Paul was in prison, and he had a choice to make. He could have chosen to be bitter, focusing on the negative, all that was wrong with his life, all he had lost, but instead he chose to focus on the positive, on all that was right, on all he still had. I rather imagine his letter to the Philippians is written as much to himself as it was to them.
Being in prison, he had every reason to be depressed, but instead he wrote: "Rejoice in the Lord Always." He had every reason to complain and plead with God about his dire circumstances, but instead he wrote: "...with THANKSGIVING let your requests be known to God." He had every reason to look on the dark side of his circumstance, but instead he wrote: "...whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable... if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." He had every reason to give up, but instead he wrote: "I press on... I can do all things through him who strengthens me." Yes, he was writing to himself as much as he was to others.
You see, we are not always free to determine WHAT happens to us, but we are relatively free to choose HOW WE WILL RESPOND to whatever happens. Or as someone has said: "We cannot revoke what has happened at the level of event, but we can rework it at the level of significance, and that choice -- how we respond to whatever happens -- makes all the difference in the world."
Now on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, I want to remind you of the choice you and I have in every circumstance of life, the same choice Paul had in prison: the choice to be thankful.
It was a choice the first Pilgrims had to make that first winder. It was a horrible time. The weather was cold and damp; the work was hard; the food supply was inadequate. We are told that at one time there were only five grains of corn per person per meal. It was called the "starving time," with sickness and death all around them. Almost half the colony died during that first winter. I am sure many of them became demoralized and depressed and resentful, but some of them chose to focus on making the most of what they still had, rather than on all they had lost. They concentrated on the positives rather than the negatives, and that helped them make it through the bitter winter to better times.
You see, in those difficult situations in life, we all have the choice of what we will maximize and what we will minimize, and the person who has learned to choose gratitude for the positive in the midst of the negative is far better equipped to cope with whatever comes, and to make the best of things in the worst of times. I hope you make that choice.
But there is another situation in which we have to make a choice. We have to make a choice not only when we go through those difficult days, but also when we go through the good ones, when the harvest is bountiful.
After working long and hard on their farms during the Spring and Summer of that first year, the Pilgrims experienced a bountiful harvest with plenty of food. And once more, they had a choice to make. They could have said, "we've worked hard for it, and we deserve it." But instead they chose to be grateful, and gathered on that first Thanksgiving to give thanks to God for the rich harvest.
And that choice is ours too. One of the fundamental beliefs in our society is that "success" comes to those who work hard. It's part of our American credo. The rewards you receive in life, we tell our children, will be commensurate with the effort and work you put into it. And therefore, we look to people who have reached the top as those who deserve it because of their talent and hard work.
But I was struck by a survey a few years ago of corporate managers regarding their own understanding of the reasons for their success in business. You would think they would have reflected the old American credo about how hard work and long hours have led to their success. But, surprisingly, they didn't. Instead, they had the candor to confess that much of their success could be explained only by what they called, "sheer luck." They just happened to be at the right place at the right time and knew the right people and made a lucky decision. Of course, that doesn't explain it all, but there is a lot of truth in it.
I know we work hard at our vocations, and we strive to protect our health, and we cultivate our talent, and we discipline our time, and we are conscientious in fulfilling our responsibilities, and in that limited sense, we are responsible for what we are and have. And some successful people will choose to take all the credit for their achievements.
But, in the final analysis, I am moved to make another choice. For when you push the question back far enough, I must still conclude that whatever good fortune and success and good health I have enjoyed is not something I deserve or have earned, but a GIFT, a gift of God's grace. And I choose to be grateful! What about you?
But let me push the theme a bit further and relate it to a choice we make in response to those fundamental questions which we all ask at one time or another or in one form or another. It's a question that comes to us when we realize the infinite variety of possible genetic combinations, and ask ourselves: "Why was I born and not someone else? Why was I born of my particular parents? Why was I born with this particular mixture of genes, with a certain intelligence and talents and gifts and disposition? Why was I born now and not in an earlier century? Why was I born here and not in some other place?" Philosophers have struggled with those questions over the centuries.
Now, some would choose to respond to these questions by calling it "chance" or "fate" or "accident" or "the genetic lottery." But I make another choice. For when I peal away all the proposed explanations and probe the question to the core, I find that there is only one answer I can finally affirm, and it is this: LIFE IS A GIFT!
Perhaps that response comes not so much from my cold logic or reason, as it does from the depths of my being. It certainly doesn't answer all our questions, for I do not know why the gift is not given equally to all, and I struggle with those questions. I certainly do not believe that God wills some to be wealthy and healthy, and others to be poor and sick. I believe God wills the fullness of life for all of us, because God loves us all equally, and I do not know why that gift of life is not given equally to all.
Of course, you may choose to answer the question of life another way, but there is something that compels me to answer it this way. Life is essentially a gift. Each day of life is a gift of God's grace. Instead of being an entitlement, something which I deserve, life -- my life, your life, the lives of our loved ones, and all that we have, is finally a gift! And I choose to be grateful. And I believe that is what the writers of the creation story in Genesis were trying to affirm, and what the Psalms were celebrating in their poetry of praise and their songs of thanksgiving.
And so, during this Thanksgiving week, let us give thanks to God for the gift of life with our prayers of gratitude and our anthems of praise. But let us express our gratitude not primarily in words but in deeds, in helping to give the gift of life in all its fullness to others.
I know of nowhere this fundamental conviction of life as a gift of God's undeserved grace is more movingly expressed than in the personal diary of a young man where he shares his thought late one night in a hospital room, sitting beside the bed of his young wife who is critically ill, worrying, waiting, wondering. I am sure that all of us would be tempted to choose bitterness or resentment or despair in that painful situation. But listen to what he wrote sitting there beside her bed in that dimly lit room, listen to the choice he made:
"She may die before morning. But I have been with her for four years. Four years. There is no way I could feel cheated if I did not have her for another day. I never deserved her for a single moment. God knows that. And I may die before morning. What I must do now is to accept the justice of death and the injustice of life. I've lived a good life, longer than many, better than most. Tony died when he was twenty. I've lived 32 years. I could not ask for another day. What did I do to deserve birth? It was purely gift. And I am me, and that is a miracle. I have no right to a single moment. Some are given a single hour, yet I have had 32 years. Few can choose when they will die. I choose to accept death now. As of this moment, I give up my right to life. I give up my right to her life too.
"But wait! It's morning! I am being given another day. Another day to live and read and smell and walk in glory. I am alive for another day. And she is alive. It's a gift! Another gift!
"Thanks be to God!"