Monday, November 12, 2012

Giving Thanks: Lessons from the Old Testament

When I was a young girl growing up in Indiana, fall was a time of harvest.  I grew up in the flat land of central Indiana, where the black earth yielded prolific crops.  We would drive down the rural roads, laid out straight as if a giant hand had lined them with a ruler, and spread as far as the eye could see were fields of golden grain.  My dad had a small plane, and from the air, the fields made perfect squares, like my grandmother’s patchwork quilts.  Late into the evening, the combines would be out in the fields, reaping, threshing, and winnowing the crops.
Corn and soy beans, the two largest cash crops, were harvested from late September through the end of November.  Gardens produced wonderful bounty—sweet corn, squash, onions and grapes were gathered in September.  In October the lima beans, potatoes, and tomatoes came in, and at the end of the month, we had apples and pumpkins.  November brought broccoli, cabbage, and peppers.  Helping my grandmother gather vegetables, I was surrounded by their sun-warmed scent, sweet and pungent. 
Walking home from school in the fall was magical.  The Maples and Walnuts stretched their bows above, creating a golden, glowing archway.  Leaves drifted from the trees and danced in the breeze, deep red and scarlet, fiery orange and darker rust, yellow tinged with rose.  Even as a child, my heart sang with beauty.  Too young to name my feelings or to speak theologically of gratitude, I simply skipped, laughed, danced and sang my praise to the One who created such a world. 
Fall is a time for giving thanks.  Every year on the fourth Thursday in November, we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving.  Families gather, food is prepared, and we give thanks for our blessings.
As school children we learned about the origin of Thanksgiving, how the pilgrims who traversed the ocean on the Mayflower were befriended by Indians, Native Americans who taught them how to hunt wild turkeys and grow corn and other crops in the harsh climate. 
In the autumn of 1621, the pilgrims had a great harvest feast.  They invited the Native Americans who had befriended them to join them, and so about 90 Native Americans joined in the first Thanksgiving, sharing a feast of venison and turkey, goose and duck, fish and cornbread (
In 1779, George Washington issued a proclamation recommending to the “people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.”  And on October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday, so that, as he said, we might not forget the source of our extraordinary bounties, the “ever watchful providence of Almighty God” (
We have a long tradition of giving thanks for the bounty and the blessings of God.  In a society where Thanksgiving is often seen as a secular holiday, it is good to remember that the season is about more than just football and food.  Erma Bombeck once said, “Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare.  They are consumed in twelve minutes.  Half-time takes twelve minutes.  This is not a coincidence.”
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, we should take time to remember what the holiday is all about.
There is arguably no better place to learn about giving thanks than the Psalms. In beautiful poetry, the Psalms sing their thanks to God. Thanksgiving Psalms are one of the 5 types of Psalms in the Bible, and in every one there is a pattern.  After an opening statement of praise, the Psalmist describes a time of trouble, then recounts crying to God for help, and then tells how God delivered him.  Then he gives thanks to God for answering his prayers, helping in his time of need.  No act of God goes unnoticed or unthanked.  The lesson the Psalms has for us is first to turn to God in times of trouble, and then to remember to thank God for God’s aid. 
You remember from Luke’s gospel how Jesus healed ten lepers.  How many came back to say thank you?  One.  One! 
Too often we are like those nine lepers, going blithely through life assuming that what we have is simply what we are entitled to.  On the TV show The Simpson’s, son Bart was asked to say the blessing before dinner.  He prayed, “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves.  So thanks for nothing.”
We might not be as crass as Bart Simpson, but how often do we have that attitude?  The lesson we learn from the Psalms is to take nothing for granted, but to have open eyes to see everything as gifts of God’s grace.  As one person said, “Thanksgiving Day comes, by statue, once a year; to the honest man, it comes as frequently as the heart of gratitude will allow” (Edward Sandford Martin).
Psalm 107 is a wonderful example of a Thanksgiving Psalm. 
You can see in the way the Psalm is laid out on the page that after the opening statement, the Psalm is divided into four sections:   Verses 4 – 9 are one section, vv. 10-16 are the next, vv. 17 -22, and then vv. 23 – 32.  This Psalm follows the pattern of Thanksgiving Psalms.  First there’s a description of the problem.
Verses 4 and 5 say that some people were lost in the wilderness.  They wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.
Verses 10 and11 talk about some people who were imprisoned.  They  “sat in darkness and gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons.”
Verses 17 and 18 describes those who were afflicted with an illness or disease.  They “loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.”
Verses 23 and 24 say, “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters.  Story wind lifted the waves of the sea.”  And you can feel the motion of the boat on the waves in the psalmist’s description:  “They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths, their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits end.”
 Notice what happens in every one of these situations.  After every description of the problem, we see the people crying out to God. After each one of the troubles listed in Psalm 107, we see the same response.  “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.”  This is true for every Thanksgiving Psalm.  They all recount how those in distress turned to God. 
And then, the Thanksgiving Psalms always describe how God helped them.  In Psalm 107 we see that for the people who were lost, the Lord “led them by a straight way, until they reached an inhabited town.”  For those who were hungry and thirsty, he satisfied their thirst and filled them with good things.
For those in prison, when they cried to the Lord, v. 14 “he brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder . . .he shattered the doors of bronze and cut in two the bars of iron.”
For those who were sick, God “sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.”
For those out on the stormy seas, God “made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.  Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.”
Then after each situation is resolved, there is statement of gratitude.  Verse 8:  “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.”  Verse 15 “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.”  Verses 21 and 31 “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.” 
Unlike the nine lepers who went on their way, the Thanksgiving Psalms show us that the proper response to all of God’s acts is gratitude.  Meister Eckhart put it beautifully:  “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”  We should live each day in the awareness of God’s blessings. 
Thanksgiving Day is a ritual of what we ought to do every day.  Or as Robert Lintner said, “Thanksgiving was never meant to be shut up in a single day.”
The masterful preacher Fred Craddock told of how he incorporated Thanksgiving into his life. He spoke of it as if it were a presence, and he named it, Doxology, which means, literally, praise.  He talked about inviting Doxology in to the dinner table, and deciding that Doxology belonged there.  Then, he said, “The next day Doxology went with me downtown for some routine errands.  But somehow they did not seem so routine.  We laughed at a child losing a race with an ice cream cone . . . We studied the face of a tramp staring in a jewelry store window . . . We spoke to a banker, standing with thumbs in vest before a large plateglass window, grinning as one in possession of the keys of the kingdom.  We were delighted by women shoppers clutching bundles and their skirts at blustery corners.  It was good to have Doxology along” (“Doxology,” As One Without Authority, p. 132).
How would our lives be different if we took Doxology with us everywhere?  How would our lives be different if we made every day a day of Thanksgiving? 
May we not take the gifts of God for granted, but have eyes and hearts and minds open to see and receive God’s wonderful gifts.  Let us make each and every day a day of Thanksgiving.  

