Status Quo Gratitude

Gratitude should come easy.  Yet, it’s sometimes hard to put our thankfulness into words.  Most of us, when asked to list the things we’re grateful for, have to pause.  We think for a moment, take a deep breath, and then consider the things we should be thankful for.  When compiling our gratitude list, we want to include the “must haves” of health, family, friends, and the like.  This is because it’s important not to seem ungrateful or forget something (or someone important).  It’s a little like winning an Oscar.  When the recipient is called up to give their acceptance speech, the winners sometimes choose not to thank specific people.  This is because they don’t want to leave anyone out.  We don’t want leave anything off our lists either.

If I were to survey one hundred people, many would express thankfulness and gratitude for similar feelings and ideas.  Home, family, health, and friends would come up time and again.  Why is this?  Sometimes we say we are grateful because we feel compelled to express certain emotions.  You may be thankful for your fancy new boat (iPad, phone, car, gun, or house) but social convention forces you to look a little deeper at the world around you.  We don’t want to be the person who expresses thanks for things that are superficial or lack any long-term value.

For most people, gratitude rises out of our shared human experiences.  Being in community with others causes us to reflect on the benefits of food, shelter, love, and health.  Either way one approaches gratitude, we end up in the same place.  Most of us are grateful for the basics of life.  Whether we’re forced to reflect on it or not, gratitude is really an acknowledgement that relationships matter, stuff is only stuff, and living is about more than finding your next meal.  If our basic needs are being met, we ought to be grateful.  However, to paraphrase the Bard, “there’s the rub”.  I think our greatest spiritual and moral challenge is to be grateful for the status quo.

Our most profound expressions of gratitude are usually reserved for moments of intense celebration.  When someone gets married, has a child, graduates from high school, we will hear speeches and expressions of thankfulness and gratitude.  Listen to the people who win sports championships.  The thanksgiving is effusive.  Status quo gratitude is hard.  We don’t win, marry, and celebrate achievement each day.  In fact, most days blend into the next.  Life is both hard and unfair.  Diseases are diagnosed and people die.  How are we to be grateful for the status quo?

I wish I had an answer.  The first step is to name the problem.  I do know that being grateful is more than saying a prayer over a turkey once a year.  Thanksgiving is bigger than an annual Facebook post where you rattle off a few names and pictures.  Gratitude ought to be a head on confrontation with the status quo.  The mundane moments of today need to be examined for traces of thanksgiving.  Gratitude is there, waiting for each of us, like an undiscovered country.  It may be under the car seat, between the couch cushions, washing dishes, or paying a bill.  Seek Gratitude.  You never know when you may be found.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Nostalgia Is A Drug (Deuteronomy 8:7-18) Thanksgiving

Nostalgia is a powerful drug.  Like other narcotic epidemics, it knows no geographic borders or socio-economic boundaries.  Anyone of us, given the right circumstances, can overdose on nostalgia.  We’re often led to believe that nostalgia is a problem confined to the older generations.  That’s not so.  I know from my own experience that young people are as susceptible as anyone else.  I’ve heard seniors in high school talk wistfully about their time in fourth grade.  College students will remember their high school years with fondness.  So it’s not just old timers sitting around on the porch talking about the good old days; when Cokes were a nickel, moon pies were a dime, and courtship rituals were pure and wholesome.  We all become nostalgic in one way or another.  It’s part of the human experience.

The Bible talks a lot about nostalgia.  In fact, nostalgia is one of the dominant themes of the first five books.  The writers keep coming back to this one idea:  there is a holy way to think about the past and there are unholy (unhealthy) ways to remember. Depending on which course you choose, you’re going to live differently in the present.

This is it in a nutshell:  how we remember and recall what happened to us in Egypt (wherever our Egypt is) will determine how we live in relationship with God today.  What we find, throughout Exodus and Deuteronomy are calls by Moses for the Israelites to remember rightly.  Moses doesn’t condemn memory, reflection, or nostalgia.  The most important question is this:  are we remembering the details, events, and actions correctly?  Is God at the heart of the story we’re retelling?  Have we become the hero of a story that’s wasn’t really ours to tell?  In our retelling, does Egypt sound like a wonderful place?

