Earlier this month I gave a talk to a men's group at an Episcopal church, and my subject, in this Thanksgiving season, was gratitude.
So I thought that for Thanksgiving Day I'd adapt that talk for you and give you my list of mostly faith-related things, from A to Z, for which I'm thankful this year. Here goes (but please understand that I was speaking as a Christian to other Christians):
I want to speak to you about gratitude. Along with humility, gratitude is the quintessential Christian virtue.
Why do I say that? Because we are saved by grace through faith. That means that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor or to merit an eternal relationship with God. Being saved by grace requires nothing before the gift of grace is given, but after the gift is given it requires everything of us.
It requires our minds, our hearts, our all, and the way we give all of that is through conscious, intentional and lived out gratitude.
Which means we should walk through each hour of each day saying thank you, thank you, thank you. Instead, as a Jewish prayer book I once read says, we often simply walk sightless among miracles.
I want to give you an alphabetical collection of some of the things — mostly related to faith — for which I’m grateful.
I hope it will trigger in you thoughts of those people, things and gifts that fill you with gratitude this Thanksgiving season. More than that, I hope it will move you to express your gratitude to the people who deserve to hear that you are thankful for them or something they have done.
So, because I tend to be fairly well organized, I will begin with the letter A.
A — I might have chosen to express gratitude for absolution, for Abraham or for acolytes, but instead I choose to express my gratitude for Advent, the upcoming season when we seek to prepare our hearts for God’s annual pilgrimage to humanity, to Bethlehem, to Mary’s womb, to human hearts. It’s not known just when Christians first celebrated Advent, though we do know that the Council of Tours in the year 567 mentioned the Advent season. At my church each Sunday in Advent we will be lighting the Advent candles of hope, of light, of joy and of peace and, finally, the Christ candle. And once again the Christ child will come helpless into my life, a God born in weakness who will ask of me strength I do not have but will gain from this helpless child. So thanks for Advent.
B — For B I could have chosen the Bible among many other choices, but instead I choose to give thanks for Bethlehem, where the Bible says this Christ child was born. I have been to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and to the very spot in the grotto where tradition says the birth occurred. I do not know if this is where Jesus was really born. All I know is that Bethlehem, which suffers a great deal today in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is where the Bible tells us that silently, silently, the wondrous gift was given and that in Bethlehem the hopes and fears of all the years are met. And that’s enough for me.
C — The obvious choice for the letter c is Christ, but I’ll get to him under another letter and choose, instead, to express gratitude for the church — the wonderful, frustrating, indispensible, flawed, remarkable body of Christ on earth. I do not know sometimes why God puts up with the church but I know we are called to be the church. When I used to teach Sunday school to 6th and 7th graders I’d ask them to draw a picture of the church. Inevitably I’d get pictures of buildings. No, I’d say. That’s not the church. I kept rejecting their pictures until finally one of the kids drew a picture of people. Yes, yes, I’d say. That’s right. You and I are the church.
D — For D I could have chosen, say, David the king or Deborah the judge, but instead I elect to give thanks for Paul’s Damascus Road experience. One reason is that I’ve never had such a startling thing happen to me, although I once flew over Damascus. And yet I’m grateful that Paul was knocked to the ground. By the way, artistic renderings of this event inevitably show a horse, off of which he fell. But there’s no horse in the accounts of this in the Bible. There is, however, a changed heart. In this Damascus Road experience, by the way, Paul did not convert from Judaism to Christianity. There was no Christianity yet. There was simply the Jesus Movement within Judaism, and members of that movement believed that the Jewish Messiah had come. Even after Damascus Road, Paul always thought of himself as an observant Jew, and we get into all kinds of trouble when we imagine that he left Judaism and, worse, criticized it for not being Christian. He did nothing of the kind.
E — For E, I pass up Eastern Orthodoxy, ecumenism, Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist and Epiphany in favor of Egypt, which I’ve had the opportunity to visit twice, visits separated by a mere 45 years. I am grateful for Egypt not just because it provided shelter for the Holy Family after Herod’s murder of the Holy Innocents but also because today it is where faithful Coptic Christians are standing firm in their ancient faith against the oppressions of the police state that Hosni Mubarak operates there. Their courage gives me hope.
F — For F, I skip past Francis of Assisi and go straight to giving thanks for faith itself. The opposite of faith, as I hope you know, is not doubt. Rather, the opposite of faith is false certitude, a problem that plagues all religions. In his new memoir, Hannah’s Child, theologian Stanley Hauerwas, whom some of you heard speak here in this very room earlier this year, says that when his first wife committed suicide after years of mental illness and many difficulties related to that, he asked himself this: “What possibly can be said about a life so lived?” And his answer was this: “. . .none of us should try to answer such questions. Our humanity demands that we ask them, but if we are wise we should then remain silent. . . .When Christianity is assumed to be an ‘answer’ that makes the world intelligible, it reflects an accommodated church committed to assuring Christians that the way things are is the way things have to be. Such ‘answers’ cannot help but turn Christianity into an explanation. For me, learning to be a Christian has meant learning to live without answers. . . .Faith is but a name for learning how to go on without knowing the answers.” I give thanks for such faith.
