A Table of Thanks

Sketch by Alfred Waud of Thanksgiving in camp (of General Louis Blenker) during the U.S. Civil War in 1861

Very soon, many of us in the United States will gather around a table with family and friends to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. The history and “origin story” of this holiday is a little murky, mired in myth and legend. For the traditional celebration in the United States, we are remembering the story where in 1621 (thanks to a great harvest) Pilgrims feasted for three days and invited about 90 of their Native American neighbors to join them. Edward Winslow, one of the attendees, recounts the events of the feast this way:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
From Mourt’s Relation Or Journal of the Plantation at Plymouth

What strikes me about this account of the “first thanksgiving” is how happy they were at the abundant harvest and the over-abundance of fowl and deer. I find the mention of “amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms” interesting. Whether this means they shot their guns recreationally or they actually had the freedom to exercise  their arms and hands and not work with them, I am not sure. But, this type of excitement and recreation is something I think we have little context for in the United States. Many of us are so far removed from hunger and the concept of needing a harvest to survive that reading this account becomes quaint rather than feeling the immense joy and celebration of life that I think the account is getting at.

What challenges me about this account, in light of the Thanksgiving feast many of us will be enjoying, is the response of the Pilgrims to this abundance. They did not hoard it, they did not store it silos, they did not “exercise their arms” in defense of the abundance, they did not try to profit off the abundant harvest, and they did not waste it.

They were unselfish and benevolent with their blessing.

When the 90 Native Americans showed up, nobody drove them away because they were outsiders. There were no cries of, “You don’t deserve this…you didn’t work for this!” The 90 Native Americans did not try to steal the harvest or say, “You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for us.” No, everyone shared in the blessing of the great harvest and everyone was welcomed to the table. Benevolence led to even more abundance and benevolence. The Pilgrims shared with the Native Americans and they, in turn, hunted deer and brought even more food to the table to share.

This reminds of the story of the infant church at the end of Acts 2:

All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved
Acts 2:44-47 (CEB)

A tradition at our table, and I know at many others, is to go around and talk about what we are thankful for. I fully support this tradition and think it is a good idea to consider our blessings and to recount what we are thankful for. However, this story challenges me to make an extra step in giving thanks. The story of the first thanksgiving is not notable that the people gave thanks for their abundance, it is notable because they celebrated and gave thanks by sharing. Again, to quote the above account, “by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” In the account of the early Church, the demonstration of God’s goodness comes through sharing with those in need, “with gladness and simplicity.” So, instead of just saying what you are thankful for this year, share how what you’re thankful for moves you to share that blessing with others.

If you’re thankful for your family, invite people to your table who might not have a family to share a meal with.

If you’re thankful for your food, share your meal with someone who might go hungry.

If you’re thankful for your health, spend some time with those who are sick or burdened by extreme healthcare costs.

If you’re thankful for your job, spend some time with (or donate some money to) those who can’t find work or (due to circumstances outside their control) are unable to work.

If you’re thankful for your freedom (to vote, to worship, etc.), spend some time learning about or listening to those who do not have the same freedoms.

Thankfulness shouldn’t just end with us. As the story of the first thanksgiving shows us, our thankfulness should cause us to create moments of thankfulness in others by inviting others in and by sharing out of our abundance and blessing.

When the Story is Co-Opted

Watching TV a few nights ago, my wife and I were subjected to this little bit of commercial advertising.

My wife was appalled. She is a pretty big Hunger Games fan. She’s read all the books, she’s eagerly anticipating the release of the final film and she re-watches the previous movies regularly. Seeing characters she loves get pushed into a commercial endeavor did not sit well with her. We’ve actually taken to picking apart car commercials regularly at our house as they very often have little to do with the car and more to do with the image/status/feeling you get from driving said car. At first, I was amused at my wife’s discontent at the use of her beloved characters. But the more I thought about it and rattled around my limited knowledge of the Hunger Games story (admittedly I’ve only seen the movies) the more I realized how disjointed, forced and blatantly co-opted this whole commercial is.

