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Grateful Again


2nd Corinthians 9:6-15

Deuteronomy 26:1-11     Luke 17:11-19


I: — The writer of Proverbs tells us that there are four things so wonderful as to defy understanding: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the seas, and the way of a man with a maid. These four are wonderful. At the same time, I am sure that the writer would never restrict the wonders of the universe to four. So rich is the creation, so marvellously diverse, that the universe is wonder upon wonder without end.

Vast and rich as the creation is, the Creator himself can only be vaster and richer. Today, on Thanksgiving Sunday, I am led to wonder and gratitude and adoration as I ponder the universe which has come from God’s hand.

Think of the navigational instinct of birds. Myself, I have the poorest sense of direction. Following a road map is almost an insuperable challenge to me when road maps are supposed to render a sense of direction unnecessary. So poor is my sense of direction that I have difficulty recognizing streetscape or landscape that I saw only five hours earlier. Yet the homing pigeon can always get home.

The best navigators are sea birds. Best of all is the shearwater. One of them, taken from its nest and transported 3,200 miles away, returned to its nest 12.5 days later. In other words, the bird had flown, on average, 10.5 miles per hour, 24 hours per day, 12.5 days, and had found its way to the nest from which it had been taken.

Bees aren’t birds, but bees are top-notch navigators as well. In order to orient themselves bees need to see only the tiniest bit of blue sky. You see, light from blue sky is polarized. (Polarized light has different properties in different directions, whereas the light that shines through cloud cover isn’t polarized.) As long as bees have access to polarized light from the smallest patch of blue sky they will never lose their way.


Then there is the brain. The neural complexity, the cellular complexity of the brain astounds me. More marvellous than the structure of the brain is the functioning of the brain. Brain is connected to muscle by means of nerves. Nerves, muscles and brain work together in such a way that we can will to do something and do it!

More marvellous still is the realm of thought. In the creaturely world there is no thought without brain. Yet thought isn’t mere brain-activity; “thought” isn’t just a fancy term for electrical connections among brain cells. While mind, at the creaturely level, never occurs without brain, mind is never reducible to brain. After Albert Einstein had died his brain was sliced ever so finely and examined under a microscope. His brain was found to be no different from anyone else’s. Yet his mind was startlingly different. Why? How? No one knows.

Brain-researchers tell us that one part of the brain has to do with hearing and smelling and seeing, while another part has to do with locomotion, body-movement. It’s easy to confirm this every time someone sustains brain-damage. The area of injury is correlated to loss of sense-perception or loss of movement. Still, the most sophisticated brain-research hasn’t been able to unearth the exact seat of consciousness or how consciousness functions. We know that consciousness is related to the mid-brain, but we don’t know at all how what is organic (brain) is related to what isn’t organic in any respect (consciousness). The everyday commonness of consciousness renders the marvel no less marvellous.

I am rendered near-speechless as well every time I contemplate the heavens. There are 100 billion stars in “our” galaxy alone. A star, as you know, is actually a sun. Stars, unlike planets, are self-luminous. “Our” sun, the sun without whose light and warmth life would never have appeared on earth; “our” sun is 92 million miles away — very close, really, since the next closest sun or star is 270,000 times farther away again (i.e., 270,000 times 92 million miles.) The only reason “our” sun seems so much brighter than other stars is simply that “our” sun is so much closer to us.

You might think that the sun is solid, like hot volcanic rock. Actually, the sun is gas, pure hydrogen gas, held together by gravity. While we usually think of gas as light and airy, the hydrogen gas of the sun is heavy, so dense that there isn’t a person here who could carry a four-litre milk bag of it — since a milk bag of the sun’s hydrogen gas weights 400 pounds.

While the earth revolves around the sun, the sun itself is never standing still. The sun revolves around a point in our galaxy, and revolves once every 220 million years.

We mustn’t think of the sun as the brightest star. Another star in our galaxy, Orion, is 18,000 times brighter than the sun, but it only seems to twinkle inasmuch as it is 545 light years away from us (a light year being approximately six thousand trillion miles.)

So far we haven’t moved outside our galaxy. If we move next door to an adjacent galaxy, we find a tight cluster of stars that is a billion times brighter than “our” sun.

