November 21: I Choose Thankful

November 21: I Choose Thankful

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Audio of Scripture reading and sermon only

November 21: Thanksgiving Sunday

Scripture: 1 Timothy 2:1-7

A lot of people like the musical, South Pacific, including many among us, I’m sure. On one level, South Pacific is a love story, and who doesn’t like a good love story? But this love story is just the means for addressing what Rogers and Hammerstein really wanted to address, which is the hateful nature of racism.

Lt. Cable and Liat, characters in South Pacific, sitting next to each other
Eric Kunze and Briahna Yee as the characters Lt. Cable and Liat from ‘South Pacific’

In the musical, Lt. Joe Cable, a brave blueblood World War 2 marine from Philadelphia, falls under the spell of Liat, the beautiful Polynesian daughter of ‘Bloody Mary’ while he’s stationed on the South Pacific island.  Although Cable falls hard for the girl who speaks little English, he’s presented with the stark realization that he can’t possibly marry Liat, as she’d never be accepted back home.  By the same token, neither would their future mixed-race children be welcome in America. The song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” gets at the heart of what Hammerstein is trying to convey. Racism, he argues, is a learned behavior. You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear/You’ve got to be taught from year to year/It’s got to be drummed into your dear little ear/You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Hammerstein’s assumption is that people are by nature accepting of peoples’ racial and cultural differences. For him, tolerance and impartiality is the human starting place. Hammerstein’s perspective on this matter reflects a pretty commonly held belief these days, which is that by and large, people are good. That by nature, people are generally good-hearted and want the best for everyone and are willing to help when asked. People become bad by virtue of their negative life experiences. In other words, they became hateful because they were taught to hate.

Now, I’m the first to admit that this sound pretty good, and to a certain degree it even seems to ring true. I’d consider most everyone I personally know to be good persons. Who doesn’t like the idea that deep down we’re basically good people? But there’s a problem with this line of thinking, at least from a Christian perspective. You see, Christian theology has historically held to the belief that human beings are by nature prone to sin and self-centeredness. In fact, we might even state that what’s true is the opposite of what Hammerstein’s song suggests, that you have to be taught to love. That you have to be taught to care about others. That you have to be taught gratitude and humility and generosity. The bottom line: you have to be taught that the world does not revolve around you.

Anyone who’s raised children knows that sharing doesn’t come naturally. No, what comes naturally is to take what I want, and then call it mine, and then declare it’s for me only. How many temper tantrums have we parents had to endure when we forced our children to share their toys with another child?

I’m going to give you a prompt, and you will no doubt know the desired response, so give it to me after I prompt you. What do you say? . . . . Thank you. My guess is that this is probably the most common “teaching moment” question that parents ask. When our kids are young, we ask them that question all the time, don’t we? Why? Because when the situation is such that it’s appropriate for them to express their gratitude, young children don’t naturally do so; it doesn’t come naturally to say “thank you.” That’s why we teach them to do so by asking them that question, “What do you say?” And they catch on pretty quickly that they’re supposed to answer, “Thank you.” At first it’s forced upon them; it’ not natural. But, hopefully, after a hundred times of making them say it, they begin to catch on, after which expressing thanks becomes a more natural response. But guess what? It had to be taught!

painting of Timothy as a child with his mother and grandmother
Young Timothy with his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois

In the earliest years of the church, back when it was just getting started, a young man by the name of Timothy was identified as someone who had the potential to be a good leader. His mother Eunice was a Jewish Christian, so he was probably familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures from an early age. And we know that his grandmother Lois was also a believer. Most likely, Paul met young Timothy when he first came through the city of Lystra, where Timothy and his family lived. At some point, according to 1 Timothy 1: 18, a prophecy was made concerning Timothy. In his first letter to Timothy—what we now have as the New Testament book of 1 Timothy—Paul references this prophecy and then instructs him in a wide range of matters relating to leading the church. Why? Because at this point in time, Timothy is a young man and is now pastoring the congregation in Ephesus. So, Paul writes to give him instructions for how to faithfully do the work of a pastor.

Maybe this verse is Paul’s way of asking us, “What do you say?”

