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 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.
I remember pretty vividly the day we brought our first born home. It’s not every day that you walk into an office building with an empty baby carrier and walk out with a baby. But here we were, at Bethany Christian Services, signing adoption paper work in order to become a mom and a dad for the first time. We walked in and we were ushered into a small meeting room and we signed so much paper work that it seemed like we were finalizing a mortgage. Then our case worker said those words that are forever written on my heart, “would you like to see your son”. We then walked into the room next door and met Jonas for the first time. We were in awe of how tiny he was and we even had to have help loading him into the baby carrier for the first time. I even remembered how slow I drove back to Donelson that day…and it had nothing to do with the traffic. And the one thought that kept repeating through my mind was, “man, I hope I don’t mess this up.”
It’s something that anyone that is a parent has said at one point or another. All of a sudden we find ourselves responsible for another human being and it is absolutely terrifying. It’s funny, but I think there is a verse in the Psalms that expresses this well, but is rarely used for this insight. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” – Psalm 139:13-14 We often pause to reflect on the wonderful part, but rarely give said due to the fearful part. The word in Hebrew is yare’ and is most often translated as ‘actual fear’. The psalmist praises God because he is made wonderfully and this is easy to see. We are incredibly complex beings. But the psalmist also praises God because he is made fearfully. What does it mean for God to make us fearfully…?
I think it might be a bit like that feeling all parents get when we realize we are responsible for another human life. There is a fear, a reverence, a holy trepidation that the actions we take and the way we care for another influences who they become. As parents of teens and children, this can sometimes become overwhelming as we seek to trust God as he guides us into this responsibility. And the crazy thing about all of this…God made us all this way. Even more astounding is the fact that as the church we have been given the charge to engage all of creation with this same reverence and responsibility. We are God’s plan for redemption of all creation. And sometimes I look at the church and the world and think to myself, “Man, I hope we don’t mess this up.” And yet, the beauty in all of this is that God created us all this way. With freewill that often leads to things that could be considered scary and terrifying, or beautiful and lovely. So today, let us praise God. For you and I and all creation have been fearfully and wonderfully made and we have a mission before us. May all those we come into contact with realize that they too are fearfully and wonderfully made by a loving God who trusts all of us with each other.
Do you ever get nervous about what is to come? Do you ever find yourself fearful of the next moment? Do you watch the news at all? It’s crazy to think that our culture has become dependent on fear and worry. It’s almost as if we as people of faith have to struggle more than ever not to give into “the rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world”. The crazy thing is that this isn’t a new struggle. We as humans have been quick to cling to fear or dread or worry…even in the good times. I’m reminded of the story in scripture recorded in the book of Nehemiah. The people of Israel had come home from exile, had begun to rebuild, and had even rediscovered the law. They gathered as one to hear the law read and explained to them and their response is recorded here, “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” – Nehemiah 8:9 What should have been this beautiful moment of reclaimed identity became a moment of weeping. Why? Because we’re not very good at joy.
In her book Daring Greatly, author Brene Brown addresses this a bit when she speaks to fear, dread and joy. “We can’t prepare for tragedy and loss. When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience. Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen–and they do happen–we are stronger.”* The people of Israel wept in the face of the law because they worried once again that the other shoe was about to fall. They had experienced loss and exile and in this moment of what should have been pure, unadulterated joy, they wept…they were still fearful. As Brown puts it, joy is scary because it’s vulnerable. It opens us up to the possibility that we could be hurt or let down. But if we never fully experience joy we actually become more hollow, more shallow, more fearful and even weaker in the face of tragedy.
The great thing about that passage in Nehemiah is that it doesn’t stop at verse nine. “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength’.” – Nehemiah 8:10 Did you see that? The joy of the Lord is our strength. Being able to be grateful and joyous in the good things that God gives us actually becomes that which makes us stronger. I often hear Christians quote or paraphrase German philosopher Nietzsche when it comes to tragedy and pain; “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” (Sometimes they just sing Kelly Clarkson) But this isn’t entirely true. Our go-to after facing tragedy and hurt and pain, can be worry or dread over whatever is coming next…and this is not strength. True strength can be found in the gratitude and joy for those surreal life moments when we experience God in a new way and truly come to realize that the joy of God becomes our strength.
* Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012. Print.
Last night just before bedtime, a boomer of a West Texas thunderstorm began to roll in. This immediately means a few things…number one, Odessa will get some much needed rain (this is always the case regardless of how much we get). Number two; that I myself will have a potentially wonderful night of sleep as I love sleeping with rain in the background. And lastly, that no one else in my household will sleep well, so number two is immediately negated. And last night was no exception to that rule as I type this through bleary sleep-depraved eyes. But it got me thinking about control…or lack thereof. My kids are prime examples of the fear of lack of control. My ten-yr-old most recently has even begun to express his increasing fear of tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes and any other kind of natural phenomena beyond his control. But control really is an illusion…isn’t it?
I guess it goes all the way back to the garden…I mean waaaay back. We couldn’t handle not being in control of our circumstances; our fate. And so we ate. “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” – Genesis 3:6. And ever since we have operated under the illusion of control that sin allows us to think makes sense. If I just get this piece of my life figured out. If I just work hard enough these things will all fall into place. If I just have enough money, power, popularity, beauty, security, etc. then all will be well…except it won’t. In fact, the invitation made to us in the wake of a world broken by the illusion of control sounds more like this, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” – John 12:24-25
Tomorrow is Good Friday and combined with Easter it represents the two most important days for the life of a Christian…why? Because it reminds us that we are not in control. Christ himself, in order to redeem us, showed us that life is best lived when we yield up control and just live for God. The apostle Paul described it this way, “When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:7-8. Christ gave up control of His life even to the point of death at our hands (talk about yielding control) so that we might know there is no power in control. In fact, true victory and power comes from giving up control or even realizing that we never even really had control. Perhaps this is the truth of Good Friday. That as we are called to give up the illusion of control we realize that we have a Savior who has already showed us the way. So may you give up the desire for control and the fear that accompanies it and live in the promise of Good Friday and the Hope of Easter.
So…I’m a nerd. I know for many of you that doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But I enjoy all things comic book, superhero, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. It shouldn’t surprise you either that when the new Star Wars film came out late this last year that my son and I were in line on opening night in costume. That kind of reveals to you the depth of the nerdiness and its influence upon our household. Recently I was actually reminded of one of my favorite quotes from this movie franchise that actually comes from my least favorite of the movies. In Episode 1, Yoda (the Jedi guru type) is speaking to young Anakin Skywalker and he says, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
The reason this line has come to mind is my general concern for the health and well-being of the church. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably come to realize that a lot of the political rhetoric that has been occurring in the United States lately has been coming from a place of fear and anger. And sadly enough that same rhetoric has taken root in the church as well. My brothers and sisters, anger and fear have no place in the body of Christ. In his epistle the apostle James, the brother of Christ, had this to say, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” James 1:19-20 Likewise in the 1 Epistle of John we find this, “This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” – 1 John 4:17-18 ‘Anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires’. ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear”.
The reason this concerns me so much is that it is killing our witness and our voice for true Kingdom transformation. Please hear me, when we the church operate out of a sense of anger or fear, we no longer represent the Christ we confess. Much like the aforementioned quote from Star Wars, we ultimately compromise who we are intended to be and end up walking in darkness instead of light. So my question to us today; in the midst of all of this political chaos and confusion, are your actions/posts/statements/conversations/etc. originating from a place of love and grace? Or do you find yourself responding out of fear and anger? I myself cannot go there. It is too easy to hold grudges, to distance the other, to be angry or to be afraid. Instead we are called to take up our cross; the ultimate symbol of grace, love and forgiveness. I’ll leave you with this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. which is just as true today as it was 50 years ago. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”