There is a desire in the hearts of all parents. It is such a universal longing that I believe it placed there by our heavenly Father. We try to point our kids in the right direction and help them to make good choices. We have hopes and dreams for them but they inevitably choose their own way. We may even disagree with some of the choices that they make but agreeing with them is not as important to us as parents as it is that their children are …………happy.
And by happy we do not mean simply to be lighthearted or to have a certain feeling. Rather our desire it that our children find fulfillment, that they live meaningful lives.
I believe that God as our Father wants this for us as well. Jesus said that He had come that we might have life and have it abundantly. Indeed the extremely practical advice on living life in the Gospel lesson that we just heard is a key to finding happiness, to finding fulfillment. He calls upon us to reject lives filled with anxiety and instead to trust our Father and seek His kingdom above all things.
The mistake that we make however is when we seek happiness as a goal rather than seeing it as a byproduct. Jesus does not say, “Don’t worry, be happy.” He says “Don’t worry, seek the kingdom” and it is as we do this that we find fulfillment.
Social scientists have corroborated that happiness is a byproduct. They have discovered that people are not thankful because they are happy, but rather that they are happy because they are thankful. So if we want to be happy we must cultivate thankfulness.
Certainly we as a free people, and more importantly we as a Christian people, can find a great deal about which to be thankful. It is why we gather today and will pray together the General Thanksgiving. This is a great prayer and I appreciate how it so wisely it guides us to a life of thankfulness.
First we will give thanks for the goodness of God as seen through all of creation. It is a goodness that extends to all of mankind. I once had a guest in Florida who had flown from inland China to the United States. I took him to the beach. He had never seen the ocean before and he was overwhelmed by it. He has been to church that morning and he asked if the God I spoke about had made this too. He was an academic but this experience of God’s goodness through creation got around his head and touched his heart. Creation humbles us, it fills us with awe, it recreates us, it is God’s goodness to us. And it is God’s goodness to us all.
This is where God’s goodness is so very different from ours, that is assuming that we have any goodness at all. The Scripture says that God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. God’s goodness is to all. If we are honest if it were up to us, I would not let the rain fall on our enemies. In fact if it were up to us we would not even give them air to breath. But God is good. Even terrorists benefit from His goodness. Who knows, perhaps His goodness will lead them to repentance. And if it does not lead them to repentance then His goodness will leave them with no excuses on the great and terrible day of His judgment. So for now we can be thankful that He is good to all.
The prayer also has us give thanks for our preservation. The famous Cistercian monk Thomas Merton put it this way. “To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us – and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.”
But it is not possible to be thankful for our preservation, to see every breath that we draw as His gift, if we are focused on tomorrow or next week or next year. That is why Jesus teaching of focusing only on today is so important. If we don’t live in the present we will never be grateful for the present and so we will never be happy in the present.
This has always been a great challenge for me. Particularly as I was growing up, I had a tendency to put off my happiness until the next big event, as in, I will be truly happy when I get my driver’s license. Or I would put off present happiness through worrying about the future.
When our family moved to Scotland it was the end of my junior high and the beginning of senior high. I knew that I would be attending a Scottish Academy in the fall and that I would be the only American in the school. Add that concern that the assistant head master, when I interviewed with him, all but told me that he expected me to flunk out (since I was from the colonies you see). So I essentially spent that whole summer fretting about how I would be received and if I would cut the mustard academically.
It ended up being some of the happiest years of my life. I worked so hard that the same assistant head master begrudgingly presented me with several awards at the end of the year. It was particularly rewarding when he had to present an English award to a backwoods colonialist. But still I had lost the previous summer worrying about things that never happened.
And isn’t it true that most of the things that we worry about never do happen? I must admit to you that I haven’t researched it in the Greek but I’m pretty sure that when Jesus said that we are not to be anxious that He meant that we are not to be anxious. Thankfulness is a powerful antidote to worry.
The next and most appropriate thing that this prayer has us to be thankful for is the redemption of the world through Jesus Christ. On one hand that should almost go without saying but I think that the challenge for us in the Church is, just as it is easy to take our next breath for granted, so if we are not careful we can take Jesus for granted.
I heard an interview last week that should challenge all of us about our relationship Christ, to consider if it is vital or if we are on automatic pilot spiritually speaking. The interview was of Fr. Douglas Bazi. He is an Iranian priest in the Chaldean Catholic Church. Several years ago he was captured by Muslims, shot in the leg and had his church blown up in front of him. For nine nights he was tortured. But during the day his captors would seek him out for advice and even ask his forgiveness. He turned the links of his chains into a rosary and he said that he prayed it more fervently than he has ever prayed. Towards the end of his captivity the terrorists got in touch with church authorities to ask for a large ransom. He got on the phone and said a word in Aramaic that meant he was finished, so the church authority said to the terrorists, “We don’t want him back, we will consider him a martyr, he is in God’s hands” and the authority hung up on them. This so infuriated the terrorists that they took a hammer to him and broke out all of his teeth and broke his back. But he was eventually released alive.
The interviewer asked how as a priest he was preparing his people to leave Iraq and Syria and come to new countries. Fr. Douglas said, “Jesus is our country.” Let that sink in for a minute. “Jesus is our country.” He went on to talk about forgiving his captures and being freed from hatred because Jesus makes us free. He said that they took everything that they had away from the Iranian Christians but the one thing that the terrorists could not take away was their faith.
Listening to this interview should cause us to ask ourselves some hard questions. Could I lose everything that I have, be tortured and driven from my country and still confess that because I am in Christ, there is nothing anyone can do to me? To be honest I don’t think that I am there and so it is doubly important for me not to take Jesus Christ for granted or to take for granted His desire to see the world redeemed. If you can say Amen to that then we need to be daily thanking God for the gift of His Son and seek every day to become more and more like Him and to be used by Him to see His kingdom come on earth.
The last part of the prayer of thanksgiving puts the icing on the cake. It has us pray that we will show forth God’s mercies not only with our lips but also in our lives. This idea takes us right back to our reading from James. James starts out reminding us that every good and perfect gift comes from above. This truth sets us up to be a thankful people. But thankfulness needs to be more than something that we feel or even that we say. Thankfulness needs to show up in our lives and in the lives of others. What does that look like? He says that true religion is to care for orphans and widows and to keep ourselves unstained by the world. Thankfulness for our redemption means that we act redeemed and that we care for those in need. Thankfulness for our redemption should be seen in our checkbooks and show up in the lives of others.
I said at the beginning that all parents want their children to be happy. Actually as I think of what I want for my children and grandchildren it goes deeper than happiness. I want them to know the fruit of the Spirit called joy, which is always accompanied by love and peace. I want them to know a life that is marked by being right with God and being right with their neighbor. I want them to be so filled with gratitude for every gift that comes from above that their thankfulness is expressed in being a blessing to others. I want them to care for widows and orphans. I want to see them drinking from the saucer because their cup runneth over. And I want to see that for each of you as well. So from my lips to God’s ears. Amen and Happy Thanksgiving.