Mainly, it seems that the people in District 12, where main characters Katniss and Peeta come from, would never be able to afford the luxury of a Chrysler, or any kind of car for that matter. Katniss had to beg for bread to feed her family. District 12 is the poorest of the districts and it’s people mine coal to power the Capital rather than warm their own houses. The quote from the commercial, “Where you’ve been is part of your story,” seems to suggest some kind of suffering on the part of Chrysler, ala that experienced by Katniss, Peeta and District 12. This is your standard “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality so popular in America. I don’t know about you, but Chrysler seems pretty blind to the context of their own story let alone the story of the Hunger Games. You might recall that Chrysler was given nearly $12 billion in bailout money from the government (*cough* the Capital *cough*) and was eventually bought out by Fiat. I don’t know who’s pulling who’s bootstraps here, but Chrysler sure didn’t pull their own. Chrysler does not seem to even understand their story.

I mean, seriously, they're riding chariots here. Do they even have cars in Panem?

I mean, seriously, they’re riding chariots here. Do they even have cars in Panem?

Oh, and of course there’s the atrocity of the Hunger Games spectacle, the violence of the rebellion and the general abuse of propaganda and story between factions in the Hunger Games that Chrysler seems to ignore.

It’s easy, and a little fun to pick at Chrysler for this blatant commercial co-opting of a much deeper story. But, this blog was not started to pick on Chrysler and our over-commercialized culture. How about we turn the microscope inward a bit?

How often do we co-opt the Bible, God’s story and the Christian narrative for our own purposes? One does not have to look far down their Facebook or Twitter feeds to see friends, pastors and political leaders using pieces from the Bible to seemingly prop up and round up support for their chosen cause.

Imagine if this Chrysler commercial had been cut with video of Samson getting his hair cut by Delilah and then him killing all the Philistines while blinded. Or David getting chased by Saul and then being crowned king. Or Peter denying Jesus and then him giving a heroic speech after Pentecost.

Or…imagine if they had cut it with Jesus dying on the cross and then resurrecting from the dead?

It’s easy, convenient and ego boosting to feel like the Bible is talking about us, our culture wars and issues of the day. This is what we do when we pick and choose verses to support our own claims. We propagandize the Bible when we pull stories out of context and fail to take in the breadth and depth of God’s narrative so that we might get a spiritual leg up on someone else.

Now, don’t get me wrong…the Bible has a lot to say about a lot of issues. But, we have to let the Bible say what the Bible is saying. There is so much depth to the Bible than just a political agenda. The Bible says much about living this life now rather than punching our ticket to the salvation of Heaven. The wealth of King Solomon can only truly be understood when compared to the apparent lack of wealth, and charity, of Jesus and the post-resurrection disciples. We do a deep disservice to the 2000+ years of history and people, struggle and suffering bound up in the pages of Scripture when we tack it’s verses to our outrage de jour.

What I’m basically saying is, we would do better to listen and ingest the words in Scripture rather than speak them constantly and use them for our own purposes. Otherwise, we will succumb to a similar temptation like Chrysler and ignore the whole story for the sake of telling an, ego-driven, commercially white-washed and board of directors approved version of our own story. When we listen to the story of Scripture, we are invited into it and are called to be our true selves in the midst of it’s revelation.

We offer ourselves to the God revealed in Scripture through Jesus, not the other way around.

We are co-opted into the story of God, not vice versa.

Then and only then can we honestly accept God when we’re told (not when we say), “Where you’ve been is part of your story.”

What Our New Perspective on Pluto Can Teach Us About Faith

Pluto photographed by the LORRI and Ralph instruments aboard the New Horizons spacecraft.

Deep down, I’m a bit of a science nerd. I loved chemistry in junior high and high school and I stayed later for some classes to balance chemical equations. But, my love of science probably goes back to my elementary school days when I began to be fascinated with space, black holes, supernovas and our solar system. I still love looking at images of space and regularly visit the Astronomy Photo of the Day website. When Pluto was demoted to “dwarf planet” status, I along with many others, were a little bummed. However, our interest in Pluto has increased recently as the New Horizons spacecraft has begun sending back images of this dwarf planet at the outer edges of our solar system. These images have revealed a more beautiful, active and interesting neighbor than many scientists ever imagined. This surprise and wonder created by the new images of Pluto was captured in this photo taken as the first images began to come in.

