Okra and Liver or Steak and Lobster
NOVEMBER 9, 2022
It’s Thanksgiving, so let me give you a Thanksgiving truth:
The best time to be thankful is when you’re not.
No, it’s not. If you’ll “hold your horses,” I’ll explain, okay?
Charles Dickens, in the oft-quoted introduction to A Tale of Two Cities, wrote:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
I’m writing this in September, but you’re reading it in November. Maybe something will happen in the intervening weeks before I get to Thanksgiving. Maybe inflation is finally in check, and the Thanksgiving turkey isn’t as expensive. Maybe those who hold weird views on sexuality have an attack of sanity. Maybe the Democrats and Republicans in Washington agree on immigration reform, join hands, and sing “Kumbaya” together. Maybe gas prices will drop another buck. Maybe the black and white communities decide to call off the war and love each other. Maybe Russia and China will decide to mind their own business, and Taiwan and Ukraine will finally feel safe. Maybe the nations of the Middle East agreed to celebrate Yom Kippur with Israel in October. Maybe . . .
But just in case none of that happens, God says to be thankful anyway.
Paul wrote that we should “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Paul also wrote that we should be filled with the Spirit, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-20).
One of the best times to give thanks is when you aren’t. It’s easy to be thankful for what we like (family, health, a job, Thanksgiving turkeys, etc.), but when it comes to those times when nothing is working out, not so much. At least, that is true for me. I love those Psalms that feature the Psalmist’s complaints. It makes me feel better about complaining. In Psalm 13, the Psalmist wrote, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” That Psalm works for me.
On a more pedestrian level, when I’m at someone’s house for dinner, as the preacher (being a professional and all), I’m often asked to say the blessing. But when we’re served okra, I want to say, “Are you crazy? I’m not thankful for okra! It’s hairy and slimy.”
As an aside, when I recently taught at The Cove, I used okra and liver as metaphors. The first two sessions were dark, and the last two were good news. As I began the third session, I said, “Okay, we’re finished with the okra and liver. Now let’s turn to the steak and lobster.” During the question and answer session (people wrote down their questions), one question was attached to a box, and in that box, believe it or not, was okra. That question was from someone who liked okra, although I still haven’t decided whether the okra was a statement of what that person thought about my teaching or an affirmation of the culinary joys of okra.
Okay? I get that, but why is the best time to give thanks the time when we’re not?
I’m glad you mentioned that. Thanking God for the good is biblical, proper, and what Christians should do. But what about when you don’t understand, and the bad is so dark, scary, and painful? Praising God then is about three things not generally present when all is well and right with the world.
First, praising God in hard places is an awareness that it is a hard place. Too often, our faith can be a denial, a denial of reality. In Psalm 13, the Psalmist knows that it hurts. He can’t sleep; he intensely feels that God has left him alone, and he doesn’t like it one bit and tells God so. Our prayers should be the most honest place in our lives. For instance, for God’s sake (and yours), don’t tell God that you love him when you don’t, don’t justify your sin when it can’t be justified, and don’t pretend to be glad to be with him when you would rather be somewhere else. And, for our purposes here, don’t pretend you’re fine and happy with bad circumstances when you’re not.
It’s interesting to note that the Psalmist, after all his honesty and complaints, comes to the place where he recognizes how important it is to be thankful when he isn’t, “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” He praised God, but not before he told God that he hated what was happening. When one is in hell, it is disingenuous to say, “It’s not hot, and I’m not here.”
Second, giving thanks when we aren’t thankful is a good thing because that is the very place where faith is most required and when it is most evident. Courage is a good thing, but you can hardly see courage if there is no fear. If you want to see courage, don’t look for it in a computer game about war; look for it on a real battlefield. I’ve been reading a novel by a friend, Paul Hevesy, Operation Redemption, about warrior angels commissioned by God to protect the baby Jesus from Satan and his demons. The angels in that battle, and in other places where they serve, are sometimes confused. The mantra spoken and implied is this: Even when I don’t understand, “the Creator’s plans are always perfect.”
In other words, in the middle of confusion, there is an opportunity for genuine faith to stand up and sing “The Hallelujah Chorus,” even if it doesn’t sound like Handel. As Amy Grant sings in her wonderful song “Better than a Hallelujah,” sometimes a mother’s tears, a drunkard’s cry, the sadness of a dying man, the sound of one’s shame, or the voicing of a broken heart’s miseries are better than a hallelujah. That’s true because that’s where faith is real. When you see someone in a worship service lifting up their hands and singing the Doxology with tears in their eyes, you are standing on holy ground.
Third, one other thing is apparent when you praise and thank God when nothing seems right. There’s a supernatural peace, and it’s a gift to those learning (albeit slowly) to rest in God’s goodness and sovereignty. Abraham Lincoln once said that he had often been driven to his knees with the conviction that “I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.” That was wise, not because he would always be given wisdom and courage (even though he was given that), but because he had discovered in a very turbulent, destructive, and horrible time that there was a place he could go to breathe the atmosphere of peace that could be found nowhere else.
You’ve heard the old joke about the man who fell off a cliff and managed to grab a limb to keep from falling to his death. Of course, he prayed, “Is anybody up there?” A deep voice answered, “I’m here. Let go of the limb.” The man prayed again, “Is there anybody else up there?”
There is nobody else up there, but he is, and there is something supernatural about letting go of the limb and being caught in the “everlasting arms.” Relinquishment is often the pathway to supernatural peace. Paul wrote in Philippians 4:11-13 that he had learned “in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
When Paul wrote that he could do all things, he wasn’t talking about how he had become some super-Christian doing amazing things. He was referring to the contentment and peace that God gives to those who lean on him hard. God’s got this. If that’s true—and it is—Paul could face anything, and face it with a surprising and supernatural peace . . . mostly.
So, have a great Thanksgiving. Be thankful, whether it’s okra and liver or steak and lobster.
He asked me to remind you.