Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Serious Business of Giving Thanks

A snippet from a meditation I’m writing on giving thanks:

In Scripture, we see that giving thanks is serious business.

In Luke 17, Jesus connects thanksgiving with saving faith, relating this parable to his disciples:

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.  As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance  and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”  When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.  One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice.  He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.  Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?  Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

Paul, in Romans 1, says that God’s judgments have been poured out on humanity because of their failure to give thanks:

“For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks…”

The writer of Hebrews, at the crescendo of his argument, exhorts his readers:

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

How interesting that Paul and the writer of Hebrews connect issues of the fearsome judgment of God and the coming kingdom with giving of thanks.  Apparently, it is of signal importance.

It may not be too much of a stretch to say that for Paul giving thanks is nearly revolutionary.  It’s quite subversive in the first century.  Rather than naming all the parts of one’s life as good gifts provided by the Roman gods, early Christians named the various aspects of their lives as good gifts from God who is the Father of Jesus Christ, the one who gave up everything that God’s people might have everything.

In this sense, giving thanks is strategic truth-speaking.  When we give thanks, we regard the world rightly, reckoning it as God’s world, and reckoning ourselves as recipients of God’s overpowering goodness.

Further, giving thanks reckons rightly with how we live and move and have our being in God’s presence and in God’s hands.  We are his and all the good things we have and all the good things we do are gifts from him that we can enjoy fully and share with others.  Giving thanks to God helps us remember that we are in his hands.  It’s a lesson in humility, a reminder of our condition.

Beyond this, giving thanks to others helps us remember that we carry each other in our hands.  We belong to each other, we are in one another’s hands to do good and to receive good gifts from one another.  We depend on each other, we fulfill our vocation best and enjoy it most effectively when we help and receive help from one another.  We experience our greatest joy when we fully lean into this reality.

In Scripture, giving thanks isn’t sentimental.  It has nothing to do with vapid and syrupy Hallmark sweetness.  Thanksgiving is right and good, not because it involves looking on the bright side or merely because it’s a practice that holds polite society together.

It doesn’t have to be grim, but Christian thanksgiving certainly is sober.  It’s a considered assessment of our true condition.  For this reason, it’s virtuous rather than sentimental.

Unfortunately, giving thanks doesn’t answer all the pesky existential questions.  Why do I have so much and others have so little?  Or, why is my lot in life more difficult than someone else’s?  Is my receiving good things as gifts from God mean that he’s intentionally withholding good things from those in desperate need?

I don’t have good answers for those questions.

It is clear, however, that giving thanks in Scripture is a crucial aspect of lives oriented toward God and toward others.  To fruitfully inhabit those twin postures, it is necessary to strategically and intentionally recognize God’s kindness toward us and the gifts we give and receive from others.

Pastoral Discernment

I’ve finished for the second time My Name is Asher Lev and am now re-reading The Gift of Asher Lev.  They’re beautifully written and it’s such a lovely story.

There’s a conversation in the second book between the Rebbe and Asher Lev in which Chaim Potok captures well the character of discernment required of pastors and theologians who serve the church.

“Asher, I want to tell you something.  It is important that you listen carefully to my words.”  He raised his head and gazed at me unblinking from beneath the rim of the dark hat.  “My father, of blessed memory, once said to me, on the verse in Genesis: ‘And He saw all that He did and behold it was good’—my father once said that the seeing of God is not like the seeing of man.  Man sees only between the blinks of his eyes.  He does not know what the world is like during the blinks.  He sees the world in pieces, in fragments.  But the Master of the Universe sees the world whole, unbroken.  That world is good.  Our seeing is broken, Asher Lev.  Can we make it like the seeing of God?  Is that possible?”

He paused a moment, then went on.  “Once I told this to Jacob Kahn, of blessed memory.  Yes, these same words.  And he said to me that an artist, too, must see the world whole, he must somehow learn to see during the blinks, he must see where no one else can see, he must see the connections, the betweennesses in the world.  Even if the connections are ugly and evil, the artist must learn to see and record them.  I said to Jacob Khan that a Rebbe, too, must see the connections, and if a Rebbe truly sees, if he is able, through the goodness and mercy of the Master of the Universe, to see as the Master of the Universe Himself sees, then he will see that all is good.  Jacob Kahn said to me, ‘It is the task of the artist to see.  If what he sees is good, then fine.  If not, then not.’  But all agree, Asher Lev, that it is the task of a Rebbe and of an artist to see, to look.  That is understood?”