Life, the simple things we take for granted, used to be much harder.  You know that.  Many of you grew up in the depression or in the era immediately following.   Perhaps you lived through rationing in World War II.  Yes, you were happy.  It might have been all you knew but as my mother and aunt tell me, if they’d had the option of indoor toilets, they’d have gladly gone inside.  Now that you’ve got access to antibiotics, indoor plumbing, electricity, and heat; you don’t pine for the days when those things were luxuries you never knew existed or were the stuff of dreams.

From the moment they’d fled from Pharaoh’s armies, the Israelites developed a habit of looking back at Egypt through rose tinted lenses, with an unhealthy nostalgia, and a distorted view of the life they’d left behind.   At the first sign of difficulty, they would complain, “If you’d only left us to die in Egypt, Moses. At least in Egypt we had food, shelter, steady work and people who cared about us.”  Never mind that they were slaves.  Forget that their lives had no value.  They were a commodity.  In these moments, as they journeyed through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, their time in Egypt became the “Good Old Days”.  You see how ridiculous that sounds.

This kept happening.  In one way or another, this urge to circumvent the reality of God’s present blessings was upended by their desire to wallow in memories of the past.  How does Moses short circuit this unhealthy nostalgia?

The problem is not that we’re nostalgic people.  It’s not “that” we remember the past.  It is “what” and “how” we’re remembering.  It’s the emphasis and context we’re placing on our memories.

The Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is full of transactional stories.  From the moment God speaks creation into existence, there are exchanges; darkness for light, water for earth, slavery for freedom, and death for life.  Where there is nothing, God creates something; whether it is a plant, a cloud, or a people.  Ultimately, this is what we are called to remember.  When we remember rightly with God, we recall not how things “were” but how things “are”.

Moses begins the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy by describing the Promised Land.  He wants them to imagine the life that lies ahead.  It is “a land with streams of water, springs, and wells that gush up in the valleys and on the hills; a land of wheat and barley, vines, fig trees, and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and hone; a land where you will eat food without any shortage-you won’t lack a thing there.”  Do you see the transaction?  You have traded a place of barren wastes, shortages, no food, no resources, no abundance, and daily scarcity for a place where you will not lack for anything.  God is taking us from nothing to something.

Then in verse fourteen he reminds the Israelites, “Don’t become arrogant, forgetting the Lord your God:  the one who rescued you from Egypt from the house of slavery; the one who led you through this vast and terrifying desert of poisonous snakes and scorpions of cracked ground with no water; the one who made water flow for you out of hard rock; the one who fed you manna in the wilderness.”

Do not forget is another way to say, “You better remember rightly”.  Yes!  This transaction has come at great cost to you and to others.  Egypt wasn’t a pleasure cruise and this walk through the wilderness wasn’t a hike so we’ll all be able to put a sticker on the back of our Subaru’s one day.

Why is Moses so stuck on them remembering God’s role in their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land?  Why is it important for them to acknowledge God’s integral importance to their journey?

Remembering rightly is the first step toward thanksgiving.  If you remember wrong, if you’re nostalgia is all out of whack, you’ll never be grateful for what you have, where you ended up, and how you got there.  Moses knows this.  When your gratitude train goes off track and that’s proceeded by a screwed up sense of nostalgia, you eventually end up crowning yourself God of your own little world.  That’s the real danger of unchecked nostalgia.  We can easily end up believing, “Look at what I did all by myself!”  “If I remember rightly, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps with help from nobody and now look at me.  At least that’s how I remember the story of my success.”

Go back to verse seventeen.  “Don’t think to yourself, my own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me.  Remember the Lord your God!  He’s the one who gives you strength to be prosperous in order to establish the covenant he made with your ancestors—and that’s how things stand right now.”

