I’d like to paraphrase a recent conversation between my mother and I. “So we’ll have a ham.” “You mean we’re not going to have turkey?” “Well, I wasn’t planning on preparing one. Your uncle usually does that but this is just going to be our immediate family.” “You mean we’re not going to have turkey?” “I mean, if you want to prepare it, I will pick one up.” “For the love of all things holy mom, pick up a turkey. I’ll gladly prepare it.” I mean, after all, it is Thanksgiving. And what is Thanksgiving without the turkey or the stuffing or the green beans or the mashed potatoes or the mac-and-cheese or the pecan pie or the pumpkin pie or any of the other excessive dishes that we stuff around our tables to stuff our selves with all around a holiday we call Thanksgiving…yeish. Don’t get me wrong. I love to overeat as much as the next guy, but something seems amiss if this is what we refer to as Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is a worship term after all. In the Hebrew scriptures we first hear about Thanksgiving as a means of returning thanks to YHWH for that which He had blessed Israel with. And blessing, original blessing even, in the Hebrew scriptures was always predicated upon blessing received, blessing bestowed. Israel would be blessed as long as Israel became a blessing to others. This goes all the way back to the inception of the people of Israel in Genesis 12 when God says to Abram, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” I think sometimes we get stuck on the cursing part and forget to read the rest of the text, “…all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” All peoples; everybody will be blessed because of this promise of God’s presence in the life of Abram and his descendants. Think about that for a minute. God established His presence, His blessing in the lives of a particular people so that the entirety of the planet would know that same blessing.
And yet here we are today. In a time of fear and supposed scarcity for resources or jobs or things or whatever it might be. In a recent essay entitled, The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity, Biblical scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann had this to say, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if liberal and conservative church people, who love to quarrel with each other, came to a common realization that the real issue confronting us is whether the news of God’s abundance can be trusted in the face of the story of scarcity? What we know in the secret recesses of our hearts is that the story of scarcity is a tale of death. And the people of God counter this tale by witnessing to the manna. There is a more excellent bread than crass materialism. It is the bread of life and you don’t have to bake it.” You don’t have to bake it…but you do have to trust in it, lean into and and become more generous and giving as a result of it. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” So maybe this season we think a little differently about Thanksgiving. Maybe instead of just being thankful for the things we have, maybe we learn to be thankful for the things we can give.
Yesterday I was having lunch with a friend and he asked me a pointed question about my morning routines. “So how many days a week do you usually run?” I responded with my typical five to six days a week, depending. He then asked, “Does your body not hurt?” And I thought a bit before my response. Yes, there’s the typical aches and creaks and cramping and soreness, but honestly I actually hurt more when I take off too many days. I thought about what that meant. Some days I wake up and I really don’t want to run. Sometimes I drive to the trail and hesitate for a minute before opening the door. I even recently reflected on this in another post, “I hate running…It seems like the first five minutes are spent just trying to convince my legs that they know how to do this.
Much of the time is spent making sure I’m looking out for cracks or potholes so I don’t twist my ankle or knee. Then there’s the inevitable argument going on in my head about how far I’m going to make it this time. And if I’m running on the roadway there’s always the extra need to be wary of drivers who aren’t wary of me…But in the midst of all of that my heart starts to find a better rhythm. My breath takes on a cadence that convinces the rest of my body that it knows how to do this. The sweat reminds me I’m alive and the clarity of thinking that comes puts much of my life in perspective. The aches that were present at the beginning take on a new feeling as they push me to keep going. So I run on; knowing that this is good for my mental, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being…I love running.”
The clarity of purpose behind my running makes all the difference in the world for me and my body. Sometimes I think we struggle with the idea of clarity and purpose in the church body today. There seems to be division and chaos ad nauseam, particularly in the church in America. And I’m not sure that this is so much an issue of unity as it is an issue of clarity as to what it means to be the body of Christ. The apostle Paul put in this way when addressing the church in Corinth. “…so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” – 1 Corinthians 12:25-27 Equal concern for each other; we are the body of Christ.
