December 9, 2009

Without Gloating

2009 1533 page6 cap’D HEARD THE STORY ON THE RADIO; NOW I WAS READING IT ON THE front page of the January 23, 2009, Washington Post Metro section. “It might have come to rest on the shoulder,” the piece began, “or settled beside a guardrail, harming no one. . . . But [instead,] the wheel that somehow fell off a truck being towed Wednesday on the Capital Beltway’s outer loop bounced wildly. It crossed the median, struck the grill of a tractor-trailer, and ricocheted back across two shoulders and three travel lanes before landing on Channing M. Quinichett’s Honda Civic.”
Beside the photo of a smiling 21-year-old young woman, the article gave the tragic outcome: “The wheel landed on the car’s roof and front windshield, killing Quinichett, a University of Maryland senior, as she drove to a prenatal massage appointment.”
Perhaps without realizing it, the investigating Maryland State Police sergeant framed the issue in terms that have baffled theologians and philosophers across the centuries. “Half a second earlier,” he said, “she’d be 44 feet ahead; half a second later, she’d be 44 feet behind.” But as it happened, she found herself precisely where the heavy object came to land.
2009 1533 page6One can only imagine the thoughts of relatives and friends as they reflected on the fluke accident: God was the only one who could have anticipated the tragedy, so why didn’t He . . . ? (Why didn’t He delay her departure from home another half a second that morning? Or hold her up in traffic just a tad, preventing her from reaching the fatal spot when she did? Or cause the wheel to take a different path? Or . . . ?)
The questions can go on forever.
But here’s the issue I’m grappling with just now: As I reflected on the hundreds of times my own daughter safely traveled that identical route on her way to the same campus, how do I give thanks for God’s protective care, in the face of the tragedy just described? More to the point, how do I give that testimony in front of Quinichett’s relatives and friends? What language do I use to make the case? And how effusive can I afford to be?
One report on last September’s forest fires around Los Angeles showed a couple standing outside their home, which had remained completely untouched amid a sea of charred destruction. With thousands of homeless families around them, should they give thanks? And if so, how?
Last February, a commuter plane crashed near Buffalo, New York, killing all 49 people on board. But David Beckeney was not among them. He’d missed the flight because of a delay on a connecting airline. “I’m very fortunate,” he said in one report I read. “I feel sorry for those people. It could have been me.” Should he give thanks?
How should we give thanks in a hurting world? Should we hold back expressions of gratitude because others meet with tragedy? When bad things happen, people naturally ask: “Why me?” But when good things come our way, the same question sometimes dogs us: “Why me? Why should I escape when others didn’t?”

For readers in the United States this is the annual Thanksgiving season—a time to express gratitude for the bounties of the land; the blessings of industry and commerce; the “miracles” of technology; the presence of prosperity and peace. The trick, however, is to recognize that we’re doing this against the background of a planet in desperate need—a world filled with hunger, violence, disease, and death.
That we should give thanks is, for me, beyond question. To become stingy in our praise because everyone around us isn’t similarly blessed is unacceptable. But in deference to those who hurt, we should give thanks without “celebrating,” so to speak; without flouting it, without rubbing it in—in other words, without gloating. We should seek to bring those hurting along with us, giving them hope of a silver lining behind their own dark clouds. 
Roy Adams is an associate editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published November 26, 2009.