17 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 and there is no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. 19 God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.Habakkuk 3:17-19
Many of you will remember a couple of weeks ago, I sent out a letter to the congregation, concerning the disaffiliation of churches from the United Methodist Church. It is not that I never wanted to talk about the matter with this congregation, but I wanted to create a sense of living over the problems many see that may divide us. We are more than any single issue, or any single argument, and really when we allow those to get in the way we forget the true Christian nature we are called toward in our baptism.
John Wesley’s affinity for these marks, which we are discussing in this series, was always toward an understanding that we are Christian not only in name but in heart and life as well (John Wesley, The Character of a Methodist). He was quick to note that these marks connect us to God and God’s nature of work in this world. This meant that above all things we held close to these five marks as manners of living and existing in this world.
So when we consider this alongside what is happening currently in our denomination, we have those who have decided to leave the table, but doing so in a way that leaves the table fractured and harmed as they exit. I feel grieved for all who have been harmed in this divisive time. For the LGBT people who are being persecuted and for the division that has not just broken apart churches but has fractured families.
I think now more than ever we need to hear these characteristics that focus to unify us and remind us of who we are truly called to be.
We do not see ourselves or this denomination we call home as better than any other. We do not see our faith as superior to the way other denominations practice their faith. We should constantly strive to not judge our siblings in Christ, though sometimes this can be difficult. However, as I consider my journey as a lifelong Methodist, the practical living of my faith has always been able to have been expressed in these five marks (and this is even before I had read the book and language to go with it).
As we continue to unpack these marks of a Methodist we do so with our spirits fixed upon our nature as Christians.
We have already unpacked what it means to love God and to rejoice in God. Within each of these, we looked at the very basic nature of what we know about God. That is God’s love as it is embedded within each of us, and how we reciprocate and understand the impact that an ever-present and comforting God has upon us.
This week we can consider an extension of the mark we observed last week. However, it calls us to a nature beyond just rejoicing in God, but finding the voice and language to encapsulate that joy.
Today we look at the third mark of a Methodist: “A Methodist Gives Thanks.”
Wesley writes in his pamphlet The Character of a Methodist,
“Those who have this hope, thus ‘full of immortality, in everything gives thanks’” (John Wesley, The Character of a Methodist)
To some of us this may sound familiar as these are similar to the words used by Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “Give thanks in all circumstances…” (1 Thess. 5:18), and there is an intention behind that as Wesley builds upon our love from and for God. Wesley pulls this teaching from Paul as a part of our response to God’s love for us, and a part of our deep desire as to how we faithfully respond to that love.
This can feel like a high expectation; I mean “give thanks in all circumstances,” or “in everything give thanks.” I am sure many of us are willing to admit right off the bat that we have moments in our lives where we not only don’t want to be thankful, we feel physically unable to express thanksgiving as an emotion to God. Much as we discussed last week when we don’t “feel” particularly joy-filled, now we discuss what it means to engage in the act of giving thanks.
Wesley explains himself a bit deeper saying,
“Whether in ease or pain, whether in sickness or health, whether in life or death, the Methodist gives thanks from the ground of their heart to God who orders it for good . . . They are therefore ‘careful’ (anxiously or uneasily) ‘for nothing’; as having ‘cast all our care on God who cares for us,’ and ‘in all things” resting in God, after “making our request know to God with thanksgiving.’”John Wesley, The Character of a Methodist
Therefore, this manner of thanksgiving, or gratitude as we may also see it expressed, flows from us toward God and is expressed in the manner we express our gratitude for God’s love. Thanksgiving is not born out of the perfect life, much like joyousness, where we experience everything exactly how we wish. Rather, the importance of thanksgiving is to always be reminded of the true nature of goodness that is manifested through our faith in God.
Our gratitude for God’s grace is meant to always be present in our lives. In contrast to last week when we talk about joy as a state of spiritual being, this week we talk about a spiritual understanding of thanksgiving and gratitude
What does this mean in the context of our faith?
It means we are not only thankful in all circumstances, but we remember what exactly makes us thankful when times are tough. That is we disconnect pain and suffering from the nature of who God is for us. We center God as the source of good and love in our lives. This helps us focus our thanks even in bad because we rest in the assurance that God will guide us through, no matter the eventual outcome. This is not about ignoring the pain or heartache, but reminding ourselves that in the bad God is still there and God is still God.
