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Archive for November, 2017

Thanksgiving

One of my spiritual mentors at Wellspring is a man named George. He notices patterns, and he pointed out a key pattern once in our worship planning when we were planning a communion service. He said, “Every time Jesus blesses a meal it follows a pattern: he (1) takes that which is being offered (bread and fish in the feeding of the multitudes or bread and cup in the last meal with his disciples), (2) gives thanks (3) breaks the bread and (4) then gives it to others.” While it was something I took for granted, the significance of that pattern did not escape me as George was sharing that insight.

As I have reflected upon that reality, I have come to the opinion that perhaps we don’t really get what our national holiday known as Thanksgiving is all about. We are a society of consumers, and our consumption can be quite conspicuous. We are people who may get what Thanksgiving is all about when counting our blessings, but we tend to turn Christian thinking of gratitude into an antithetical holiday of gluttony in our gatherings and celebrations.

I saw a video that was produced by a church in Charlotte, NC, for Christmas. It was a clever video where a man and woman wake up gift-wrapped and yell, “I’m alive!” The children, too, are gift-wrapped, and as they begin their day, everything is seen as a gift: electricity, running water, breakfast food, a briefcase, and a car. While I respect the message that we must see everything as a gift of God, I had a problem with the video. For every scene, I envisioned people in this world who do not have those things: quality of life, clean water, ample food, transportation, or even shelter. Leave it to me to throw cold water on a good message that challenges us not to take these things for granted.

What I realized was that this reflects our normal American way of doing Thanksgiving. We are thankful for those things that we have that others don’t have. It has become enough to make us thankful for those things that are blessings not afforded to everyone around the world. This is most assuredly NOT the message of Jesus.

Taking. Jesus takes the bread or the cup or the fish. He receives it as a gift. When the child offers the gift of loaves and fish that will become enough to feed the multitudes, Jesus considers it a gift. He receives it on behalf of all whom it will bless.

Giving Thanks. Jesus then offers a prayer of thanksgiving. Whether in the feeding of the multitudes or the last meal he shares with his followers, he offers a prayer of authentic gratitude. It is an acknowledgment that God is the purveyor of all good gifts and that nothing we have comes from any other source than God.

Giving. Jesus then gives. Even before he takes any for himself, he gives it to others. Jesus is simply not Jesus unless he is focused on others … pouring himself out for others even to the point of death. The end result of his “thanksgiving” is that he is not focused at all on privileges or consumer goods that we so often think of as our blessings. He gives thanks for a God who provides daily bread and abundant living and then seeks to be an agent of that provision himself.

So my thought here is that perhaps the best way of giving thanks is to do more than pause to thank God for the modern conveniences that we consider blessings. Not a little more; a lot more. My thought is that we could perhaps use our season of Thanksgiving to become agents of God’s provision to others.

When we thank God for clean water, perhaps we ought to support efforts to provide clean water for the huge part of our global population that doesn’t have access to clean water. When we thank God for the food we conspicuously consume, what would happen if we made sure that people around the world have access to the nutrition they so desperately need? When we give thanks for health and life, perhaps we should focus our efforts on providing for basic healthcare needs of the millions around the world who suffer and die from ailments we handily treat with vaccinations, prescriptions and even over-the-counter medications.

A friend pointed out several years ago that we would do well if we simply observed the name of the holiday. It is “Thanksgiving” and not “Thanks-taking.” May this season become for us a way to become agents of God’s provision as we “take, offer thanks, break bread and give” our gifts and ourselves wholly for the God who calls us into solidarity with the least of these our sisters and brothers.

That Thanksgiving , my friends, would transform our world! Happy Thanksgiving!

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Trauma

It was certainly our sickness that he carried,
    and our sufferings that he bore,
    but we thought him afflicted,
    struck down by God and tormented.
He was pierced because of our rebellions
    and crushed because of our crimes.
    He bore the punishment that made us whole;
    by his wounds we are healed.
Like sheep we had all wandered away,
    each going its own way,
    but the Lord let fall on him all our crimes. (Isaiah 53:4-6, CEB)

The older Greek words for “wound” are τιτρώσκω (titrōskō) + μᾰ (ma) which led to a Greek word like we find in Luke’s telling of the story of the Good Samaritan: τραυματα (traumata (or trauma)- see Luke 10:34). To be wounded is to be traumatized. And we live in a world of trauma. The violent attack on our brothers and sisters at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs brings this violence very close to home (it is only about 10 miles from where my nephew and his wife live, so it is intensely personal for me). We know about trauma.

