Back to top
eGivingThanks – let your requests be made known
Lately I have been obsessed with a single Bible verse: “In everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Between now and Thanksgiving day I want to reflect with you on this – and to begin today with “Let your requests be made known to God.”
What happens to gratitude during a season of anxiety, fear and loss? Is our faith dented in some way? What will happen to churches (like ours) and charities who are in their annual time of raising money for next year? We are exercising due diligence to be as frugal as possible; we are hoping people will realize that every contribution, every pledge really, really matters; we are reckoning with how to maintain God’s work without slippage, as we believe the Church is needed now more than ever. Our focus, as always, is on our people, their relationship to God, their souls, their hurts, passions and well-being. Can our faith help or even expand because of what’s swirling around us?
Maybe when we feel like we are taking a drubbing, we can focus on what to be grateful for, and what we cling to with God in the face of uncertainty, and a frazzled sense of identity and purpose.
So let me begin here: through the worst depression conceivable, through grave personal losses, through emotional wreckage and even the darkest chapters in the annals of history, one solid rock is unassailable. We can indeed “let our requests be made known to God.” God cares. God does not manipulate events down here, but God is immensely compassionate, God stands ready to support, and even to be the wise sage so we might learn and grow.
I am not God, but I am asking you right now to click “reply” and tell me (if you can) your God requests. What, right now, do you fear, or long for? What keeps you up at night? What foreboding riddles your soul? What sorrows do you carry? What dreams flicker in the depths of your soul? Perhaps you feel sunnier and are simply grateful for much – and I would be honored to overhear the thanks you’d offer to God.
If you reply, I will pray, and I also will grow in my understanding of you and what’s up in our world. And we will together begin that great joint process of prayer.
Back to top
eGivingThanks – with thanksgiving
How intriguing that Paul said, “With thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). If our usual pattern would be to let our requests be made known to God, and then if God does what we ask, we then give thanks, Paul must be inviting us to a very different place.
The very ability to pray, the brute fact that I am awake, breathing, and capable of even a dim belief in a God is an extraordinary gift for which to be thankful. Just existing is undervalued, isn’t it? Without the gift of life, without the great grace of God that makes me intelligent enough of a creature to think, to care, to fret, to lift my eyes to God, or to hope: I would be like a worm or a stone.
Somehow we got duped into thinking thankfulness is about appreciating a nice house or sumptuous food, fine wine or a vacation in the Rockies. A crisis can expose how overly glued to things we are – or at least that what we took for granted a year ago is no small thing. I wonder if Jesus was trying to teach gratitude when he said “Do not lay up treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, where thieves steal, but lay up treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19). Treasures in heaven we have in ample supply. God’s mercy, the hope of blissful eternity, moral zeal, purpose and meaning, the wonder of salvation, our unshatterable relationship with saints, family and friends who have died, Jesus and the angels praying for us, the unfathomable riches of God’s love and tender care.
And the blessings here are not diminished by a downturn in the economy. Bodies that function, the way rain softens hard earth, the beauty of leaves in autumn, a child’s laughter, the wrinkled smile on your grandmother’s face, the nobility of people who rush to help one another, friends, family, shelter, the taste of water or a strawberry… and the Church which, for all its foibles, remains the best hope of humanity to dream of goodness and to embody the love of God.
I have a little two-minute video on our web site I’d like you to watch about the “offering” (click “Play Message”). We collect money at Church (yes, even when the economy is skidding…), and in the video I try to remind everyone what is at stake, why we do what we do, how utterly essential it is for the world, others we care about, and for ourselves.
Paul suggests that the delightful secret of “making our requests known to God” resides in doing so “with thanksgiving.” We kneel, we close our eyes, we bow our heads, and we express our gratitude, and then our request, which rather wonderfully creates more reason for gratitude, and then more boldness in making requests, and thus more gratitude – and the circle feels like the arms of God enfolding us in an intimate embrace of love.