II: — And yet so rich is God that he has made something more marvelous than the firmament: he has made you and me and countless others. For a long time I have known that other people energize me. I don’t have to know these people; I need only be around them, in the midst of them. Just why they energize me I’m not sure. But I think it has something to do with the marvelous diversity in human beings who are, after all, the crown and the glory of God’s creation. In the old creation story in Genesis 1 we read that after God created anything he pronounced it “good.” He created planets — “good”; vegetation — “good”; animal life — “good”. But when he created humankind there were two uniquenesses in the old story: one, God blessed man and woman — blessed them in that they alone were created in his image and appointed to fellowship with him; two, he pronounced what he had done “very good.”

The people, the crowd or the throng that energizes me; they are nameless to me, but they aren’t nameless, and certainly not nameless to God. They are the crown of God’s creation. Every last one of them is a beneficiary of our Lord’s sacrifice. He surrounds them arms and hands whose nail prints they may ignore for now but can never finally deny. Again and again, therefore, people whom I do not know at all are an occasion of thanksgiving for me.

And then there are those who do something extra-special for me: children. On several occasions I’ve travelled overseas to attend international conferences. When I went to Korea in August 1998 for the meetings of The International Congress on Calvin Research I had to get there two days ahead of the conference on account of airline scheduling. I felt lonely. I felt lonely in the same way upon arriving in both Stockholm and in Frankfurt when I was in Europe for meetings of the World Council of Churches. I did in Korea what I had learned to do on my earlier forays: I went looking for children. Finding children isn’t difficult in Seoul, a city of 13 million. The children there were like children everywhere: eager, energetic, oblivious of so much that renders adults cautious or jaded or cynical or hesitant. On an even earlier jaunt to Germany with the World Council of Churches I had felt lonely at the start of my stay. I hadn’t become acquainted with anyone at the conference yet, and in any case it soon appeared that they all knew each other from previous conferences, while I was new and strange. I went for a walk through Arnoldshain, a suburb of Frankfurt, aware that if I could just see some children I should no longer feel lonely or strange. In no time I came upon them. A few rosy-cheeked four year olds were sliding down snow banks. Some were throwing snowballs. Others were waving to their mother as they set off for afternoon classes. Two were locked in a life-and-death dispute. I was far from home, in a country whose citizen I was not, among children who spoke less English than I did German. Nonetheless, they were children. They typified promise, as surely as Isaac had typified promise to Abraham and Sarah, as surely as John the Dipper had typified promise to Zechariah and Elizabeth. They were cherished. Parents had counted the days until they were born and now felt that nothing mattered in all the world as much as their child. Suddenly I was no longer lonely. For me, to be among those who are cherished and the bearer of promise is to understand afresh how much I am cherished and what promise there is about me.

And then there are the men and women I meet in ways that leave me amazed. It happened to me with most poignant profundity when I went to a funeral at Temple Sinai, a synagogue in the Bathurst and Wilson area of Toronto. Because I had arrived 45 minutes early I went to a Jewish restaurant, Marky’s Delicatessen, for a cup of tea. The sign inside said, “Please seat yourself”. I noticed two things. One, there were no seats available. Two, I was the only man without a hat on. All the other men were wearing either a yarmulke or a fedora. It was obvious that I was in an Orthodox Jewish stronghold, and I stood out as the only non-Jewish man on the premises. I waited for a minute, not knowing quite what to do, when at the back of the restaurant an old, thin Jewish man with the warmest smile and the face of an angel moved over on his seat and beckoned to me as he called out, “There is room for us both!”

My heart melted. I had grasped the double meaning he had uttered deliberately when he had said, “There is room for us both.” I sat down beside him and we began to talk. His older sister had brought him to Canada prior to World War II. He and his sister were the sole survivors of his family. I asked him what he had done for a living. “I was a simple peddler. I went door-to-door peddling tablecloths, sheets and pillow cases.” Now he was old. He went to Marky’s Delicatessen every day for lunch. Every morning when he got up, he told me, he did his house cleaning. “I clean my house as well as any man can”, he said with his eyes dancing, “not as well as a woman could, but as well as I can.” I asked him where he had grown up. Southeast Poland. “But I shan’t tell you the village, since it wouldn’t mean anything to you anyway.” He told me next that small and insignificant as his village was, it had had a famous rabbi, a most famous rabbi. “It’s a tradition”, he continued, “that a rabbi remain in the place where he begins his work. Now a minister has to go wherever he is sent. But our rabbi stayed in our little village, even though he could have gone anywhere at all, because the tradition meant more to him than the money; and besides he loved us so much.”