While the rest of the country moves into debates about guns and domestic violence (conversations which certainly must be had), I am simply struck by how much violence exists in our world and in our culture. Within all levels of government, in almost every level of civil discourse (though “civil” might be a stretch), in all sorts of media (including news and social media), in our families, and in every community, we have increasingly become more violent with each other, whether in word or deed. Our language lacks dignity, and it is simply not possible to have true debate and dialogue by casting phrases of 140 characters or less back and forth at each other.

The tragic shooting in Sutherland Springs, in my mind, is a result of the violent culture we tend to perpetuate in our nation and in our world. We, who are the children of God and the followers of Jesus, might just have something to say to those who perpetuate this violence in their speech and in their actions. After all, we are descendants of a Savior and a people who know about trauma!

My first response to this tragedy is to remember that we are people who are called to love God and love our neighbors (those who both love us and hate us). We are called to stay connected, and my first inclination is simply to spend time in prayer. My first and primary connection is to God. My second primary connection is to my neighbor. My prayers have been for my Baptist neighbors in a town I have never visited. Through our United Methodist connection, we have seen that some of the first chaplains on the scene (including the pastor of the Methodist Church in Sutherland Springs) represent well the reach and effective ministry of the United Methodist Church. We will let our hands support those hands that are first-responders to the scene.

We will support our neighbors by resisting from giving into fear and anger. The debates that had arisen by 1:00 PM on Sunday afternoon on social media were based on anger and fear. People were already calling each other names and angrily supporting their own position on everything from military service to domestic violence to gun control. This kind of dialogue was both inappropriate and unhelpful for those who suffered in this terrible tragedy.

My next response is to look more deeply at what is happening. Behind our hate and aggression is an innate fear. We are afraid of losing control. We are afraid of being vulnerable. We are afraid of losing power or prestige or wealth. We are afraid of what might happen if we lay down our false idols to follow the one true God of Isaac and Jacob and Ruth and the Syrophoenician woman and her Jesus.

This coming Sunday, the lectionary leads us to a great passage from Joshua where Joshua challenges the people of Israel to live out their relationship fully with their God by laying down their idols. I find it interesting that they had idols this late in the game. They are the people who had left Egypt, wandered through the wilderness, been given the law by Moses (who subsequently destroyed the idol they had created), and who had marched triumphantly to the drumbeat of God into the land of promise. Now they had idols! Why?

I think the answer for them is the answer for us. Trusting God is hard stuff. It means that we have to let go of our fear and trust that God is capable of leading us to a new land of promise where there is no need for false idols because the one true God is more than enough. As humans, the easiest thing for us is to pick up the idols that make us feel most secure (even when they provide no security whatsoever). The journey I am ALWAYS on is the journey from fear to faith.

What then do I do in the face of this horrific violence? I certainly am not going to perpetuate violence with my speech. While we rightly have debate around the social ills that plague us, I am more interested in reaching out to my neighbors and listening. I will listen for their very real fears and their anxieties. I will listen for the trauma that exists beneath the surface. I will then look beyond the fear and the violence to witness the presence of God that leads us to the new creation.

This past Sunday, we read from the Revelation to John. In talking about those who had been killed and tortured in the great persecution, John says that they are gathered around the throne. Paradoxically, their robes are pure white after having been washed in the Lamb’s blood. I told the congregation that it finally can be distilled down to two words: “God wins!”

When you think about it, our universe was born out of trauma. The explosion of stardust that set our universe into motion was a blast that even science can scarcely imagine. Our own planet was shaped and set in orbit by countless meteoric strikes, and even our moon is but a piece of space debris that ended up orbiting our planet. Our universe is born of trauma.

We humans are born of trauma. The description of birth, to me, a pretty traumatic. We are expelled from the safety of our mother’s womb in a traumatic way. We are jostled, and our first breath is a cry.

In the same way, we who are children of God and joint heirs with Christ somehow get that we are born of trauma. The biblical witness is that even our salvation is born from the wounds of our savior and that there is a gift of life that awaits those who are born of this great tribulation.

So listen, my sisters and brothers, to our God who gives us the message of hope. Listen to your neighbors for their fears and their worries. Then offer them a witness of the way of Christ … a way that is devoid of fear yet which, paradoxically, is born out of trauma and suffering. May it be a way that leads us ultimately to peace and social justice for all of God’s children.

Maybe … just maybe … we will discover a way that moves us from violence to peace … from fear to faith.

 

 

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