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern (center) excited about a new image of Pluto.

There’s no photo trickery here, his eyes really are bugging out that much in excitement. Writer Corey Powell also explained the excitement at what these images are revealing in his easy to read and not-overly-sciencey article, The Eye-Popping Astonishment of Pluto. I would encourage you to read the article, even if you’re not that into this whole thing, just to get a taste of the excitement and joy that can come from scientific revelations like this.

Towards the end of the article, I was challenged by these words:

“The mysteries of Pluto are already leading science in new directions…It may sound hyperbolic, but it is fair to say that our hard-won knowledge about how planets behave has been rendered instantly obsolete–or at least revealed as woefully incomplete.”

These are often not the words we associate with science. “New directions”, “obsolete” and “incomplete” are tough words to admit. But, at the core of scientific process is a willingness to question, challenge and prove concepts. Even things believed to be laws are always up for proving and disproving. These new images of Pluto have given scientists a new understanding on a planet they thought they already had some reliable ideas about. But, not only with Pluto, these images are changing how scientists understand how planets work in general. Now that they have gotten closer to Pluto than ever before, and have better photos and information than they ever had scientists are changing and updating how they see Pluto.

Once they got closer and had a new perspective, they understood Pluto differently, they were willing to make changes.

It seems we are less willing to make these kind of changes with our faith. It’s healthy for new ideas to be met with some level of suspicion until they are proven (scientific discoveries work the same way). However, “new” ideas about the Christian faith and the Bible are often met with dismissal, anger and possibly violence.

Just ask Galileo.

Or the Anabaptists.

Or John Wycliffe or Jan Huss.

Or Rev. James Reeb, Rev. Clark Olsen, Rev. Orloff Miller and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Or the Metropolitan Community Church of Our Redeemer in Augusta, Georgia.

I get some of the suspicion and fear. Changing ideas about faith means changing our understanding of God, the Bible, salvation and our eternal destinations. Questioning, challenging or changing those ideas may feel like questioning the very heart of who we are and the foundation our communities are built upon. It’s tough, those questions are hard and change can feel painful.

But, as with the scientists who sent the New Horizons probe hurtling through 4.67 billion miles of space, the closer we get to Jesus and the more we learn about our faith, our perspective will change. With that, our understanding of God, Jesus, the Bible, our neighbors, salvation and our eternal destinations may need some updating. We can see this worked out over the 2000 year history of the Bible. One of the quickest ways to illustrate this is to look at some of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount.

“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.”
Matthew 5:21-22 (CEB)

That whole “don’t commit murder” thing was from the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:13), the foundational rules for the Israelite nation. Changing those would seem to go against the foundations of what it meant to follow God. Yet, here Jesus expands the instruction of the sixth commandment and makes it a heart/intention issue more than just an action issue. Jesus gives his hearers a new perspective on what it means to be God’s people, to live by God’s rules and what it looks like to follow him.

God came so close to us that he was revealed in human form through Jesus. We should expect that our perspectives about God would change.

The more we read the Bible, the more we study it, the more we learn about the history and cultures that it was written in, the closer we get to it’s words, our perspectives will change.

The more we learn about our neighbors, the more we hear their stories, the closer we get to them (as God got closer to us), the more our perspectives will change.

The author of the Hebrews talks about developing in faith like a baby moving on from different forms of food:

Everyone who lives on milk is not used to the word of righteousness, because they are babies. But solid food is for the mature, whose senses are trained by practice to distinguish between good and evil
Hebrews 5:13-14 (CEB)

I don’t know any adults who still claim to regularly drink breast milk as a part of their diet. The same is true of our faith. As we grow and mature in our faith, there are things that we may have leave behind to continue to grow and develop. That does not mean those things, ideas and beliefs weren’t important. Nobody would say the scientists hated Earth because they sent a probe 4.67 billion miles away from Earth to get a closer look and a deeper understanding of Pluto. Just as the scientists needed to launch away from Earth to get a new perspective on Pluto, we need those first ideas about our faith to launch us towards the new perspectives. There are better, greater, deeper, sharper and more beautiful understandings to be had about the Christian faith than the “milk” we enjoyed when we first believed. It is healthy to be suspicious and test out ideas to see how true and sound they are (see 1 John 4:1 or Acts 17:11). But, there is no reason to fear and even less reason to lash out in anger, hatred or violence.