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Birthday Gifts

Friday evening my friend Lisa was visiting, and we decided to take advantage of the beautiful evening by walking along the marina looking at the boats.  As we strolled, enjoying the light of the setting sun turning the water to gold, we came to a neat and trim sailboat where a large, fluffy cat stretched, surveying his kingdom with sky-blue eyes.  We stopped to talk to the owners of the beautiful cat, who were relaxing on their boat with cocktails in hand.  They were a very friendly couple who told us they live in Florida, but had spent the last five months traveling on their sailboat with Clyde, the cat.  The man explained that his wife, an attractive and fit 60 year old woman, had had a stroke, and that after that, they both had a different perspective on life.  They decided to take some time off to enjoy life and do things they wanted to do.  Thankfully the woman was doing very well, and it was clear that she had a positive attitude.  I shared that I was completing treatment for breast cancer, and we agreed that being confronted with a serious health issue changes the way you see things.  Life is too short not to savor each moment. 

Friday happened to be my 46th birthday, and as I stood talking to this couple, I was reminded again how precious life is and how important it is not to take it for granted.  Too often we race through the days, thinking about the next thing on our to-do list, worried and stressed about things that, in the grand scheme of things, really shouldn’t rate so much of our time.  We fail to stop and appreciate the gifts in our lives. 

As I enter my 47th year, I have a renewed appreciation for the gift of life and the people who make it special.  My hope is that I can live each day with thankfulness that doesn’t fade, but deepens with each passing year.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Remembering 9/11

The Facebook posts started a couple of days ago.  Where were you when . . . ?  Everyone has a story about where they were on 9/11, the day planes became instruments of terror, flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  Sharing stories is a cathartic experience, helping us deal with the emotions we still feel from that tragic day. 

There’s something about those life-changing moments that makes us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing.  We remember odd things like the clock on the wall, or the pattern of the desk’s wood.  When I was growing up, I remember my mother talking about where she was when she heard Kennedy had been shot.  She was in a college classroom in Indiana when bells started sounding across the campus.  The professor stopped speaking as everyone looked around, wondering.  Then someone came to the classroom door to tell them the news, and everyone sat in a shocked silence.

My grandparents’ generation remembers where they were when they heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, “the date that will live in infamy,” as Roosevelt said.   Now, along with December 7, 1941, September 11, 2001 is also a date that lives in infamy. 