If we remember how we got here and who brought us here, (not how great the bad old days were), we’re in a better position to recognize our blessings and then see them for what they are:  gifts from God.  We should thank God for where we’ve landed.  As hard as you’ve worked, none of us would have anything, if it had been for those subtle transactions God has made on our behalf.  We can be thankful for the nothing that’s become something in our lives.

Egypt was a dump, a dive, and a disaster.  Your Egypt, wherever and whenever it was, was the same way.  God led you out of some kind Egypt.  You may still be on your journey this morning.  As we approach our yearly Thanksgiving holiday, I want to challenge you to remember rightly.  Be wary of the self-serving nostalgia traps.  They lead to emotional indigestion, spiritual heartburn, and worse yet-ingratitude.

Remember God’s promises and look at what God provided.  See where there was once nothing and then survey the something growing around you.

Hear the Good News:  the God who brought you out of Egypt is always doing a transformative work in your life, in the present tense.  Remember that gift and live into the life giving future in which gratitude is not compelled but thankfulness is the only possible response in a world where the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the dead are raised.  Welcome to the Kingdom.  I’m grateful you’re here.

Richard Lowell Bryant

How To Have a Thanksgiving Like Jesus

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I’ve heard people are worried about talking politics over the Thanksgiving table.   Apparently, supposedly happy families are ready to tear themselves apart.  Ditch the rehash of Trump and Hilary.  If you really want to make people uncomfortable, throw a Jesus themed Thanksgiving Party.  

1. Throw a party with a few friends. A party, I said. Jesus is not a 17th century Puritan Pilgrim.

2. Invite some prostitutes, an IRS agent, and a religious fundamentalist who hates you.

3. Make the seating arrangements awkward; force the guests into a moral and ethical quandary when choosing their seat.  Then illustrate the spiritual dilemma created by your guests with a parable about our religious priorities.

4. Invite yourself to a Thanksgiving Party with a vertically challenged, yet charitable tax collector.

5. While eating your meal; tell politically charged, religiously themed stories designed to make your host extremely uncomfortable.

6. Anoint everyone’s feet with Chanel Grand Extrait (the fourth most expensive perfume in the world). Yes, this means eating barefoot.  Take note of the people who get angry at this action.  They may not be able to be trusted.

7. Make sure the men, women, and children sit together. There are no children’s tables in Judaism.

8. Do something good with your leftovers. Feed a hungry person.  Don’t put it in the refrigerator.

9. Don’t forget to pray the Lord’s Prayer. Best prayer ever!

10. Have Fun.  You can’t go wrong!

Thanksgiving in the Wilderness (Exodus 20:1-4)

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A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday/ The Sunday Prior to Thanksgiving

Let me tell you the story of the first Thanksgiving.  Whatever you’ve been told about the Pilgrims, Squanto, and Plymouth rock is out of date and wrong.  The first Thanksgiving isn’t what you think it is.  Instead, it is a much older story, often overlooked, especially as you’re passing the turkey and dressing.

Here’s how it goes.  A long time ago, in a country far, far away, there were a group of people living under the oppressive rule of a mighty king.  They were slaves.  Existing in bondage to a ruler they never saw and building monuments to Gods that weren’t theirs; they lived and died over many generations.  The king and his children were brutal; showing no kindness or love to these slaves.  In famine, they starved.  In flood, they drowned.  In heat, they withered.  Their God, whose name they only dared to whisper, was silent to their pain.  Or so they believed.

Many years passed and a new king adopted a young son. The baby, found abandoned by the river, was brought to the palace by the king’s daughter.   The king did not know the boy was intentionally hidden by his birth mother.  Why was the boy left, floating by the water’s edge?  The king was as wicked as his father.  On becoming king, he decided to murder every first-born male slave child.  There were simply too many slaves to feed.  The baby’s mother wanted to save his life.  She placed him in a spot where he might be found.

