Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 RSV
Always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.
Ephesians 5:20 RSV
“Anything an airplane can do to a cloud.”
That’s how prepositions were taught, eons ago when I was a child. “In the English language, a preposition can be defined as anything an airplane can do to a cloud: it can fly above the cloud, under the cloud, through the cloud, in the cloud, at the cloud, by the cloud, around the cloud, etc., etc.” Of course, there are times when the usual meaning of a particular preposition stretches that definition almost to breaking; but, then, all analogies break down past a point. There are a lot (in fact, a whole lot) of prepositions in the English language - around 150 of them - and new ones are being invented all the time. But in the Greek of the New Testament, there are only 18. That’s right, only 18 prepositions in the whole language. So a single preposition can, perforce, have more than one meaning...which makes translating the New Testament into English something of a challenge. It also means that the almost innumerable versions of the New Testament now available sometimes read quite a bit differently. But there are very few variations in the translations of the two verses shown above. Almost without fail, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 is translated “give thanks IN all circumstances” and, almost without fail, Ephesians 5:20 is translated “always and FOR everything giving thanks.” Which is what I’ve been chewing on this past week...because it seems to me that giving thanks IN all circumstances is rather different from giving thanks FOR all circumstances. I find it difficult to imagine giving thanks FOR child abuse or malignant cancer or racial prejudice, for example. But I have known people who managed to give thanks IN those very circumstances, God bless them every one; just for the record, they were all spiritual giants.
So I whipped out my Greek New Testament to see if it would help. But it didn’t, at least not with the verses from 1 Thessalonians 5 - though it was fascinating to see that “pray constantly” (or continually, or without ceasing, depending on the translation) is actually, in New Testament Greek, “be praying un- intermittently”. Ha! A good bit more light was cast by the NT Greek of Ephesians 5:20, which actually reads, “giving thanks OVER everything” - which gets anglicized, somehow, into giving thanks FOR all things. But giving thanks OVER all things, as in “saying grace over it” - now, that’s a whole different kettle of fish. I kept thinking about how, at the Table of Holy Communion, we give thanks over the Hawaiian bread and the Welches, and we ask God to transform them into the Body and Blood of Christ for us...so that we might be transformed into the Body of Christ, redeemed by his Blood, for the world. The Spirit really began to open up my mind through that Communion image. There’s a lot in this world that no well-meaning Christian soul could ever aspire to be thankful FOR; which, when we give thanks OVER it in Jesus’ name, can be transformed by God into an instrument of grace for us and for others. Of course, there are those hard circumstances in life about which we are eventually able to say, “I’m actually thankful for that now!”...but that’s usually way down the line, when time and experience have changed our sight lines and strengthened our spirits. In the midst of it all, often the most we can do is to give thanks IN all circumstances; or, better yet, to give thanks OVER it all in Jesus’ name - trusting that God will, miraculously, re-weave it all into something beautiful, something good.
For the last eight months, a lot of us have had a lot of questions about the novel coronavirus and the pandemic it’s caused - including me. I’ve had questions about causality and correlation and about how it’s been handled here and elsewhere. Until last Friday, I was philosophical about it all. But last Friday, after I’d been symptomatic since Monday, my new primary care doctor called me to report that my PCR swab had come back positive; “you have COVID,” he said somberly. Now “philosophical” isn’t possible anymore; now, the pandemic has become personal. I was feeling more than a little bemused a few days ago, when a faraway friend called to say she’d heard about my COVID, and then ended that brief conversation by proclaiming loudly, “Have a WONDERFUL Thanksgiving!!!” Oh dear, I thought; bless her heart, she must have skipped her sensitivity training. But she was right: Thanksgiving isn’t a day or a meal, or even a long anticipated gathering (which is now, of course, Gone With The Wind); Thanksgiving is a state of mind, a spiritual posture. As I reflect upon the numerous offers of help we’ve received, the neighbors who’ve cheerfully turned themselves into Pickup and Drop Off; and the family and friends who’ve brightened our days with texts, emails, and voicemails, I’ve developed a long list of causes to give thanks IN this less than happy circumstance.
It may be a while before I can see far enough to give thanks FOR it, but as more people than I can count assure us daily that they are praying for us, I realize that I’m reaching the point of being able to give thanks OVER it, leaving the work of consecration and transformation where it belongs, in the able and loving hands of God.
Thanks be to God for doing infinitely more than we can ask or even imagine!
“Something Beautiful, Something Good”
Something beautiful, something good;
all my confusion he understood;
all I had to offer him was brokenness and strife,
but he made something beautiful of my life.
Pastor Susan Pate Greenwood