Thanksgiving or Thanks-getting?
When I got the email wondering if I would be up for speaking at Port Williams for thanksgiving, and I was told that Pastor Don would be away, it caused me to reminisce. This fall marks my fourth year here in Nova Scotia, moving from Sudbury, Ontario. It has been an eventful four years to say the least. Along the way, I am thankful for the friendship Don and Anita have extended to me. They were one of the first who called me up four years ago and said, “Hey you’re new to the area and so are we, come on over for dinner.” So, I am thankful for that gift of friendship.
Can I just say that it has been interesting to see Pastor Don climatize to being Canadian in real time? The culture shock has been a pleasant surprise, or at least that is what it seems like from his Facebook page. Now, I came from living in the hustle and bustle of Toronto, then pastoring in Sudbury where it was winter for a solid six months out of the year, but I think Don and I have both have had this feeling like Nova Scotia has been this refuge that we have both grown to love. Autumn in the valley is simply beautiful. Last weekend, my wife and our five boys – yes we have five boys (we had three and my wife really wanted to try for a girl and then we ended up having twin boys – three are with me today as my wife was also asked to play at Bethany Memorial to relieve their pianist) – but anyway last weekend we went hiking. We went to Noggins to picked apples and got terribly lost in their corn maze. I bought a caramel apple pie from there for later today.
We are so blessed. These are the words that ring in my mind this weekend, and I want to reflect more on what they mean today. I want to reflect on a text that I read this week with my son, Rowan, who we have been trying to read the Bible together every night. The passage, James 1:1-18, is about acknowledging God’s giving. I will read from the beginning of the book in chapter 1 for context, but I want to focus on the last verses.
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. 2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 9 Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10 and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. 12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved. 17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. (NRSV)
James, who is very likely the brother of Jesus himself, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, one of pillar-leaders of the early church along with Peter and John and Paul, writes a letter to the Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman world to give them important advice about how to live wisely in light of the challenging times they face.
We are facing challenging times today, aren’t we (not that ours is the same)? It looks like they faced issues of division in the church, poverty and persecution, and to all of these, James recommends living out the character of Christ.
He begins this letter with advice on confronting the trials they face, but then he quickly addresses the rich and the poor. And then he makes a point of warning his congregations: “Don’t be deceived,” He says. Well…what are they deceived about? He says, “Make no mistake. Every good and perfect gift comes from God above, whose character does not change. But,” he says, “he has chosen us according to his purposes as first fruits.” If you read the passage quickly, it gives an impression like James is constantly segueing between several subjects, but they are actually all very connected.
People are facing trials where they are tempted to go another way than Jesus’ way. It sounds like staying on the right path will cost them, at least some of them, deeply, financially. Many are facing tough times. Yet others seem untouched by all this misfortune. And they are wondering, where is God, how is God acting in all this?
It kind of sounds like there are people in his congregations who believe God made them fall to temptation or that God brought calamity on them, meanwhile there are those who have made it through pretty good, and they are tempted to think God has done good to them more than others. Perhaps God makes some people rich, because he loves them more, and others poor, because he does not love them quite as much.
For five years I was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. This is a church about four hours north of Toronto. Sudbury was a cold place with very warm people. The church itself back in the late 70’s moved from its old building in the downtown to the area of Garson, which was a sub-urb of the city about ten minutes from the city centre.
The church moved out there thinking this would become the next up and coming affluent neighbourhood in the city. The reality was the opposite. The city built supplemented income housing there in an effort to move the problems of crime and poverty out of the downtown.
As I got to know my neighbourhood, I realized this was an area that struggled. A few moments really reiterated this to me. I remember one summer taking my kids to a playground behind our house. This playground overlooked on several sides a couple of different sub-divisions of the neighbourhood. There was ours, which was a group of semi-detached homes, then down the street were larger ones, a sub-division of newly built two story detached homes, but on the other side there were row homes and small apartment buildings, supplemented income housing and homes like that. My kids began playing with some of the other kids, and I joined in, playing tag. The one boy introduced himself. My son introduced himself pointed to our house. “We live just over there.” The boy turned and said, “Oh, you live there. My mom says that is where all the rich people live.”
I was stunned. My house was smaller than the house I was raised in. I always thought of our home as modest at best. But of course, that was my perspective, being raised in a middle-class family.
A part of me wanted to insist, “What? I am not rich! I work as a pastor! Pastors are not rich!” (Or if they are, let me just say, I have some questions).
I remember walking back home lost in thought. I felt conflicted. You see, I was raised in a fairly strict Dutch Baptist family. My dad was the son of a card-carrying fundamentalist Baptist pastor that came over from Holland. And there was a particular set of values instilled in me, many of them good, but they went like this:
Dutch people believe in hard work and that the life you live reflects that hard work.
A Dutch man is to provide for his family for this is the measure of being a man.
If you were poor, it was because you were lazy or not frugal with your money, pure and simple, and you needed to just man up and work.
To be a Christian is to be honest, have integrity, and to fulfill your obligations at work, church, and home.
