Giving Thanks to The King

A Sermon for November 24, 2013, Christ The King Sunday, Jeremiah 23:5-6 and Luke 17:11-21

Courtesy of Google Images
Courtesy of Google Images

There once was a man who skipped worship at his family’s Presbyterian church every Sunday during hunting season, as it had been his ritual for 15 years. On this particular Sunday, as the man rounded the corner on a perilous twist in the trail, he collided with a bear. The impact sent him and his rifle tumbling down the mountainside. During the fall, the rifle went one way and he went the other, landing on a rock and breaking both of his legs.

Unable to move as the bear charged toward him from the top of the mountainside, the man prayed: “Oh, Lord, I’m so sorry for skipping worship every Sunday for the last 15 years to come out here and hunt. I swear I will be a faithful church-goer if you could just forgive me and do something about this bear . . . Please make a Christian out of that bear that’s coming at me. I would be forever grateful to you Lord! Please help! ” That very instant, the bear skidded to a halt, fell to its knees, clasped its large paws together and began to pray aloud right at the man’s feet. “Dear God” the bear said, “Thank you for this food I am about to receive!”

Thank you: two short words that form a simple phrase which we’ve known and used all of our lives; a cherished sentiment that can be understood on a deeper level as thankfulness, thanksgiving, gratitude and grace. But like the hunter in the story, many people often take thank you or gratefulness for granted, promising to be thankful only after God has gotten them out of harm’s way.

Like the guy, who after a wild Saturday night of drinking, tightly hugs the toilet early on a Sunday morning and cries: “Please God, don’t let me be sick anymore! Oh God please! I’ll go to church every Sunday if you’ll just let me feel better. I would be so grateful and I’ll do anything you want!”

Or the girl who after causing a minor traffic accident in which no one was hurt says, “Thank you God, this could’ve been a lot worse! Thank you!”

Sometimes, folks don’t wait till something bad happens to say thank you. Instead, a person might utter the expression when they’re in a rush as an automated or trained response, never actually stopping to ponder why they should be thankful.

Like the college graduate who is headed to an important interview in downtown Atlanta but gets lost walking around, and has to duck into a restaurant to ask for directions.  As soon as help is given, the graduate, anxious to make the interview on time, rushes out the door with a fleeting, “thanks.”

But then there are some businesspeople that master the art of skipping thankfulness all together! Walk into any store or mall and one will find Christmas decorations and products that have been on display since Halloween. Open up the newspaper sales pages; flip on the TV to commercials; or surf the Internet and a person will be bombarded with ads about the latest and greatest Christmas sale and gift. Thanksgiving is ignored for the most part, possibly because it is boring when compared to Halloween and Christmas.

No glitz and thrills. No bold and striking colors. No flashing lights or fun songs. No exciting presents.  Just boring orange, yellow and brown leaf decorations, a brown turkey and yellowy-orange-ish side-dishes with brown stuff crumbled on top, along with just a splash of something green—albeit a drab olive green.

There’s just not much profit and manufactured happiness to be gained from giving thanks in today’s self-centered consumerist culture of power and entitlement.

But maybe it’s the lack of gratitude we see in our culture that has prompted so many people throughout the month to daily give thanks on Facebook and other social media sites for the small and large things in their life. Or quite possibly it’s caused several people to say more prayers of thanksgiving while in worship or at home.

Give ThanksOn November 1, my wife Elizabeth introduced our family to a new way of showing gratitude by making a “Give Thanks” banner with a felt leafless tree in the center. Each night after dinner, my mother-in-law Anne, Elizabeth and our daughter Katie and I say what we are thankful for and write that particular thing on a red, orange, brown or green leaf. Then Katie tapes each leaf onto the tree. Over time, the tree (and each of us) has become more beautiful and vibrant with these leaves that express thankfulness to God for family, friends, food, resiliency, music, dogs, teachers and dinosaurs.

