October 2 – The Chief Part of Gratitude


It’s still nearly eight weeks until the fourth Thursday in November and our national observance of Thanksgiving Day (and, as it has come to be, Black Friday Eve). Maybe a little early, I have been thinking about giving thanks.

Last week Becky and I received news that a good friend had died. Joe Hill was nearly 92 at the time of his death, which came unexpectedly. Joe had been visitation pastor at our church in Beaver, PA. More than that, he was a good friend and in significant ways the pastor to our family during our ten years in Beaver. Joe was a scholar, having taught Greek and New Testament at Geneva College and then, after his retirement, a pastor, serving as an interim pastor and in other roles at Presbyterian churches throughout the Beaver Valley. But above all else, Joe was a Christian.

I learned a lot about being a Christian from Joe.

On Wednesday I was in Beaver, the invitation to bring the homily at Joe’s funeral a high honor. As I was going through my saved files of Joe Hill material in preparation for my remarks, I came across an email I received from Joe on April 8, 2003.

On April 7, 2003, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. We did not know much more than that. They had told us that we would receive biopsy results in a couple of days, but that the biopsy would only confirm what they already knew. The tumor was malignant. Surgery was scheduled for eleven days later, Good Friday, as it turned out.

Becky and I were trying to regain our lost bearings. Joe helped us.

I don’t remember if I had called or emailed Joe, but his response was the first thing I read on Tuesday morning, April 8:

Good morning, Bill:

I was startled by your disclosure, and saddened, too. It has occurred to me that, although your screening was “routine,” it was done in a timely fashion according to God’s plan for you.

Be assured of our earnest prayers on your behalf (review, if you will, Q & A 116, Heidelberg Catechism), and of my support. I will be available for preaching, if needed. I have been preparing a fresh sermon on Colossians 2:6-7 — “…rooted and built up in [Christ], strengthened in the faith as you were taught.” Such texts take on very personal meanings in real life-situations, do they not!

We will have opportunity later to talk about further developments. In the meantime, our hope is firm: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom/what shall I fear?”


That was Joe, and I suppose you would have had to know Joe to know how typically Joe it was – and how good. Joe was a Christian bringing comfort to a brother Christian.

So, the day after a serious cancer diagnosis, Joe, my friend, our pastor, advised me to review, if I would, Q & A 116, Heidelberg Catechism.

Q. 116. Why is prayer necessary for Christians?
A. Because it is the chief part of the gratitude which God requires of us, and because God will give his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who sincerely beseech him in prayer without ceasing, and who thank him for these gifts.

The day after a serious cancer diagnosis, Joe, my friend, our pastor, reminded us of the gratitude God requires of us and how prayer is the chief part of that gratitude.

Joe knew well the Scriptures that are for us the whole counsel of God, and how they counsel thanksgiving in all circumstances.

The journey through surgery and then chemotherapy was long and sometimes discouraging for Becky and me and our children. But I think I can say that we learned what Joe, through the Scriptures and the Confessions, knew to teach us that day after. Our prayers on that journey were to be the chief part of the gratitude that God requires of us. We were to sincerely beseech God – and many did on my behalf – and to thank God day by day. Not without stumbles, the journey through cancer was a journey of thanksgiving.

On April 8, 2003, God the Holy Spirit used his good and faithful servant Joe to prepare us for what lay ahead. “Review, if you will, Q & A 116, Heidelberg Catechism…” That was Joe, a friend, a pastor, a Christian.

When I think of Joe, then, and I will often, I will think of the gratitude God requires of us. My prayer, the chief part of that gratitude, will include thanksgiving for having known and learned from Joe Hill, my friend and pastor; a Christian.

Someday I will see Joe again. In the meantime, our hope is firm: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom/what shall I fear?”