Collages (November 22, 2012)

…Opening To…

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice. (Meister Eckhart)

…Listening In…

After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?” (Luke 24:30-32; context)

…Filling Up…

About six years ago a woman broke my heart, thus spiraling me into the worst year of my life: I sunk into myself, hardly spoke to my friends, and rarely left my futon. I couldn’t let go of the vision of the future life that I had invented for myself. I couldn’t understand why God would take away the person that I thought was going to be my wife.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that God doesn’t comprehend our lives in the limited linear fashion that we do. When this woman broke up with me, my vision of the future became firmly cemented in the past. My future was empty, or so I thought. But I think that God comprehends our lives as a whole – not as a series of events. We view our lives as though flipping through the pages of a magazine, one to the next. God sees our lives as collages, in which all the pages are pasted together.

So today, I invite you to give thanks for something in your past that didn’t seem like a cause for gratitude at the time. Reflect on how this event fits into the overarching narrative of your live. I give thanks now that I didn’t marry this woman, because the person I would go on to marry was living in another state at the time. I just hadn’t met her yet. But God already knew her. God had already pasted her page into my collage. I would reach her in time. Thanks be to God!

…Praying For…

Dear God, you know our pasts, our presents, and our futures. Help me to take the long view of my own life, trusting in your directing creativity to lead me on the best paths, even when they seem difficult at the time. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, eager to look for your blessing in my life and eager to be a reason that others give thanks to you.

Things that have Never Been (November 21, 2012)

…Opening To…

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice. (Meister Eckhart)

…Listening In…

Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough. (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee)

…Filling Up…

Yesterday, we talked about thanking God for something you’ve always known and had never realized you should be thankful for because it never pinged your radar. Today, we’ll take a look at the opposite – thanking God for things that have never been. This type of gratitude is possibly even more difficult than yesterday’s because it involves stepping into other people’s shoes in order to appreciate your gifts and blessings.

When we stand in another’s shoes, we gain the capacity for perspective. Sometimes, it’s difficult to see things when you’re right up close to them and seeing them from the same angle you always do. To give thanks for something you’ve never had, you might need to view your life from that other perspective. Perhaps you’ll give thanks because diseases that have affected people all over the world for hundreds of years won’t affect you because you were inoculated as a baby. Perhaps you’ll give thanks because you’ve never known a time when your stomach was so empty for so long that you forgot how to be hungry. Perhaps you’ll give thanks because every time you slept outside in your life, you did so because you chose to – and you always had s’mores as the campfire died down.

Today, think of something you’ve never experienced, something you don’t want to experience because it is unhealthy or degrading or worse. Now thank God that this thing has never happened to you. But don’t stop there. Recognize that this thing that has never been always is happening somewhere in the world – maybe next door, or a few blocks away, or across an ocean. How can you help make that thing change from an always is to a never again?

…Praying For…

Dear God, you never abandon people when they suffer. Help me to realize the gifts you have given me, and give me the strength and the imagination to use those gifts to address the brokenness of the world. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, eager to look for your blessing in my life and eager to be a reason that others give thanks to you.

Things that have Always Been (November 20, 2012)

…Opening To…

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice. (Meister Eckhart)

…Listening In…

First of all, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because the news about your faithfulness is being spread throughout the whole world. I serve God in my spirit by preaching the good news about God’s Son, and God is my witness that I continually mention you in all my prayers. (Romans 1:8-10; context)

…Filling Up…

There are so many things for which to give thanks: my discovery that I do, in fact, like sweet potatoes; the new album from a favorite band; the first ice on the edges of the pond. I have given thanks for each of these things over the last couple of days, and each has been something new – a change from an earlier condition or a recent addition to the world at large.

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me giving thanks for new things or for things that have recently changed takes up most of my gratitude time. The new things jump out at us. They vie for our attention. The things that have always been there, however, remain in the background, quietly making our lives comfortable or joyful or meaningful. Because the things that have always been don’t call attention to themselves, we fail to give thanks to God for them as often as we should.

Today, think of something that you can’t remember doing without: it can be as basic as breath or your dog’s earnest affection. It can be the simple fact that you’ve always had clean clothes in your drawers or a hot meal on the table. Think of something you’ve never given thanks for because it has silently endured throughout your life, never calling attention to itself and never failing to make your life better. Until today, you’ve never realized it was an eligible candidate for thanksgiving, so today give thanks to God for it.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the source of things that endure, the creator of old things and new things; help me to notice the things in my life that have always been there making my life better and to give thanks for them. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, eager to look for your blessing in my life and eager to be a reason that others give thanks to you.