You might be surprised and what you discover.

Jesus is not Evel Knievel

Jesus definitely stared death in the face, but he didn’t do it from the seat of a motorcycle.

My family has been attending a new church recently which has been a really great experience so far. Last Sunday the pastor started his sermon by talking about Evel Knievel’s failed attempt to jump the Snake River canyon. The sermon then progressed into a fairly standard discussion about the “canyon” of separation between man and God caused by our own sin and selfishness. While we will often try to jump over the canyon (ala Evel Knievel) we will ultimately fail. The point of the sermon was that Jesus, standing in the gap (so to speak) as the High Priest, acted as bridge builder who helped span the canyon between humanity and God. Our calling, as a kingdom of priests is to follow Jesus, stand in the gap, and help people cross to the other side and stand in the gap as well (see Revelation 1:6). If I’m honest, I’m a little tired of the canyon image. I guess it feels too trite to me, kind of like the classic “Four Spiritual Laws” tracts. But, this message (which I generally thought was great) got me thinking about another popular way to understand Jesus.

Sometimes I think we see Jesus like Evel Knievel. A daredevil of sorts who impressed us with his tricks and did things that none of us could ever do. It’s almost like some read the Gospels as if there is a, “Do not try this at home” disclaimer at the bottom of the page. We may feel that Jesus “jumped the canyon” because no one else could and we worship him simply because he did what no one else could do. Most of the things he said and did are not possible for the rest of us simply because of who Jesus is.

If you haven’t already guessed from the title of this post, I think that is a horrible way to see Jesus. While I’m tired of the canyon image, I was a fan of understanding Jesus as someone who stands in the gap and invites his followers to stand in the gap as well. Jesus did not see himself as setting an unattainable goal. Instead, Jesus was very clear that his followers would be empowered as he was and were encouraged to make disciples like he did.

“I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
Matthew 28:17-20 (CEB)

Beyond that, Jesus told Peter to get out of the boat. He did not say, “Don’t bother Peter, this is Son of God stuff. You wouldn’t understand.” Jesus invited Peter out on the water and Peter accepted the invitation because he knew that following Jesus meant more than assenting to his teachings. Following Jesus meant doing whatever Jesus did.

Walking on water.

Healing the sick.

Feeding the multitudes.

Forgiving sins.


Rising from the dead.

This is eventually what turned the disciples from simple fishermen, tax collectors, rebels and bickering brothers into men and women who stared power and death in the face for the sake of the Gospel.

“Leaders of the people and elders, are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.”
Acts 4:8-12 (CEB)

Peter did not tell the man, “Sorry, Jesus is gone…everything will get better when he comes back.” No, Peter healed the man because that’s what Jesus did. God fulfilled his promise to Israel (and the world) through Jesus and now Peter and the rest of the disciples were faithfully embodying that fulfillment.

Jesus is not Evel Knievel, jumping over canyons we would never be able to jump.

Jesus bridges the gap between God and man so that everyone can cross. Jesus stands in the gap so that we, standing on his shoulders, might stand in the gap to bring others across as well. What Jesus has done, he invites the Church to do as well.

How does this work again?

At the encouragement of my wise and loving counselor, I’m strongly encouraging my brain and fingers to get back to blogging. For those of you who have paid attention, my blog has sat idle since about this post back in April. There are a few factors that have gone into that. First of all, we moved to a new house. With that, of course, came the necessary boxing, moving, unboxing and finding new homes for things. I have a wonderful new office/man cave space but let’s just say it’s not the most peaceful of place to go and write at the moment. Because of the move, we have also been visiting new churches since our move took us further away from the church we were already driving 20 minutes to attend. Another big change was my new job as the Admissions Counselor for Fuller Seminary here in Sacramento. So far the new job and my new coworkers have been great and it’s been an answer to prayer, but learning the ropes has not given me much free time to blog. The icing on top of this transition cake is that my wife found out she was pregnant and has dealt with horrible morning sickness (as seems to be her way). This has also slowed our unboxing and moving in to the new house along with essentially turning me into a single father for the last 3 weeks or so.

