Skipping the “thank you” part

No thanks

I stopped in a grocery store on the day after Halloween and noticed the scene above: pumpkins getting replaced by Christmas decorations. Inside the store, the ghosts and goblins were migrating to clearance tables, replaced by all things green and red.

Yep. We’d done it again. We’d skipped right over the thank-you part.

Our consumer-driven society is so caught up in buying stuff and padding profits that we no longer see the need to observe even one day of thankfulness. That goes for our consumer-driven, Americanized form of religion, too.

We’ve reduced Thanksgiving to another shopping opportunity. We’ve turned Christmas into a buying spree that begins with those July sales and reappears a few months later.

The message: Forget peace on earth, just go and buy. A Jewish child was born 2,000 years go to increase current-day profit margins. And the only thing objectionable is when the store clerk fails to wish you “Merry Christmas” as they hand you the receipt — now, that’s something you need to protest!

No wonder we have lost our sense of thankfulness.

We’re divine charity cases

When everything becomes a transaction, there’s no need for thanksgiving. Our American mindset replaces prophets with profits and makes gratitude obsolete.

We tell ourselves that we deserve everything we have, and we need to go get more. We prefer self-reliance over unmerited grace. We think that we earn divine favor by believing certain things and doing things the “right” way.

It’s all a transaction – I do this, I get that – which means there’s no reason to say thank you. After all, I’m merely getting what’s coming to me, what I’ve earned through my own effort.

We avoid the truth that each of us is a divine charity case. All that we have, all that we are, was freely given to us – we didn’t earn any of it. And that bothers us.

It bothers me. I’d much rather be the one giving than the one receiving. I feel good when I help someone. When someone helps me, I’m tempted to feel somehow diminished, as though I couldn’t do it by myself.

That’s our Americanized values system talking. Go pull yourself up. If you need help in any way, you’re a failure.

Even our religion and our prayers have been Americanized and corrupted. We pray a thank-you that we have a roof over our heads and a good meal on our table, unlike the many others who do not. Thank you that I am not one of those people living on the margins of society – how horrible that must be! Thank you that I am not like them.

Ugh!

Challenges our Americanized values

We need the gratitude that brings us humility and reconnects us with each other and with the One who made all of us. Gratitude erases our illusions about winners and losers. It directly challenges our judgments about who is deserving and who is undeserving. It reminds us of our total dependence on our Creator for everything.

It opens our hearts and our hands.

Gratitude brings us back to the central truth that every breath and every heartbeat — all that we are – is freely given with no merit involved whatsoever. And everything is given to us so that we can share in the same spirit of gratitude and love.

Thankfulness reduces our reward-and-punishment notions to noise and nonsense. It opens our clasped hands to receive and to give more freely. It leads us to be more like the person begging on the street corner than the one eating the lavish meal in the fine house.

Thankfulness directly challenges our Americanized values.

If we were more grateful, we wouldn’t be so divided. Our squabbling would yield to a shared appreciation. Judgment would give way to embrace. Fear and anger would be replaced by love and joy.

Let’s reclaim thankfulness amid the bombardment of holiday sales and commercials. May gratitude soften our hearts and open our hands. May we live in a thankful spirit that brings life, love, healing and hope into the world.

May we say thanks by giving in overly generous and totally scandalous ways — the same way our Creator gives to each of us each day. And may we allow ourselves to receive from others the same way.

On the same shelf

Same shelf

Young voices fill the old United Church of Christ building. More than 40 children energetically and noisily move about the basement room that serves as a cafeteria.

It’s another morning at the inner-city church’s summer youth program.

Kids from neighboring families come to the church each morning. Church members and college-age volunteers from AmeriCorps VISTA play with the children, teach them, and remind them that they are loved for who they are.

Then, everyone eats lunch together.

The church’s small kitchen brims with packages of food and all manner of pots, pans and utensils. Shelf space is limited. As you can see from the photo above, the communion cups are stored with the food offered that day.

Food and faith on the same shelf.

That powerful image sticks with me and reminds me that there are two types of religion.

