THANK THE LORD!
I Thessalonians 5:12-28
Give thanks in all circumstances
If you have been watching the Rugby World Cup on TV you will surely have noticed that the Springbok coach, Heyneke Meyer, thanks the Lord after every game we win, as he did again last Saturday when we beat Wales. I think Meyer must be a very devout Christian, for he gives the Lord the praise when we win, suggesting that Meyer himself thinks he has had little to do with it - and his critics would agree. If we win, it must have been the Lord's doing and it is marvellous in our eyes.
Some of my less devout friends -- which is most of them -- get annoyed with Meyer for his pious refrain on TV, and note that while he gives thanks when we win a match he does not blame the Lord when we lose. Surely if the Lord helped us beat Samoa, Scotland and Wales, he must have deserted us against Japan. Or is it because the Japanese have a stronger deity on their side? But if so, why did Japan not get to the quarter finals? And if we are to take Paul's instruction to "give thanks in all circumstances," how come Meyer and the rest of us didn't thank the Lord when Japan beat us? In retrospect we might well do so because losing to Japan woke up the Springboks. But whatever, we will undoubtedly give thanks to Meyer if we beat the All Blacks this coming Saturday, and I am sure he will thank the Lord again on our behalf. In any case, to quote St. Paul, if God is on our side, who can be against us? Presumably only New Zealand and the referee. It's all rather confusing isn't it, but then rugby is only a game we play instead making war, and for that we should thank the Lord.
Now I would not have chosen this theme for my meditation to have fun at Meyer's expense. After all, I am not as good a rugby coach as Meyer even though I captained the Under 11 team, and I am also sure that I am not half as devout a Christian as he is. But I may be a better theologian, and even average theologians are a careful about claiming that God is on the side of their national rugby team , or more dangerous, that God is on the side of their nation when they go into battle. Both Germany and Britain claimed that God was on their side in the First World War, but that did not prevent millions from being slaughtered. And the apartheid government told its foot soldiers the same story. How foolish that all was as we look back. How dangerous it is to think in those terms. You end up shouting "God is great!" before you slaughter your opponents, or declare "God is on our side" when you and bomb towns to smithereens. Then, to cap it all, we hold thanksgiving services which reinforce this belief in the superiority of our divinity, instead of services to confess our sins in going to war in the first place, and mourning not only those of our number who were killed. but the death of those we killed And we can't say "sorry, we did not mean to kill them" for that is precisely what we did mean to do. There is no surer way of creating atheists out of thinking people than the kind of theological nonsense that thanks God for victory, and that includes some of the Psalms. After all, as we know from Jesus, God is not on the side of the strong, but the weak; God is not on the side of those who conquer, but those who are oppressed and suffer.
So back to my text: "Give thanks in all circumstances." That sounds like good advice but when, as Isobel recently wrote:
... I wake to a morning
dark and cold, with pain
throbbing through my system,
shutting down all thought of action,
yet opening shafts of memory,
flashes of past failures,
and difficulties still to be tackled,
till all is pain, grief, fear:
how can I be thankful for these?
Yes, it is very difficult for those who suffer, those who are victims of cruelty and inhumanity, to give thanks. If I was a refugee fleeing my home, or a student unable to pay my fees, or the parent of a child dying of cancer, I would not automatically say "thank you, Lord!" But we can give thanks for those who are caring for refugees, those who are fighting for a free education, and those who are caring for the dying and seeking better cures for cancer.
This week I received a letter from an old friend of ours whose wife of many years died a year ago. He was still working through his grief, but his long letter was full of thanks, thanks for his memories and thanks that her presence still with him in his loneliness. He gave thanks because he had learnt over the long haul, which included the tragic death of a son, that being thankful was the Christian way of being human. It is not something we can turn on and off according to circumstances. It is learning to live gratefully over the years of hard knocks. I also recall how at the recent Kairos Conference in Johannesburg, I was deeply moved by the Palestinian Christians present who, despite their suffering oppression, remained thankful to God for all his gifts to them. Being thankful was for them at the heart of being Christian.
Paul's counsel that we "give thanks in all circumstances" is not an absolute which excludes being angry or anxious. It is a reminder that gratitude is fundamental to human well-being, something we learn in childhood, something we express at every meal however meagre, and something we celebrate at the Eucharist. It is easy to be grateful when everything is going smoothly, though we often forget to do so, but it is very difficult when the road is bumpy and the outlook grim. Paul knew this. He was hunted and hounded, often beaten and downcast, and spent a good deal of his time in prison. But gratitude had become ingrained in his flesh and bones. He knew that giving thanks is often very difficult if not impossible, but he also knew that it was fundamental to human well-being. I end with a prayer Isobel wrote, which reminds us that this is so:
Lord our God,
Thank you for our eyes that we can see the beauty of your creation,
even though we see so much of ugliness.
Thank you for our ears that we can hear music and laughter
even though discord and prejudice are clamouring to be heard.
Thank you for our tongues that we can sing and communicate love and truth
even though lies and hatred often pour off them.
Thank you for our minds that we can learn and find meaning in a world of chaos,
Thank you for emotions that we can feel joy and well as pain,
Thank you for our wills that we can give ourselves freely to you and follow your way,
to see, hear and talk of all that is beautiful and good,
even though we may find it hard to find,
in the midst of this field of mud and dirt,
the buried treasure,
the gift of thankfulness.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 22 October 2015