The Rev. Lynne M. Baab, a Presbyterian minister in Seattle who created a denominational Bible study entitled Gratitude as a Spiritual Discipline writes that prayers of thankfulness “transform us because they help us develop habits of noticing God’s work in our lives.”  She says further:

These prayers teach us to pay attention to the good gifts of God that surround us. We develop habits of gratitude, and these habits make our hearts more open to God’s presence in our lives…When we thank God, we acknowledge that we love God and that we are grateful for our relationship with God. Expressing our thanks to God also acknowledges our dependence on God.[1]

“Developing habits of gratitude” is important for Christians to acknowledge and practice. The prolific Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us that:

“During November we reach the conclusion of the church year. We remember our dead (All Saints Day) and ponder the God of life. We begin Advent and the season of alert waiting for the newness that God will give. Between…is Thanksgiving. Perhaps thanksgiving is the right segue from old to new. It’s appropriate that the great festival of gratitude should provide the transition from old to new. Gratitude is, in the life of faith, for every season. It is characteristic in American Thanksgiving that we look back and remember the pilgrims and God’s providential care for them. Lodged next to Advent, Thanksgiving is not only for remembering; it waits and it expects. Faithful gratitude believes that the God who has given good gifts has more good gifts to give. While God’s gifts are welcome…they do disrupt… God’s gift of mercy interrupts our hard-hearted indifference. God’s gift of justice exposes our systemic injustice.”[2]

God’s gift of mercy and justice—which disturbs our apathy and reveals a system of inequality, prejudice and oppression—is none other than the God-in-the-flesh Jesus, “the king of kings and the lord of lords.”

It is quite fitting that Christians around the world begin their week of Thanksgiving, which precedes the season of Advent, by celebrating Christ the King Sunday. On its website, the PC(USA) explains:

“The church gives thanks and praise for the sovereignty of Christ, who is Lord of all creation. The festival of Christ the King ends our marking of Ordinary Time…and moves us to the threshold of Advent, the season of hope for Christ’s coming into our lives. Christ’s truth judges falsehood…. In Christ, all things began and in Christ all things will be fulfilled. As sovereign ruler, Christ calls us to a loyalty that transcends every earthly claim on the human heart. To Christ alone belongs the supreme allegiance in our lives.’”[3]

"King of Kings" Breaking Bad T-shirt, Cowboy Jesus, Jesus with Sword & Steed, and Tank Jesus
“King of Kings” Breaking Bad T-shirt, Cowboy Jesus, Jesus with Sword & Steed, and Tank Jesus

[4]

As I shared with the children earlier in the service, Jesus the King does not fit our earthly traditions, experiences, ideas and images of royalty, power and prestige.

Jesus is not a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time nor is Jesus like any crowned figurehead, dictator, world leader or president that has existed throughout history.

Jesus is not a king who comes riding in on a horse, brandishing a sword or a riding atop a tank, sporting a machine-gun as some renowned Christian preachers would have you believe.

Jesus is not a bloodthirsty revenge seeking warrior king or a ruthless drug kingpin as some aspects of pop culture depict Jesus to be.

No, Jesus is the King of love and peace because Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our world and lives.

And this all-knowing, almighty, mysterious King arrives not as a power-hungry, oppressive deity seeking to wipe out sinners and evildoers.

But as a small defenseless child born into poverty—no less a cow trough in the poorest part of town.

A child that grows into a man, who breaks bread with outcasts, heals the sick, visits the prisoner and loves the marginalized, “the other.”

A man who reigns wisely and does what is just and right in the land,  according to the prophet Jeremiah, not through acts of coercion and violence but through the supreme act of unconditional, selfless, suffering love.

That is the King Jesus whom we recognize and give thanks for being in our lives and world. That is the surprise gift of our faith that doesn’t come packaged in shiny ribbons and fancy paper or gold jewelry, expensive metal and hefty bank accounts.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that only one of the 10 lepers cured by Jesus turned back toward him, dropped to his knees and gave praise and thanks to God for the healing. That one leper recognized the true Christ the King–the justice, mercy and love of the sovereign God in Christ. And he responded with gratitude.

In a commentary on this passage, R. Alan Culpepper says that:

“Gratitude may be the purest measure of one’s character and spiritual condition. The absence of the ability to be grateful reveals self-centeredness or the attitude that I deserve more than I ever get, so I do not need to be grateful… The grateful person reveals humility of spirit and a sensitivity to love expressed by others. The grateful person, therefore, regards others’ acts of kindness and experiences of God’s grace with profound gratitude.”[5]

When we adopt a habit of gratitude for ordinary acts of kindness and experiences of God’s grace, we are ultimately giving thanks to the God who created and rules our lives—the Christ who is the King of our hearts.