Through us, with us, in us

One type is self-centered and future-oriented. You follow a code of conduct to get some reward when you die. Many Christian churches teach that you don’t get to meet Jesus until you die, and then only if you’ve behaved like a “good Christian.”

And the code-of-conduct for being a “good Christian” varies significantly among denominations and is constantly changing. What was deemed unacceptable yesterday is tolerated today. It’ll change yet again.

Often, these codes of conduct ignore or contradict Jesus’ passionate teachings about how we must treat each other and care for one another, especially for those who are needy, lowly and hurting.

That’s one approach.

Many other faith communities are committed to living the message of incarnation — God feeding, healing and transforming the world through us.

People of incarnation recognize God’s presence through us, with us and in us. They try their best to embody the love, grace, forgiveness, peace and healing that the world so desperately needs.

Through love and love alone

People of incarnation recognize that the kingdom of God isn’t some reward that you get when you die, but a place you can enter now. Your heart is the door. Everyone is invited to enter and enact God’s kingdom through love and love alone.

That part never changes.

The inner-city UCC church has a picture that sums it up. Across the street from the church is its food pantry. There’s a drawing on the wall that shows a line of people waiting to get into such a food pantry.

Waiting in the middle of the line is Jesus.

Churches of incarnation take Jesus seriously when he says he’s right here with us, especially in the poor and the needy. Faith is about recognizing and responding to that presence.

So they respond by feeding the hungry as close family, listening to the troubled and offering help, providing a hug and a moment of hope to someone who’s feeling despair.

Hope, a plate of food, and an experience of God. All coming from the same shelf.

Whose crayons are they?

crayons

I was sitting in a restaurant booth waiting for my food to arrive. A couple and their two small boys were seated across from me. The boys were about 5 and 3, I’d guess. The restaurant provides a bowl of crayons and drawings to occupy children until their food arrives. My attention was drawn to how the two boys went about coloring so differently.

The younger boy took a crayon from the bowl, used it, put it back, and swapped it out for a different color. By contrast, the older boy would use a crayon and lay it beside him on the table, keeping it handy for when he’d need it again. Then he would take another crayon, use it, put it beside him.

Soon the older brother had a big stash of crayons next to him and few were left in the bowl. The younger brother noticed and complained, “Hey, I need those!” The older brother put his arm around his stash protectively and said, “These are MY crayons!”

If you’re a parent, you’ve lived through this many times and you know what happens next. The mother intervened and told the older son: “Put those crayons back in the bowl! Those are not YOUR crayons. They were given to you to share.”

Yep. We have to share.

Sharing is challenging for all of us, isn’t it? We tend to build our stash and think it’s all ours. In the process, we lose sight of what underlies our life and our faith: Everything that we have and all that we are is given to us by God in order to share.

Instead, we worry about not having enough and build and defend our stashes. The truth is, we have so much! More than we need. We’re reminded when we have to move and we go through our closets and basements and marvel at how much we have. We wonder why we’ve held onto it when we could have shared with someone in need.

Or we’re walking down the street, worrying about how we’ll pay the bills, and we see a homeless person asking for help. We’re reminded: I have SO MUCH and this person has nothing. So what do we do? Stop, offer some money, a few kind words, a handshake.

We need to share.

Sharing doesn’t apply only to our stuff. In a sense, there’s something even more important to share – ourselves. Each of us has God’s DNA woven into us: The ability to love, to be kind, to heal, to laugh, to encourage, to forgive, to create. Each of us has a unique set of talents and abilities and life experiences. We have SO MUCH good stuff inside each of us, and we need to share it.

I think our challenge on this one might be in recognizing just how much we are and how much people need us. We can make a difference – in ways big and small – in so many lives.

And then there’s our time. We need to share that, too. Time is our fundamental gift, in a sense. The universe has been bumping along for a very long time without you or me being part of it. And it’s done quite well without us. You and me, we didn’t have to be part of human history. Ever. But at this point in time, God decided that creation was incomplete without us. We were given time. What do we do with it? How do we share it?

Understand, none of this is meant to cause anyone guilt. That’s not God’s way. Instead of being shamed, we’re offered an opportunity to love and to be loved. We’ve all had moments when we’ve shared – our money, our self, our time – and recognized how deeply it touched someone. In those moments, we feel good because we’ve had an experience of God, who is love.

