A Thanksgiving Meditation for 2019
During my graduate studies in the 70s, I had the privilege of being part of a tour (“In the Footsteps of Luther”) led by Dr. John Warwick Montgomery. It was one of the most remarkable courses I had ever taken. From lectures on Luther and Melanchthon in Wittenberg to the music of Bach in the church where he had played in Leipzig, Dr. Montgomery was a goldmine of information. I can’t remember the exact number of people on that journey, but there were some business people who joined the students for those memorable ten days.
One couple had their daughter with them who was struggling with her faith. When I happened to sit next to her on the bus, I did my best to answer some of her many questions. Her father was profoundly grateful for the change he saw in her life and to express it, he paid one semester’s fees for me. I was shocked at his generous gift because I hardly knew him and I never met him again. But his gift came with a very strange condition. He didn’t want me to thank him. I couldn’t quite understand that proviso, especially since his gift itself was an expression of his thanks. After days and days of struggling, I sent a tangential note and just stated how much he had blessed my wife and me by his kindness. Not being US citizens at that time, we were very restricted with what work we could do, so it was a difficult three years. His gift was a huge benefit for us. I never heard from him again, and it was only when he passed away several years later that his wife dropped me a note to inform us of his passing. He had obviously tracked my ministry.
He is now with the Lord, and ‘til this day, I don’t know why he didn’t want to receive my thanks. I may have disappointed him by sending the note I did because I did what he asked me not to do, albeit, in a very subtle manner. When I see him in heaven, I hope to ask him why.
“Please,” “I’m sorry,” and “Thank you” are the coinage of courtesy we teach our children. Even when somebody steps on our toes, we impulsively say, “I’m sorry.” We dispense those kind words every day. In fact, the Bible talks much about having a thankful heart. The most memorable of illustrations that Jesus gave on thankfulness is found in Luke 17 when he healed ten people of leprosy and only one returned to say, “Thank you.” The Bible says, “And he was a Samaritan.” There was a sting to that tale. As far as the background goes, the other nine should have known better. This “foreigner” was the lone one who returned. The most culturally marginalized was the most spiritually grateful. It is a mystery beyond words. How does one who has been healed from such a disfiguring disease not remember to say, “Thank you, Jesus”? In fact, gratitude is a privilege that blossoms at its peak into worship. Ironically, the other nine were on their way to the temple to proclaim their healing, forgetting to thank the one greater than the temple.
But the longer I live, the less I am mystified by how much we as human beings take for granted and neglect to thank the Lord for his kindness to us. So now, to make it more palatable to ignore God, Thanksgiving Day is Turkey Day. Calling it “Thanksgiving” means we have somebody to thank. That would be abhorrent to a so-called self-made person. We sadly resemble those nine and have forgotten to whom we owe so much. A low-level officer is said to have once told Winston Churchill, “I want you to know that I am a self-made man.” Churchill is said to have replied, “You have just relieved God of a very solemn responsibility.” Isn’t it fascinating that we freely describe a calamity as an “act of God” and dare to question Him for allowing it. And yet, blessings are received as our due, and a state of well-being is credited to our own doing, making thankfulness unnecessary.
People often ask me how I knew I had been called to be an evangelist. It’s a long answer but incorporates a push from within, a pull from without, a gifting from above, and opportunities from others to speak. That calling is reinforced repeatedly. It has nothing to do with one’s merit but everything to do with God shaping you for his purpose. A thankless heart will wander through life deluded.
May I share just one incident from an opportunity provided by others that makes the point for Thanksgiving? When I was twenty-five years old, I was invited to speak in Vietnam, hosted by my denomination, The Christian and Missionary Alliance. On one occasion during that time, I was being driven from Dalat to Saigon by a missionary named George Irwin. En route, our car started to sputter and chug and just died on us. Ironically, minutes before, George’s wife, Harriet, had said to all of us in the car, “We are about to go through the most dangerous part of the country.” I wondered why on earth she was telling us this now. Couldn’t she have waited ‘til we had passed through it? Nevertheless, there we were, stuck on the highway in the most dangerous part of the country, trying to figure out what was wrong with our jeep.
Suddenly, a white car came speeding down the road. We tried to stop it for some help by waving our white handkerchiefs. The man driving the car just swerved it around us and increased his speed even more to avoid stopping. A few minutes went by, and George tried the ignition again and the car started, much to our relief. As we drove a couple of miles down the road, we saw that the white car had been ambushed. The wounded and dying were on the side of the road, and the Viet Cong were running away in the distance. They had been waiting to ambush the next vehicle to come along, and that happened to be it. If our car had not broken down, it would have been us.
God has an appointed time for all of us. His protection and security is ours ‘til that moment comes when it’s “closing time.” I have absolutely no doubt that God stops and orders our steps in his sovereign will and grace. When we are face to face with Him, we will find out how many were the potential catastrophes from which He saved us. Every pain and wound is part of his sovereign plan for us. He is the ultimate guardian over every breakdown. He alone can be our protection.
On this Thanksgiving Day, let us thank God for his providential grace even at times when we are figuratively kicking the tires and wondering why this is happening. One of the great lessons taught by the Reformers was the importance of God’s grace.
Recently I saw this line on a church marquee: “When you run alone, you run a race. When you run with God, you run with grace.” Grace is God’s bestowed favor upon an undeserving soul. With all that may be going wrong right now, let us thank Him for the grace He has shown to us in giving us the privilege to live among such abundance. We have a responsibility to be thankful, and one of the ways of expressing that is to share what we have with others.
Maybe that’s why the gentleman didn’t want me to thank him. He wanted me to know it had come through him but not from him. God is the source of our blessings. Let’s be channels to bless others.
In my teens, my favorite country music singer was Jim Reeves. He had a beautiful voice. On many a day I would play this song of his:
We thank Thee each morning for a newborn day,
Where we may work the fields of new mown hay,
We thank Thee for the sunshine
And the air that we breathe,
Oh Lord, we thank Thee.
We thank Thee for the rivers that run all day,
We thank Thee for the little birds that sing away,
We thank Thee for the trees
And the deep blue sea,
Oh Lord, we thank Thee.
Oh yes, we thank Thee Lord
For every flower that blooms,
Birds that sing, fish that swim,
And the light of the moon,
We thank Thee every day
As we kneel and pray,
That we were born with eyes
To see these things.
We thank Thee for the fields
Where the clovers grow,
We thank Thee for the pastures
Where the cattle may roam,
We thank Thee for Thy love so pure and free,
Oh Lord, we thank Thee.
Happy Thanksgiving, dear friends.