The first chapter of 1 Timothy is a kind of preface of sorts. The instructions begin in chapter 2. And what I find interesting is Paul’s first line of instruction. There was a hundred things Paul could have told him, but the very thing he says first is this: “First of all, I ask that requests, prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving be made for all people” (2:1). Timothy, the most important thing you and your congregation need to do is pray. Every day, share with God your various requests for yourselves and others AND your prayers of thanksgiving.

Here’s my first question: Out of all the things Paul could have focused on as a way of helping Timothy get off to a strong start in his role as pastor, why does he begin by telling them to be liberal with their prayers of thanksgiving? Could it be that Paul understood that being thankful and expressing one’s thankfulness isn’t a natural thing for most of us? And so, he felt the need to emphasize the importance of doing this by starting his instructions with the insistence to do so? Maybe this verse is Paul’s way of asking us, “What do you say?”

My second question is: Why is it so important to be thankful in the first place, and then to also express our gratitude to God?

There’s probably lots of reasons why being thankful is important. My guess is that right there at the top of the list of reasons is that it’s actually beneficial to us. That being thankful—having an inner disposition of gratitude—somehow benefits us in intangible ways.

Jesus once spent some time encouraging his followers to avoid the pitfalls of worry. I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence that his teaching on not worrying immediately followed on the heels of his teaching about not striving after financial wealth (at least, as Matthew presents it in chapter 6). Here’s how the teaching unfolds. Jesus says,

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. Instead, store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. Remember, where you treasure is, there your heart will be also. So, here’s the bottom line: just as no one can serve two different masters equally, neither can you serve both God and money. Therefore……I tell you, do not worry [about your life, what you’ll eat or drink, or about what you’ll wear]” (see Matthew 6:19-25).

As Matthew presents it, Jesus makes a connection between the striving for more and more money with the problem of worry. Worry is the product of a constant striving for that which we feel we need but don’t have enough of. Let me say that again. Worry is the product of a constant striving for that which we feel we need but don’t have enough of.

So, in the case of money, we all know we need it, right? But if I have the sense that what I have is never enough, then how likely am I to be thankful for what I do have? Probably, not very!

I’m no psychologist, but I’m fairly sure there’s some truth to the idea that being truly grateful for whatever our life-situation may be goes a long way in keeping worry at bay. In other words, one of the benefits of having a heart of gratitude is being at peace. In a word, contentment. If being content in life is something that often seems elusive to you, then maybe one of things you might need to ask yourself is how grateful—truly grateful—are you with the life God’s given you?

One of my colleagues, who’s my age, serves a church which pays him a six-figure salary. I never thought I had an envious bone in my body. That is, until I heard what he was being paid by his church. To my great surprise, I found myself feeling envious. But worse than that, I started struggling with feelings of discontent with where I was serving at that time. Before I knew about his six-figure salary, I was perfectly content with my appointment. But learning how much more he was making than me changed all that, and I discovered feelings of discontent I never knew before. Fortunately, the Lord led me to read Philippians 4:11-12, where Paul writes, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

So, what did I do? Well, in prayer, I acknowledged my discontent and offered it to God in confession. I then asked God to replace it with a peaceful heart and mind for the salary and employment I did have. And in time, God granted me that peace of heart. And I believe one of the ways God did that was through me proactively expressing my gratitude to God for what I had. It was as though a part of my brain had to be “rewired” in order for me to feel and experience gratitude for what I had and for what my college had. And its “rewiring” slowly came about as a result of me actively expressing my gratitude. Eventually, God changed my heart so that my feelings matched my words. Today, I truly harbor zero envy toward my colleague for his salary. In fact, I’m grateful that he receives the salary he has because I know that it’s allowed he and his wife to address some very important family matters in a way they probably wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

I’ve come to the point where I believe being thankful is a choice. I’m not convinced gratitude comes naturally. What seems to come naturally is worry and discontent. It seems to me that the antidote to worry and discontent is choosing to have a heart of gratitude by expressing gratitude for all that God’s seen fit to give. And, of course, at the very core of a heart of gratitude for what we’ve been given is the fact that we’ve been given Jesus Christ. Jesus in us is what makes being thankful possible. He’s our source of life and our means of true and abiding contentment. And so, let me encourage you to begin every day with a verbal prayer of thanksgiving for Jesus Christ living in you. Let us each choose thankful. (see video below)

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