After the healing of the 10 lepers, the religious leaders ask Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming as if the kingdom can be observed empirically by astronomy or natural science. Jesus tells them that the kingdom can’t be detected in such a precise way but that “the kingdom of God is among you.”

Like the King himself, the kingdom of God also defies our earthly labels. The kingdom of God is not a conquering war in the Middle East or a luxurious island resort or a mega church with stores and a coffee shop or a wealthy gated community or a landlocked sovereign city-state ruled by one religious leader.[6]

The kingdom of God exists among ordinary, boring, sinful, broken people who are created and chosen to share God’s mercy, justice and peace with others.

And this kingdom is forever ruled by Christ the King, who in the fullness of humanity, freely gave us the gift of divine love and who promises even now that there are more good gifts of grace to come.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.


[1] “Gratitude as a Spiritual Discipline” by Lynne M. Baab, The Thoughtful Christian: Faithful Living in a Complex World, www.thethoughtfulchristian.com, 2006

[2] “God’s Reign Cracks into Our World” by Walter Bruegemann, Sojourners magazine, November 2010.

[4] The image in the top left corner is a T-shirt design (featured on the popular website Tee Fury) that is based on the iconic character Walter White of the acclaimed TV show Breaking Bad. The show is about a high school chemistry teacher who resorts to making and dealing meth to take care of his family after learning he has terminal cancer.  The artist of the T-shirt named the design “King of Kings” in reference to Walter White’s drug kingpin alter ego Heisenberg and his anti-hero allure. The artist is likely not intending to make a statement about Jesus but using the phrase to describe Walter White is counter to the King of Kings we know in scripture and in our faith journeys. The other depictions of Jesus are all courtesy of Google Images.

[5] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Commentary on Gospel of Luke by Alan R. Culpepper, 1995

[6] No offense to Pope Francis. I like the guy and I am thrilled about what he is doing to make the Catholic church more relevant and to truly live out a gospel message that commands us to love “the other.”  That said, and I think the Pope would agree, Catholic leaders in Rome do treat their Vatican City as if it was the one true kingdom of God.

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Hope in Haiti: A “Thankfulness Reflection” on the 2010 Mission Trip

From October 2-9, a 14-member team from Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church embarked on an amazing journey to do mission work in Haiti, primarily with the Haitian Child Sponsorship Program and Good Shepherd School.  And on this day of Thanksgiving, I’d like to express my “thankfulness” for that experience which has forever shaped me as a husband, dad, minister and human being. I am grateful for:

Walls International Guest House where we stayed for the week. Walls has housed mission teams who come from all over the world to help the people of Haiti (before and after the January earthquake).  I am appreciative of the Walls (an older couple from Canada who built the hotel and who have built schools in Haiti); the hotel staff, the comfortable accommodations (including a refreshing pool) and the delicious food.

Jeff Lewis, an ordained minister and representative of Young Life Expeditions (which organizes mission trips to Haiti and other countries). Jeff came along as our guide, having been to Haiti four times previously since the earthquake. Jeff’s encouragement, patience, insight, wisdom and humor were invaluable during trip, especially on the hardest days. Jeff helped us navigate a landscape that completely different than any place we’d been before.  In a poverty-consumed country that is lacking in infrastructure and trustworthy government leaders, it was a blessing to have Jeff remind us in subtle ways of how God’s hope and love was always present in the midst.

The tent city which we visited on Sunday afternoon, at the beginning of our week in Haiti. Thousands upon thousands of people are forced to live side by side in deplorable conditions under make-shift tents that barely hold up during heavy rains and hurricane like winds. Children run around naked in the dust and dirt that covers every inch of this refuge.  As we took a tour through the tent city, two 6-year-old girls dragged a large tin tub up a rocky barren hill; they will likely use the precious bowl to bathe, wash their laundry and cook food (what little they have).  And despite this misery that caused each one of us to wonder how the world could let human beings live in such inhumane conditions, there is hope….

