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Author: Larry Dansky
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
I wonder what the Thessalonians thought of Paul’s words. Personally, I’ve always had problems with this scripture passage, mostly because I did not think I was capable of following any of Paul’s suggestions. If, as Paul says, this is “the will of God, then I think God is asking a lot from me.
Rejoice always? There are so many circumstances that create emotions of sadness, fear, worry, and even anger. How does someone who struggles to feed and/or house their family rejoice? How does one who is experiencing loss rejoice? Does Paul really think we can be joyful no matter how difficult our circumstances may be? Then I was reminded in a morning meditation that to rejoice (or to be joyful) is different from being happy. In the words of Henri Nouwen, “To choose joy does not mean to choose happy feelings or an artificial atmosphere of hilarity. But it does mean the determination to let whatever takes place bring us one step closer to the God of life.” I believe that Paul is asking us to approach life with a sense of joy, despite the fact that we may not be happy about the many challenges we face.
Give thanks for all circumstances? Really? When I’m presented with difficult and painful circumstances, I should not only be joyful, but also be thankful for them? Again, not an easy task to accomplish. But even as we are thankful for our blessings, don’t we grow more from our difficult trials and challenging circumstances? Everything that’s taken place, the good and the bad, has brought us to where we are, and is part of who we are. It may be hard to appreciate difficult times as we are going through them, but when we look back in retrospect, we can learn to give thanks for them and even count them as blessings.
Pray without ceasing? This to me is the hardest of the three. It may be possible if you’re a priest in a monastery or a guru meditating in a cave. But for those of us who have to live in this hectic world, this seems like an impossible task. I can pray prayers of gratitude as I awaken each morning and prayers of hope for tomorrow as I go to sleep. I can even find time to sit in silence for 20 minutes during the day, but in between I’ve got a lot to do and I’m busy living life. Pray without ceasing? Then a friend pointed out to me that I had a limited definition of prayer. I had interpreted prayer as either talking to God, or listening for God’s word in silent meditation. If we re-define prayer as how we live our lives, then to pray without ceasing simply means that everything we do is with God in mind. Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite lay brother in a French monastery in the 17th century practiced this concept. In a modern translation of his book Practicing the Presence of God, he says “It is a great delusion to think that times of prayer ought to be different than other times. It is just as important to adhere to God by action in the times of action, as by prayer in the time of prayer.”
So now I have a better understanding of what Paul was asking of the Thessalonians, and what God is asking of me. I can try to cultivate a joyful approach to life, be thankful for the good and bad circumstances I face, and be awake to the presence of God in all that I say and all that I do. Easy, right?
Holy one, help me to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks for all circumstances”. Help me to be awake to and practice the presence of God in times of action as well as times of prayer. Amen.