Back to top
eGivingThanks – in everything
“In everything, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Paul urges us to make our requests to God, and with thanksgiving – but not just when we are in dire straits. Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, “I only pray when I am in trouble; the problem is, I am in trouble all the time.” We pray with thanksgiving “in everything,” at all times, in happy and tough circumstances, young or old, in the mood or not.
“In everything”: God’s life with us touches every thing. The chair in the den, the coffee pot, the photo album, the azalea bush, the callouses on my hand, the bit of talent in my head, my shrinking investment portfolio, the car, the music stored in the iPod, an apple on the counter, the pillow and my weary head upon it: God is obsessed with every detail in our lives, God cares about the things we sit on or forgot we had in the attic, God wishes to love us through every thing, and for us to love God with every thing.
Interestingly, in Old Testament times there was no word in Hebrew for “thanks,” or at least not in the way we think. For us, it is virtually good manners to say “Thank you,” to write a note. But the Hebrew word used for “thanks” to God, todah, is not a mere word. Yes, worshippers said todah, “thanks,” but the todah was also a sacrifice, something tangible, your best ram, a turtledove, the first wheat that ripened. Gratitude was something touchable, visible, of immense value. It cost you something – which is precisely why it was valued so highly by God, why it became the supreme vehicle of faith in God.
The Church (along with all the charitable organizations that are struggling right now) asks for some of our things, donations, money, stock – not to make us poorer, but to enrich us, to extend our reach, to help us discover the presence of God in every thing, to exhibit God to those who are less fortunate than we.
Our Church needs financial support for 2009, as do all organizations trying to make a difference in this world. Every gift always matters – but who could deny it today? We give, and we give as generously as we possibly can, because God hears us when we are in trouble; is it “in every thing, with gratitude” that we make our requests known to God.
Back to top
eGivingThanks – in everything?
“In everything, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). What might “everything” really include? Good things? What about bad things? Are we the best judges of what really is good or bad?
At our community Thanksgiving service five years ago, I made the suggestion that we might find ways to give thanks to God, not so much for what we possess or have accumulated, but even for what we may have lost. Wistfully I recall childhood stays with my grandparents; those days, and my grandparents, are long lost, never to be recovered – but I am grateful.
Even painful losses: we love, we lose, we shed tears and bear a deep ache in our souls. Are there ways to be grateful? What if there were no tears, no ache? At Thanksgiving and Christmas, I think a lot about those who grieve – especially when ‘tis the season to be jolly. Is it the case that our faith fills the sorrowful hollowness we battle? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his parents at Christmas in 1943, not long before his own death: “Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love. That sounds hard, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain. The dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift.”
I would invite us all, this week, into a season of gratitude for everything – and if you have the time and patience, I pass along a marvelous passage from Frederick Buechner that I re-read every year at this time: “In one sense the past is dead and gone, but in another sense, it is not done with at all, or at least not done with us. Every person we have ever known, every place we have ever seen, everything that has ever happened to us – it all lives and breathes deep in us somewhere. A scrap of some song, a book we read as a child, a stretch of road we used to travel, an old photograph. Suddenly there it all is. Old failures, old hurts. Times too beautiful to tell.”
“We are all such escape artists. We are apt to talk about almost anything under the sun except what really matters, except for what is going on inside our own skin. We chatter. We hold each other at bay. It is the same when we are alone. We turn on television, or find some chore that could easily wait. We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. We cling to the surface out of fear of what lies beneath the surface. We get tired.”
“But there is a deeper need, to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive to ourselves, to the long journeys of our lives. So much has happened. Remembering means a deeper, slow kind of remembering, a searching and finding. ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen’ goes the old spiritual – but we know it. We are to remember it. And the happiness we have seen, too – precious times, precious people, moments when we were better than we know how to be.”
