Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Lesson on Thanksgiving Learned in the Grocery Store (and a few thought-provoking videos)

Although I have my strengths, being a thankful and generous person have not always been my strong suits. I have to work hard at and be intentional about these ethics. Despite what I preach, I have a natural inclination to be a tight wad and anxious mess. Maybe I am not alone. (See older post: Year of Gratitude)

This was evident on Friday in our local grocery store as we prepared for some guests for the afternoon. I guess you can say I struck a nerve with Amber...and rightfully so. The kids were at the helm of the cart, beeping the horn in one of those huge, nearly impossible-to-navigate shopping vehicles with a car in the front (pretty certain you need a separate class of license to operate these things), when I uttered audible sighs.

“What’s wrong?” Amber asked.

“Nothing.” I whispered under my breath, clearly begging for her to ask again.

“What!” she rolled her eyes, knowing full well what was wrong.

“Every time you put something in the cart, I see dollar signs and get anxious. I see bills.”

“Stop it! You need to be more grateful. We have enough. We have never not had enough. Start living and stop worrying.”

I didn’t listen very well. As we purchased food, cake, balloons, and simple treats to celebrate with someone close to us who had a hellish few months, I sighed again. Instead of joining Amber in finding ways to extend generosity, hospitality, and encouragement, all I could think of was myself and our finances.

She called me out, “Stop it! Be grateful. Give out of gratitude.”

My lack of gratitude planted the seeds of anxiety and harvested a hardened heart no longer able to elicit a spirit of generosity to those desperately needing it.

It got me thinking, why gratitude? Why are Christians to be willing people who regularly offer thanksgiving? I came up with four possibilites, certain there are more:

  1. When we are unwilling to be grateful, we become self-absorbed.
  2. When we are unwilling to give thanks, we become captive to fear, paralyzed by anxiety, and surrender power to stuff never intended to control us.
  3. When we neglect gratitude, we hesitate to extend generosity and give gifts of ordinary and radical grace to others and particularly those in need.
  4. When we forget to be thankful, we also forget to whom we belong and God’s concern for each of us. We ultimately surrender our allegiance and hope in God who is in the process of making all things new and right.

Although Roosevelt legislated Thanksgiving as a national holiday on December 26, 1941,* gratitude and the discipline of giving thanks have been staples of the Christian Way since the very beginning.

That's why I prefer the word Eucharist when referring to communion and the Lord’s Supper. It's a more frequent gathering and more faithful reminder of who we are and who we are called to be. Eucharist is the the grand collision of the Greek words for grace and gratitude, i.e. to give thanks. In other words, the sacrament is the real thanksgiving table. It’s what Paul was referring to when he wrote, “And be thankful….And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (3:17).

As disciples of Jesus, in everything we do we are to give thanks. We are Eucharistic people. We are thanksgiving people. We are people who gather around and are sent from the table of Jesus, where grace and gratitude dance.

"The only answer to χάρις (charis) is εύχαριστία (eucharistia)...χάρις always demands the answer of εύχαριστία. Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning" (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV, p. 41).

When we are thankful, we surrender our propensity to be tight wads, crucify anxiety, and resurrect opportunities to freely give to and share with others.

We may even extend invitations to others, especially those not frequently mentioned on guest lists, to sit at table with us on Thanksgiving or whenever we gather around the sacrament of bread and cup.

Happy Thanksgiving. Blessed Eucharist.


*One needs only to do a little reading to discover the "first thanksgiving" leaves much to be desired in regards to what the day stands for centuries later. It can be said that the original feast was yet another example of Western, white colonization and injustice. If you want to spark intense debate as you pass the sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce, bring up what really took place on the first Turkey Day. While you're at it, figure out who eats that red stuff anyway.

**The videos above are taken from an incredible resource for theology, liturgy, and all things thoughtful Christianity:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Blessed Toast to Wallflowers and a High School Youth's Poetry as Beatitude

I try to teach on the beattitudes every year with high school and middle school youth. Even if it is simply one night when we read and engage them in all their complexity and mystery, we at least ponder together as young and old(er) disciples.

I have been convicted of late that Jesus' sermon on the mount, particularly this first 12 verses of Matthew 5, are to be regular meditations for all those who profess to follow Jesus as their teacher and perfect practitioner of the kingdom of God. The beatitudes are the prologue to the Jesus story, a prelude to the Messianic anthem, and a bold roll call for all those invited to adventure along this absurd parade route whose final destination is a world made new and right again.

I have even written my own rendition of these subversive announcements made by Jesus of Nazareth, contextualized declarations whose intended hearers are beloved high school and middle school youth. See Beatitudes Remixed.

I guess you can say I am kind of obsessed with these upside-down invitations. So when I watched, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I was drawn in to Patrick's toast to Charlie and could not help but here faint echoes of the ancient blessings.

Blessed are the wallflowers, for you see things and you understand.

