“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV).
There is one imperative that hasn’t been hard to follow during the COVID pandemic. I’m constantly hearing of people to pray for who have tested positive, are sick, and maybe very sick. Equally, I hear of many who are struggling with isolation and depression from months of physical distancing from others, and the sheer length of this virus.
Rejoicing and thanksgiving? That is harder, and were it not for some prayer practices that my work team follow in the collegiate ministry with which I work, I probably would not do much of this. Thank you, Carrie and Kathy, for this. But it is hard. Monday night I learned of a long-time acquaintance who worked in Student Life at Ohio State who passed from COVID. His smile will no longer light up any room he is in, nor will students know the care of this big bear of a man. As I write, Ohio topped 10,000 new cases in a day and set a single day record for COVID deaths.
How can one give thanks amid all this? I certainly cannot give thanks for it. That would be cruel and heartless and perverse.
Paul’s urging is to give thanks in all circumstances, not for them. He writes to a church that has faced intense persecution in an empire where Christians were not a legal, recognized religion. And life for many in these times was often nasty, brutish, and short.
Paul’s urging to give thanks is situated in the middle of passages that speak of Christian faith and hope, between the faith that assures one of God’s saving work in this life and the one to come, and the certain hope of that coming.
This leads me first to be thankful both for the life in which I enjoy God’s love and approval and that I’ve nothing to fear in death. Because I treasure the life in which I can live out that faith, I heed the measures that offer protection from getting sick. I don’t practice these out of fear but thankfulness for public health officials who offer this advice. If, despite this, I get sick, I am at peace.
I give thanks each morning when I awaken healthy, and at the end of the day.
I give thanks for all the public officials and health care workers who care for those who are sick, sometimes despite public resistance, and often putting their health on the line.
I give thanks for first responders, grocery and other frontline workers who are at greater risk, who serve us, many at relatively low wages.
I give thanks for my wife, and that I do not live alone during this time. Her daily companionship and the ways we help each other when we get too obsessed with the news, helps us both to keep a sense of proportion
I give thanks for the small blessings of daily life, meals prepared and shared with each other, working together on home projects, de-cluttering, and maintenance. Not going out so much gave us the time to work together on those tasks we avoided–like the first cleanout of our garage in ten years or more.
I give thanks for my son and his wife. I admire their good sense throughout the pandemic without any expressions of parental concern. We won’t be together for Thanksgiving or Christmas (apart from a drive-by outdoor gift exchange). We’re grateful for outdoor, physically distanced visits from time to time and that they have also remained healthy.
I give thanks for our church. We have not met in person since early March but I feel, if anything, closer as I pay attention to the prayer lists and stay in touch with a number of individuals. And it might be that I pay even closer attention to our pastor’s sermons when he is staring me in the face on Zoom!
I give thanks for the glorious sunsets I’ve seen on walks during these months. I’ve thought of some time posting a photo spread of the sunsets of the pandemic.
I give thanks for the glorious music I’ve listened to (and the chance to be a part of one virtual recording) even while I miss our local choral group. We all have recognized more clearly than ever the treasure of singing together.
I give thanks for the opportunities to join our plein air group in safe, outdoor painting outings this summer and online gatherings with artist friends.
I give thanks for books (of course!). I’ve kept company with writers like Hilary Mantel and Marilynne Robinson. I’m thankful for publishers who usually say “yes” to review requests. As always, I’m thankful for the incomparable Byron and Beth Borger at Hearts and Minds Books. I’m so thankful for all my book-loving friends who help turn reading into a community conversation.
I give thanks for meaningful work encouraging emerging scholars as they connect faith and their academic calling. I get to write, edit, and interview people far more intelligent and gifted than I. This old dog keeps learning about various social media platforms, web analytics, marketing. Everyday brings conversations with a variety of partners inside and outside our organization. Fortunately, I am able to do all of this at home.
The pandemic has taught me in new ways to focus on all the things we have and may do, even in a time of loss. Perhaps confronting so much that I cannot control has challenged me to greater prayerfulness throughout the day.
By God’s grace, next year’s list may include so much we’ve had to leave aside. There is so much I look forward to be “over with.” But I don’t want to forget either those we’ve lost or the particular goodness of God in these times. Most of all. I am thankful and rejoice in the unchanging and certain hope our faith affords us. As we sit down to dinner today the abundance on our table will reflect the abundance in our hearts and lives.