Like everyone else, my memories of 9/11 are vivid.  At 9:00 that morning, I was leading a Disciple Bible Study at First Presbyterian Church in Cartersville.  A few minutes after 9:00, the church office manager came to the door to tell us that some sort of attack had happened at the World Trade Center.  We were concerned, but not overly concerned, thinking that this was another incident where some crazy person attempted something, but hopefully was apprehended without too much trouble.  Little did we realize that this was much more.  A few minutes later, there was another knock at the door, with the news that the first tower had fallen. 

Another Disciple class was meeting at the same time, and we gathered around computer screens in the church office, where we watched the devastating footage of jets flying into the twin towers. 

We quickly planned a service for worship and prayer, and we divided the church directory among members of those two Disciple classes, who went home and called everyone in the church to let them know about the service. 

Church members and folks from the community came together for that service, and although it was a time of great sadness, there also was emerging that powerful unity that marked the days and months following the attack.

For awhile, we were all Americans together, bonded by our common suffering, inspired by the bravery of the first responders and the heroism of the members of Flight 93.

Around the world, expressions of support poured out, and we were reminded that the hate of the few was far outnumbered by the goodwill of the rest of humanity. 

Today, the world has continued to change, as war and acts of violence have raged.  But on the anniversary of 9/11, my hope is that we will remember that there is more that unites us than divides us.  Whatever our race, religion, or nation, we all are part of the same human family.  Terrorism is defeated when acts of light shine, for the darkness cannot defeat the light.  So to mark 9/11, I hope that we all will do something to let the light shine.  Do something kind for someone else.  Say a prayer.  Help someone in need.  Show courtesy and respect.  Make a donation to your church or favorite charity.  Write a thank you note to your local firefighters and police officers.  Make 9/11 a day when we remember not just tragedy, but unity and love, so that the world will be a better place, and good will triumph over evil.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Our Spiritual Diet: “Bizarre Food

Jesus said “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.”  --John 6: 53, 54