To put that all in perspective, most of that transition happened within the span of a week. If God is moving me from the wilderness of the past year, it’s all felt a bit sudden. Probably similar to what Jonah felt like when the whale emesis’ed him on the shores somewhere outside of Ninevah. Needless to say, I have not had the mental capacity or the luxury of time to sit down and actually write something out.

“Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae, Who ate a monstrous whale?”

Aside from the things taking up my time, the airwaves have been overflowing with an overwhelming amount material I would love to comment on. But, I feel a bit like the poem by Shel Silverstein where a girl tries to eat a whale and it takes her 89 years to finish. There is so much out there to talk about, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Even if I did, between what’s happening in my life and on the news, it would take me at least 89 years to get through it all.

For example, I’m writing this on a day when the supreme court decided in favor of same-sex marriage, President Obama gave a speech (and sang Amazing Grace) at the funeral for the pastor killed along with eight other parishioners at the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church and there were 60 people killed in separate terrorist attacks in Tunisia, France and Kuwait.

So, I’ll spare you that novel it would take to appropriately address EVERYTHING that has gone on and (naïvely I’m sure) try to swallow this whale in one gulp.

I’ve always found these words from the Sermon on the Mount to echo through my heart and mind when life piles up and the news is overflowing.

Therefore, don’t worry and say, “What are we going to eat?” or “What are we going to drink?” or “What are we going to wear?” Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own
Matthew 6:31-34 (CEB)

The challenge Jesus gives us is not to eat the whole “whale”, so to say. The challenge is to seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. By attempting to swallow the whale, one might be tempted to conclude (as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes), “When I observed all that happens under the sun, I realized that everything is pointless, a chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14 CEB). I can be just as cynical as the next guy and am often tempted to throw up my arms when I feel overwhelmed and conclude that nothing matters. Nothing will change, injustice and pain will prevail. By challenging us to seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, Jesus is challenging us to see that everything matters.

Nine lives tragically cut short while in a Bible study matters in God’s kingdom.

The one life that chose to end the nine matters in God’s kingdom.

60 people killed in (from my perspective) far off lands matters in God’s kingdom.

The misguided souls who carried the guns to kill 60 people matters in God’s kingdom.

Same sex couples given the civil right to marriage matters in God’s kingdom.

People concerned how this decision will affect their church, business and family matters in God’s kingdom.

The joy felt at the hope of a new life.

The anxiety and fear at the potential of feeling loss again.

Because God shows us through Jesus that this world matters. This life matters. An adulterous women at a well matters. Lepers matter. Foreigners matter. Thieves on a cross matter. A traveler from Cyrene at the wrong place at the wrong time matters. Five loaves and two fish matter. Water maters, wine matters. A meal shared with friends matters.

Life matters

Death matters.

In all these things our challenge is to seek and find God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. It can be hard to see. It often involves some digging, some dying and a new life. When we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven” we are stating our partnership with God in seeking and revealing God’s kingdom in this world. It’s the Church’s job to pull back the curtain on trite answers and politics of the world in order that God’s kingdom and God’s righteous might be revealed.

So, all this to remind myself to not be overwhelmed. Don’t worry about today or tomorrow. Don’t try to eat the whale. Seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. Know that when I want to say that nothing matters…everything matters to God.

Prayer for Sixth Sunday of Easter

Miners Singing by Josef Herman, 1951.

Faithful God, make our hearts bold with love for one another. Pour out your Spirit upon all people, that we may live your justice and sing in praise the new song of your marvelous victory. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

Prayer for Fifth Sunday of Easter

Kiwi vine stretching upward toward the sky.

Mighty God, in whom we know the power of redemption, you stand among us in the shadows of our time. As we move through every sorrow and trial of this life, uphold us with knowledge of the final morning when, in the glorious presence of your risen Son, we will share in his resurrection, redeemed and restored to the fullness of life and forever freed to be your people. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.