1 Thessalonians 5: 14-23
14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.
23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
To give a bit of background, the church in Thessaloniki was one of the early churches. At this time, they were no doubt being physically, socially, and economically persecuted for being Christian. So Paul writes this letter to encourage them to be unified and look to Jesus for hope in these difficult times. We can see a bit of that core message in our passage today which comes right at the end of the book. In this section, Paul is giving his final instructions to them, teaching them things like helping the weak, continue to work hard, and to “16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
It’s interesting because he says “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” The reason he gives for doing these things is rooted in their hope in Jesus. He then reinforces that idea by finishing this section by saying: “23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.”
So Paul rests his argument in the hope in the power of God in Jesus. Another, more academic way of saying that is to say that Paul finds hope in the Christian Meta-narrative.
Side-note: These very specific, unapproachable academic words are fantastic words to learn. I think there is a basic human desire to sound smart. I’m not saying everyone wants to be smart. Just that most of us settle for the easier thing which is just to sound smart. Vocabulary is the easiest way to do it. If you’re in a conversation and you throw out: “The meta-narrative that you’re presenting is untenable with your epistemological presuppositions and is therefore existentially repugnant.”
Not only will you sound smart, but you get the extra bonus of boring the other person so thoroughly that they won’t even challenge you to explain what you mean. So with that in mind, were going to talk about meta-narrative:
Meta-narrative is basically the idea that there is some, bigger greater story that we are all a part of. For Christians, we believe that the meta-narrative is that God created everything, it became flawed through the choice of humans, He redeemed it through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and now He is working to restore it. So Christianity gives us this story.Humans are constantly making and telling stories, whether it be at the campfire, or around the dinner table. When you’re telling stories, there are a bunch of decisions you have to make. Sometimes you make them even without thinking about them.
For those who don’t know, my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this past February. The benefit of guest preaching is that you get to pick what you get to preach about, so I decided to reflect on this past year as my dad has been going through Chemotherapy, radiation, and a lot of uncertainty about whether he will be able to get surgery to get rid of the cancer, or if we will have to settle for containing it for years.
What’s interesting about storytelling, is that it is always inherently artificial. Since the time of Aristotle wrote it out, in Western civilization, nearly all of our stories fit into the classic 3 act structure: the setup, confrontation, and resolution. The challenge in our life, is to figure out which act we are in right now. When I’m telling this story, one of my first decisions is to figure out where I should place the set up. Do I begin with my relationship with my dad and the years of work he put into working with my mom to homeschool me and my 2 brothers? Do I begin on my last birthday, as it was that night that we went to the ER, waited all night, and got the diagnosis the next day?
Today, I choose to begin earlier than that. Today, I’m going back to my senior year in college. I went to a Christian School and was finishing up my degree in Christian Education. So I was taking bunches of classes in theology, church history, and ministry-oriented education, in addition to chapel 3 times a week, church twice a week, and a Bible study. Needless to say, I was constantly learning about and discussing Christianity. The problem was, that I didn’t know if I believed it. I had experienced more profound doubts and questioning than any other time in my life.
After years of being taught that I should find my identity, meaning, and purpose in the Christian meta-narrative, in the Christian story, and doubting the existence of that story, I was, for the first time in my life, confronted with the idea that everything might be meaningless. Once the meta-narrative was thrown out, I didn’t find anything meaningful. This led into over a year of pretty intense depression. I didn’t know how to voice those feelings so it only grew, and there was over a year where I thought about suicide multiple times nearly every day.
To clarify, there are many different ways to experience depression. Some people describe it as a grey cloud that seems to pervade every area of your life. Mine was different. For me, depression was the constant feeling that everything good in life: all relationships, music, love, food, careers, everything, was merely entertainment in a universe that didn’t matter. It just seemed like an awful amount of work for no reason. So my solution was to read and watch survival stories so that I could try to catch a bit of their will to live. For me, the rest of my life felt more like a prison that I had to endure than an opportunity to truly live.
Side-note: don’t worry, this does get a bit more positive. I don’t imagine most people want to start their Sunday with a whole long conversation about suffering, depression, and cancer. I promise it will get better. But I say this because, it is important to everything with my dad, but also because I think churches are unfortunately scared of these topics. While some churches are better than others, it’s unfortunate that communities that are suppose to accept brokenness and pain and respond with grace, are so often associated with avoiding topics like depression and doubt.
By this past February, my dad had been dealing with this mysterious back pain for months. Eventually, on the night of February 1st, we went into the ER because he had been in too much pain to sleep for days. We expected to have a simple gallbladder surgery, and be back home before the weekend was over.
After lots of tests, very little sleep, and an awful lot of waiting, I kept thinking over and over that I hope it isn’t pancreatic cancer. I didn’t know much about it, but I knew enough to know that’s not the cancer you want. I didn’t dare utter the word, especially with my parents in the room. But, eventually a young resident came in to talk about the initial readings from the cat-scan. I think he chose to deal with giving back news by getting very academic because he proceeded to describe what he thought was pancreatic cancer, he was the first one to use that terrible C word, and run through the infamous whipple surgery that may or may not be possible, and overall be incredibly negative about the whole thing. Later on, a more experienced Doctor with better bedside manner gave a more accurate description of what was going on that wasn’t nearly as negative, but in each case, it didn’t stop me from, for the first time, be confronted with the idea that there are huge parts of my life that I may not be able to share with my dad.
