A recent talk given at service by Reverend Paulette Stubbings.
Readings from the Bible
Psalm 100: A psalm for giving grateful praise
1 Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
3 Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
5 For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.
1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.
23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.
We live in uncertain times. In the light of recent events it might seem odd to have readings about thankfulness today, but bear with me and I will unpack it a little.
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1Thess. 5: 16-24)
My first introduction as a fairly new Christian to this idea was through a friend James, student – his car was, pride and joy – Triumph Dolomite – smashed car window – thanks in all circumstances. Me – Are you crazy?? This is your car! Reaction transformed the moment, and it opened my eyes to something too. In the moment he made a choice about how he was going to see what had happened. Made me realise we always have a choice to look at the world from a perspective that is wider than the presenting circumstances.
I know a young woman who has limited mobility and is in constant pain. Spiritually searching in many ways – but not yet in a place where she can open up to God, because for her, her understanding of God’s love and goodness is linked to whether the circumstances of her life are good or bad. She tried to come to a church service once, but left almost immediately because we were singing about God being good and in her experience, God has not been good to her. From her perspective, what has she to be thankful for?
I am absolutely not going to judge her for this. She is facing daily difficulties I cannot even begin to imagine and she’s doing it at the moment without faith. I do not actually know how I would feel if I were in her shoes.
But I observed this as I first got to know her, to me she seemed imprisoned twice. Firstly by the very challenging circumstances of her condition. And secondly by the way that because of her pain she had difficulty seeing anything else in her life as good. And the effect this seemed to have on her was to keep returning her to that place of pain – as if she was short-circuiting in a constant loop of hopelessness.
Things are actually slowly beginning to change for her – she’s not quite in the dark place she was, but my point is really this; there was good in her life, but she was cut off from it.
There’s a reason why it is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus that we rejoice, pray and give thanks in all circumstances.
And it’s in no way about denial. Was my friend in denial about his car? No, the window was well and truly broken. He never said that it was a good thing to happen. It made the long drive home unpleasant and cost him money he didn’t really have to fix it. But in the moment of discovery he chose to let God in to the circumstances and it lifted his perspective and ours too. Were the thousands who gathered in Manchester for the One Love benefit concert following the terrorist attack in denial? No, but they were choosing to do something in the face of those terrible circumstances that would bring good in.
It’s all very well to have a godly perspective on damage to a clapped out car. But what about our lives and the fragile and raw experiences we hold in ourselves? What about the breakages there? How do we rejoice when relationships are fractured, when we have been physically or mentally damaged, when our every waking moment seems coloured with our pain or fear? What about Manchester, London, Kabul?
What happens if we choose to let God into the moment there? What happens if we choose to believe that he is our good and loving and faithful shepherd as the psalm we heard today says? That he made us and we belong to him; that his intentions towards us are for good?
It was fascinating to see at the concert in Manchester the pop star Justin Bieber telling thousands of people that he chose to still hold on to love, to hope and to God. He told them ‘God is good in the midst of the darkness, God is good in the midst of the evil… God is in the midst and he loves you and is there for you’. Amazing!
Romans 15: 13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
That’s why in the passage we heard read today it says ‘don’t quench the Spirit’ – it is the Holy Spirit in us that helps us to lift our eyes to God above our circumstances, and to have hope. We can make a choice, with the help of the Holy Spirit to direct our gaze to the things that will bring us joy and peace. To the good things we do have, to the good that God can bring and is bringing out of the situation.
We can choose to trust God with our hurting and damaged places, safe in the knowledge that he will work gently there to bring his healing. And while he is holding our pain, we may begin with his help to glance away – to let God show us the things that can bring us light and hope, the things we cannot see clearly when we are head down in our own suffering. To notice these things, and to thank God for them brings about an attitude of gratitude – we can practise this until it becomes a habit. We might be rusty at it, and we might have to start small. But it’s the sort of thing that can grow and transform our lives and our outlook.
They used to call it ‘counting your blessings’ – and it still works.
God doesn’t need our thanks to be God. It’s not for him, it’s for us. Because he wants us to learn the secret of how to have joy and peace and hope whatever we are going through.
If you think that sounds a bit wishy-washy, then hear the account of a young man who has made the journey from Eritrea to England within the last couple of years. You may have read this before – this was published as part of the 40 Days 40 voices resources for Lent this year in Canterbury Diocese. He says this:
I had nothing – no food, no water, no possessions – literally the clothes I was wearing. I had left everything behind in my desperate bid to forge a life for myself in a land that held much promise and hope. A land where I would have a chance of freedom, of life. A place where I wouldn’t be forced to face a lifetime of national service, a country where I could have hope. I had left my family behind and I missed them like crazy!
So what’s the point of this? Well I did have something – something that I would discover was more powerful, more solid and more reliable than any possession: my faith!
I discovered that when all else has been stripped away there is only one place to go – into the arms of my saviour.
As I entered the crowded, smelly and completely unseaworthy vessel that was to take me and hundreds of other desperate refugees across the short but extremely dangerous stretch of the Mediterranean Sea, I was again faced with the very real possibility that I might not survive this next leg of my journey. As the boat cast off and I was crushed under the weight of a mass of humanity, surrounded by the smell of human vomit, there was only one place I could turn – only one God who was listening, watching and caring.
I was rich, even though I had no possessions – my Lord and saviour was with me, Jesus was carrying me.
Gratitude can lead us to true hope. Hope that is concrete, that will stand the test of loss and difficulty and pain. By leading us into prayer and thanksgiving God is throwing us a secure lifeline, sealed by the Holy Spirit – the promise that we are tied securely to him, and he will not let us down.