Smiles

Bonjous

Laughter

Birth

Growth

Play

The Apparent Project an incredible non-profit organization that helps keep families together and lift people out of poverty by training parents a specialized skill like jewler y making, bookbinding, sewing, etc. Parents have been able to make a sustainable living by making and selling exquisite and beautiful bead bracelets, necklaces, and children’s clothing. The proceeds from the sales go toward the building of pre-fab, hurricane safe wooden houses.  And for every child’s skirt or dress that is bought, another is mad e f or a homeless child in Haiti. In addition, The Apparent Project’s founders,Corrigan and Shelley Clay provide a safe place for parents and children to stay, work and be family.

The Clays write about their experience in Haiti at The Apparent Project Blog. I am grateful for the ministry they do, the stories they live and share and the way they make Christ’s love apparent every moment of every day.

The Sisters of Charity (Mother Theresa’s Orphange) where orphans are fed, nurtured and loved, and the children who reached out to our hearts and pulled us into moments of unadulterated grace.

The Good Shepherd School where we helped build classrooms, taught Vacation Bible School, fed the children, played soccer, painted murals of Bible stories, and built friendships. In doing so, we saw a glimpse of the kingdom of God.  I am also thankful for the people at the school and in the surrounding village of Pele…

Our Haitian interpreters, Timothy, Woobie, and Noyo who exude faith, compassion, hard work, and dignity in everything they say and do, and who are exemplary fathers, teachers and leaders in their community.

Teens like Jimmy and Angelo who are filled with a love for God and God’s people, young men and future community (and even possibly spiritual) leaders who will make a great impact in people’s lives.  They’ve already begun by making a profound mark in ours with their advice, hospitality, kindness, and willingness to share their joys, their sorrow, their achievements, their difficulties, their hopes and dreams.  Even as things have progressively gotten worse in Haiti since we left (heavy storms and a cholera epidemic) Jimmy tells me in weekly emails that he continues to study hard so he can help his country and people.

The children of The Good Shepherd School and Pele who greeted us with open arms. Their starvation for attention was overwhelming at times and there were occasions where I (an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs Personality Test) had to go off to a secluded part of the school to be by myself.  But their bright eyes, wide grins and silly demeanor managed to always draw me back to Godly play and re-creation.

The mission team who went way out of their comfort zones to serve God’s people in Haiti. The trip was as one member said “a kick in the pants” (even for folks who had been on numerous mission outings to Honduras) and one of the most eye-opening journeys. It was a privilege to work alongside each team member. I learned so much about what it meant to  do for “the least of these.” And I saw the powerful love of God in so many aspects of the week:

A group of girls singing Justin Bieber songs with Brigid; Haitian workers and team members (like Patrick, Rob, Margo, and Mike) working side by side or having deep conversations with one another; Duane bandaging up a kid who cut his foot on a piece of glass; Jennifer translating songs and stories for a crowd of energetic children; Margot and some older middle school youth painting the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 on a large canvas; the school’s cooks preparing a meal of rice and beans; Jeff S’s excitement as the new classrooms became more and more of a reality; Kim playing soccer with some of the boys; Meg handing out letters to the kids from students at elementary schools in Duluth, Georgia; Erik handing his sandwich to a hungry child; Mary showing her photos to kids who have never seen what they look like and who now know that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made”

Brothers and sisters in Christ embracing love, mercy, justice and…hope not for tomorrow but for now, always for now.

 

Grateful Living

A Sermon for Sunday Nov. 7, Psalm 98, Psalm 145:8-12 and Luke 17:11-19 (Guest preaching at Norcross Presbyterian Church)

There once was a man who decided to skip worship at his family’s Presbyterian church one Sunday and head to the hills to do some bear hunting (as it had been his ritual for 15 years). As he rounded the corner on a perilous twist in the trail, he and a bear collided, sending him and his rifle tumbling down the mountainside. Before he knew it, his rifle went one way and he went the other, landing on a rock and breaking both his legs. That was the good news. The bad news was the ferocious bear charging at him from a distance, and he couldn’t move. “Oh, Lord,” the man prayed, “I’m so sorry for skipping worship today to come out here and hunt. I swear I will be a faithful church-goer if you could just forgive me and do something about this bear . . . Please make a Christian out of that bear that’s coming at me. I would be ever-grateful to you Lord! Please, Lord, help!” That very instant, the bear skidded to a halt, fell to its knees, clasped its paws together and began to pray aloud right at the man’s feet. “Dear God” the bear said, “Thank you for this food I am about to receive!”

