A young mother watches helplessly as her newborn infant struggles for life. Born 3 months premature, this tiny baby struggles to breathe and clings to life. This mother can only watch as her child is attached to IV’s and breathing tubes. She can’t hold her child. She can’t comfort her child. All she can do is watch through a glass window as nurses and doctors struggle to save the child’s life.
The mother is at the hospital daily, praying to God to save her child. “Save my child, dear God, and I will dedicate his life to you. Just save my child, “ she pleads. She prays as fervently as Hannah did in the old testament, praying for a miracle.
Miraculously, the child does survive. And every day, this devout woman prays to God thanking God for her child. She prays to God in thanks and offers to dedicate this child’s life to the one who saved. To this day, even though her child is rapidly approaching 50, she still prays for him daily to God and lets him know about it every time they talk on the phone.
That child was me, and back in 1970 in South Korea, in a small village called Jun Joo, I was born 3 months early. Just like Harry Potter, I am the boy that lived. And still to this day, my mom prays to God, thanks God for my life, prays that I will be faithful to God, and then calls me weekly to remind me of it.
If I think about the life I have lived up to this point, I am immensely grateful. Even though I have experienced all the peaks and valleys life has to offer, my life has been amazing. I grew up with two very devout, faithful followers of God who instilled in both my brother and I the sense of God’s immense love for us. My parents moved across the ocean to a land where they could not speak the language so that their children could have opportunities for a better education. They shared with me and became examples of how to offer some of that grace back freely through their generosity of finances, time, and skills. Until recently, my father would go on medical missions to Kenya to meet with the Masai people. He would travel around Michigan providing check-ups to migrant farm workers to provide medical advice and comfort. My mother taught Korean Language School to second generation Korean-Americans to instill them pride in who they are and a reminder of the culture that made them unique. She would invite literally hordes of people over and feed them extending hospitality in ways that at the time, felt over the top. And all along the way, they would give thanks to God for the life they had. It is this sense of gratitude that they imparted on me that still is something I try to lean into. It was gratitude that goes beyond just a simple word of thanks, but rather a way of embodying a way of being in the world that was a response to what God was doing in our lives.
This attitude of thanks, mindfulness of being present to the joys that are deeply ingrained our lives, is not one that is easy to cultivate even if we know of God’s grace and love for us. We all know that life is not easy. It is challenging. There are times in our lives where everything gets turned upside down, when a new health challenge makes us face our worst fears, or when a financial downturn brings anxiety into our midst. All of us get heartbroken when we see the pain and suffering of others when we see the devastating effects of war or envision the lives of those in absolute poverty. How do we find gratitude in those moments?
I think the apostle Paul tries to address this in his letters to the Romans. Paul is a changed man and this letter to the followers of Christ in Rome, he writes to them blindly. He has never met them before and so as he introduces himself, Paul outlines his credentials. He wants them to trust him and he wants them to know that they all share faith together in Jesus Christ.
Paul letters to the Romans is intended as a letter for practicing Christians, meant to be useful in everyday faith. Paul wants the Christians in Rome to embody the new thing God is doing in Jesus Christ. He talks about how God is continually making everyone new and he shares his encounter of Christ on the road to Damascus. Once a Pharisee, now he has been set aside by God precisely to take the good news to the “nations” or “Gentiles”, Paul’s own life mirrors the shifts in the early church. Paul has been made new and he wants people to know about the transformative power God has to remake their lives as well.
Paul reminds us that our faith is never solitary work. When it flags, we catch it from each other, encouraging each other through our lives and our words. In verse 8, Paul thanks the followers of Christ for what they are doing. He writes that he is continually praying for them and goes on to say:
“For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”
Paul understands so clearly that just as much as he gives, he also is receiving a gift from them.
Lillian Daniel author of “Spiritual but Not Religious” writes this:
“Being privately spiritual but not religious doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in the community, where other people might call you on stuff, or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition you did not invent all for yourself.”
All these years later, we still need the community of the church to shape each other’s faith. All these years later, we still need people in our lives who will be our mirrors, reflecting those areas for us where we shine, to reflect to us those places where we need a little work (with love), and often times, just to laugh with one another.
This is the place where taking the time to thank others is important. It is important for us as individuals because it reminds us that all of us did not get to where we are alone. It may not have been a lot of people, but there have been people who have helped us along the way in both big and small ways. Taking time to thank them is also a way in which we thank God for putting those people in our lives.
But there is also another very important part in this, we are reminded to give thanks to God for all of this. Paul writes that he is not ashamed of the gospel. In essence, he is talking about how God’s grace overcomes whatever shame we have built up in our lives or anything that reminds us that we might somehow be less than someone else. In the resurrection and salvation of Jesus Christ, God has removed all of that and in its place, give us hope and love that can never be broken or taken away from us. And for this, we can give thanks.
I am thankful to all of you for allowing me to journey with you and share ministry with you over this past year. It literally was like a year ago around this time that I started with you all. You have inspired me and allowed me to laugh again, and given me a glimpse of the Kingdom of God is like.
Because of you, the Kingdom of God is like a community of faithful people who will host a walk in the pouring rain so that people can have access to clean water. The Kingdom of God is like a community that creates space for people to have civil conversations over sometimes controversial topics not to change people’s minds, but to be able to listen to each other so that they can understand each other’s perspectives. The Kingdom of God is like a community that gathers for worship and cares for each other deeply and that visitors that walk in both notices and feel that. Because of you, the Kingdom of God is like a community that cares for the earth by allowing people to recycle books, appliances, and TV’s in appropriate ways so that God’s creation continues to be taken care of.
And so for all of this and so much more, I thank God for you, and for Faith Presbyterian Church. May we all continue to give thanks to God and thank others for traveling in this life with us. May it be so. And all God’s people say, Amen!