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The blessings of thorns

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On this month of Thanksgiving, I would like to share with you two different scenes.

The strange thing about these scenarios is that when you first hear them, you will be hard pressed to understand why I selected these stories to exemplify Thanksgiving. On the surface they will seem to be the antithesis of Thanksgiving. Yet, I am convinced that at the heart of these stories is the real Biblical understanding of what it means to be thankful.

Let us first take a look at the story by the little- known, seldom-read prophet Habakkuk. Many call this passage as the Psalm of Joy. Habakkuk lived during a time of extreme adversity, probably 600 B.C., when a dying Egypt was being beaten into submission by a growing Chaldea.

The Battle of Carchemish saw the two nations engaged in mortal combat. Prostrate Judah now exchanged masters: from Egyptians to Chaldeans.

For generations, the Hebrews had suffered through invading armies. A Judaean planted his field, never knowing whether or not he and his family would partake of the fruit of it. People existed from day to day, always fearful that a marauding band would descend upon the village to burn, plunder, and kill. As an agricultural people, they depended upon the land — crops and herds — and when these failed, starvation came. It was a grim choice: death by starvation or the sword.

In the midst of this affliction, Habakkuk affirmed, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold… yet I will exult in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” (3:17)

The second scenario comes from the New Testament, the book of Ephesians. The Apostle Paul now finds himself squarely in the midst of a dingy Roman prison, and facing serious charges. Things seem awfully bad. But this is only one of a series of mishaps that has occurred during his stormy ministry. He has been shipwrecked, beaten nearly to death, imprisoned, and even many of his fellow Christians are now openly opposing him. Now he faces what surely seems to be a death sentence.

In the midst of this situation, Paul writes the Christians in Ephesus. He started his letter by saying, “Thanks be to God through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who has blessed us in Christ with every blessing.” (1:3)

Strange words from a man facing execution. We are forced to ask the question, “What has he to be thankful for?”

In these two passages we see gratitude. It is joy regardless of external circumstances.

This does not mean that we are to put on a false front of happiness. It does not mean that we are to psych ourselves into feeling better.

Rather, we are thankful even in times of hardship because we know that it is God who has the final word. I know this is not easy to do, especially when everything is not working according to what we want.

However, we also know that in Christ, we find that quality of living which is not dependent upon circumstances for ultimate meaning and purpose.

Adversity is a wind separating wheat and chaff. It is said that who we really are often becomes known only when the going gets tough.

Gratitude to God, whatever the situation; this is faith.

Why gratitude? Because God is God who has made us, redeemed us, sustained us. He is life; without him our days would be meaningless.

From his concentration camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could write, “Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: The Macmillan Company, paperback edition, 1963, p. 20.)

In my reading, I discovered that in the Bible the words for gratitude and thankfulness. If one is thankful, he must also be a person of faith.

For most of us, life can be full of challenges. Here in the Philippines, a lot of people have difficulty surviving for economic reasons. We have typhoons, earthquakes, landslides and floodings.

Even here in Dumaguete, we have shootings and until now, nobody has been punished for it.

And just for the last few years, we have this virus making a lot of people sick, killing many, and making our lives miserable. And when one dies, he or she is buried without the family. There was a time when it was difficult to travel from one town to another. And when one got to another town, one had to be quarantined for several days. Special events were celebrated alone or by Zoom.

But then even in the midst of the pandemic, we also experienced blessings, joys, and ecstasies. Life with its pain, but also life with excitement and victory and surprises, and times of incomparable inspiration.

We saw people sharing their food to those who had none. We saw healthcare workers giving their time, and even dying to take care of the sick. Now churches can reach out to others in various places through the wonders of electronics.

How can one be ungrateful, regardless of the circumstances? How can anyone of us fail to thank God for all that He has done for us?

It is the kind of gratitude that allowed the apostle Paul to write from a prison cell: I give thanks to God through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

We know that we have received benefits we could not have provided for ourselves. We also know that we do not have to struggle alone through the trials of life. We know that we can trust in the One who is greater than any of us can provide. We also know that many times, we are surrounded by so much more than we could ask or imagine, such an embarrassment of riches, that if we only notice, we will realize that our times are safe and well in God’s great hand.

What a gift it is to realize that! What a wonder it is to soak in the awareness of blessings already received! Not just once a year, but once a week, once a day, once in every painful hour, we need to stop and recognize just how much we have to be thankful for.

Lastly, let me share another story. Maybe this will give us an idea why we love rainbows. No matter how fierce a storm may be, if we see a rainbow afterward, it gives us hope.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss, in her radio series The Blessing of Thorns tells a truly touching story. It’s about a woman named Sandra who was feeling exceedingly low as she made her way into the florist shop door. It was Thanksgiving week. This is the week she would have delivered her second child, a son. But there was an automobile accident.

