Thursday, November 24, 2016

An Old Testament Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday.  At least until recently, until greedy merchants began pushing their ‘Black Friday’ agendas and in the name of competition making ever earlier their opening hours to include even Thanksgiving Day evening (thus forcing many of their employees to leave their family gatherings or risk losing their jobs), Thanksgiving has been the least commercialized and most family-centered of our national holidays.  The centerpiece is a meal that everyone shares together, full of special foods, some of which make their appearance on our menus just this once every year.

For those of us who have family, either around us or to visit (or be visited by), it’s a chance to reconnect, to catch up, to share old stories, to laugh, to sit and watch a football game (or if the weather cooperates, to troop outside and play touch football and hope that the determined displays of machismo on the part of the older bodies don’t result in an injury).  Then there is the ritual eating, and eating so much that one never wants to eat anything ever again.  But of course we must because then there is dessert.  Oh my.  Five different kinds of pie (pumpkin, pecan, apple, cherry, and Aunt Lucy’s chocolate cream delight).  By this time everyone (except Aunt Emogene, who always eats like a bird) has been promoted to the status of beached whale.  This is the stage when the children have all run off to play someplace else, and all the adults are sitting around complaining about their common experience of having eaten way too much.  Why anyone would want to interrupt this homey scene and waddle off to the mall is beyond me.  But who am I to judge.

For those of us who, for whatever reason, have lost their families due to death, or divorce, or distance, Thanksgiving is an altogether different and even painful experience.  My own diary entry for today was blank until this past Sunday when an American friend of mine realized that I was alone and invited me to join his circle of American friends for an expatriate American Thanksgiving.  Ironically, I’ll be joining the same set of friends who used to come to MY house when we hosted the big Thanksgiving meal for twenty-five or thirty Americans away from home.  But the last time we did this was in 2011, and that seems like a very long time ago.  And things have changed a bit since then.

So this morning my interest was aroused when the Psalm I was reading (I have a regular program of reading the Psalms through several times a year, and indeed all of Scripture through at least once each year) ‘just happened’ to be on Thanksgiving.  But Thanksgiving in a different light than this American is used to thinking about.  So I’ll just share the several verses that caught my attention.  Maybe they will catch yours, as well.

From Psalm 50:7-23

Hear, O my people, and I will speak,
O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God.
Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
You burnt offerings are continuously before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.
For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of Thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.
Call on Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.

But to the wicked God says:
‘What right have you to recite my statutes, or take my covenant on your lips?
For you hate discipline, and you cast My words behind you.
You make friends with a thief when you see one and you keep company with adulterers.
You give your mouth free rein for evil and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your kin and slander your own mother’s child.
These things you have done and I have been silent;
You thought that I was one just like yourself.
But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you.’

Mark this then, you who forget God,
or I will tear you apart and there will be no one to deliver.
Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
To those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God

The writer of this psalm makes the rather obvious point that  all the religious posturing, all the giving of sacrifices and offerings, all the going to services and saying all the appropriate words means nothing if I am treating someone wrongly at the same time.  My words can hurt or they can heal.  But when I tear someone down, or slander them to another person, or to a group or to an organization, I am simply advancing myself at another’s expense.  This kind of behavior renders my piety useless, it renders my church attendance a farce, it renders my Christian ministry to be hypocrisy.  The Lord Jesus Christ did not die on the cross and rise again from the dead to preside over a kingdom of people who claim to be His followers but who hurt and destroy their [Christian!] neighbor and then in their pride persist in maintaining their rightness even while their life collapses around them, and who even then blame the other for their difficulties and then take steps to ensure than everyone else will blame the other, too.  I really don’t think that this is what Jesus had in mind when he said to his followers the night before He died for them:  Love one another as I have loved you.

Thanksgiving is a lovely holiday.  I will bring my offering of Thanks to the Lord.  And I have taken steps to make sure that I have done everything I possibly can to address the brokenness in my life, and to reach out to those whom I have hurt, and those who have hurt me, to make reconciliation possible if there is a corresponding desire and willingness to be reconciled.  I have done so imperfectly, and there is much that I can - and will endeavor - to do better.  But even in these hard things as I cope with my weaknesses and failures and learn repentance the hard way, I want to be among those of whom God says, ‘Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me’. I want more than anything to ‘go the right way’, because I want more than anything to be shown ‘the salvation of God’. (Psalm 50:23)

But for others, Thanksgiving will once again be an empty gesture.  We gather with friends and family, we have a prayer to thank God for the many good things we have, and then we carry on as before and do nothing about the suppurating brokenness in our hearts and relationships.

In God’s mercy, for me and for you, Thanksgiving is actually one more opportunity, not just to be with loved ones or to gorge ourselves on our favorite foods (or even to do recreational shopping).  It is also another God-given opportunity for us let go of our self-imposed spiritual superficiality and deal with the real issues of our hearts and brokennesses in our relationships.  I imagine that if more of us took that risky but ultimately necessary step (sooner or later, we will have to deal with these issues), we might actually have something to be thankful for.

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