Pump it Up or Let it Flow?
Without a doubt Thanksgiving has to be the perfect American holiday. You have the food, the family, the football. What more could you want in a holiday? The only one who doesn't think much of this holiday is the turkey. We can understand why. He doesn't look at Thanksgiving from the same view point that we do. He looks at it from under a knife. Who could enjoy a holiday a knife point?
The turkey though isn't the only one under the knife on Thanksgiving. Many people feel they are under pressure to be thankful. Many think they must drum up some feeling of thankfulness on this holiday. But it's no fun to be held at knife point; just ask the turkey. There is a way out from under the knife; there is a way to celebrate Thanksgiving without pressure. It has to do with the difference between water pumps and springs or fountains. Let me explain.
Some view the giving of thanks as a water pump. You've seen one before. It's a metal contraption with one arm that you push down and pull up to draw water from a well. Often an old pump needs to have water poured down it to be primed before it will put out water. That's how some folks think of thankfulness. It is something in them that must be pumped up. They way to prime the pump of thankfulness is to think of this or that blessing, and soon thankfulness will well up from within you. Or you can look at someone less fortunate than you. Last Sunday the associate speaker of the Lutheran Hour, Wallace Schultz, advocated doing this by going to veterans' hospitals.
It works, doesn't it? Who can run down the list of their blessings without having a feeling of thanks start gurgling up before they're half way down? We think of our children, our spouse, our house, our church, our country, and how can we NOT be thankful? And if these everyday blessings don't pump up thanks, surely the special blessings will. A deep sense of thankfulness will come over us as we remember exceptional healing, answers to prayers, good test results, successful surgeries and more. Likewise, who can go to a veterans hospital, a nursing home, or a hospital even and not be thankful that you're not in it?
Viewing thankfulness as something we pump up from within us seems to work. But what happens when there is nothing to prime the pump with? What happens when you start to run down your list of things to be thankful for and instead of seeing "deliverance from disease" all you can read is "disease." What if when counting your blessings your children, spouse, house, church or country are more burden than blessing? What if you can't go to a hospital or nursing home because you yourself are flat on your back in one? Yes, what happens to the person who is in the habit of stopping his self-piety for having no shoes by looking at the man with no feet when he finds himself with no feet? What then?
When the pump seems to have run dry or it won't work, guilt sets in big time. We feel like the four-year-old who was asked to say grace. As the family bowed their heads, there was nothing but reverent silence. The little boy finally looked up at his mother and said, "But if I thank God for the broccoli, won't He know I'm lying?" That's how we feel. We know we're suppose to be thankful. We know that God commands it and is angry with us when we are not. But what can we do when all we have around us is broccoli to prime the pump with? Are we suppose to do what some advise and thank God anyway? Are we suppose to thank God for the broccoli in our lives when He knows good and well we can't stand it and don't feel thankful for it?
Hold on there. If adversity can't pump up thankfulness, why is there so much genuine thankfulness in the face of it? The first Thanksgiving, not the one in 1623 when there was plenty to eat, but the very first one in 1621 was NOT held out of thankfulness for plenty of blessings. No, the Pilgrims gathered to say thank you for bare survival. Of the original 100 Pilgrims, only 50 remained.
There is a similar story behind the traditional Thanksgiving hymn, "Now Thank We All Our God." It was written by Martin Rickart, a Lutheran Pastor in Germany, during a time of war and devastation. He was a pastor in Eilenberg during the Thirty Years War in the first half of the seventeenth century. Eilenberg was a place of refuge because it was a walled city. It was overcrowded and unsanitary. Disease and hunger were rampant. The other two pastors of the city died. Rickart was left to minister to the needs of the entire town. He conducted as many as 50 funerals a day. In all, he buried 4, 480 people. One of them was his wife.
A man who had witnessed up close and personal so much suffering, so much death, so much bitter grief writes such a stirring hymn of thanks. How can this be if thankfulness is pumped up by counting your blessings? How many blessings could there be during 30 years of war, suffering, funerals and despair? Were other cities worse off than Rickart's? Did he pump up a feeling of thankfulness by visiting them?
