Thursday, November 27, 2014

Taking the Little Things for Granted: a reflection on Giving Thanks

There’s so much in life we take for granted as we go about our daily lives.  Until something stops us in our tracks and makes us take notice.

November 4th was an ordinary day that stopped me in my tracks.  My husband collapsed and had to be life-flighted to Sioux Falls.  The fear, uncertainty and confusion of those first few days really put in focus what’s important.  Those days showed me just how often I take the many blessings I have in my life for granted. 
A few days before, I would almost carelessly kiss my husband goodbye before I went out to do some visits or to go to a meeting.  Suddenly the memory of that morning’s kiss became precious.  The simple act of making lunch for him that afternoon was transformed from chore to gift.
 I had a lot of time to think sitting at his bedside about all the things I had to be thankful for:  our life together, our children;  the myriad little things that make life full of joy – a crispy starry winter night, a sunset, our pets;   the congregations who have called me to be their pastor and the wonderful communities which welcomed us and now showed so much love and support in our time of crisis;   the EMT’s and paramedics, doctors and nurses and all the hospital personnel who gave my husband such good care.

Fear and confusion gave way to giving thanks for the smallest improvement - that he started responding to pain, that he opened his eyes, that he was able to talk, that he began to regain strength. 

I had a lot of time on my hands, sitting at his bedside.  I passed the night watches reading.  I had just starting reading “The Year of Living Biblically; one man’s humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible.”  One of the things that really stood out to me was his encounters with giving thanks.    He had been raised in a non-practicing Jewish family and had never really prayed before.  So he found daily prayer difficult and awkward.  There were two kinds of prayer that worked really well for him – praying for other people, and praying for his blessings. 
As he began to daily give thanks, he noticed that he became “obsessed with gratefulness.”  He began giving thanks for the smallest, most ordinary, things.  That his wife left the door unlocked and he didn’t need to dig for his keys.  That his young son was sitting on the floor, eating pineapple.  He says, “I’m actually muttering to myself, ‘Thank you….thank you…thank you….’  It’s an odd way to live. But also kind of great and powerful.  I’ve never been so aware of thousands of little good things, the thousands of things that go right each day.”
    That resonated with me, sitting at my husband’s bedside, giving thanks for each breath he took.  These last few weeks for me have been emotionally draining, even terrifying at times.  But they have also been curiously filled with thanks.

Was it that thanks that got me though? 

In the Bible, there are Psalms of lament.  These are songs of deep anguish, heartbroken cries to God.  Songs that contain the most desolate of human emotions. But something curious happens at the end of those laments.  These psalms end in praise and thanksgiving – an outpouring of trust in God, the giver of blessings.  It’s like the psalmist is saying, “God, I have seen your many gifts to me, your outpouring of grace and mercy in the past.  And I also know that someday I will be able to thank you again, no matter what I am going through now.  So I’m going to start thanking you right now.”  For the psalmist, giving thanks is an act of faith.

Last week, I was reminded of the mission trip to Nicaragua I went on last summer.   The people I met had very little in the way of material things.  But they had absolute confidence in God’s loving care and daily blessing in their lives.  Is that what it looks like to live as the Apostle Paul teaches us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

We’re at the time of the year that we focus on giving thanks.  After all, today is Thanksgiving.  But what if we practiced Thanksgiving every day?   What if we lived in a way where we are continually aware of all our blessings, big and small, going around muttering, “Thank you…thank you…thank you”?

What if we took time every day to notice all those blessings we normally take for granted?

I pray for God’s blessings to you and your family on this day of Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Knowing the Whole Story

I’ve been working my way through the TV series “How I Met Your Mother.”  For those who have never seen the show, it’s about a man, Ted, telling his kids the story of, well, how he met their mother.  But the story starts way before he actually meets her….there’s nine seasons, and she doesn’t appear until the last one.
Now, I’ve watched an episode here and there throughout the nine seasons, but I never really watched much of the show, until I decided to watch the whole thing from start to end on Netflix.  About halfway through the series, I discovered something interesting.
There are little inside jokes, and symbols that a casual viewer would not understand.  For example, in the very first show, there’s a blue French horn.  I won’t say too much about this French horn - no spoilers here.  But the blue French horn shows up here and there during the series.  It becomes a metaphor for Ted’s love for Robin (a girl he meets in the first show who ultimately becomes a major character in the show).    Or when they do a flashback to their college days, if you see someone eating a sandwich, well… let’s just say it’s a very different college pastime that Ted doesn’t want to tell his children about.
I like the consistency of the story line – the episodes build one on another.   They do a good job of filling you in on what’s come before, especially if it’s important to the storyline of the particular episode. But to really enjoy the story, to really understand what’s going and, to get the full impact, you have to watch the whole thing.  From the beginning.  In order.
It got me thinking about the Biblical story. How long has it been since you’ve read the entire Bible, cover to cover?  When you sit in church on Sunday morning, or you read your devotional book, do you remember the story that surrounds the small snippet of scripture you get that day? It can really made a difference!
I decided once to read my way through the Bible.  Now I’ve done this several times, but this time was different.  Instead of reading chapter by chapter, I decided to read the stories in their entirety.  I read Genesis 1-3, creation and fall.  I read Noah in one sitting.  I broke Abraham into a couple of sittings – it’s a long story!  And so on.  Joseph, Moses, Wilderness.  Yeah, Leviticus and Numbers were pretty hard to read through, but soon I was entering the Promised Land with Joshua.  Settling the land with the Judges.  Following young David’s rise from shepherd to giant-slayer to king.
I was humming along pretty well, but then I got to the books of Kings and Chronicles.  Those books overlap, telling the same story from different viewpoints.  Fortunately, my study Bible had a chart of how the stories overlapped.  Plus it had another chart that had which kings were in power when the prophets were preaching.  Since I was reading the Story in the order it happened, I read about a king – say Ahab or Josiah, then I read the preaching of the prophet that was working at that time.
Let me tell you – I had read the prophets before, but it had never meant as much as it did reading the prophet in conjunction with the king.  When I read the words of the prophet God sent to preach at that place and time, I knew what exactly what was going on in Judah and Israel.  It made so much more sense!
When we hear the Story, the whole Story in it’s context, we understand it better.  When we immerse ourselves in the Story, we get those inside joke and metaphors.  When we hear John say to his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29), we hear as John’s disciples would have:  this is the Passover Lamb, the sacrificial Lamb that saves us from death and brings forgiveness.  
We hear when you read John 3:16, “For God, so loved the world” – this world that God created and called good, loved and provided for; this world that God cleansed through the waters of the flood and then promised never to destroy again, but instead started working through Abraham, the children of Israel, the line of King David, to bring a Messiah, his son, whom he sent to save that world that God so loved.
I encourage you, as we get close to the end of the year and the time for resolutions, to find yourself a chronological reading plan, or even a chronological Bible (I recommend the NLT One-Year Chronological Bible).

Spend a year immersed in the Story.  God’s Story.  The Story that gives us life.