That's right, if Jesus were to have delivered this epic sermon in 2013, I think it may have looked a lot like what took place in Patrick and Sam's basement. A toast delivered, with red and blue solo cups raised, to modern-day peacemakers, heart-broken mourners, irrational justice-seekers, timid skeptics, bullied outcasts, youth on school lunch meal plans, and all wallflowers who have wondered if anyone noticed they existed.

Yes, the beatitudes were first-century celebrations of all those trampled by systems bent towards the powerful, pretty, popular, and rich. Jesus was taking notice of those the rest of the world had dismissed and declaring them worthy of participation in what he was doing in and for the world.

Perfect. A clip worthy of a Sunday night youth talk. (go ahead, use it all you youth workers)

Then I was emailed this poem by the mother of one of my ninth grade girls (used with permission).

Day and Night by Brianna Emrich

Under the bright sunlight,

There never was a fight.

The little children laugh and play,

In the warm, sunny day.

They run and jump in all that is known,

In a light world they call their own.

You can see happiness all around,

It seems to be seeping from the ground.

Suddenly there is no one to be found,

Silence becomes a deafening sound.

Everyone has left for fear,

Of the darkness of night which has arrived here.

The darkness of the unknown,

Has them all rushing home.

Now is the time to be out and about,

For those who will always be cast out.

It seems like things may never change,

For those considered to be strange.

It always seems that from the first sight,

The lonely only belong in the night.

But when the light returns again,

The outcasts find a caring friend.

They prove the doubts are wrong,

And they find a place where they belong.

Out of silence comes a song,

Which had been playing all along.

A song of never-ending hope and love,

A song of dreams and the peace of the dove.

It rang throughout the bright daylight,

And continued into the darkness of night.

There is a light to every dark and a dark to every light,

And so continues this perpetual cycle of day and night.

That's even better! Thank you, Brianna, for this fresh beatitude for all those considered strange.

May the blessed poetry of this high school teen and the sacred lyrics of Jesus prove doubts wrong as we all here again, or for the first time, the good news: you belong!

May this never-ending song of hope and love strengthen you in your brightest days and darkest nights as we all draw closer to the day when God's dreams of peace and eternal welcome become our only known reality.

Blessed are the poets. Blessed are the wallflowers. Blessed are __________.

We all belong. That's something to meditate on day and night. That's worthy of a toast.


Helpful reads on the beatitudes:

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Theology of Pajamas, Breakfast for Dinner, and #Jesusworefooties

Youth ministry requires a smorgasboard of creativity, intentionality, absurdity, and a unique ability to create safe and sacred space for honest conversations. So when we mapped out the fall series, "Will You ______?,"* I knew we needed to be fairly playful when it came to making room for sharing and honoring doubt as faith (see related post). Our youth ministry team needed to find a way to hold in tension vulnerability with security so youth would feel free to converse with one another and share raw reflections.** We needed, a la Jesus and the dreams of God, to turn things upside down and level the playing field.

And we couldn't think of a better way than to have the most important meal of the day at the end of the day with pajamas as the required attire.

As expected, the youth and adult leaders didn't disappoint.

Hobbit slippers, flannel bottoms, superhero capes, bathrobes, and a fair share of footies.

Including those sported by this guy. #JesusWoreFooties

A rather shocking surprise for other church members and our associate of pastoral care. I think she wants to schedule a conversation with me now.

On pajama night, over 50 of us sat together and enjoyed pancakes, fruit, and nature's candy- BACON. We even discovered these strips of deliciousness have their own patron saint, Anthony the Abbot. A rather fitting observation given our meal took place on All Saint's Sunday.

Then we headed into a youth-led worship service and contemplated doubt as faith. We affirmed the community of saints as safe grounds to share and honor questions, curiosities, and insecurities common to all who pilgrimage alongside Jesus.

After all, the faithful have always been doubtful. This includes Jesus who pondered his own ability to endure the cross.

It was a holy time. It was a sacred time. It was an awkward time. It was a blessed time.

And again, the youth did not disappoint with their fair share of doubts and questions honored and confessed. They sat together in pairs and filled in the blanks of these cards. Doubts about the existence of God, effectiveness of prayer, hopes for the world to ever be the way God intended, and whether they could trust they mattered to anyone echoed through the small chapel. And they prayed for each other as they sat in clothing usually confined to sleepovers.

So next time you are interested in fostering an environment where youth feel free to share reflections on a difficult topic, consider flipping the day upside down, eating some bacon, and putting on your pajamas. When youth are brave enough to look ridiculous on the outside, sharing vulnerabilities long silenced on the inside does not seem so bad.



*This series is rooted in the belief that a large part of what it means to follow Jesus is willingness to follow, fail, try, and respond to the good news of God's love for the whole world- especially our most vulnerable neighbors.

**Many thanks to Kathy Escobar, who served as a humble conversaiton partner of the blogosphere and email. Her book, Down We Go, has a beautiful and insightful chapter on sharing and honoring doubt. I highly reccomend the read and her related blogpost. This would serve as a great reflection for both youth and adults, pastors and pew sitters alike.