The once hidden child was taken by the king’s daughter to the royal palace.  From that day forward, no one knew this baby was born a slave.  The mother came secretly to work at the palace and watch over her son.  The king’s daughter made sure this boy would be raised to royal manhood.  He would be a prince, perhaps even a king.  The boy’s life was one of privilege and prestige.  He learned the gods and language of his land.  In a few years, he was a great warrior and leader of the King’s soldiers.  Life was good for the boy found by the river.

One day, when he was among the slaves and doing the king’s business, he saw a  royal soldier savagely beat a slave.  The boy, now a young man, wasn’t used to feeling fear but for some reason, this frightened him.  He was scared because of how it made him feel inside.  He was angry, hurt, and wanted to do something to stop this cruelty.  What he was witnessing was wrong and he knew it, deep down inside.

In a fit of rage, he attacked the soldier and saved the slave’s life.  Though the slave lived, the soldier did not.  The boy killed the soldier.  Though he was a prince, royalty, and secure his life was about to change forever.  Safety was only a temporary feeling.  His position could be taken away.  In the eyes of the world, he lost everything.

He knew he was different, he just didn’t know how.  And it was only after he killed the soldier and everything slipped away that he began to understand.  He too was a slave.  The people living in the mud and building bricks all day long were his people.

Like the pilgrims, the young man found in the river decided to leave his homeland.  He needed to go somewhere and become anonymous.  America was that kind of place for the pilgrims.   The new land was called Midian.  Here, he could work hard and build a new life.  And so he did, until his God called him.

His God came in the strangest of ways.  He spoke and yet remained silent.  This God was present and somehow absent.  Despite these contradiction, the young man knew this was his God.

When he was alone, in a far and distant place from all he knew, God came to him.   This seemed right.  Companionship was never easy to the young man found by the river.  God came in the dark and spoke through fire.  The fire burned but did not consume.  It warmed but did not burn.  God was in the fire.

God’s words to the young man were beyond belief.  Go to the King who makes your people be slaves and demand their freedom.

How? A message to be ignored, delivered by a man the King will surely kill?

Go to the king who makes your people be slaves and demand your freedom.  We will speak together.

A promise was made.  This God makes promises to people.  In the traditions he learned as a child, the gods were silent.  People made offerings and promises to the gods, not the other way around.  God promised him companionship and presence.  No bull was sacrificed, no blood was shed, and nothing died.  God promised,  The young man believed God’s “yes”.

So he went, ready to say that God’s silence was broken.  God was not deaf.  God shared in their misery.  When they bled, he bled.  When they cried, he cried.  God is with us, the young man would later say, he is our Immanuel.

Evil does not release its grasp on reality lightly.  It was hard for the king to let go and admit defeat.  He needed to slaves to make him rich and build his monuments.  A king isn’t used to being told no.  Nor was he accustomed to saying yes.  This is what the young man was beginning to learn, each time we say no, God finds a way to say yes.  God’s yes is more powerful than our strongest no and ambivalent maybes.

When the slaves were eventually liberated, the young man was once again heading to a new home.  None of them knew the place, the land, or the life ahead of them. Above all, they were going to a place defined not by slavery but by freedom.

How would they handle such unimaginable freedom?  After hundreds of years of bondage, beatings, and slavery where would they begin?  What should they remember about the past or discard forever?

As the former slaves were asking these questions, the young man realized he needed to help provide answers.  This was how the first Thanksgiving dinner came together.

The light always came after the twilight before sunset.  The young man went to the mountain to be with the light.  Words are sometimes hard to understand when people talk to each other.  Nuance, tone, and inflection mean everything when you’re alone with the light.  The young man listened, hard, to God’s silence.

When the day was over, he returned to the former slaves.  He wanted them to gather, so they might answer their questions.  Freedom would begin with taking stock.  Before they traveled further, they must give thanks for where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re going.  Gathering and acknowledging who made their reality real was the first step toward God’s grand promise.  Remember, God was still making promises.

