This past Monday at our Community Thanksgiving service, I shared a story during the sermon that bears repeating. It involves a man named Emmanuel Kolini, a bishop from the Anglican Church in Rwanda. I met Kolini during my first year at Virginia Theological Seminary; he was on campus for a sabbatical year of study. Folks like Kolini were not unusual at VTS – we regularly had clergy from around the world studying with us – one semester we had the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey with us. It was a wonderful part of life on campus.
What was unusual about Kolini was his story. The night before he was scheduled to fly to the states to begin his studies, he received warning that Hutu soldiers were on their way to his home to kidnap him. Kolini is Tutsi and in the mid-90’s there was a terrible war going on between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, which Kolini had worked tirelessly to bring to an end, and his work for peace had created many enemies for him.
That night he and his wife made the very difficult decision to flee in two different directions. Kolini went to the airport where he would be safe, and his wife and children headed for the safety of a relative’s home far outside the capital of Kigali.
Kolini made it safely to the US and began his studies, but for the first four months he was on campus he had no word from his wife or other relatives. He lived with the horrible uncertainty of their fate – were they safe, in prison, or worse? He didn’t know. As we got to know Kolini, we offered whatever support and encouragement and distraction we could, but we were always mindful of this huge burden he was carrying.
The remarkable thing about Kolini, however, was what a humble, joyful, and grateful man he was. Whenever we were with him, the overwhelming sense you had of him was his thankfulness. He exuded gratitude from every pore of his body. He was thankful for his safety, the gift of time to study, for his new friends on campus that loved and supported him, but mostly he was grateful for God’s grace, mercy, and love that he knew sustained him in all circumstances including not knowing whether his family was alive or dead.
Kolini was not delusional; he was not living in some fantasy realm that shielded him from the awful possibility that he might be a widower and childless. And yet his thankfulness to God remained, steadfast and abundant. We all knew him as Kolini which is what he preferred to be called, but he became for us Emmanuel – God with us. His very presence reminded us of God’s presence in the most profound way.
We often approach gratitude and thankfulness as a polite obligation – when someone shows us a kindness, or things go well for us, we respond with gratitude. But such an approach misses the power of thankfulness, the power the Apostle Paul spoke of regularly – to give thanks to God at all times and in all circumstances. What Kolini taught us was that living from a place of deep gratitude to God, regardless of circumstances, not only enabled him to deal with his challenges and heartache, but it changed us, too. His living spoke volumes to us about how we are all called to live – from a place of deep gratitude to God.
Just after Christmas, Kolini received word that his wife and children were alive and safely living with relatives. As you can imagine there was much joy and celebration when he shared that news, but the Good News had already been shared with all of us during the four months of uncertainty when Emmanuel Kolini taught us how to truly live as children of God.
As we move through this time of Thanksgiving and enter the holy season of Advent, preparing our hearts for the gift of the arrival of God’s only Son, Emmanuel, may the power of living thankfully be manifest in you, enabling you to confidently meet whatever challenges you face, and offering those around you the blessings of your grateful heart.