In August I did a sermon series on “Our Spiritual Diet.” We have a fixation on food, on what we put into our bodies, but we may be neglecting our souls.  We should pay more attention to what we put into our minds and our hearts. In this series I paired the gospel lectionary texts with some food-themed television programs to see what ingredients we need to add to our spiritual diets. Today our topic is “Bizarre Foods,” and we are going to think about adding the ingredient of discipleship to our lives.
On the TV show “Bizarre Foods,” Andrew Zimmern travels the globe in search of foods that we would consider beyond exotic to downright, yes, bizarre, and often distasteful.  Zimmern has eaten everything from alligators to armadillos, organs of various animals, and even creepy crawly things like live termites. 
This is a food show that I do NOT watch; I confess that I don’t have the stomach for it.  But many viewers are fascinated by seeing Zimmern consume things that most of us would consign to the garbage can. 
In this passage, it sounds like Jesus was telling his followers to eat some bizarre foods.  When Jesus told the crowd that day that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, they were shocked!  For us, reading this passage today, our minds automatically go to communion! We are very used to the symbolic language used during the Lord’s Supper:  this is my body, broken for you.  This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood.  So these words do not have the same effect on us as they did to those who heard it for the first time.
Those who heard Jesus’ words on that day took them literally.  There was no precedent in the Jewish religion for those kinds of images.  The Jewish dietary code forbade eating blood, and food was to be handled in a very particular way.  So Jesus’ words were both incomprehensible and offensive.  Although Jesus had hinted that he would give up his life, even his disciples still didn’t understand.
They thought, What bizarre idea is this?  How can we eat his flesh and drink his blood?   What does he mean?
Even today, we have to stop and ask ourselves that question.  What did Jesus really mean?  Jesus was foreshadowing his death.  In the crowd that day were both his close disciples and all those greedy people who had been fed when he multiplied the loaves and fish, those people who chased after him wanting more.  Remember, those people wanted to take him and make him king by force.  He was letting them know that his end, his goal, his purpose, was very different than what they had in mind.  Yes, he was a king, but his kingdom was not going to be what they expected.  Being his follower did not mean unending feasts, miracles performed for their entertainment, it did not mean sitting on a throne, and power, and glory and might. 
Being his follower meant going exactly where Jesus went, and that was to the cross.  The way of Christ was the way of humility and service and sacrifice.  “Can you drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus asked.  Again and again throughout the gospels he calls those who would be his followers to take up their cross and follow him.
Adding the ingredient of discipleship means choosing to follow Jesus in everything that we do.  It means choosing to be not just a church member or a church goer—someone who comes to worship, who says the right things during the service and then leaves, walks out the door of the sanctuary, and doesn’t really think about Jesus again until next Sunday.  No, being a disciple means that for every decision we make, every word we speak, every action we take, we ask the question, What would Jesus do?  As his followers, his disciples, we pattern our lives after his.
Choosing to live as a disciple may cause us to do things the world thinks are crazy.  In the program “Bizarre Foods,” many times the foods Zimmern eats are strange to us, but they are NOT bizarre to those in the countries and cultures that consume them.  Something that we would not eat is a delicacy to someone in Africa or Central America; these foods are what set those people apart, part of their tradition, a mark that identifies them.
The same is true with us in our lives as disciples.  What identifies us as disciples, what sets us apart, may seem bizarre to the rest of the world.  Again and again in the gospels Jesus tells us to live differently, to live counter-culturally, to do things that seem upside down in the eyes of the world.    Who in the world would choose to be meek or poor in spirit?  Who would choose to turn the other cheek?  When someone steals from you, is your instinct to give him something else?  Wouldn’t we all rather be served, than to serve?  And isn’t it human nature to want to protect our life, instead of laying it down for someone else?  . . . Strange!  Crazy!  Bizarre!
But these are the things that set us apart as disciples, because these are the things Jesus did, and we are called to go wherever Jesus goes.
When Jesus calls us to be his disciples, he claims our entire lives.  We can have no greater allegiance to anyone than to him.  When we follow Jesus, our lives should be radically different.  All of our choices, our decisions, our lifestyle, should reflect that we are Christians, that we live by the rule of love and grace, that we are obedient to the call of Christ and loyal to his cause. 
The person who most powerfully explained this was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.  It may be a death like that of the first disciples, who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world.  But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call . . . only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ” (Cost of Discipleship, p. 99). 
If we truly eat and drink the flesh and blood of Christ, we take into ourselves Christ’s sacrifice.  If we eat and drink the flesh and blood of Christ, we take into ourselves Christ’s death.  In that, said Bonhoeffer, is the “re-creation of the whole [person].  The only right and proper way,” he said, “is to quite literally go with Jesus.  The call to follow implies that there is only one way of believing on Jesus Christ, and that is by leaving all and going with the incarnate Son of God” (ibid, p. 67). 
Bonhoeffer’s entire life had been spent in following Jesus at cost to himself.  When he was a young man, Bonhoeffer had been expected to follow his father into the career of psychiatry, but he shocked his parents by deciding to study theology.  His older brother told him not to waste his life in such a “poor, feeble, boring, petty, bourgeois institution as the church” (Mark Devine, Bonhoeffer Speaks Today, p. 5).  But Bonhoeffer was convinced that God was calling him, and he did not refuse God’s call.
When the Nazis came to power in his country, Germany, in January 1933, Bonhoeffer spoke out against them.  They took over German churches and rigged elections of church leaders so that Nazi supporters were elected to positions of power within the church.  Bonhoeffer became a leader in the confessing church movement, helping to draft the Barman Declaration (in our Book of Confessions), that said that Christ, not the fuhrer was head of the church. 
Friends urged him to flee to America, where he would be safe, but Bonhoeffer believed that his place was with his countrymen, working for the good of the church.  He was arrested on April 6, 1943, but he continued to work, speaking the truth and ministering to people in prison, fellow prisoners and guards alike.  With the help of sympathetic guards, he smuggled his writing out of prison, and those documents became the book, Letters and Papers from Prison.
He had just finished leading a Sunday morning worship service in prison when he was led away to be executed.  He was executed on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before Allied forces liberated the concentration camp where he was held.
Bonhoeffer’s words on discipleship are the more powerful because he lived his discipleship to the end; he truly understood the cost of discipleship.
And yet—and yet that cost is not without reward!  Bonhoeffer also said, “To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul; it is the highest joy” (Cost of Discipleship, p. 103).
“If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command,” he said, “if we are afraid . . . all the time, it is indeed an impossible way.  But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before [us] step by step, we shall not go astray.  But if we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path.  For he himself is the way, the narrow way and the straight gate.  He, and he alone, is our journey’s end” (ibid, p. 212).
Keeping our eyes on Jesus and following the way in which he leads us, brings us great peace and joy.  And in the end, the way that seems bizarre to the world is the way to a whole and healthy life in this world, and the way to eternal life in the next. The things we do as disciples of Christ may seem bizarre to the world, but in the end, they are the things transform the world, and that help the kingdom of Christ to come and God’s will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  So let us accept the invitation of Christ to eat his flesh and drink his blood, to take into our lives, his life, his love, his sacrifice.  Let us accept his call to be his disciples, and to follow him wherever he leads.