Thank you: two short words that form a simple phrase which we’ve known and used all of our lives; a cherished sentiment that can be understood on a deeper level as thankfulness, thanksgiving, gratitude and grace. But like the hunter in the story, many people often take thank you for granted, promising to be thankful only after God has gotten them out of harm’s way.

Like the person, who after a wild Saturday night of drinking, tightly hugs the toilet early on a Sunday morning and cries: “Please God, don’t let me be sick anymore! Oh God please! I’ll go to church every Sunday if you’ll just let me feel better. I would be so grateful and I’ll do everything you want!” And when the urge to toss one’s cookies passes, that someone immediately stumbles off to the bedroom, and falls into bed saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ll never drink like this again! ” Or the guy who after causing a minor traffic accident in which no one was hurt says “Thank you God, this could’ve been a lot worse! Thank you!”  Or the girl who after receiving a barely passing grade on a poorly prepared essay says, “Thank you God for letting Mrs. Needlemyer not flunk me. I didn’t put an effort into it like I should have, but thank you for not letting me fail.”

Sometimes, folks don’t wait till something bad happens to say thank you. Instead, a person might toss out the expression when they’re in a rush, never stopping to ponder why they should be thankful. Like the dude who is headed to an important interview in downtown Atlanta but gets lost walking around, and has to duck into a restaurant to ask for directions.  As soon as help is given, the guy, anxious to make the interview on time, rushes out the door with a quick and fleeting, “thanks.”

Even worse than these examples is the practice of skipping thankfulness all together.  Walk into any Walgreens, Publix, Kroger, and one will find Christmas products and decorations that have been on display since the week before Halloween. And a quick visit to the social networking site of Facebook reveals that there are a quite a few folks who proudly display as their status, “Skipping thanksgiving and going straight to Christmas preparations!”

It seems that in today’s busy technology-saturated and self-centered consumerist culture, the need to nurture authentic practices of thankfulness have never been greater. There’s probably not a more appropriate time than this first Sunday of November and this entire month to begin reflecting on the meaning of thank you—of being grateful to God in our living or to paraphrase a statement from the Westminster Catechism: glorifying God and enjoying him forever. In the devotional section of the November issue of Sojourner’s magazine, Old Testament scholar and author Walter Bruggemann reminds us that:

“During November we reach the conclusion of the church year. We remember our dead (All Saints Day) and ponder the God of life. We begin Advent and the season of alert waiting for the newness that God will give. Between, in American “civil religion,” is Thanksgiving. Perhaps thanksgiving is the right segue from old to new. It’s appropriate that the great festival of gratitude should provide the transition from old to new. Gratitude is, in the life of faith, for every season.

It is characteristic in American Thanksgiving that we look back and remember the pilgrims and God’s providential care for them. Lodged next to Advent, Thanksgiving is not only for remembering; it waits and it expects. Faithful gratitude believes that the God who has given good gifts has more good gifts to give. While God’s gifts are welcome, in fact they do disrupt… God’s gift of mercy interrupts our hard-hearted indifference. God’s gift of justice exposes our systemic injustice. [1]

God’s gifts are abundant. Recognizing and responding to those gifts is what enables us to be in a truly thankful relationship with God and all of creation. The Rev. Lynne M. Baab, a Presbyterian minister in Seattle who wrote a denominational Bible study entitled Gratitude as a Spiritual Discipline observes that prayers of thankfulness“transform us because they help us develop habits of noticing God’s work in our lives.” She says further:

These prayers teach us to pay attention to the good gifts of God that surround us. We develop habits of gratitude, and these habits make our hearts more open to God’s presence in our lives…When we thank God, we acknowledge that we love God and that we are grateful for our relationship with God. Expressing our thanks to God also acknowledges our dependence on God.”