G — For G, I skip the angel Gabriel and express gratitude for God, whose meaning is never exhausted by any words. That’s one reason I’m grateful for and to God — precisely because my finite mind cannot grasp the infinite. This then relieves me of having to know all the answers. Thank God.
H — I suppose that for H you think I’m going to express gratitude for heaven, though a few of you smarty-pants guys may think I’ll pick hermeneutics or even the Holy Spirit. All good choices, but instead I give thanks today for the Himalayas, in the foothills of which I was privileged to live and go to school for a time as a boy in India. The grandeur of those mountains taught me to appreciate God as artist. And at the end of Stanley Elkin’s marvelously sacrilegious little book, The Living End, he has God explain to puzzled people at the end of the world that the reason they never understood life was that they did not grasp that it was all about art.
I — For I, I pass by India, as well as the wonderful description of God as I Am, plus icons and Israel and I go, instead, to what we’re about to celebrate in the Advent and Christmas seasons — the incarnation. I give thanks for the incarnation, the journey of God into human form, but I cannot do so without taking note of the risks the incarnation meant for God. As Donald Heinz writes in his new book Christmas: Festival of Incarnation, “The great idea that Christianity calls the Incarnation requires that God suffer the consequences of coming out in earthly context, from the crucifixion of Jesus to the unsteadiness of his followers.” It’s enough to make me want to ask God about the incarnation, “How’s that working out for you”? And yet without it, life would make no sense to me.
J — And, of course, for J I will skip by Jerusalem, Judaism, John the Baptist, Joseph and Julian of Norwich in favor of Jesus, to whom I owe my life and of whom Paul says to the Philippians this: “. . .who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.”
K — For K I raise up the King James Version of the Bible, the version I read as a boy. I’m grateful for the KJV not because I think it’s the only good version or even, as some insist, the only authentic version. It’s not. Rather, I’m grateful for the KJV for its soaring use of language, its sheer poetry, which to me represents a celebration of words and, ultimately, of the word of God itself.
L — My basket is full when I get to the letter L, but I’m going to ignore such good choices as Lamentations, Luther, Lent and liturgy in favor of the Lord’s Prayer. In his latest book, The Greatest Prayer, John Dominic Crossan says that the Lord’s Prayer “is both a revolutionary manifesto and a hymn of hope not just for Christianity, but for all the world. Better still, it is from the heart of Judaism through the mouth of Christianity to the conscience of the earth.” How much better can it get to help meet the needs of our divisive time and place?
M — I know that for M you expect me to pick (friends the audience knew whose names begin with M) but I’m passing over those choices as well as Thomas Merton and Moses in favor of Mary, and in so doing I am especially remembering how, a few years ago, I was invited to give the commencement address at St. Mary University in Leavenworth, only to have the invitation withdrawn after The Star published its series on AIDS in the priesthood — a series I did not write. By the time I was disinvited, however, I already had written the speech, which was not about AIDS or anything like that at all. Rather, it was a Protestant celebration of Mary, a name all of those graduates would take with them the rest of their lives. So because I couldn’t give the speech, The Star put it on the its Web site and the St. Mary faculty loved it enough to vote 47-0 with 1 abstention to criticize the administration for withdrawing my invitation. So, thanks, Mary, for giving me a chance to make some people think.
N — We’re down to the letter N, for which I could have chosen Nazareth, Noah or the several theologians named Niebuhr. Instead, I give thanks for the Nicene Creed, which crystallizes the heart of the Christian faith. But even as it does that it reminds me that sincere Christians can disagree with one another. For instance, I stand with my Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters in thinking that the Filioque, which is the phrase that says that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, is misguided theology that makes the Holy Spirit somehow a second-class citizen in the Trinity. So every time the Nicene Creed is said in a worship service I attend, I am silent when it’s time to repeat the Filioque. Thank goodness for the freedom to hold such views without being booted out as a heretic.
O — For O, I give thanks for the oral tradition, which held together the wonderful stories of faith until someone thought it was time to write them down. The oral tradition, naturally, allowed each new teller of the story to be faithful to what was received but to cast the story in a new context so that the next generation could understand it, too.
P — The letter P presented me with a plethora of choices, starting with Peter and Paul and moving on to Palm Sunday, Pentecost, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Protestant Reformation. But, in the end, I choose tonight to give thanks for prayer. Prayer, after all, is the way in which we align our hearts and minds with God. We pray not because God wouldn’t know what to do next if we didn’t instruct God through our prayers. Rather, we pray because if we lose our connection with God we drift alone on perilous seas and we may not, from there, find our way home.
