I’m Probably an Ungrateful Brat | Steve’s Letter
NOVEMBER 4, 2020
Do you remember in the movie White Christmas when Bing Crosby sang “Count Your Blessings” to Rosemary Clooney?
The song went like this, “If you’re worried, and you can’t sleep, just count your blessings instead of sheep, and you’ll fall asleep, counting your blessings.”
It’s Thanksgiving and, frankly, that was going to be the theme of my letter to you. I was going to “count blessings” and remember the “less fortunate.” To remember how good God has been is, of course, appropriate. It is always a good thing to do, not only on Thanksgiving, but for the entire year.
I just couldn’t pull it off. I’m probably an ungrateful brat and need to repent . . . but that theme just doesn’t work for me right now. No matter how hard I tried, everything I wrote sounded so banal and shallow.
You’re probably not even saved.
Yes, I’m saved. Being saved, though, doesn’t require us to speak clichés or to pretend to feel what we don’t feel. The Psalmists didn’t do that, and I’m not going to either . . . mostly.
This year I don’t feel very thankful. Because of COVID-19 (sometimes I think the whole thing is a crock and sometimes I’m quite sure we’re all going to die), we can’t have a traditional family Thanksgiving. That’s bad enough but, as I write this, we’re going through the presidential and congressional elections, and there’s blood all over the floor. I’ve never seen so much hatred and self-righteousness. (If one worships at politics’ altar instead of God’s altar—where there is always redemption and forgiveness—one is stuck with, “You’re evil and I’m pure.”) Add to that the burning cities, all of those who have died, all the lost jobs, all the closed restaurants, and our limited-to-online church. So, if it’s okay with you, I think I’ll skip Thanksgiving this year.
You can’t do that. It’s clear I was right about you.
I’m saved, but my salvation has nothing to do with what I think, do, or say. So, again, if it’s okay with you, I think I’ll stay unthankful for a bit longer.
And then I remembered. The government makes a proclamation about Thanksgiving, but the government doesn’t set the standard for thankfulness. God does that. Paul was not living in the best of times. In fact, a lot going on with him was far worse than anything we experience. Paul had been kicked out of the church (the synagogue). And after Paul had been arrested for sedition and his friend, Jason, paid Paul’s bail, Paul decided that it would probably be a good idea to move on and get out of town. Now, keeping that in mind, it’s astonishing that Paul wrote, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks for all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Oh, so it really isn’t just about “counting blessings instead of sheep” or being thankful for good stuff. While that’s a good thing and there is nothing wrong with that at all, it’s not the only part of biblical thankfulness. Biblical thankfulness is about God—his sovereignty and his goodness—even when it doesn’t feel like it. It’s an act of faith that changes everything. One interesting thing about what Paul wrote is his use of the word “for” instead of “in.” We are to be thankful “for all circumstances.” That’s not the same thing as saying, “This really stinks, but I’m a Christian and worship God, so with God I’ll get through it.” That wouldn’t be a bad thing and there’s some truth to it, but that’s not what Paul is saying. Christian gratitude, he says, isn’t despite the circumstances, but because of them.
That’s crazy, but as crazy as it seems, it does put a new spin on Thanksgiving.
What if everything—and that means everything—had a purpose? What if that purpose was God’s purpose? What if God was good all the time, kind all the time, gracious all the time, and merciful all the time? What if his purpose was ultimately good and benevolent, and, no matter what we do, that purpose will work for our good and the good of the world? That would certainly put Thanksgiving in a different light.
C.S. Lewis essentially said that suffering is what it is. Either there is a God who, like a surgeon, does surgery to heal and won’t stop until he’s finished; or there is no God or only one who is a malevolent monster. Bad happens and one makes a choice on its source.
Jesus helps. The writer of Hebrews says that we should look to Jesus “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Now that would be the joy of thankfulness on steroids.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s hard to be thankful if the dark is really dark. I’m not a Pollyanna and neither was Jesus—or Paul, for that matter. They were happy about and thankful for the good stuff . . . and they weren’t altogether happy about the bad. But they knew a secret about a good and sovereign Father who does everything right. Thankfulness was still hard in the dark, but it had meaning and it moved from a cliché to a profound truth.
When I was young, I served as the pastor of a church in the Boston area where most of the members (or their parents or grandparents) came from Scotland. One of the traditions of that church was the Robert Burns supper. That was kind of strange given that Burns, a great poet, was also a major pagan. Didn’t matter. Burns and Scotland go together like a horse and carriage, and you can’t have one without the other. Actually, the dinner was fun, and I enjoyed the time. Well, I enjoyed it except for the haggis. In case you don’t know, haggis is a concoction of a sheep or calf’s offal mixed with some other stuff and boiled in a bag made from the animal’s stomach. You probably can’t get it at Denny’s and, trust me on this, you don’t want to.
A part of the tradition was the “piping in the haggis.” That is when everyone stands and applauds as bagpipes are played and the haggis is carried around the hall. After that, it’s traditional for a clergyman to say grace using the Robert Burns blessing. That was me. I memorized it and gave the blessing with a Scottish brogue tinged with a bit of a southern accent.
The blessing is kind of appropriate as a Thanksgiving blessing:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be Thankit!
Someone has said that at Thanksgiving everybody is thankful except the turkey. But even the turkey, if that turkey could read what I just wrote, might understand. Then again, maybe not.
Have a great Thanksgiving and be thankful. If you “have meat and can eat” and do it with people you love in a reasonably comfortable and pleasant place, be thankful to the God who gave that to you. That’s what I plan to do.
But even if I get COVID-19 and my candidates lose, thankfulness is still at the heart of our faith.
He asked me to remind you.
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