If you do these things, these are the kind of things that God blesses.
God’s blessing means among other things, material provision, our daily bread and probably a good career with a pension.
God is sovereign, so God chooses what he wants to happen, and nothing happens that God did not choose. Somehow this strong sense of social mobility was married to this notion of God’s sovereignty, even though they actually don’t really go together that well.
These values have served me incredibly well, and I know as a father to five boys, I will teach them to be men one day that are honest and hardworking and of course to trust God. But when we stroll into the territory of God’s blessing, I never understood passages in the Bible like the one James just lists: “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.“
Well, that seems mean. What does James have against rich people? It is not their fault! That does not seem particularly wise given what the Proverbs say about hard work and everything else. Doesn’t God want us to plan and be frugal and save our money and work hard and through all of that enjoy the fruits of our labor? Those passages are in the Bible too, and I must say, I like those passages much more than this passage here.
But the reason for why James says what he says was illustrated to me one thanksgiving. As our church started doing outreach in the community. When I started pastoring, our church was that summer a dozen people, all easily twice my age. In some cases, three times my age. I worried about the future of the church, but I figured I can’t make this church grow, and I can’t attach young families to our church where there are churches with slick programs and staff in the area. So, I resolved to minister to those least fortunate in the community. We volunteered at food banks. I would drive people to the food bank and then take them out for coffee. I would deliver food to shut ins and we organized a community meal at one of these single-room apartment buildings. That meant over time a hand full of people started attending the church.
One person in particular was a man quite troubled. He faced a lot of mental health issues. He had no family. He lived in a one room apartment around the corner from me. I remember in church that thanksgiving Sunday remarking that I felt very blessed: a good home, good job, good family, health…I said I feel so blessed. Well, this person came up to me after the service. He, a young believer, although he was older than me, often asked those curious questions after the service. So, he came up to me, “Pastor, how do I become blessed like you? I wish God would bless me like that.”
As we talked, he shared with me that deep down, he worried maybe God did not love him all that much at all. Or at least not as much as God did for others. After all, God heals those he loves, and he has struggled with a severe mental illness his whole life. God provides for those he loves, and he could never find work, often he could barely leave his apartment due to his illness, and he struggled on disability payments that barely covered his rent let alone food for the month.
God blesses those he loves, and that implied for him, either he has done something wrong his whole life, his whole faith, or God just didn’t choose to love him as much as others.
My heart sank with those questions. I remember having a very pensive and reflective thanksgiving that year. My wife wondered why I was so quiet, lost in thought. I am always lost in thought by the way (that is an occupational hazard of being a professor), but this time more than usual.
I thought to myself, for instance, I was born able bodied. I didn’t have to be. I couldn’t control that. I was born able minded. I didn’t have to be. I was born into a loving household. I didn’t have to be. I was able to meet a person who has been an exacellent life-partner, my wife, where I know some people, some good people, that the person they married just was not the person they thought they were. We were able to have children, lots of kids (some days I am tempted to think too many kids). They are healthy boys.
It gave me pause, a pause that lasted through the day, of just how many opportunities I had received, that those, who were just as able, smart, and good, in many cases better, did not get. And yes, while there were good choices and hard work along the way, I felt overwhelmed by the fact that so much of the goodness of my life was not because of me, what I could choose and control.
That conversation fundamentally changed how I think about prayer, blessing, what it means to have good things in my life, and what my responsibility to others is.
This is what James is getting at: he says that all good things come from God. If you ever think God wills bad things, or shows favouritism, loving some more than others, that goes against the God who has an unchanging character of love, perfectly for every human being: every human being, without exception.
But we forget this. We have to find ways to adjust, shall we say, this truth in order justify why our lives are materially better than others, why we don’t have to feel bad about that fact, or more importantly, feel obliged to do something for those that have less than us, how we don’t have to do something as churches, as a society, about poverty, about mental health, or about systemic injustices.
That is when days like today, thanksgiving, we engage in that religious talk about being blessed or being thankful, and yet, if we ignore our responsibility to those less fortunate, that God loves all people with the same perfect longing to provide and lift all people into a place of flourishing, if we forget that, I am going to suggest to you we are not truly engaging in thanksgiving.
When we talk this way, thanksgiving ends up meaning something more like self-congratulations: I am thankful I worked hard; I am thankful I got good grades; I am thankful I made good career choices; I am thankful I did not marry someone who does not pull their weight; I am thankful I am such a good parent; I am thankful I have done so well.
This is a part of a mentality in our culture, a cultural myth of sorts that has a long history and endorsement in the church: the myth of the self-made person. You see our culture has this very strong insistence on the worth and power of the individual. This in many ways is a good thing. We believe people have inherent dignity and worth, individual freedom, conscience, and responsibility, but these insistences can have a down-side when made into an extreme: We can turn these values into the notion that all the good things in our lives are our doing. It is not because of privileges we were born into, opportunities we did not choose, all the various ways the starting line in the race of life was a bit further up for us than other people. This breeds a culture of entitlement where those that have less are effectively blamed for their misfortune.