“And then, we will find beyond any feelings of joy or regret, a profound and undergirding peace, a sense that in some unfathomable way, all is well. We have survived. There were times we never thought we would and nearly didn’t. Many times I have chosen the wrong road, or the right road for the wrong reason. Many times I have loved people too much for their good or mine, and others I might have loved I have missed loving and lost. I remember times I might have given up, but I didn’t. Weak as we are, a strength beyond our strength has pulled us through at least this far. A love beyond our power to love has kept our hearts alive. We are never really alone.”
Back to top
eGivingThanks – in everything – even nothing?
“In everything, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Could “everything” include “nothing,” or at least something that is “not yet”?
At the community Thanksgiving service yesterday, I recalled a talk I once heard that began with a quotation from Emily Dickinson: “The unknown is the mind’s greatest gift, and for it no one thinks to thank God.” I scribbled that down immediately, and have reflected on it often.
Knowledge is good; more knowledge is always better; the dumbing down of America is alarming. So how can the unknown be good? If I bother caring about what I do not know, then I have some homework ahead of me, I might honor somebody else by asking a question, I can’t get cocky, the steel trap door can’t shut on my soul…
Yes, in the rearview mirror we see our past, and wish we had known some very important things: if I had known the Dow Jones would plummet, if I had known he would break my heart, if I had known cancer was growing, if, if, if… George Eliot was wise, and sadly right, when she wrote, “Perhaps nothing would be a lesson to us if it didn’t come too late.”
With God, what we do not know may be our richest spiritual treasure. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1); “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). I want to know the future; but really what I need to do is trust God as I move into an unknown future. If I know, I jettison God, I dispense with the need for faith. Not knowing, I can plunge into the dark alone, or tremble in fear – or I can step confidently, knowing God is with me.
In early January I have a new book coming out on The Will of God. Let me quote a page for you: “God does not encourage us to see too far ahead; God’s will is a relationship. If I spend a day in the Appalachian mountains with my wife, I am not sure whether she will want to hike a trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway or stop off at the Folk Art Center. But I never get lost. I just stick near her. The thrill is in not being so certain. We go here now, and I trust her with wherever we wind up next.
So it is with God. What is faith? Knowing and agreeing to everything in advance? God called Abraham: ‘Go from your country to the land I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1). Which land might that be? God did not show him just yet. Jesus walked up to some fishermen and out of the blue said, ‘Put down your nets and follow me’ (Matthew 4:19). Where? They did not know yet. But they went wherever Jesus went; their path was defined not by destination but by proximity to Jesus who kept moving around.
Where will God lead you and me? We do now know yet. Faith is risky: we leave the cocoon of our preplanned, carefully managed lives and go – where? We do not know yet. Wherever God leads, that is where we will go. But we know whom we are following, and we want to be near him, and that is enough, for he is the fullness of life, he is the way, the truth and the life.
Think of the ancient Psalmist who wrote that God’s word is a ‘lamp to my feet’ (Psalm 119:105). How far ahead can you see with a lantern – and a Bronze age lantern at that, not one of those brilliant outdoor beacons people use today? Not far. But far enough. You see well enough to take the next step, and the next step. The end of the road is all darkness. But it will be lit when you get near enough.
So along the way, you have to do some trusting. Each step is a step of faith. What, after all, is this ‘lamp to my feet’? God’s word. How much light is there in a word? Can you see a word? Words are not solid, they shed no real light – but they are what we need on the journey. The Psalmist, I think, imagines God speaking gently to us, over and over, ‘Here, this way, ooh, watch out, good job, over here, step up, keep coming, stop for a minute, rest awhile, get moving now, hurry through here…’ The invisible word becomes the sure light.
How do we hear this word? God speaks, and God speaks primarily through the Bible, and we familiarize ourselves with the cadence and accent of God’s voice by hearing it over and over, reading, studying, reflecting with others. Then, on that dark night, and even in the broad light of day, God guides us as we move forward, telling us only what we need to know right now, for the very next step.”
I think the unknown really is the mind’s greatest gift – and for it, during times like those we face now, we should give thanks to God.