how to be thankful at the end of the world (or, reflections on Thanksgiving and Advent)
Christ the King Sunday, which we just celebrated a few days ago, signals the impending end of the liturgical year. The fast-approaching first Sunday of Advent bears the new year for the church. And of course, tomorrow our country celebrates Thanksgiving. In this matrix of holiday celebration, my question is this: How can we be thankful at the end of the world?
You see, the conclusion of the liturgical year signals not a cycle of sun, but the end of time as we know it. The Reign of Christ for which we pray and hope on Christ the King anticipates the fullness of God's Kingdom, the presence of the new heaven and the new earth, that day when every knee bows and tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord. The last few days of the church year look forward not just to Christ's return, but to the eternity of glory creation will spend with her creator.
This means not just a welcome embrace of the newness brought by Jesus, but a recognition that the world as we know it is ending. In light of continued terror attacks across the world, where illnesses like cancer plague our bodies and depression assaults our minds, a new heaven and new earth sounds like everything we could ask for. While enticing at first glance, the end of this world also means the end of certain things we hold dear. The end of this world means the end of communism and capitalism, the end of nationalism and anarchism, the end of hunger and gluttony, of loneliness and codependency, of all idols in our lives that challenge the reign of Christ.
That's the complex nature of this holiday collision. How can we be thankful in a world that we pray will one day end and give way to the newness and fullness of God? How can we be thankful for the end of that world when it's passing will remove not only the things that we hate but the things that we love too much, the things that we make into idols and assume are saviors when, in fact, they too remain subject to Christ's reign?
We may, first, give thanks for temporary blessings, for those things that we love and yet know they will give way to something different, something greater. I give thanks for the home I live in now, knowing that I won't live there forever. I give thanks for things like my time at Orrville High School, Ashland University, Duke Divinity School, and Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, knowing that each of those settings were a profound blessing and definitely temporary. Much of what we love in our lives is temporary. The danger we face is assuming that good things must last forever.
This world is not meant to last forever, and knowing that can help us to more deeply and more appropriately appreciate the gifts of this world. We can recognize the good intentions behind capitalism and communism while readily admitting the problematic issues behind both systems. We can admit and embrace the good intents behind our countries even as we admit and critique the imperfections we face. We can appropriately value things like food and relationship and life without making an idol out of any of them.
The coming of Advent signals that we have much to give thanks for now, because these good things reflect the light of the coming kingdom, of the Son who rises to reign for all eternity. So, on Thanksgiving Day, and at all times, give thanks for the good God has given you. At the same time, remember those things are gifts of God and not gods themselves.
Weary Eyes and Heavy Tears
Weeks like last week really try my faith.
Globally, we faced the horror of terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, deeply entrenching the world further into war. The horrendous loss of life will lead to more horrendous loss of life. At the core of terrorism lies the goal of instilling fear and therefore fear based decisions. I fear many of those decision are on the horizon after last week.
Even closer to home, two people in my community shared the terrible news of cancer. Even if others weren't threatening the vibrancy of life, at times our bodies revolt against us in terrible and inexplicable ways. Cancer is the terrorist of the body, whose only purpose is to multiply chaos at the expense of health.
I don't hate many things, but unequivocally, I hate terrorism and I hate cancer, probably because both formed my development in such profound ways.
As a child, the Oklahoma City Bombings brightened the television during evening dinners and led to a world that challenged safety even inside governmental headquarters. On September 11th, 2011, I watched live as a sophomore in health class as two planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City, further instilling fear for travelers, for workers, for customers, for us all. Even more so, that day eventually led to many loved ones finding themselves in the thick of war, too far from home and too close to death. The recent massacre of the Charleston Nine brought this violence into a church and further revealed the racism embedded within our culture. The fact that these examples only reflect a few of the terror attacks I've known in my life indicates the prevalence of terror in this world. I hate terrorism .
Then, as I consider all of those I love who've battled renegade tumors, whose on bodies terrorized their own lives, I just get sick. I hate cancer.
So what can Christians do amidst such violence, such illness, such despair?