Babb says she and her husband turned to prayers of thankfulness when they discovered their regular prayers during times of stress were becoming meaningless. She explains:

We knew it was good to run to God with our needs, but often after praying together, we felt more depressed than we had when we started. Just focusing on all those needs, even in prayer, was overwhelming. We felt stuck in a rut of discouragement, negativity and powerlessness. We decided to try to make a small change. We began each prayer time with a few prayers of thankfulness. A first, the most we could come up with was prayers like, “Thanks for helping us make it through this day” or “Thanks for helping us survive that argument with our son.”…As the years went by, we began to notice even smaller things we were thankful for: a hug, a touch, a delicious meal, the wind in the trees, a break of sunshine after a long rainy spell.”[2]

In his book The Year of Living Biblically: One’s Mans Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, best-selling author AJ Jacobs, the editor-at-large of Esquire magazine and self-professed agnostic, recalls how prayers of thanksgiving changed his life. Two months into the process of trying to live out biblical principles, Jacobs writes:

“Today, before tasting my lunch of hummus and pita bread, I stand up from my seat at the kitchen table, close my eyes, and say in a hushed tone: ‘I’d like to thank God for the land that he provided so that this food might be grown.” Technically, that’s enough. That fulfills the Bible’s commandment. But while in thanksgiving mode, I decide to spread the gratitude around:

‘I’d like to thank the farmer who grew the chickpeas for this hummus. And the workers who picked the chickpeas. And the truckers who drove them to the store. And the old Italian lady who sold the hummus to me at Zingone’s deli and told me ‘Lots of love.’ Thank you.’

Now that I type it, it sounds like an overly earnest Oscar speech for best supporting Middle Eastern spread. But saying it feels good. …The prayers are helpful. They remind me that the food didn’t spontaneously generate in my fridge. They make me feel more connected, more grateful, more grounded, more aware of my place in this complicated hummus cycle. They remind me to taste the hummus instead of shoveling it into my maw like it’s a nutrition pill. And they remind me that I’m lucky to have food at all. Basically, they help me get outside of my self-obsessed cranium.

Six months later, Jacobs shares how his practice of thanksgiving has grown:

“I feel myself becoming an extremist—at least in some areas. Like my obsession with gratefulness. I can’t stop. Just now, I press the elevator button and am thankful that it arrives quickly. I get onto the elevator and am thankful that the elevator cable didn’t snap and plummet me to the basement. I go to the fifth floor and am thankful that I didn’t have to stop on the second or third or fourth floor. I get out and am thankful that Julie left the door unlocked so I don’t have to rummage for my King Kong key ring. I walk in, and am thankful that Jasper is home and healthy and stuffing his face with pineapple wedges. And on and on. I’m actually muttering to myself ‘Thank you…thank you…thank you.”[3]

Once we practice grateful living in every aspect of our daily routine, it’s hard to forget to be thankful for God’s gifts—from friends and family to the chirping birds and blue skies, to the farmers who grow our food and the check-out girl who rings up our groceries. I suspect that grateful living was the sole reason why the one leper returned to thank Jesus after being healed of his horrible disease. Unlike the other nine lepers whom Jesus also cured, this one dropped to his knees and gave thanks and praise to God in Christ because that is all he knew to do. The author of a commentary on today’s story from Luke’s gospel states:

“Gratitude may be the purest measure of one’s character and spiritual condition. The absence of the ability to be grateful reveals self-centeredness or the attitude that I deserve more than I ever get, so I do not need to be grateful…The grateful person reveals a humility of spirit and a sensitivity to love expressed by others. The grateful person, therefore, regards others’ acts of kindness and experiences of God’s grace with profound gratitude. Life itself is a gift. Health is a precious gift—the friendship of others and the love of family and special friends are an overwhelming grace to be treasured and guarded with gratitude.”[4]

The one leper didn’t promise to be more grateful if God healed him, nor did he suddenly realize he should be thankful once Jesus took away his leprosy. The leper gave thanks because even in the midst of pain and suffering, he lived a life of thankfulness. Every morning, every afternoon and every evening, the leper likely said a prayer of thanksgiving to God for being able to have one more moment to

smell the salty air near the sea of Galilee,

hear the crunch of rock and sand beneath his feet,

feel the warmth of the sun on his face,

see the beauty of the mountains,

to walk and talk and live another day in God’s creation.