How did they acknowledge who made their reality real?  The young man, now aging rapidly, shared with a conversation-an ongoing dialogue between he and God about what matters most.

The first thing (and this is what called the first thanksgiving together) God and I talked about, said the man, was remember and giving thanks to God.  If we don’t do this, it’s all been for nothing.

Our relationship, God says, should be the most important thing in your life.

In that day and age, in the old kingdom, people worshipped something called idols.  Everyone knew about idols.  Idols were religious statues and trinkets which people used in place of worshipping a God.  Some idols might represent certain God; others may have been more random.  Idols were a big thing.  People loved their idols.  Here’s the thing:  the people who were devoted to idols believed in them.  They thought they worked.

The God of the former slaves knew that idols didn’t work.  If people were putting their hope in idols, they wouldn’t be grateful to God and appreciate how far they’ve come or where they’re going.  It’s much less about this God saying don’t worship a religious thing than God saying, don’t let things short circuit your ability to be thankful for the here and now.

Idols rob us of our ability to love God.  It’s tough for us to love anything outside ourselves.  Humans are narcissistic creatures by design.  We love things on top of everything else.  We put value, almost divine like value on the craziest things.  We prioritize some awfully weird junk, both physically and emotionally speaking.  Yes, we all have idol baggage.  But it’s very easy to allow and begin to justify innocuous seeming good things as they become idols.  They take the place of God, they get in the way of us appreciating what God has done for us, where we’ve been and we’re going.  That’s an idol.

Idols also cause us to set unreasonable standards for gratitude and happiness.  The shoes have to become fancier.  The phone display clearer.  The car is faster.  We won’t be happy and grateful unless it is.  We want more and more from our ideals before we’ll be pleased, click, yes, download the newer version, or write a good review.  Idols have more features, updates, and are “the best”.  Idols demand our time and attention.

At the first Thanksgiving, there in the wilderness, what does the man found by the river say God wants us to do?  Moses says remember.  Remembering is the key to moving past idolatry and being thankful.  Remember who and whose you are.  It’s no accident those are Moses’ successors last words to the Israelites.  Thanksgiving starts with remembering, like Moses, where you came from and listening to God (even in the places you think God would never be) about where you’re going.

Food for Thought-Awkward Discussion Topics for A Thanksgiving Meal in Rural North Carolina

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I live in rural North Carolina. I was born and raised here.  I know Thanksgiving is a time for family discussions and catching up on the world around you.  If you’re in the rural south (or anywhere really) let me offer these awkward topics for discussion at your Thanksgiving table. These are guaranteed to enliven any celebration.  Use them at your own risk.

1. So Mom, is the upstairs bedroom ready for the refugees?

2. Have you read those Biblical verses about welcoming widows and orphans?

3. I’ve just enrolled in a new class in Sharia law. They make some super points.

4. You know, there are parts of the Bible which are just as brutal as the Quran.

5. What Would Jesus Do?

6. Are you going to eat the drumstick?

7. So I hear you’re supporting this podiatrist Ben Carson?

8. Allah is the basic Arabic word for God. We could substitute God with Allah when we bless our food.

9. Why did you make so few deviled eggs? You know I like deviled eggs. Someone ate more eggs than they were allotted by the Thanksgiving High Council.

10. Praying five times a day, formally, as mandated by some holy book. Who could get any work done? You spend all day long in prayer? Am I right?

Food for Thought-What I’m Thankful For This Morning

James_Arminius_2john-wesley-1I am thankful that the Calvinist theocracy in the American colonies, as hoped and planned for by those who celebrated the first Thanksgiving, failed miserably. I am thankful for the grace infused vision of Jacob Arminius and his English interpreter John Wesley who brought an alternative vision to this country. I am thankful to share in that same vision today as part of the life, work, and ministry of the United Methodist Church on Ocracoke Island. ‪