Letters of Thanksgiving
The apostle Paul wrote his epistles to new churches scattered across Asia Minor. Each church had differences of opinion and many distractions, but Paul loved every one of them. He loved them enough to rebuke them, but also to comfort and restore them, addressing each letter to specific people about particular needs. And Paul never neglected to thank God for them.
Paul began every one of his epistles to the early churches with a prayer of thanksgiving, with the exception of Galatians. This was not simply a polite custom but reflects joyful gratitude for his readers’ response to the Good News of the gospel.
Each letter was read aloud again and again, shared and passed around among the families and communities. His precious words were savored and treasured. Handwritten letters have become almost as rare and precious in our own day, haven’t they?
Take a look at a few of his letters:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus…
I Corinthians 1:4
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers….
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…
In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints…
We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…
I Thessalonians 1: 2-3
Later in Thessalonians, we find that familiar, but perplexing, verse to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you.” (I Thess. 5:8)
Give thanks in ALL things? Does God really mean for us to give thanks in the midst of our trials? Wendell Berry says, “Be joyful even though you have considered all the facts.” How can we be genuinely grateful when we are confused, depressed, sick, worried about finances, or grieving a death or broken relationship?
How could Paul be genuinely grateful when those early churches were such a mess? Even when Paul was imprisoned by the demented emperor Nero, he found joy and hope in the promises of God and he thanked God for the faithfulness of the churches.
The first American pilgrims chose to prepare a feast and give thanks for God’s goodness even at the end of their first brutally difficult year battling disease, famine, and death
Sometimes it takes something going wrong before we stop to notice all that is good and right with our world. Though painful, an accident or illness or disappointment can serve as a wake-up call….
- Having experienced a year-long divisive election season filled with anger, hate, harsh accusations and fear, some of us have been thrust out of complacency into active engagement to make the world a better place. As God’s people of Hope, we have the opportunity to reflect God’s Light into the darkness all around us.
Thank you, God, for the struggles in our nation which cause us to seek You.
- The return of my cancer is reminding me of blessings in my life, opening my eyes in new ways to wonder and appreciation of simple things—the blue morning glories opening as the sun rose this morning, laughter and tears shared with a friend, healthy lungs that continue to give me life and breath.
Thank you, God, for cancer that opens my eyes to appreciate your generous gifts.
- Having come through an anxious couple of years where we openly discussed differences in scriptural interpretation, my church could have split apart. Instead, we sought new ways of understanding, dialogue, and communication – and we have grown from the experience.
Thank you, God, for our diversity that is teaching us how to listen to one another with understanding and humility.
As followers of Christ, we say “thank you” even while it’s painful, trusting that God will use our experiences to refine us, to make us “mature and complete.” It is a slow process and results are difficult to see in the chaos and darkness. But we trust that God is indeed at work.
Our natural tendencies are to glide over good moments and recall the negative times. Neuroscientist Rick Hanson says, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” We need to train our brains to refocus and consciously linger on joy-filled moments. That’s why gratitude is considered a spiritual discipline. In gratitude, we wake up to the fact that life is all gift. Gratitude restores our sense of wonder. Gratitude slows us down, causes us to pay attention, to be mindful, to share a heightened sense of awareness.
A grateful heart is essential for joy and inner growth. Where there is no gratitude, there is no hope. Like a weak immune system, a spirit without gratitude is left vulnerable to depression, cynicism, and a general dissatisfaction with everything and everyone.
To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything God 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 gift of grace…Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. Thomas Merton
Intellectually this sounds simple enough. Good parents teach their children to say “thank you.” This is basic etiquette. We express appreciation when we receive a gift or a favor. But thankfulness is more than making a mental note of things God has done for us and then thanking Him for favors received.
Our family has a tradition of inviting everyone around the Thanksgiving table to express something they are grateful for. It’s easy to name good health, career success, or accomplishments, but we often forget that some of our best gifts don’t always come wrapped with a pretty bow.
I met a young woman this week who told me she had directed all her anger and frustration over the election into doing interfaith work and now she is thankful for wonderful new friends. So when you’re asked, “What are you grateful for?” this Thanksgiving, dig deep and give thanks for both the good and the bad, the joys and the pains.
WRITING OUR OWN LETTERS OF THANKSGIVING
Take a few minutes to write your own letter of gratitude for the people and ministry of your church. You may address your letter to an individual or to the church at large, but be as specific as possible about what you appreciate. Try to give thanks in all things—for both the good and the bad, the joys and the struggles.
CLAIMING PAUL’S PRAYER FOR THE CHURCH
Pray for your church using one of Paul’s prayers found in Colossians 1:9-12. Wherever you come across a capital YOU, substitute the name of your church.
Then pray this prayer a second time for someone in your life. Wherever you come across a capital YOU, replace it with someone’s name.
Since the day we heard about YOU, we have not stopped praying for YOU
and asking God to fill YOU with the knowledge of His will
through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.
And we pray this in order that YOU may live a life worthy of the Lord
and may please Him in every way:
bearing fruit in every good work,
growing in the knowledge of God,
being strengthened with all power according to His glorious might
so that YOU may have great endurance and patience,
and joyfully giving thanks to the Father,
who has qualified YOU to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.