Pray the Psalms. Seriously.
The Psalms are so deeply honest with God that they can feel blasphemous. Expressing our anger and sadness? Telling God what to do? Demanding that God keep the promises made in covenants past? But, in times like these, such psalms have a deep power. Psalms are God's invitation to us to do just that, to speak authentically from our weary eyes and heavy tears, and from that place, remind God of the promises made to us, of the divine identity revealed to us, and to expect God to act in accordance with those promises and that identity.
So, today, I read Psalm 69 as a prayer, reminding God of our deep need for the work of Christ in the world, of our need for deliverance from the enemies of cancer and terror, and that my trust, though shaken, still remains in the Lord. In the face of fear, in the midst of fear, God invites us to pray boldly through the words of the Psalms. God invites us to expect divine work for the good. God invites us to seek deliverance promised. We can be honest with God about our pain because the psalms not only invite that authenticity, but they put the very words on our lips. These scriptures invite us into an authentic, honest, and hopeful conversation with God. Today, in the midst of the pain of last week, I am thankful for that invitation.
Psalm 69For the music leader. According to “The Lilies.” Of David.1 Save me, God,
because the waters have reached my neck!
2 I have sunk into deep mud.
My feet can’t touch the bottom!
I have entered deep water;
the flood has swept me up.
3 I am tired of crying.
My throat is hoarse.
My eyes are exhausted with waiting for my God.
4 More numerous than the hairs on my head
are those who hate me for no reason.
My treacherous enemies,
those who would destroy me, are countless.
Must I now give back
what I didn’t steal in the first place?
5 God, you know my foolishness;
my wrongdoings aren’t hidden from you.
6 Lord God of heavenly forces!--
don’t let those who hope in you
be put to shame because of me.
God of Israel!--
don’t let those who seek you
be disgraced because of me.
7 I am insulted because of you.
Shame covers my face.
8 I have become a stranger to my own brothers,
an immigrant to my mother’s children.
9 Because passion for your house has consumed me,
the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me!
10 I wept while I fasted--
even for that I was insulted.
11 When I wore funeral clothes,
people made fun of me.
12 Those who sit at the city gate muttered things about me;
drunkards made up rude songs.
13 But me? My prayer reaches you, Lord,
at just the right time.
God, in your great and faithful love,
answer me with your certain salvation!
14 Save me from the mud!
Don’t let me drown!
Let me be saved from those who hate me
and from these watery depths!
15 Don’t let me be swept away by the floodwaters!
Don’t let the abyss swallow me up!
Don’t let the pit close its mouth over me!
16 Answer me, Lord, for your faithful love is good!
Turn to me in your great compassion!
17 Don’t hide your face from me, your servant,
because I’m in deep trouble.
Answer me quickly!
18 Come close to me!
Save me because of my enemies!
19 You know full well the insults I’ve received;
you know my shame and my disgrace.
All my adversaries are right there in front of you.
20 Insults have broken my heart.
I’m sick about it.
I hoped for sympathy,
but there wasn’t any;
I hoped for comforters,
but couldn’t find any.
21 They gave me poison for food.
To quench my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
22 Let the table before them become a trap,
their offerings a snare.
23 Let their eyes grow too dim to see;
make their insides tremble constantly.
24 Pour out your anger on them--
let your burning fury catch them.
25 Let their camp be devastated;
let no one dwell in their tents.
26 Because they go after those you’ve already struck;
they talk about the pain of those you’ve already pierced.
27 Pile guilt on top of their guilt!
Don’t let them come into your righteousness!
28 Let them be wiped out of the scroll of life!
Let them not be recorded along with the righteous!
29 And me? I’m afflicted.
I’m full of pain.
Let your salvation keep me safe, God!
30 I will praise God’s name with song;
I will magnify him with thanks
31 because that is more pleasing to the Lord than an ox,
more pleasing than a young bull with full horns and hooves.
32 Let the afflicted see it and be glad!
You who seek God--
let your hearts beat strong again
33 because the Lord listens to the needy
and doesn’t despise his captives.