Grateful living, which requires much faith and trust in the active presence of God, heals the leper and grateful living can bring healing and transformation in our lives. As Rev. Baab says:

“It is truly amazing how many blessings we can notice if we take the time to pay attention. It changes our heart over time if we try to notice all the ways God is already working, rather than focusing on the ways we want God to act. For example, imagine that a beloved friend or relative has cancer. Yes, we definitely need to pray for God’s healing in that person’s life. But we also need to notice the ways God is already acting. Perhaps we can thank God for good medical care, for relief from pain, for friends who are visiting. Perhaps God has answered some prayers related to the person’s treatment or health; we can notice those answers and express our thanks.”

There are many ways in which we can practice thankfulness in this month, on the Thanksgiving holiday and beyond.  Maybe you carve out some quiet time for yourself to listen to classical music, hymns or songs that lift you up spiritually and inspire you to give thanks and praise to God. Or whenever you are in the car, you might say a prayer of thanks for those in your vehicle and all the things you pass by—trees, clouds, rivers, schools, fire stations, people on the street, children on a playground.  Or you could try sharing various types of prayers every time you eat by yourself or with others in private and public, such as this traditional Samburu blessing from Kenya:

“Thank you very, very, much; My God, thank you. Give me food today. Food for my sustenance every day. Thank you very, very much.”[5]

Maybe you take five minutes once a day or week to list all the things you are thankful for in that moment.  I kept up with that particular practice for two years, posting a list of thanks on my blog Georgia Preach. I stopped because I got busy and felt I didn’t have the time to be thankful. Like Baab, my prayers of need—since the day I quit writing thankfulness lists—have been overwhelming, sticking me in “a rut of discouragement, negativity and powerlessness.” But today is the perfect opportunity to revive that list of thankfulness and begin grateful living again.

Thanks be to God to Matt Fry and the congregation of Norcross Presbyterian for allowing me to preach and lead in worship today. Thanks be to God for my wife and my daughter who light up my life with joy and love, and who never complain when I’m absent from their lives while I carry out pastoral responsibilities away from home—whether it be here or with the folks at Pleasant Hill Pres.  Thanks be to God for Pleasant Hill’s staff and congregation as well as minister colleagues and friends who nurture my gifts for ministry, strengthen my faith and affirm my call to serve Christ. Thanks be to God for the life I’ve been given. Thanks be to God for the people who make my favorite snack of oatmeal cream pies; for the creators of the TV show LOST which gave me a lot of spiritual insights over the course of six seasons; for my two cats whose daily antics keep me on my toes, and for the music of U2 who connect me to God in some mysterious ways. And thanks be to God for U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin and his poem Thanks, which gives us another glimpse of grateful living in the world[6]:

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

Amen.


[1] “God’s Reign Cracks into Our World” by Walter Bruegemann, Sojourners magazine, November 2010.

[2] “Gratitude as a Spiritual Discipline” by Lynne M. Baab, The Thoughtful Christian: Faithful Living in a Complex World, www.thethoughtfulchristian.com, 2006

[3] The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally As Possible by AJ Jacobs, 2007

[4] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Commentary on Gospel of Luke by Alan R. Culpepper, 1995

[5] Saying Grace: Blessings for the Family Table, edited by Sarah McElwain, 2003.

[6] The Rain In The Trees by W.S. Merwin, 1988.

Thankfulness for December

I am thankful this December for:

Advent and Christmas

“Joseph, Better You Than Me” by the Killers, Elton John and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys; “Come Darkness, Come Light” by Mary Chapin Carpenter; and “Heaven” by Brett Dennen

Family and Friends

The Christmas/House warming party we had with classmates from Columbia Theological Seminary

Christmas with Elizabeth’s dad and stepmom, known to Katie as Pops and Dee-Maw

The last week of December and 2008 with Katie’s Nana, aka Elizabeth’s mom

The mission experiences with church members at Rainbow Village, an organization that gives single mothers and their children a “help up”, that pulls them out of homelessness.

The Christmas Eve services at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, particularly the child who, as the Magi in the Nativity play, presented Katie who was baby Jesus, with his decorated gift (prop).   And also Katie’s excited response of “Aaaaahhhhhhaaaaggh” when one of the older kids began reading the Christmas story from Luke.