So our clarity is clear for the health of the body. Our concern is not for our own interest, but for the interest of others. We are the body of Christ. And as we have equal concern for each other we find not only clarity of purpose, but unity in the body. So maybe there will still be the typical aches and creaks and cramping and soreness, but we continue to move towards invoking the Kingdom of God in the world. Because this is who we are.
Yesterday I decided to engage in a task that was a long time coming…cleaning out the youth supply closet. Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with a youth supply closet, I want you to picture your junk drawer in your house; and now it’s a closet. So as you can well imagine there were quiet a few things that needed to make the fifty foot trek to the dumpster. It also happened to be an incredibly rainy day. But on one of my trips to the dumpster I noticed a path being carved in the water before me. After dropping my load I came back to observe a single hornet that was carving the path in the water. He was holding on against the inevitable. Fall is coming…winter is coming…and a deluge of water was pushing against him and yet he still held on stubbornly against the inevitable. Here he was exposed to imminent danger (feet, cars, etc.) and yet he persisted. I almost wonder if he would have been safer to let the current carry him. Would he have found refuge further down the stream and then be able to live out his last few weeks in a better place; an open place?
I feel like we in the church can be guilty of hanging on to things we should let go of. Culture and the winds of change push us so aggressively that we are scared and so we hang on to that which we know/understand. The problem is that this isn’t a new problem. In the third chapter of the gospel of John we read about someone who was shook by all of the newness that was being ushered in. He was anxious about this Jesus character but could not comprehend why he should change or how he could change in order to accommodate his known identity, tradition, methods, etc. Jesus responds to him in part and eventually says to Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” – John 3:8 Those truly born of the Spirit know what it is to move by the Spirit’s leading. They know what it looks like to let go and allow the current of God to carry them into newness of heart and life (that’s a very loaded phrase if you dig into it).
So back to the hornet and hanging on. Sometimes what we perceive in fear may actually be the moving of God. Think about it for a minute Abraham left all he knew, Moses stood up to a god-king, Joshua faced down giants, 3 Hebrew children didn’t bow, Peter got out of the boat, Matthew left his tax booth, Saul forsook all he ever knew (it was rubbish)…they all let go of relative safety, what they knew and the tradition they had embraced in order to be carried by God’s Spirit into something unknown, foreign, scary and unpredictable…and the world would never be the same. So what are you clinging to today? What terrifies you about God’s movement amidst the winds of culture? Where is God calling you to pull up anchor and join the movement of His Spirit? May we be those born of Water and Spirit and not those who cling to dry and stagnant land amidst the current of God.
When we learn about it as kids it seems the right thing to do. In fact, sometimes we are even encouraged to do so as it often seems the best way to settle disputes. I know many times I have found myself telling my own kids to come and tell me if their siblings are doing something wrong or hurting them in any way. Of course sometimes it results in nicknames or declarations of “tattletale” being thrown around, but for the most part it helps to settle disputes among our kids because they often don’t have the skills to settle disputes without some help. However, I think the danger for us is when we don’t understand that this model of behavior modification and mediation is intended for children to help them learn, not for adults. There is actually a very specific church word for this behavior among adults and it’s really quite deadly…gossip.
You see, in essence that is really all gossip is. It is seeing something or some behavior in someone else we don’t approve of and feeling the need to go and “tattle” to someone else; and the listening party is just as guilty of conspiring as the complainer. In fact, Jesus had something very specific to say about how we speak to one another about things that hurt us in the church in Matthew 18. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” – Matthew 18:15 The word in the Greek there actually says that if your brother or sister misses the mark/offends/errs against you, then go talk to them first, not someone else. My contention is that if we skip this step we are gossiping, and we may be poisoning the church.
I’m always fascinated how things work. Historically the most common poison we humans used to use to eliminate each other was Arsenic. According to LiveScience.com, “Arsenic disrupts the cellular process that produces ATP, the molecule in charge of transporting energy throughout your body’s cells so they can perform the tasks that keep you alive.” The poison actually blocks life from continuing in the body. It blocks the flow of the natural processes of how things are supposed to work. Gossip does the same thing in the church because it blocks natural ways of settling disputes/hurts and creates more mistrust, more confusion and more harm than actually addressing the situation the right way would ever do. Later on in that same passage from Matthew Jesus says this, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” – Matthew 18:20 Often times we attribute this to prayer or worship, when in actuality Jesus is telling us that he is present with us when we handle our disputes, disagreements, offenses and sins against one another in a healthy fashion. The life and movement of the body continues to be healthy and operate in the presence of God when it is void of the poison of gossip. So may we refuse to participate in poisoning the church. May we call each other to grow up a little by encouraging our brothers and sisters to speak to each other directly when they disagree and realize in doing so we are inviting the Spirit of Christ to move more freely through His body, the Church.