34 Let heaven and earth praise God,
the oceans too, and all that moves within them!
35 God will most certainly save Zion
and will rebuild Judah’s cities
so that God’s servants can live there and possess it.
36 The offspring of God’s servants will inherit Zion,
and those who love God’s name will dwell there.
crossing the threshold
Over the past few weeks in worship, we've introduced worship styles and song selections new to our congregation. In the first two weeks, we included one song at some point during another active part of the liturgy, like offering or communion, but didn't project lyrics. Strategically, we did this in the hopes that people would develop an initial interest and engage at their own level. Yesterday, we included the words and invited the congregation to sing with us. The results shocked me.
You need to know a few things about our congregation to understand why. We're a 124-year-old Lutheran congregation that, in the past, hasn't shown a passion for singing . Our people like songs well enough that we host an annual holiday Christmas concert, but when given the chance to sing, we as a community don't often seem confident. This isn't necessarily related to talent, for when we do sing it sounds quite nice! Yet, something in our relational dynamic kept our vocal praises reserved.
Until yesterday, that is.
As we introduced this new music, our entire worship experience took on new life. It was already an exciting day for us as a church. We rededicated our renovated sanctuary, welcomed a new member, and consecrated the giving estimates for the coming ministry year. This excitement, combined with this fresh worship style, brought a volume and a passion to these voices that I'd never heard before that moment. This benefited the hymns and liturgical music as well. All of our songs, those we'd sang for decades and those we put on our lips for the first time, took on a new life in the spirit.
This is one of the reasons that Psalm 96 and 98 encourage us to sing a new song to God. We're not encouraged to ditch the old standards we love, but instead, to allow the new music to reinvigorate our participation in the well worn tunes of our past. As we contribute new pieces to our worship practices, the traditions of the past may also find a new breath of life.
After worship, another member of our community said to me, "I think we crossed the threshold today." He was absolutely right. We made a transition as a community, heard in our song, but seen in our growth of participation in mission. That new song gave voice to the new life we've found in Christ, lived not just on Sunday mornings but throughout the week in our mission and ministry in the New River Valley. I'm excited to see what comes next.
"My friend, you know. Well, he's dead now, but anyway..."
I heard a different version of this sentence three times this morning while at breakfast with an elderly member of our community. He was speaking about a different relation each time. And each time, my heart broke a little bit more.
We just came off of All Saints' Sunday, a day where we commemorate the lives of those who've gone on in death before us and celebrate the work of God who makes all of us sinners into saints. This being the case, I assumed that I was pretty alright with conversations about death. And I was right.
I just wasn't prepared for the conversations about life in the midst of death.
As I ate breakfast with my friend, who graciously insists on paying each time, I couldn't help but grieve with him. Though his body has seen more than eighty summers and winters on this earth, his mind is as young as mine, and his tongue, much sharper! Yet, as he grows older, he's doing so less and less with the community that he matured with for so many decades. He and his wife still march on together, preparing to winter in Florida for their last time, but even there, they see fewer friends than they did before, for if they haven't died, they can no longer make the trek across country to spend a few months in the blissful warmth of the panhandle.
Somewhere in that moment, I realized that we went to breakfast monthly not only as pastor and parishioner, but as friends, brothers in Christ, who are walking this journey together. Though we're clearly at different spots on our own journeys, at this moment we share the same piece of path. There is a huge blessing in this intergenerational sort of friendship, and I don't just mean that I fill a friend spot for an elderly acquaintance.
In some ways, these relationships help me to process my own grief at the loss of all of my grandparents. In other ways, these relationships challenge my views of retirement and ability, of what age has to do with identity. In still other ways, and this most of all is a blessing, we transcend our spots in time, sometimes only for a moment, and see one another as God sees us: creatures on the way, beloved by our Creator, helping one another to get closer to the God who made us in love, for love.
My friend, you know. The one I had breakfast with this morning? I'm so glad we still have time left together. I hope I bless him half as much as he blesses me. I'm so thankful for the love of God that helps us to love one another along the way.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.