Watching Katie giggle and laugh at the Chihaua (dressed in a Santa hat and holding moraacas) who sings “Feliz Navidad”

The children’s books “Gossie” and “Gossie and Gertie” by Olivier Dunrea

Experiencing Katie’s first Christmas and the 15-20 minutes she spent concentrating on peeling off the wrapping paper with her fingers.

Saturday afternoon lunch at Anna and Jim Brown’s.

A delicious chocolate cake made by Anna Brown.

“The Art of Racing In the Rain” by Garth Stein

The Advent Conspiracy

List-full Thanking

On Thanksgiving a year ago, I read an article on the coolest caring organization on the web, Cool People Care (www.coolpeoplecare.org), that suggested taking 5 minutes to make a list of thanks for the holiday.  And CPC encouraged readers to even go beyond Thanksgiving and make a list of thanks every month.  I decided to accept the challenge and for a year, I’ve made a list every month of the things I’m thankful for in those four (and sometimes five) precious weeks.

It’s become a good spiritual practice and consistent reminder of the goodness in life, the goodness that comes from God.

On this day I’d like to give thanks to God for:

* My grandfather who is reading stories to Katie as she sits contently in his lap, wiggling her fingers and toes and smacking her lips.

* My grandmother who is making silly faces at Katie and taking pictures of her and her grandfather.

*  My wife Elizabeth who is the best mother and wife in the world. It’s not easy taking care of two kids, especially when one of them is over 30. 🙂

* My mom and her husband John, my brother Ben and his wife Rachel,  Pops and Dee-Maw (Elizabeth’s dad and stepmom), Nanna (Elizabeth’s mom), Nanna-Nanna and Gramps-Gramps (Elizabeth’s grandparents) and many more family members and friends.

* A day of mission work in New Orleans as part of the Presbyterian Youth Workers Association Conference.

* Turkey, dark meat and GBC (Green bean casserole)

* The congregation, staff and youth of Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church.

* Harper cat and Dylan cat

* A new home

* Prayers from others for a father figure, family member and mentor who is battling cancer with all his might.

Be the Thanks

 One of my favorite websites and organizations is “Cool People Care: Saving the World, Five Minutes at a Time.”  (www.coolpeoplecare.org) Cool People Care truly live out what they say by daily offering ways that all of us can become agents of change in a matter of minutes.  As they say on their website, “CoolPeopleCare exists to show you how to change the world in whatever time you have. One minute? Five minutes? An entire day? Whatever you have, we’ll help you spend it wisely.”

Today’s post from Cool People, of course, focuses on Thanksgiving and suggests that it’s possible to be thankful not just today but the entire year.  They recommend that we can simply start by listing in five minutes all of the things we’re thankful for and then “when time’s up, keep going. In fact, do this activity once a month. If people appear on your list, call or write and thank them. Share your list with others and challenge the world to appreciate life, and never take too much for granted.”  http://www.coolpeoplecare.org/article/2006/11/23/be-thankful/

A few minutes before getting out of bed this morning, Elizabeth and I took five minutes to cuddle up and share the things in our life that we’re thankful for.

I took an additional five minutes, on the suggestion of Cool People Care, to write them down again for this blog post. I actually stopped after 5 minutes because I’m helping Elizabeth make cornbread dressing (another food and activity with my wife that makes me thankful 🙂

I’m also going to make an effort to spend 5 minutes or more every month to write a “thankful” list. I’ll keep you posted on how it works out.

Here’s what I’m thankful for today and in this month of November:

* my wife Elizabeth

* Jack

* Harper and Dylan

* Our families

* Our friends

* The congregation at Colesville & Rockville Presbyterian Churches

* Both church’s youth

* Laura and Fred Holbrook and Massanetta Springs Conference Center in Harrisonburg, VA

* Montreat Conference Center in Montreat, NC

* Ed Williams, a good friend and mentor from my college days as a journalism student at Auburn University

* Good health

* Laughter

* Coffee

* A warm fire

* A good book

* An animal that lies at your feet or on your chest

* Naps

* Snow during the holidays

* white cheese dip from a Mexican restaurant

That’s all for now. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.