Taking and Breaking (November 19, 2012)

…Opening To…

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice. (Meister Eckhart)

…Listening In…

Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” (John 6:11-12; context)

…Filling Up…

Since it’s the week of Thanksgiving in the good ole U.S. of A, let’s spend a few days examining thanksgiving in its non-holiday variety. Each day, we are going to talk about a different aspect of thanksgiving, but first, we should start with some background to locate the word in its Biblical context.

Long before Thanksgiving became an official holiday when our 16th president Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it so in 1863, long before the pilgrims sat down to dine wearing their buckle hats and the sanitized version of history, long before anyone from another continent even knew this one existed, Jesus stood in a grassy place with five thousand of his closest friends. He was unwilling to send them away hungry, so he sent his disciples to scout for rations. They turned up a meager supply – five barley loaves and two small fish, a laughable amount by any standard.

But Jesus takes the bread and breaks it all the same. And he distributes it to everyone, and everyone eats just enough with plenty to spare. Between the taking and the breaking, Jesus adds an all important step. He gives thanks. He gives thanks even though the food could barely feed five, let alone five thousand. He gives thanks to God for what he has, meager though it is, and it turns out to be enough. The Greek word for “thanksgiving” has travelled all the way down into English and become the word Eucharist, the word some churches use for Holy Communion. So whenever we come together to share the bread and wine, we are actively giving thanks to God for the blessings of this life, which is what Jesus did in that grassy place long ago.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the source of all blessing. Give to me vision to see that blessing, a heart that is always ready to thank you, and hands that work toward the coming of your kingdom; in Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, eager to look for your blessing in my life and eager to be a reason that others give thanks to you.

“If we only had a wheelbarrow…”

princessbrideThe situation looks hopeless. The odds are twenty to one against, and one-third of their party has just been revived after being mostly dead all day. Westley, Inigo, and Fezzek peer furtively at the newly improved defenses of the castle gate. They have only Westley’s brain, Inigo’s steel, and Fezzek’s strength against 60 men. “If I had a month to plan I might come up with something,” says Westley. Then, half to himself, “If  we only had a wheelbarrow, that would be something.” It turns out, upon second thought, they do have a wheelbarrow; and, upon third thought, a fire-resistant cloak. With this rather odd pairing of materials, they break into the castle, save the princess, steal the prince’s beautiful horses, and make a daring escape. On the walltop over looking the castle, the three heroes make their plan. Here’s the progression as I see it: they state the problem (breaking into a castle guarded by sixty men); they say what they do not have (a month to plan); they re-examine their assets (a cloak and a wheelbarrow); they overcome the problem even though their assets are meager.*

A similar progression, with an all-important extra step, happens when Jesus feeds the five thousand people (as told in Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to John). A large crowd is following Jesus because they like a good spectacle. Jesus has just healed the man at the pool of Bethzatha, so the crowd knows they won’t be disappointed. Jesus goes up the mountain with his disciples and looks down, surveying the vast multitude spread out below him. They could ignore the crowd, and, judging by Philip’s response to Jesus’ question the disciples probably wanted to. But Jesus does not give them that option. Instead, he states the problem: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip (characteristically for this Gospel) answers a different question than the one Jesus asks. He says what they do not have: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Then Andrew re-examines their assets: a little boy has five barley loaves and two fish. Notice how wildly inadequate this amount of food is for so many; I bet Andrew felt foolish even bringing it up.

But Jesus seems to think this very foolishness is just the sort of thing needed to solve such an intractable problem. So he takes the loaves and fish and then adds the all-important extra step in the progression. He gives thanks. He gives thanks even though he has a loaf per thousand people. He gives thanks even though the situation seems impossible. He does not let the apparent meagerness of his resources dictate whether or not he offers thanks to God. He gives thanks, and the crowd eats, and the disciples gather up twelve full baskets. The crowd is looking for a spectacle and they get such a grand one that they try to take Jesus and make him king.

Let’s take another look at the giving thanks. The special word for The Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion is “Eucharist.” (N.B. “Eucharist” comprehends the entire Sunday worship experience, but we are focusing here on the second half, the meal.) When we worship God by sharing this meal, we pray to Christ to somehow enter the bread and wine. Then we break the bread and share the cup, thus sharing Christ with each other. And our eyes are opened to the reality that the love of Christ is inside us and is made known in the sharing of community and love with each other.

The fancy word “Eucharist” is a much less fancy word if you happen to be both from Asia Minor and two thousand years old. This strange looking word simply means “to give thanks.” So, when we come together to share the meal, we are coming together to give thanks to God for all the blessings God has bestowed upon us. The fact that this intentional thanksgiving happens in a community reminds us that we must share our blessings just as we share the body and blood of Christ. And it is the very dwelling of Christ in us and we in him that sustains us as we share with others.