As a result, she lost her baby. As if to add to her grief, her husband’s company was threatening a transfer, and her sister called to say she could not come for the holiday.

“Thanksgiving? Thankful for what?” she wondered aloud. “For an airbag that saved her life but took that of her child?”

“Good afternoon, can I help you?,” the shop clerk’s approach startled her.

“I…I need an arrangement,” stammered Sandra. “For Thanksgiving.”

“Are you looking for something that conveys ‘gratitude’ this Thanksgiving?” asked the shop clerk.

“Not exactly!,” Sandra blurted out. “In the last five months, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.” Sandra regretted her outburst, and was surprised when the shop clerk said, “I have the perfect arrangement for you.”

Just then, another customer entered the shop. The clerk said, “Hi Barbara, let me get your order.” She walked toward a small workroom, then quickly reappeared, carrying an arrangement of long-stemmed thorny roses. Except the ends of the rose stems had been snipped… there were no roses, just stems with lots and lots of thorns. “Want this in a box?” asked the clerk.

Was this a joke? thought Sandra. Who would want rose stems with no flowers? But it was no joke. After the customer left with her order Sandra stammered, “Uhh, that lady just left with, uhh…with no flowers!”

“Right,” said the clerk. “I cut off the flowers. That’s the Special …I call it the Thanksgiving Thorns Bouquet.” She explained: “Barbara came into the shop three years ago feeling very much like you feel today. She thought she had very little to be thankful for. She had lost her father to cancer, the family business was failing, her son was into drugs, and she was facing major surgery. That same year, I had lost my husband,” continued the clerk, “and for the first time in my life, I had to spend the holidays alone. I had no children, no husband, no family nearby, and too great a debt to allow any travel.”

“So what did you do?,” asked Sandra.

“I learned to be thankful for thorns,” answered the clerk quietly. “I’ve always thanked God for good things in life, and never thought to ask God why those good things happened to me; but when bad stuff hit, did I ever ask?! It took time for me to learn that dark times are important. I always enjoyed the ‘flowers’ of life, but it took thorns to show me the beauty of God’s comfort. You know, the Bible says that God comforts us when we’re afflicted, and from His consolation, we learn to comfort others.”

Sandra said, “I guess the truth is I don’t want comfort. I’ve lost a baby, and I’m angry with God.”

Just then someone else, a man named Phil, walked in the shop. He said his wife sent him to pick up their usual Thanksgiving arrangement…12 thorny, long-stemmed stems!

“Those are for your wife?” asked Sandra. “Do you mind me asking why she wants something that looks like that?”

“No, I’m glad you asked,” Phil replied. “Four years ago, my wife and I were in a real mess, but with the Lord’s grace and guidance, we slogged through problem after problem. God rescued our marriage. Jenny here told me she kept a vase of rose stems to remind her of what she learned from ‘thorny’ times, and that was good enough for me. I took home some of those stems. My wife and I decided to label each one for a specific ‘problem’ and give thanks to [God] for what that problem taught us.”

As Phil paid the clerk, he said to Sandra, “I highly recommend the Special!”

“I don’t know if I can be thankful for the thorns in my life,” Sandra said to the clerk. “It’s all too…fresh.”

“Well,” the clerk replied carefully, “my experience has shown me that thorns make roses more precious. We treasure God’s providential care more during trouble, than at any other time. Remember, it was a crown of thorns that Jesus wore so we might know His love. Don’t resent the thorns.”

Tears rolled down Sandra’s cheeks. For the first time since the accident, she loosened her grip on resentment. “I’ll take those 12 long-stemmed thorns, please,” she managed to choke out.

“I hoped you would,” said the clerk gently. “I’ll have them ready in a minute.”

“Thank you. What do I owe you?” asked Sandra.

“Nothing,” said the clerk. “Nothing but a promise to allow God to heal your heart. The first year’s arrangement is always on me.” The clerk smiled and handed a card to Sandra. “I’ll attach this card to your arrangement, but maybe you’d like to read it first.”

It read: “Dear God, I have never thanked you for my thorns. I have thanked you a thousand times for my roses, but never once for my thorns. Teach me the glory of the cross I bear; teach me the value of my thorns. Show me that I have climbed closer to you along the path of pain. Show me that through my tears, the colors of your rainbow look much more brilliant.” (Revive our Hearts. Adapted and used with permission. www.ReviveOurHearts.com

As what St. Paul would say, “We know that in any and all circumstances, the victory is ours through faith in Christ Jesus.” Amen.

__________________________________

Author’s email: [email protected]


 

 

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