Those moments remind us of who God is: An overly generous parent who gives us more and more of all this amazing stuff around us and inside of us each day.

Those moments also remind us of who we are, too: God’s equally beloved children, sitting side-by-side at God’s table, sharing an overflowing cup of God’s crayons.

Nothing but crackers and ketchup

Meatloaf

You know those days when you’re feeling on top of things? You’ve finally gotten a good night’s sleep. The sun is out. You have lots of energy. The inspiration flows. Life just feels so good.

Yeah, those days are pretty cool. And then there are those many other days, like the one I had last Sunday.

I was leading the discussion at our youth group. I decided to talk about discrimination. I brought a photo of women in babushkas so I could tell how I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood where people were very much alike – dressed alike, ate alike, worshiped alike, danced alike – but were fixated on their differences and pushed each other away in many subtle and overt ways.

I also had pictures of signs that were posted in public places throughout our country’s history. Signs saying that black people aren’t wanted here. Or Irish people. Or Catholics. Or women. Or Muslims. Or gays. Or Jews. Or Mexicans. Or refugees. Or … It’s pretty endless, actually. And eye-opening.

All was well with the lesson plan, until I woke up Sunday morning with horrible allergy symptoms. Headache. No voice. Distracted brain. Watery eyes. Misery in every cell of my body. I just wanted to go back to sleep. Let someone else take the kids.

A writer friend of mine has a way of describing those moments and those days. He says in his Boston accent, “I got nothin’ right now.”

Yep. Nothin’. I know that one. On most days, the needle on my inspiration gauge points decidedly more toward nothin’ than overflowing. And it’s easy to think that because I don’t feel on top of the world, I have nothing to give to the world. I just want to pull back the covers and sleep through it.

Can you relate?

Another friend and I were discussing this by email sometime back. She mentioned that we’re all “just bumbling along on our path, doing the best we can with what we have to work with.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I feel like I’m trying to make a meatloaf out of a few crumbled up crackers, water, and a splash of ketchup. And some days, I feel like I have fresh ground beef and onions and a good loaf pan and everything I need to make a pretty good one. And the trick, it seems, is to live in both times with as much self-acceptance and gratitude as I can and trust no matter what the outcome, it’s all good.”

All good. Even when we’ve got nothing but crackers.

Nadia Bolz-Weber describes how she organized a big event at her church and only 26 people showed up, the smallest crowd of the year. She felt like all of her hard work had amounting to nothin’. She was fuming and feeling sorry for herself. And in her self-absorption, she failed to recognize how many people were helped that day, though not in the ways she anticipated.

She had missed it. She forgot that God makes incredible things out of what we consider nothingness – a universe, a sky full of fireflies, you and me.

“I mean, let’s face it,” she writes, “’nothing’ is God’s favorite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as nothing, insignificant and worthless, and says, ‘Ha! Now that I can do something with.’”

Yep. We’ve all experienced how amazing things often come out of what we consider nothing and nowhere. The problem is that we get so full of ourselves that we miss it. For instance, I assume that because my head is on allergy overload that the kids’ program will be a disaster. Because, you see, it’s all about me.

(Since my voice was so scratchy on Sunday, I let them do most of the talking. And it was way better that way. The conversation started with: Why do you think people push others away? “Fear,” they suggested. Why are we afraid of them? “Because we don’t know them.” How do we stop being afraid? “By getting to know them.” Yes. That. And off they went.)

I forget that I’ve still got a lot to give. Even if it’s one kind word spoken between nasal-drip sniffles. Or a half-formed idea from a foggy mind. Or an imperfect gesture from a good heart.

I slip into the arrogance of assuming that I’m the only one involved in this process. There are always many others who have a hand in the recipe. I get caught up in thinking that I need to do it all, and do it all perfectly, or it won’t amount to anything. I don’t leave room for others to add their unique ingredients.

I make the mistake of thinking that because all I have to offer today is the crackers, it’s not enough. Sometimes crackers is enough. In fact, it might be the only thing missing.