I can’t comprehend the mess the world’s in today. Things are happening that I thought impossible only a few years ago, especially in the realm of politics, public policies, popular discourse, personal behavior.

What possible good can emerge?  What is good is God working to bring? Maybe the failure of our politics and policies, the collapse of civility, and the exposure of personal immorality will point us toward God’s vision of a new creation. It is a world of compassion, justice, integrity, generosity, hospitality, and peace.

Neither can I explain the personal suffering, grief, and tragedies which encompass so many lives.  I do know that from my own experience that love outlasts everything, that what the brain forgets, the heart remembers.

I know that when all seems to be lost there comes an unexpected and fleeting smile, or a moment of recognition, or a squeeze of the hand, or a passing glimmer in the eyes. And, just when I feel all alone, a note arrives or the phone rings or a knock is heard at the door.

Yes, I am learning that it is possible to “in all things give thanks”!

In All Things God Is at Work for Good

A young student in seminary preached a sermon on Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”(NRSV).

He waxed eloquently on how all our circumstances are God’s gifts; and, though we don’t understand, God has a reason for those circumstances and events. He made a compelling case for the sovereignty of God and the importance of simple trust.

The professor wasn’t impressed! “You may not have lived long enough to preach on that text,” Dr. Ferguson commented.

“I’m not sure you have suffered enough to proclaim with authenticity what Paul is saying,” he added.

“The man who wrote that endured shipwreck, beatings, imprisonment, rejection, and eventual execution,” the professor went on to say.

Then, he asked, “Are you saying to him, ‘just suck it up. God had it all planned for your good? Or, is Paul inviting us to join God’s efforts to bring good from bad circumstances?”

On July 5, 2002, Dr. Ferguson’s critique and my interpretation of Romans 8:28 were put to the test.

In May 2002 I underwent triple by-pass surgery to avoid a blockage in the left anterior descending artery (LAD) in the heart (the “widow maker”). The surgeon said that I should be back to full speed in ten to twelve weeks.

After a month of cardiac rehab, the cardiologist released me to travel to Lake Junaluska for further recuperation.

All was going well until the morning of July 5. I suddenly developed chest pains. I was having a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. The cardiologist tried unsuccessfully to penetrate the blockage in the LAD. He then proceeded to put a stint in another area which relieved the pain.

I had survived the collapse of “the widow maker,” but the extent of the damage to the heart awaited further evaluation. It was an uncertain time, with the preferred future now in serious doubt.

After several tests, the results were in. Significant damage had been done to the heart muscle. A six month leave from my duties as the bishop in Mississippi followed. Those months were filled with lament, uncertainty, questioning, grief, searching, and discernment.

Will I be able to continue as an active bishop? Will I be disabled? Will I continue to have heart attacks and die? If I can’t continue in the position to which the church has called me, what will I do? Where is God in all this?

I never assumed that God caused or willed my heart attack, though I admit to some anger toward God for not preventing it! What is God’s will in these circumstances? What good can possibly come from my now damaged heart?

During the subsequent months of prayer, conversation with family, friends, and doctors, it became apparent that continuing beyond the quadrennium as an active bishop was untenable. But what will I do?

Thanks to Greg Jones, a friend and Dean of Duke Divinity School, a new door was opened. I was invited to be considered for a faculty position at Duke. Then came eight of the most fulfilling years of my life and ministry!

In 2009 came another life-changing blow! Linda was diagnosed with Frontotemperal Dementia, a progressive neuro-cognitive disease which would gradually rob her of independence and normal capacities. What were we to do?

Again, lament and discernment moved to the forefront and another vocational change was in order. I relinquished my cherished faculty position. We moved near our daughters and I became caregiver to my beloved wife and partner.

Where was God now? How can I fulfill my calling as an ordained clergy while being a care partner for Linda? One way was to be the best care partner possible. That meant learning as much as possible about her disease. Also, I was invited to teach part time at the Lutheran Seminary. Then, I was asked to be the chaplain in the memory care unit in the retirement community. A couple of friends and I developed a course entitled “Dementia through a Pastoral Theological Lens.”

The last seven years have been an intense period of growing in love, patience, and compassion for those with dementia and their families. Joy has deepened. Love has matured.  The circle of relationships has been expanded to include more of the forgotten people. Trust in God has grown. Deep friendships have been formed.

Furthermore, I have been able to be with children and grandchildren in ways that would have been impossible had Linda’s disease not motivated us to move near them. Grace abounds! Life is good!

I now have a better understanding of Romans 8:28, “In all things, God is at work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  And, Dr. Ferguson’s comments now make more sense!