I hadn’t told the old man that I was a minister. Was he psychic? It wasn’t anything psychic at all. It was spirit resonating with spirit. It was heart responding to heart. I told him that in fact I was a minister. “Oh, I knew that already”, he said as if it need not have been mentioned.

In view of the fact that words like “minister” and “Christian” are synonymous with persecution going back for centuries in Poland, do you have any grasp of what grace floods that old man’s heart for him to have said to me, “There is room for us both”? He knew I represented that institution which has afflicted his people for centuries.

As the thin old man finished his lunch and I finished my tea he told me that he had had the most wonderful grandmother in Poland. Every night throughout his childhood his grandmother had asked him the same two questions: “Have you prayed? Have you worked?”

I’ll not see that dear man until the day when Messiah tarries no more. But for my meeting with him I shall thank God for the rest of my life.

If people whom I meet once are an occasion for thanksgiving, what about friends? And beyond friends, what about those people — one or two or perhaps three — who are soul mates and who know us even when we are silent and love us even when we are obnoxious?

Today my heart overflows in gratitude to God for the people whom he has brought before me, people from the big city as well as the tiny village in southeast Poland, not to mention soul mates because of whom I shall never be forsaken.

III: — Neither shall I ever be forsaken by our Lord himself. “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:16), exclaims the apostle Paul. The inexpressible gift is plainly Jesus Christ. He is inexpressible inasmuch as his sacrifice grants us access to the Father himself, and it is his face which mirrors the face of God so as to give us the knowledge of the glory of God. (2. Cor. 4:6)

I do marvel at the vastness and richness of the creation. At the same time, I’m aware that the creation which came forth from God’s hand isn’t exactly the creation which confronts us now, for the creation now exists in the era of the Fall. Certainly I relish all that children give me. At the same time, everyone knows that to be among children, whether as parent or as schoolteacher, is to shed all doubts concerning the doctrine of original sin. Of course I’m enriched by the people whose lives flow through mine like osmosis. But I also have no illusions about the human heart; I haven’t forgotten that the 20th century, just concluded, is the most murderous in the history of humankind. Nature is beautiful; and in a fallen world nature is also blood red.

The gift of Jesus Christ is inexpressible just because it is the one gift, the only gift anywhere in life, which isn’t marred by the Fall. This gift has no downside, no qualification, no reservation, isn’t impaired in any way. In giving us what is dearest to him — his eternal Son — God has given us himself. At what cost we can only glimpse dimly, yet glimpse enough to know that the cost is as inestimable as the gift is inexpressible.

The apostle’s exclamation is effusive — “inexpressible gift!” — just because the apostle’s experience of the gift is so rich. He knew that as the risen Lord stole into his heart the myriad confusions and contradictions in his life disappeared. No longer did he think it was God-honouring to persecute Christians. No longer did he think that only his ethnic group made up the people of God. No longer did he think that favourable standing with God was something he had to achieve, could achieve, or had achieved. He knew himself gathered up in an embrace that freed him to give up his misguided frenzy.

On many occasions in my life different people (as well as the same one or two people many times over) have forgiven me, cherished me, waited for me, refused to reject me or humiliate me when they had ample ground for despising me or dismissing me. What these people have done for me has left me knowing that I am blessed inexpressibly. I also know that what they have done reflects a vastly greater blessing from God himself. When Paul writes with amazement and brevity, “He loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20), he uses so few words just because he knows that the inexpressible can’t be expressed.

Can’t be expressed, but can be held in one’s heart, can become the truth which quietly transforms us and informs us for the rest of our lives, can become the foundational certainty which sustains us in our living and will see us through our dying. “He loved me, and gave himself for me.”

To know this gift is to know that the gift will be pressed upon me until God completes that good work which he has begun in me. (Philippians 1:6) To know this gift is to know that God will indeed heal that creation of his which, although fallen now, still exhibits splendour and marvel everywhere.

Knowing the One whose depths are unfathomable and whose gift of himself is inexpressible, I am rendered ever more grateful for people whose richness is inestimable, and for a universe whose wonders are endless.


                                                                 Victor Shepherd     

October 2001