Steve Harper, the author of “Five Marks of a Methodist” (the book at the heart of this series), says that Wesley notes how gratitude is a response to God and specifically God’s grace (Harper pg. 26). Going on to explain that gratitude then is grounded like God’s grace and not in circumstances occurring around us (Harper pg. 28). Through these developments Wesley discusses this like leading us out of anxiety (Harper pg. 30-1).
This can be tough to wrap our heads around because we get our minds so wrapped around this sense of anxiousness in our lives. However, as someone who struggles with anxiety, I often find it disconcerting that someone’s response to my anxiety is I just need to trust God more or rely on God more. I have found myself struggling to reconcile this ideology. However, thanksgiving is not a matter of trust. It is a matter of perspective. It rests in reconnecting to that joy we talked about last week. If we can rest in that assurance we can find, or even reconnect with that good that is or has occurred in our lives.
It is not a matter of “trusting God more,” but it is a reminder that God is there (similar to what we talked about last week). Yes, God eases anxiety, but that does not mean that they prevent it from ever happening.
With a society addressing mental health more I continue to hear these sorts of responses of “trusting God” more. These types of responses miss the work of finding a centering of gratitude in the work God has already done and God seeks to do. It is not a ridding of anxiety or mental disorders in our lives, but a manner of grounding ourselves so that when our anxiety becomes crippling we have a grounding to lead us through those anxious moments of our lives. We are reminded of our grounding in God. We all do this in different ways that come to define our nature of gratitude for the work that God does.
This is where it is important to name that everyone has mental health, we all need to be caring for our mental health and focus on ways we can make ourselves healthier mental human beings. This does not mean you have a mental disorder, but you focus on the health of the mental aspect of your life as much as you would focus on the physical side. This can be a wholly spiritual practice when it comes to thinking about the way we express gratitude throughout our life.
So how do we do this? How do we ground ourselves in this spiritual practice? This is where we can begin to look at how Scripture begins to answer this question to inform our own experience.
This text today from Habakkuk invites us to consider just this ideology. While we do not know much about the prophet Habakkuk, we see a prophet struggling with the evils of the world and his relationship with God.
In Habakkuk, after arguing with God in the first two chapters about the evils of the world and the struggles of life, the third chapter brings a nature of confession of faith in the words of the prophet. It brings Habakkuk to these words and calls him to proclaim,
“Yet I will rejoice in the Lord…”Habakkuk 3:18a New Revised Standard Verision
Go and read Habakkuk and you will begin to understand why these words may seem counterintuitive to what is happening to Habakkuk. The prophet experiences great despair and expresses it in a manner in the first verse we read. However, he is brought to the point of thanksgiving because of what God has offered him.
These three verses, as a glance into the greater narrative of this text, offer us three lessons. Lessons we hear mimicked Wesley’s understanding of gratitude.
- Habakkuk praises God regardless of his external circumstances
- Habakkuk’s praise for God is rooted in God’s promise of salvation
- Lastly, Habakkuk recognizes God’s role of strength amid weakness
To learn from Habakkuk means that we must recognize the way that God works in the world.
Pain and suffering are often bred from human desires, or when human desires conflict with God’s calling. Our pains may not be our fault directly (in fact oftentimes we experience pain because of external circumstances and not consequences of our actions). However, to move to a state of eternal thanksgiving for God, we must cease the act of blaming God for our pain and suffering. We must realize that God does not cause pain, God does not cause suffering. God will not strike you down with a bolt of lightning if you say something wrong. Rather God extends themselves in a manner of love and grace in every moment.
God is the author of good, and to rely in this way means that we seek to glorify God through acts of gratitude and thanksgiving, even when life may not be going the way we desire, in fact, especially in these moments.
Wesley attached the manner of thanksgiving to be a daily practice that, in essence, changes our psychological understanding of evil and suffering. Thanksgiving becomes a marker of grounding ourselves in God’s work in our lives. It is not an immediate feeling of relief from anxiety but can be a source of grounding during anxious times in our lives.
“Thanksgiving is the evidence that we are staying in love with God”.Harper, The Five Marks of A Methodist, pg. 31.
Our growth in terms of offering our thanks is a direct representation of God’s grace sanctifying us in our journey toward Christian Perfection.
This week I want you to focus on those manners of Thanksgiving. What do you have in your life, from God, to be thankful for? Even while suffering, what are those foundations of God’s agape that you can hold on to begin healing your heart? How can you use Thanksgiving to change your life?