Or we do something even worse: we think to ourselves that God wills this inequity to be the way things ought to be. We end up saying something, implicitly, truly terrible: we say I am thankful for the fact that God loves me a whole lot more than most of the people on this planet. I am thankful God wanted me to be privileged.
But that is not the pattern of Scripture. The deep contours of Scripture show that God chooses no one for ultimate ruin nor does God will evil or tragedy to anyone.
But what God does do is chooses, as James says, those who he will use to be the first fruits of an entire harvest of the goodness done to all people.
This is a pattern that begins in Father Abraham, who was blessed in order, the Book of Genesis says, to be a blessing, so that all the families of the world can be blessed through him.
It goes on to the Book of Exodus where God says he chose the Israelite slaves not because they were so much better or stronger or promising than any other nation, but because God favours the weak and the oppressed. God chooses the least of these in the world. God chooses to liberate them from bondage, not because he loves them and only them, but that through them, God says, they will be a kingdom of priests, firstborn of the family, as if all nations are God’s congregation, all our God’s family, but Israel is God’s paradigm and instrument of doing good to the rest inviting them in.
This continues on to the time of the prophets where, when God’s people grow haughty and disaster comes on them, Isaiah says God will uses a righteous remnant who will live in these difficult times self-sacrificially for the sake of the rest.
This all culminates in Jesus Christ, God himself who came in human form and chose himself to bear rejection itself at the cross, so that if anyone every questions, “Has God chosen me a sinner? Does God love me? Does God want what’s best for me?” All they must do is look at the cross and see the God that was willing to give of his very self for the sake of others, even those who meant him harm.
This is all so, so, so important to keep in mind in this time of a pandemic. We have not seen the disaster living here in Nova Scotia that many have elsewhere. We live in the safety of the Annapolis valley. While this past year was tough for me, teaching online and being stuck at home with my kids, I think my life just not been as bad as those who have faced unemployment, the loss of their business and livelihood, the impact of anxiety or depression.
I have seen how this terrible virus can hit. Some are not affected badly, others fatally. A college classmate of mine back in Ontario got covid, a person my age, went to bed with a cough and did not wake up. A person I know in Toronto got covid and he will now never breath again without a respirator.
Where does all this leave us: Do we pat ourselves on the back for having a government that responded well to the crisis when so many people did not choose where they live nor did they vote for the governments that are not acting responsible? Do we say God has protected us and God has blessed us, when the implication of that might sound like God has refused to protect others? We can very easily fall back into a thanksgiving that is actually self-congratulations and self-thanking. It is thanks-getting not thanks-giving.
Let me tell you the story of an inspiring person that illustrates the attitude we must have. His name is Charles Mully, born in 1949. He is a Kenyan business owner and philanthropist. At age 6, his parents abandoned him on the street. He spent years begging and getting by living on the street. He was able to be enrolled in school, and being exceptionally intelligent, succeeded. At age 16, he walked into a church and heard the Gospel, and he accepted the message of salvation. He did not have any money to go into higher education so, he packed up his things and walked 70 kilometers to Nairobi to find work. He did odd jobs until he eventually worked as a farm assistant and then for a construction company. He met his wife and they had eight kids together. During all this he saved enough money to buy his own truck and began his own trucking company. Within a short amount of time, he procured several other companies. Very quickly he became a multi-millionaire.
One day he was driving by in his car, and he saw a street boy, homeless, and he realized that there was no achievement he had that made God love him any more than those kids on the street. In fact, he concluded that the reason why God brought him from homelessness into such wealth was not for him to keep it but to give it away. And that is what he did. In 1989, he sold all his businesses and properties, opening up his homes to serve as shelters for the many street kids of Kenya. Since 1989, he and his family have helped 23 000 kids out of homelessness.
I tell you this story because If ever there was a self-made person, if ever there was a person that you could say, “That man earned every cent he owns,” if ever there was a person who might be tempted to think God has favoured me from rags to riches, it would be Charles Mully. And yet for him, his faith compelled him to believe that all the good things of his life were from a God that loves all people with that same perfect love. And with the goodness he has been given, with true thanksgiving, he realized he was to be the first fruits of a plan of God to help others with what he has been given.
What does that mean for us, for you and me, Port William Baptist Church? I hope you don’t take anything I have said to be some kind of kill joy on your festivities this weekend. God surely does want us to cherish the good things in our lives. Give thanks for your families with your families, enjoy turkey and pumpkin pie, play with kids and grandkids in the back yard. These are gifts from God that I know I don’t deserve.
But let us not stop there. It can’t stop there. For it to be true thanksgiving, it must be both giving thanks to God, but also giving thankfully to others.
If we acknowledge that all the goodness we have in our lives comes from God above, that God wills tragedy and misfortune to no one, what will we do to make sure we bring this goodness to others, those that don’t family, don’t have work, or don’t have health? How will we be fathers and mothers to the fatherless, the motherless, empowers to the oppressed, comforters to those in despair? How will we be first fruits in the way the Spirit of God might be call us of a harvest of blessing that is intended for all people?