Q — My Q choice may surprise you. I give thanks for the Qur’an. Why? Not because I’m a Muslim. Obviously I’m not — and neither, by the way, is Barack Obama. Indeed, I find the Qur’an a difficult read and, in English, repetitious. But I’m glad that Islam, like Christianity, values sacred text, holding it in high regard. It allows for a deeper appreciation of each other’s tradition to know that Muslims love the Qur’an in much the same way that we Christians love the Bible. Speaking of the Qur’an, as the Advent season approaches, read the story there of Mary and the birth of Jesus. Jesus and Mary in the Qur’an? Oh, indeed. Jesus, in fact, is Islam’s second most important prophet, though Islam’s understanding of Jesus is quite different from Christianity’s understanding.
R — When it comes to the letter R, I’m grateful for my co-author and friend Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, for rain and for the Reformed Tradition. But tonight I give thanks for ritual. Ritual helps us understand what is important in our faith and allows us to celebrate that in ways that can and often do move our hearts. When I was much younger and allegedly wiser, I dismissed most rituals as meaningless motions, empty of both substance and sense. But I’ve come to understand that we cannot be fully human without ritualizing some important aspects of our lives. And who does ritual better than the church?
S — Despite many candidates for the letter S, I have chosen to express gratitude for the Sh’ma, that most central and famous of Jewish prayers that affirms that the Lord is one. One can make a good case that one of Judaism’s gifts to the world was monotheism, and that monotheism is captured eloquently in the Sh’ma, which asks Israel to hear. To hear what? To hear that the Lord is one.
T — OK, we’re moving toward the final letters. For T, I could have picked the Ten Commandments or just theologians, who help us understand God, though I’m also reminded of what the old French philosopher Denis Diderot once said about theologians. “I have only one small candle to guide me in the midst of a thick forest,” he said. “Up comes a theologian and blows it out.” So instead I give thanks for the Trinity, our triune God. And not just for the Trinitarian God but also for the concept of the Trinity. It forces Christians to exercise their minds, to articulate an idea that at times defies articulation in a way that all can understand. In the end, the Trinity should make us humble just because it is mysterious.
U — For the letter U I pick our country, the United States because of its cherished commitment to religious freedom. We began settling this land with people who wanted essentially a theocracy but by the time the Constitution was written there was so much religious diversity here (meaning, mostly, many ways of being Christian) that our Founding Fathers were wise enough to build religious liberty into the Constitution. It’s a great gift.
V — For V I give thanks for Vatican II, the council that altered the Catholic Church in many ways and, more importantly, gave hope to Catholics and others that people of faith can somehow not shrink from the challenges of modernity. Indeed, now we are in what’s called the post-modern world, and as Stanley Hauerwas and others argue, it liberates the church to be the church, which means that that we need no longer accommodate ourselves to the established order. Good. The established order often needs to be critiqued and challenged. And that’s what the post-Constantinian church can do and should do.
W — For W, I’ll pass over John Wesley and give thanks for the Wycliffe Bible translators, who have helped spread the gospel to the far corners of the world. There are more than 6,900 languages and dialects spoken in the world, and Wycliffe reports that speakers of more than 2,000 languages still have no access to the Bible in their language. So the work goes on.
X — For X, I give thanks for Xavier, meaning St. Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuits. As you know, the Jesuits have been the educational, scholarly branch of Catholicism, responsible for such institutions as Rockhurst University in Kansas City. They have raised high the banner of education that we Presbyterians, among Protestants, have held as so vital.
Y — Two more. For Y, I give thanks to the YMCA and the YWCA, which have provided many important services to Christians and others over the decades. Indeed, there’s a YMCA camp in Estes Park, Colo., to which a whole bunch of folks from my congregation go each year for retreat and fellowship. And they return to us renewed and challenged and ready to rock.
Z — Finally, I give thanks for Ulrich Zwingli, the 16th Century reformer. He helped to shape Protestantism even though for my money he got some things wrong. My favorite Zwingli story is this: In 1529, the leading Protestant reformers gathered at Marburg to try to settle some of the differences among them so they could work together in this new movement. Zwingli was there, along with Luther and others. They agreed on more than a dozen points but, in the end, they could not come together on the meaning of the Eucharist. Zwingli argued that it was just a memorial and that the bread and wine only symbolized the body of Christ. Luther drew a circle on the table and inside that circle he wrote the words, “Hoc Est Corpus Meum,” “This is my body.” But, Zwingli argued, Jesus didn’t speak Latin. He spoke Aramaic and that in Aramaic there was no verb in that phrase. It was, he said, simply, “This, my body.” Luther ended the argument by saying he’d rather drink blood with the papists than mere wine with the Zwinglians, so even today in Protestantism we have Zwinglians who, in the Eucharist, are memorialists and we have people like us Presbyterians who are “real presence” people. It’s been a wonderful argument and it wouldn’t have been possible without Zwingli.
What's your A-Z gratitude list for today?
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A REVISED VIEW OF THE PURITANS
What's your picture of the Puritans? A stuffy old bunch of rigid religionists? Well, this op-ed piece by a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, suggests you might want to rethink that. It's a good reminder that stereotypes, though they may contain a grain of truth, are nearly always distorted versions of reality.
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P.S.: If you want to read a pdf file of President Obama's Thanksgiving Day proclamation, click on this link: Download Thanksgiving_Proclamation