As I write this blog post, we have just finished the biggest meal of the year. There are only six of us gathered around our table, but I cook like there will be 20. This year we had four appetizers, three meats, seven sides, and five desserts. It will take several days to finish leftovers, and we will all gain several pounds trying to do so, and we will vow that we hate all of these foods and can’t stand to eat any more of them… until Christmas Day, when we do it all again.
Before anyone is too impressed with me, I will come clean and tell you that I will save up all of my cooking skills for this one day and then turn them off again. For the record, I hate cooking. It stresses me out– the timing of everything, things getting cold while heating up others. Every year I forget the bread until everything else is ready and then have to hold the meal until it’s finished. I worry about having enough dishes and serving spoons, and the thought of DOING those dishes… Yuck. The anxiety is enough to make me go to Cracker Barrel and call it a day. It’s only the lack of leftovers and my family’s protests of that plan that makes me get up at the crack of dawn and start cooking the massive meal. And don’t even get me started on going to someone else’s house– the one (and ONLY) time we did that, my son threw a football in their house and broke the hand painted family portrait hanging above their fireplace. We were ushered out rather quickly after that.
But I digress.
Several years ago, I tried to start a tradition of going around the table and having each person say what they were thankful for. I think I saw a good, Christian family post about it on Facebook and I figured we were a good, Christian family so we should do that, too. Unfortunately, my teenage children were in their peak-sarcasm years and it turned into a game of “See how quickly you can get mom to stop this.” Let me put it this way– I didn’t post their responses on Facebook.
The truth is, sometimes when people start talking about thankfulness and gratitude, I find myself very much like my teenagers were that holiday– surly and sullen, filled with frustration at the things I don’t have and discontent with what I do have. I find it difficult to say what I’m grateful for when I am filled with discouragement.
In last year’s Thanksgiving podcast, Jimbo discussed how a story from Corrie ten Boom’s time in a concentration camp helped to remind him why it’s important to be thankful in all circumstances. You can read the complete story here, but the summary is basically this: Corrie and her sister Betsy discuss how on earth they could possibly live through their time in the concentration camp, a place filled with discouragement and hopelessness. Betsy reminds Corrie that 1 Thessalonians 5:14-21 tells them how to live, especially verse 18: “Give thanks in all circumstances.” So they begin to list the things they are thankful for, including their togetherness, their ability to have their Bible, their close proximity to the other prisoners who were also hearing the Gospel. But then Betsy goes so far as to be thankful for the fleas that are tormenting them day and night. Corrie protests, but Betsy reminds her that it is the fleas which keep the guards away and allow them to read and proclaim the Word of God. Without them, the girls might be punished and separated.
Sometimes I feel like Corrie. Surely God doesn’t expect me to be thankful for the fleas in my life– those tormenting people who seem to have nothing positive to say, that bill that came when the money didn’t, the lack of spiritual (or numerical) growth in our church, the leak in the baptistry that comes on the heels of the leak in the children’s area. Surely when God says, “be thankful in all circumstances,” He doesn’t mean these circumstances. I see people post about being “#blessed” but I find myself wondering why we’re only “blessed” when things are going right– what about those I see who are desperate and hurting– are they blessed? How can we be blessed when everything around us seems to be going wrong? How can I be grateful for the problems I face and the mounting discouragement?
Then the Holy Spirit prods me toward another Scripture: Philippians 4:11. Sure, Philippians 4:13 gets all the glory, but why was Paul able to say that he could do all things through Christ who strengthened him? Because of verse 11. He had learned to be content in all things, in whatever situation he faced. His ability to be content in all things fostered his ability to do his ministry without the confines of frustration and discouragement.
Perhaps you have struggled this year with finding joy this season and feeling grateful for where God has placed you. Pastor, can I encourage you? Think of the “fleas” in your own life– the situations, people, or nagging problems that discourage you. Instead of asking God to deliver you from them, ask God what He is trying to teach you through it. Instead of desiring to push “fast forward” through this time in your ministry, push “pause.” Sit with it for a moment and see where God is leading you to be content in the circumstance and then ask Him to show you how to be thankful for it.
And then, when you go around the table and say what you’re thankful for, maybe your responses will be worthy of a social media post. At the very least, maybe your mom won’t write about it in a blog post several years later.
*On a personal note, I would just like to say that I am grateful to each of you for reading these blog posts. I pray that they encourage and exhort you for your ministry. I am also grateful to Bob, Jimbo, and everyone at NAMB for the opportunity to write and share my heart with each of you. Thankful for the past and looking forward to the future!- Erin*