For those of you who don’t necessarily know me all that well I am accustomed to losing. I have belonged to many losing teams throughout my storied athletic career. I even received the following compliment from the most recent email from our fantasy football league, “Coach Arp is the worst game-day coach in the league so far this season.” Truth be told, most of the things I lose at I don’t care that much about and so my ego isn’t bruised too much. But losing is never fun. Most of us understand that we engage in competition in order to win and so it is rarely the desired output. But what if I told you life is so much simpler if we realize that we are called to hold onto everything with the understanding that it can be lost in an instant.
There is this story in the gospels where a blind man calls out to Jesus to be healed. Jesus doesn’t heal him and so he cries out all the more. Eventually someone tells the blind man that Jesus was calling for him, he goes to Jesus and he is healed. It’s a great story at face value, but if we look even deeper it becomes more complex. In Mark’s retelling of the events we see this simple verse in chapter ten, “Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.” Granted, still not that much, unless you think about what it stood for. You see, the blind man was a beggar. And all he had was his cloak. It would provide shade from the sun and rain or warmth from the cold. It was all he had. And it was good. Yet, when Jesus called, he threw it aside because he knew there was something better in store for him.
I wonder how many of us are like this…not blind beggars on the side of the highway, but ‘cloak-holders’? We have our things. We have our health insurance, car insurance, house insurance, 401k, IRA, savings accounts, pay checks, dividends, etc. etc. etc. And these things aren’t bad. In fact in some cases they can be good. But are we willing to lose them? Are we willing to cast them aside for the greater things God has in store for us? In his letter to the Philippians the apostle Paul put it this way, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.”
Are we willing to consider these things garbage? Are we willing to lose everything for the sake of Christ? Or are we still afraid to let go of our cloaks…because they’re keeping us safe.
It’s funny sometimes how ideas come to me for my blog. It can happen while teaching students. Sometimes I am playing with my kids and I have one of those aha moments. Or sometimes the ideas come to me while I am deep in thought early in the morning…hey, it happens. But this one happened while I was pouring out my soul to a friend over coffee. We were talking about life and the curve balls that it sometimes throws your way and then I made this posit, “What if the goal of this life is simply to learn to trust God so that it will make sense in the life to come”. Now I know for many of you this may not be that ground breaking of a thought and maybe many of you had even thought this before, but for some reason it really stuck me.
I don’t think trust is something that comes easy. Sure we operate with blind trust all the time. We trust that the chair we are about to sit in will hold our weight. We trust that the other motor-vehicle operators on the road don’t want to play bumper cars. We even trust that when we wake up there will be breath in our lungs and the sun will rise again (granted some of us wait until the sun is up to rise ourselves). But trust in our future? Trust in God’s best regardless of what is going on around us? I don’t think it’s that easy. And I am pretty sure we can’t call it blind trust at that point.
There was a verse from Proverbs 3 that many of us learned when we were little, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” But what does trusting God with our whole heart look like? Does that mean we trust God with our families, finances, health, career, safety, etc. etc.? I think so. And in a world of violence, hatred, oppression, brokenness, slavery, and just all out sin I don’t think this comes easy. Life itself can beat us down, hurt us, hurt those we love and in the midst of this we are called to trust with our whole heart.
Maybe that is why that thought the other day for me was so monumental. Because in this life I don’t think that this trust comes naturally. I think we are constantly called to renew our trust in God and in His goodness. And I always find the need to remind myself that the trust I am placing is in a God so big He was willing to become a crucified criminal for me. And then all of a sudden the worst life can throw at me doesn’t seem as bad. So my challenge to us today? Keep going, keep moving and keep learning to trust in a God in this life who will be more than we can ever comprehend in the life to come.