Nov 27, 2015

And Now by Way of Thanks

Text for Meditation: “Then 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 26:11).

Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day and I remember a travel agent friend of mine who remarked that she and her family were going to New York City for Thanksgiving. I ventured, “Are you going to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade?” And she responded, almost matter-of-factly, “Yes. It is one of the best things a person can do for Thanksgiving.” She made me think: “What do modern people think about when they hear the word ‘Thanksgiving’?”

What comes to my mind are a range of images that include a cornucopia, turkeys, families gathered around the television watching football, and a group of pilgrims thanking God that their Native American friends were generous enough with food to save their lives in the New World. Whether or not these are everyone’s images of thanksgiving, I cannot say, but I know they are mine.

If we modern people had a little more sense of history, then we would recognize that thanksgiving has been around a very lengthy time. As far back as Moses, the word “thanksgiving” has been part of Israel’s worship life. According to the New Revised Standard Translation (NRSV) of the Bible, thanksgiving first makes its appearance in the book of Leviticus. There in Leviticus we find the Lord telling Moses, “If you offer it for thanksgiving, you shall offer with the thank offering unleavened cakes mixed with oil, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of choice flour well soaked in oil” (7:12).

For the Hebrew people, thanksgiving was part of the ritual system in which people worshipped the Lord their God. Sometimes we Americans turn out to be shortsighted. We believe that thanksgiving came about because our first president George Washington made a proclamation about thanksgiving for the newly founded nation. Nevertheless, from the beginning God created God’s community to be those who are a thankful people. Indeed every Sabbath day is a day of thanksgiving.

Come, Worship
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Nov 20, 2015

Bible Sunday

The Bible has many surprises for those who wade into its pages. For example, my friend, Kent Millard, shared with me part of an absorbing speech by Dr. Leonard Sweet. Sweet offers a quirky illustration derived from the book of Lamentations. Dr. Sweet told in his speech that hanging down in the center of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a huge ostrich egg. In fact, many churches in the Middle East have an ostrich egg hanging in the sanctuary. 

Lamentations 4:3 refers to the ostrich as a creature of the desert. In order to protect the egg from predators, the ostrich buries the egg very deep in the desert sand so it will be safe while the mother ostrich searches for food. However, sometimes the mother buries the egg so deeply that the mother bird loses the location and can’t find the egg to continue sitting on it until the birth of the baby ostrich. Consequently, the ostrich developed the ability to keep one eye on the location of the ostrich egg and the other on looking for food. Middle Eastern churches developed the tradition of hanging an ostrich egg in the center of their sanctuary to remind the congregation to keep one eye on Christ while they were out caring for their own needs. 

It’s a worthy image. We always should keep one eye on Christ while we are out in the world looking after our own needs or else we may lose the most valuable thing in the world. Can we so live our lives so that we always have one eye on Christ, asking what Jesus would do and what is Jesus doing while we are living our lives out in the world. Without our continuous effort it is easy for us to lose focus on Christ and allow other concerns and commitments to take over our lives (Thanks to Kent Millard for this illustration).

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Nov 13, 2015

Veteran’s Day 2015

This past week we have observed Veteran’s Day and I wanted to share one of my favorite stories of a president who grieved mightily over the sacrifices made by American soldiers during the Civil War.

Sometime prior to November 1863, the committee in charge of the official dedication for the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, asked President Abraham Lincoln to speak. Yet, Lincoln was not the principal speaker. The primary speaker that day was Edward Everett. The following day, Everett wrote Lincoln in a pronounced gesture of charity: “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

Although he was not the featured orator that day, America remembered Lincoln’s 272-word address as one of the most significant speeches in American history. In it, Lincoln summoned the principles of human equality contained in the Declaration of Independence. He also linked the sacrifices of the Civil War with the desire for “a new birth of freedom,” as well as the all-important preservation of the Union and its ideal of self-government created in 1776.

Friends of FUMC, Arlington, I ask you to say a prayer for all our service men and women who protect our rights and liberty. 

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Nov 6, 2015

Givers, Matchers, and Takers

Thanks to Rev. David Williamson of St. Luke’s UMC in Indianapolis, IN    

Imagine that you and a stranger will both receive some money. You have three choices about what you and the stranger will receive, and you’ll never see or meet the stranger. If you have only one of the three options below to choose from, which would you choose?

a. You get $5, and the stranger gets $5.
b. You get $8, and the stranger gets $4.
c. You get $5, and the stranger gets $7.

How you answer that question may say a lot about you. The question comes from a test developed by Adam Grant. Each of the possible answers correlates to a different personality type-what Adam calls “Givers,” “Matchers,” and “Takers.”

These categories describe how we view reciprocity in relationship with others. If you are a taker, you might help others only when the benefits to you outweigh the costs. A giver, however, uses a different cost-benefit analysis, measuring when the benefits to others outweigh the personal costs. A matcher falls somewhere in between, operating out of a strong sense of fairness and working to keep an equal balance.

A number of years ago there was a movie called Instinct starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins plays the role of a biologist who has lived in the wild with gorillas, and is struggling to return to society; Gooding Jr. role is as the psychologist who tries to help him. As often happens, the one in the “helping” position ends up learning the most. One of the lessons Hopkins teaches Gooding is the difference between givers and takers.

Givers contribute more back to the world than they consume. They never acquire more than they need, never plow more land than required, and so on. Takers, in contrast, see the world as theirs for the taking. The question the film puts forward is simple: When your life is all done and accounted for, will you have given back more than you consumed?

It’s a valid question for anyone in today’s society, where it is easy to accumulate and consume more than we realize (often because the costs of our consumption are hidden). But what struck me when I read Adam’s research is that he offers a third possibility, something beyond the category of taker or giver. I found myself wondering how Hopkins’ fictional character might describe a matcher: someone who, when life was all done, netted out to nothing. Contributions evenly balanced by subtractions. An equal measure of success and failure. In sum, a zero.

Not very aspirational, is it?

The truth is that most people aspire to be givers—they wish to leave something good in the world, for their positive deeds to outweigh their failures. The irony is that a majority of people don’t live as givers. Rather, the overwhelming majority behave as matchers. We are born with an innate sense of fairness. To take the question above, few of us opt to send the stranger away with half the money we receive. But by the same token, just as few reward the stranger with extra money, even when that extra comes at no cost to us personally.

The Bible makes a daring claim that we are created in God’s image. So does this mean that God is a “matcher?” Certainly, I believe our sense of fairness and justice comes from some part of God’s character. But I also believe that God’s image is best seen in our aspiration to be givers. We are better people—and we bear God’s image more justly—when we live out of that impulse.

So next time you interact with a stranger, think about that question from Adam’s test. Do you take what you can and move on? Or do you seek to leave an extra blessing behind? My hope for you—and for me—is that we will choose the latter.

Come, Worship
Stay, Learn
Go, Serve

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