Monday, November 29, 2021

Welcome to the Time of Your Life!

 My message for the First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 28, 2021:


Update: The original video for this post simply vanished. This is a later upload.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

A Thanksgiving Reflection


   Thanksgiving! When we take a day off to celebrate with families reunited and get stuffed fuller than the Thanksgiving turkey! It is a day we remember what we are thankful for. What are you thankful for? Shortly, we will have a time for everyone who wishes to share what they are thankful for. But I can explain that right now:

I am thankful for - the fork!

As table utensils go, the fork is a recent invention. The knife was first, of course, dating to prehistory. The spoon also dates to the Stone Age, literally. But forks date only to ancient Greece, and then they were large cooking utensils, not for the dining table. In the 600s, table forks were invented but used only in the Middle East. Table forks did not appear in Europe until a thousand years ago, and then only in Italy. The Italians were very slow to adopt them, not using them widely until five hundred more years passed. Forks did not reach France until 1533, but the French thought using them was an affectation and their adoption was very slow. The first table fork reached England in 1608, where they were promptly ridiculed as effeminate and unnecessary. Over many years, forks came to be adopted by the wealthy, who had them made from expensive materials intended to impress guests.

The first Thanksgiving celebration in Plymouth Colony was in 1621. There were no forks. The pilgrims and their guests used knives, spoons, their fingers, and cloth napkins to manipulate their food. So, I am thankful to have a fork to make eating Thanksgiving dinner easier.

The connection between food and giving thanks that reaches back thousands of years. As the children of Israel prepared to cross into the Promised Land, Moses told them,

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. … 8 “The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. 11Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house (Deuteronomy 26:1-2, 8‑11).

Giving thanks to God has a connection with food about three millennia old. The ancient Jews knew of course that life depends on food. But they emphasized that their lives were sustained by the presence of God. After all, not only had God brought them out of slavery in Egypt, he had sustained them with manna as they wandered in the Sinai. They understood that filling the soul was as important as filling the plate.

There was once a man who was struck by a city bus and was critically injured. He was rushed unconscious to a hospital and went immediately into emergency surgery. The surgeon barely saved the man’s life after several hours on the operating table. The victim regained alertness five days later. The day after that, the surgeon stopped in to see him. Incredibly, the injured man launched into a litany of complaints about the care he had received in the last 24 hours – the food was cold, the nurses were slow when summoned, the TV was too small and too far away, the room was either too hot or too cold, and so on.

The surgeon interrupted, “Look, you were almost dead when you got here! I worked on you for five hours! I repaired both your shattered legs, set your broken arm and three ribs. One lung was punctured, and I saved you from suffocating. You were gashed across your head and I sewed it up. Your heartbeat was irregular, and I got it stabilized. A little gratitude might be in order!”

“Okay, doc, thanks,” the patient answered, “but what have you done for me today?”

Probably everyone here has had a moment like that doctor, being informed of perceived failure to meet someone’s else’s demand. One day in Galilee Jesus miraculously fed more than five thousand people, starting with just five small loaves of bread and two fish. That night Jesus left the area. The next day the crowd tracked Jesus down.

John 6:25-35

25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?"

26 Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal."

28 Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?"

29 Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."

30 So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"

32 Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."

34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."

35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus said the only reason the people followed him was because they saw him as a sort of walking grocery store. It was time, Jesus said, for the people to work for the food that endures for eternal life. The people asked what they needed to do to perform the works of God. Jesus answered they needed to start with believing in him because God had sent him.

They asked what sign, or miracle, Jesus would perform so that they may see it and believe in him. Now, just the day before the people had miraculously eaten their fill because of Jesus’ power, but now they said to him, what have you done for us today? It seems a strong sense of entitlement people often have is no new phenomenon.

Baby boomers like me were raised by the generation that grew up during the Great Depression and came of age during World War Two. Much of what my parents’ generation went through is out of place with how my age group knows life. Pulitzer Prize winning author William Manchester wrote of how his mother would cut and re-sew bed sheets to make them last longer. My grandfather, born in 1900, told me of young men he knew in the 1930s who worked ten-hour days on a farm to earn a dollar a day, and were glad to do it.

Yet my age group saw none of this. Robert J. Samuelson wrote of us baby boomers, “We didn't merely expect things to get better. We expected all social problems to be solved. In our new society most workers would have rising incomes and stable jobs. … Poverty, racism and crime would disappear. … We expected almost limitless personal freedom and self-fulfillment. After a while we thought we were entitled to them as a matter of right.”

Yet, as author Mike Bellah points out, when our parents told us how things were, they failed to tell us how things usually really are. In telling the stories of the Great Depression and the Great War, the generation who lived them wanted to create in their children a sense of gratefulness that those tribulations were over, but what they often created in us instead was a sense of entitlement. Why? Says Bellah, “Because of what they didn't say. What our parents failed to tell us is that conflict and want are part of humankind’s future as well as its past. There have been no utopias in history, and as long as the human condition remains the same (imperfect people living in an imperfect world), there will be no utopian tomorrows either.”

Since Jesus's day the human condition has remained the same – imperfect people living in an imperfect world. This new millennium is only twenty-one years old, and we are already shocked by its events. It seems depressingly much like the last one – and the one before that.

So, we may say to Jesus, what have you done for us today? And what sign will you give us so that we may believe in you?

In John, Jesus does not perform miracles on demand; in fact, John's Gospel doesn’t even use the word miracle. Jesus does signs that attest to his identity as the one sent by God, on whom God has set his seal, the mark of authenticity. The constant theme in John is that those who believe without seeing miracles or appearances are blessed. When we say, however sophisticated our words may be, what has Jesus done for us today, what sign can he give us so that we may believe, Jesus’ answer is always the same: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes will never be thirsty.”

Christ has nothing to offer us except himself. And that is more plentiful than we imagine. Perhaps we should be thankful this Thanksgiving not for things; I doubt that this year mere stuff is what we are thankful for, anyway. Despite the violence, despite the threats, despite the uncertainty, despite the Covid, despite our politics, we may be thankful that we can rejoice in the Lord always and that the Lord is near. The peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.


   Thanksgiving, then, is not really a once-a-year celebration, except in a secular sense where it handily marks the day before Christmas shopping frenzy. Thanksgiving is for Christian people a continuous state of praise that acknowledges to God what God has done for us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Thankfulness enables us to face the future with hope, for it is by thanking that we remember. To thank someone is to remember what he or she did for you. To remember what God has done is to be filled with hope, because God isn’t finished with the world or with us. As God has done, so God will do, and as God has given, so God will give. Thanksgiving is a joyful noise, a glad worship. Despite outwards circumstances, our hearts in faith do heed what the psalmist announced: The Lord is good, his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness lasts to all generations.

NASCAR is boring now

I am currently watching the rain-delayed Daytona 500 NASCAR race and it has already made me think of an essay I wrote after the 2012 race. A...