When I give thanks to God for the blessings and gifts God has given me, I must remember that thanksgiving is the catalyst for sharing. If I do not share my gifts with others, then I have not truly thanked God for them. Let me say that again, make it plural, and italicize it so you don’t miss it: If we do not share our gifts with others, then we have not truly thanked God for them

Sometimes, these gifts may seem meager or inadequate. But those are the times we must remember that Christ is there with us, giving thanks for us, and breaking us so he can share himself through us.

Footnotes

* The Princess Bride (1987); dir. Rob Reiner. Watch this film ASAP if you’ve never seen it. In fact, just go home right now and watch it. I’ll lend you my DVD.

Once there was a man who found a pearl…

So, the United States is mired in the worst financial fiasco since I was four years old. Because of my early developmental stage back then, I was more concerned with fire trucks than the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Now, I still get pretty excited when I see a fire truck, but the economic crisis occupies my mind with far more regularity. Every news cycle seems to have a direr story than the one before, the presidential candidates talk about little else, and the crisis is the number two topic at coffee hour right now (after college football, which, of course, is more important, especially when my team is ranked #2 in the AP).

With the Dow taking a nosedive and 401Ks across the land going on the South Beach diet, can you think of a better time for churches to start their fall stewardship campaigns?

I know the previous sentence sounds sarcastic, but it’s not. Of course, I wish we had never gotten into this mess in the first place. But we’re in it now, and the best thing we can do is take hard looks at our priorities. The economic crisis is forcing us to reevaluate how we allocate our resources. The first step in this evaluation process is realizing “our” resources are not ours at all.

Jesus tells this parable: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46).

A bishop I knew a long time ago used to tell a story about this passage from the Gospel according to Matthew. I was very young, so I might get some of the details wrong and I might embellish others, but it goes something like this:

Once there was a man who found a pearl. This pearl was the most magnificent specimen. Indeed, only in the wildest dreams of clams did a pearl like this one exist. It was the size and weight of a golf ball, but no one would think to compare the two. The pearl was in a class by itself. It shone with a light all its own. The light might have hid some imperfections if the pearl had had any. But it didn’t. The pearl, thought the man, was, quite simply, perfect. The trouble is, the pearl was in a glass case and very visible alarm wire crisscrossed the case and a wrinkled shopkeeper hovered over the case. The man opened his wallet, thumbed through the small bills in the billfold and pondered his several credit cards. He pulled out one especially shiny card and, pointing to the pearl, tried to hand the card to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper raised her eyebrows and shook her head.

So the man went home. He wandered through his house, into the garage, and onto the deck. He gathered up everything not nailed down and sold it all—his car, his computer, his beloved grill. He went back to the shop. Not enough, the shopkeeper’s look told him.

So the man sold his house. Not enough. He cashed out his stock options. Not enough. He even gave up his mint-condition Nolan Ryan rookie card. Not enough. The man stared plaintively at the shopkeeper. Then his eyes wandered down to the pearl. He knew somehow that obtaining this pearl was why he was alive, what he was made for. He didn’t know how he knew, but, looking at that pearl, he just knew. He looked back up at the shopkeeper. “What about me?” he said, “What if I give myself?”

The shopkeeper smiled, brought a jangling set of keys to eyelevel, and began searching for a key. She found it, unlocked the case, and slowly lifted the pearl off of its bed of velvet. “Here you go,” the shopkeeper said. “And by the way,” she continued, “you were willing to give up everything for this pearl. Your house and grill and baseball card are still mine, but I want you to look after them for me. And remember, you are mine, too.”

This story has been with me for quite a while, and I share it because I think it centers the discussion of stewardship better than anything I can come up with myself. To understand the importance of stewardship, we must first acknowledge that everything we have comes from God, and is, in fact, still God’s. We are just holding onto God’s stuff for a while.

Indeed, a steward is someone who manages the assets of another. So when we talk about stewardship in a Christian context, we are saying that we are blessed with abundance from God, and we are striving to use that abundance justly and wisely. When we think of Christian giving—of time, of talent, of monetary resources—we should really tack on another word. We should think of it as “Christian giving back.”

Stewardship always entails some form of giving. Stewardship has at its base a certain kind of giving that we do every Sunday. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are literally “giving thanks,” for that is what Eucharist means. By starting with thanksgiving, we acknowledge that our gifts, our lives, our livelihoods come from God. Stewardship must start with an “attitude of thanksgiving.”

The reevaluation of our allocation of resources begins with humbly acknowledging that we are not the owners of the stuff we accumulate and gratefully giving thanks to God for what God has given us to look after. In the end, this all comes down to trust. The financial crisis in which we are currently embroiled is predicated on untrustworthy practices; indeed, we don’t even know how much certain things are worth any more because of deceit and mistrust. But God is trustworthy, and God has entrusted us with God’s stuff. How will we respond?