The blessings we have in themselves or over against the poverty of others cannot be what pumps up the thankfulness the Bible calls on us to express. The Bible clearly says we are to be thankful in all circumstances not just the ones where we are loaded with blessings but also the ones where we find ourselves knee deep in broccoli! Ephesians 5:20 says we are to be "always giving thanks to God the Father for everything." I Thessalonians 5:18 tells us, "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." Philippians 4:6 says, "In everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." And David in Psalm 30:12 says, "O Lord my God, I will give thanks forever."
Such continual, enduring, unceasing thanks can't be pumped up by us from within us by contemplating our blessings. Our blessings run out, our blessings vary but God pictures thankfulness as constant. It must flow from another source other than our own pumps. The type of thankfulness the Bible speaks of comes not from a pump at all, but from a spring of water. A spring does not have to be primed. It flows on its own. A spring doesn't take any human effort at all to make it flow. It bubbles forth out of the ground pushed by its own abundant water supply.
Thankfulness flows, without any priming or pumping, not from how things in your life appear to be but from the truth about how things are. For example, when your life is filled with broccoli, thankfulness can still flow without trying to prime you pump, without trying to make believe you like it. You can look at the broccoli in your life - the disease, the death, the disaster - and know that the truth is these cannot separate you one millimeter from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. In fact, the broccoli that sprouts in our lives does not even hinder our Lord from blessing us. If fact, God promises that He will use the very things we despise and cower from to bless us.
So thanks doesn't flow from our hearts because we are masochists who enjoy such things as sickness, heartache, and funerals. It flows from our hearts because of the fact that our God is so great, so powerful and so loving that He is easily able to use the broccoli in our lives to our great good even if we don't see it or feel it ever. Perhaps, though, the Lord will be gracious to us and show us the great good of something painful as He did to Corrie ten Boom. In one particular German prison camp the fleas were particularly bad, but at this camp the guards left them alone. They enjoyed regular Bible study and services. Many months later after many complaints to God in prayer about the fleas, she learned the reason the guards wouldn't enter the barracks there was because of the fleas!
Thankfulness flows from the Biblical truth that God uses something as small and pesky and painful as fleas. God uses broccoli. God uses what you least expect and you think most painful to bless you. In short, thankfulness flows from the truth about God. Thanksgiving can't constantly flow from particular blessings given or tragedies rescued from because thankful feelings deflate as soon as the blessing ends or tragedy starts. For thanksgiving to be constant, it must center on the Giver not the gifts. It must center on God who does the giving not on what He gives.
The gifts of God vary and change. There are seasons of abundance and seasons of want. There are times of prosperity and times of adversity. There are periods of gladness and periods of sadness. But our God in Christ remains the same. Whether the skies be blue or overcast, Christ never ceases to be the Sun of righteousness smiling down on us. Whether death stalks you or life carries you along, Christ remains the Lord of life and death; whether you live or die, you are the Lords. No matter if sickness is your constant companion or physical fitness is your passion, Christ is always your Great Physician of body and soul. Neither good times nor bad times last forever, God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost does.
Thankfulness will flow freely when it flows from forever rather than from being pumped out of a moment of time. Stop and think of all that you have in eternity through Jesus Christ. Everlasting life without suffering, sorrowing, or crying. The forgiveness of sins, victory over the devil, and freedom from the sting of death. These eternal blessings don't go away when sickness come calling. These eternal gifts aren't taken back by God when you have nothing to eat but broccoli and your only companions are fleas.
Though someone or something should take all of our worldly goods, house, spouse, children and job; even if all of these earthly things were gone, still sin, death, and the devil haven't won a thing. The eternal blessings, the eternal gifts, the eternal bliss are still all ours in Christ Jesus. Therefore, we can be like the Puritan who sat down to eat and found only a little hard bread and some water. Seeing this he exclaimed, "All this and Jesus too!" Even without the bread and without the water, we would still have Jesus.
From a heart filled by the eternal, true God, from a heart brimming with the love, mercy and grace of Jesus Christ, thankfulness doesn't need to be pumped up. It flows and flows and flows all by itself. It flows regardless of how many or how few are the other blessings that rain down upon your life. Think about it. Does a big rain add add anything to a ever-flowing spring? Does little rain take anything away from it? Spend this Thanksgiving sitting by the spring rather than slaving away at the pump. Point the knife at the turkey not at yourself. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Thanksgiving Eve (11-22-00)