Instantly, my perspective shifted. I’ve never had a particularly vivid imagination. I tend to think more through concepts than images, but I remember clear images of my dad not being there for my wedding. When I was actually confronted with death, life seemed to glean a whole new meaning and importance. Rather than a prison, life seemed like an opportunity to live.
There’s incredible power in framing a story. Choosing the framework for what you are going through can change the whole experience. For example, some choose to view their life as a tragedy, cancer can feel like the final straw to a life in a cruel world. For some reason, life becomes easier when we’re the victims.
My parents chose to frame their story in more optimistic terms. They chose a name for this time: Ad Alta Simul, which translates to “To the Summit Together.” While cancer sucks, Chemotherapy gets really old really fast, these painful steps become part of a larger journey to the summit, to recovery. My brothers and my mom all got tattoos with Ad Alta Simul, as part of this choice to frame this as a journey for all of us. Honestly, I haven’t got my tattoo yet, but I plan to. Actually, the design I picked is the cover of the bulletin this week. I just need to find the right artist to do it. Don’t worry mom! I’m not chickening out .
Thankfully, it has been a journey together. Our good friend and pastor at Cana, David, came to most treatments with us, and one of the women who works at the desk on the treatment unit once asked my dad where his passé was because she couldn’t spot us in the waiting room. Many people have sent cards, given us meals, and been a huge support for us. Thank you all who regularly checked up on how he is doing, and to all who prayed for him, as he has been on the GPC prayer list for months.
That service became a part of our routine. Treatments have been every other Friday for the past 5 1/2 Months. A good friend would give us balloons every Friday when we got home as encouragement. It really is amazing how fast routine kicks in. One of the most vivid memories that I have from treatment was my dad walking into an exam room to get blood drawn before treatment. While at the beginning, he looked a bit formal, like someone out of his element. A few months in, he casually followed the nurse back into the hallway, casually sipping a cappuccino. I immediately wrote down the phrase “blood draws and cappuccinos” in my phone because it so perfectly described to me how quickly we normalize things. I had never pictured myself feeling as normal in a hospital as I do now. It is both comforting and a bit sad. On one hand, treatment feels like a reluctantly normal part of life now for my dad, mom, and I. On the other hand, it’s sad when something like chemotherapy, something I never pictured being a part of my life, becomes normal.
That’s where we are now. We have one more treatment, next Friday. We still don’t know exactly where that will leave us. There’s hope that surgery will be an option, and we continue to pray for it, but exactly what the next few months, years, and decades will look like continue to definitely be a mystery.
And so, we return to Paul’s writing in 1 Thessalonians 5. When he says “16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Paul is not advocating for a shallow, “everything is going to be alright hope.” Remember, people are literally being discriminated against, beaten, and killed for being a part of the church. And Paul has the the audacity to say, “in all circumstances, give thanks.”
Now, a quick clarification on that. Notice the preposition that Paul uses: “In all circumstances.” Paul does not say: Give thanks FOR all circumstances. While there are things that I have learned through this, I am not thankful for my time in depression. I am certainly not thankful for my dad’s cancer. I think it is an evil that comes as a result of our broken world. But, I aim to be thankful, in the midst of those circumstances, knowing that while God does not cause them to happen, He does use them to teach us, to help us.
Why are we supposed to give thanks in all circumstances? Because this is God’s will for us! There are two reasons for this: First, Our life in the here and now matters. I don’t think our main job is merely to be saved so we can go to heaven. We have a purpose here. Beauty matters, love matters. They are not merely entertainment as we either wait for death or wait for eternal life.
Second, because we are a part of the meta-narrative. We are part of God’s story. No matter what happens to our family, we know that we are in the midst of God restoring all of creation. In life, and in death, we are God’s children and that He loves us. There’s hope to all of that. Hope that our suffering matters, that there is a summit to be reached.
There’s so many choices when we tell a story, and choices on how we tell our own story. We frame our lives in stories, full of chapter divisions and countless 3 act structures. The beauty of a God who loves us, and who is engaged with the world, the beauty of the meta-narrative is that it gives us context. A context where we are free to doubt, and struggle, and love, and be confused, and everything that comes along with life. But it is a story that gives hope! So, this is the story that we live into, what we come here every week for.
To be honest, after all of my doubts and questions, all of the classes and books that I have read, I don’t have answers for all of the key issues. I’m still learning what it means to be comfortable in the mystery, while also having convictions about what I believe. But here’s where am at: I love questions that I can’t answer, I don’t find that as threatening as I once did. I find God’s story captivating. It teaches about a more beautiful way to live, a life of loving others self-sacrificially and loving God whole heartedly and whole-mindedly. Sickness and suffering are incredibly painful, and I don’t have an answer to those questions. I have no idea why God lets people get cancer. That being said, I hope in the story that says that sickness and suffering were never meant to be part of the deal, and God is working to eradicate them.
Oftentimes, I’m desperate, and have no idea why everything is happening the way it is. But I hope in a God who loves us deeply and beautifully.
Thanks be to God,