Jews, who have taken the time to ascribe prayers for most everything that’s important, have a traditional prayer that’s said each morning upon arising from sleep:
I am thankful before You, living and enduring King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me. Great is Your faithfulness. (Modeh Ani)
It’s a beautiful prayer—the kind of thing I should say, even the kind of thing I aspire to say. It’s not what I actually say. My prayer is generally something like this: “Oh God. The kids are up.” The phrasing is ambivalent on paper. It might be read as an exclamation of anticipation for the start of another day. Or, it could be a grumble that my soul has awoken my body from its death-like sleep.
Is the Mr. Coffee gurgling yet?
There’s a list of things that must be done before the day can be started. The coffee beans must be ground to a fine dust, but that will leave a black residue on my hands that’s reminiscent of soil. The mound will have to make its way into the hot water bath. On second thought, I’ll shove a K-Cup into the machine and pop the lid down. I throw the plastic cup into the trash, which will make its way to a landfill. Slices of ham are rolled into cylinders and put in Tupperware along with crackers and fruit. A bag of muffins is mindlessly eaten to the tune of a morning cartoon. Kids are pinned down like alligators and wrestled into clothes. No, that shoe is on the wrong foot. Switch them. The youngest’s diaper leaks. We forgot to change him. Do I need to carry you down the stairs or are you going to walk?
We’re on our way.
Turns out that ingratitude is easy—just don’t pay attention. I’ve already paraded by a whole slew of blessings while marching toward work. We are pompous beings. Every morning is made easier, if not possible, by countless hands from all over the globe. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way: “before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you've depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured. It is its interrelated quality.” We’re not self-made people, not a one of us. Nothing merely appears with the swipe of a card or a push of the button. What we have comes from others, and more often, at their expense.
Gratitude, on the other hand, takes time and it’s time that we apparently don’t have. The coffee beans were selected, picked, and roasted by someone. The bag said Ethiopia. The baby’s hand wrapped around my finger while I was giving him the bottle, which was less important than finishing that article for sermon preparation. The ham roll-ups were once a living animal, but who can make that connection after all the processing and packaging? It’s hard to believe that the sweater she’s wearing was once cotton, growing in a field somewhere.
We are ‘lucky’ enough not to realize this. What’s worse is this: even if we did realize the interrelated nature of our reality, we can’t thank the actual people and animals who gave their lives for our convenience. The best we can do is give thanks for abstract generalities like ‘pig’ or ‘farmer’ or ‘textile manufacturer.’ Who can afford to know the name of the chicken that’s been raised and slaughtered? The kinds of ‘woke’ people who can afford a house in West Asheville or Montford, that’s who. Since when is it a privilege to want to treat the world better?
Thanksgiving, in our country, must often begin with confession.
We’d like to think that we’re grateful people. After all, we set aside a full day on the calendar to gather around a table with a few family members that we can stomach once a year—like cranberry sauce that comes out of a can. We slow down. Someone asks, ‘what are you thankful for?” And we all squirm to think of something admirable while the food gets cold. Our eyes are drawn to our plates—there’s turkey and stuffing. There’s sweet potato casserole. Pumpkin pie. We give thanks for the hands that labored all morning. There are family and friends gathered with us. Life is good. We are blessed.
Is that all we’ve got?
Thanksgiving Day is as much a Hallmark-washed facade as the idyllic story about English colonists who shared a meal with Native Americans in perfect harmony. It’s just as much about overindulgence, consumption, and ignorance as Black Friday. Maybe that’s too pessimistic. Surely we can be grateful for more than gluttony. Slow down, listen for the gift, see the sacrifice, and taste the offering. You are not just a consumer. Our relationships are not transactions.
German pietist and philosophical traditions have a phrase that captures this sentiment: “denken ist danken,“ which means “to think is to thank.” In other words, no thinking, then no thanking. The two are inseparable. A proper disposition toward the world is determined by a posture of thankfulness. It’s gratitude that reminds us who we really are—creatures of the dirt, bound together with soil and flesh for better and worse.
The reverse is also true. Thanking is predicated on the hard work of thinking, paying attention, and noticing. Look deeply into your plate and become cognizant enough to see the turkey that gave its life. For the farmers that grew and picked the potatoes. The interrelated quality of our lives together. Confess your hurried, mindless way of life and gratitude will become the catalyst toward a more merciful and just way of life.
It’s a start. How can we become better thinkers?
I think that the Christian practice of Eucharist, which is Greek for thanksgiving, is one of our teachers. After all, the first thanksgiving was two thousand years ago when Jesus and his disciples gathered around a table and Christ gave his body and blood to all who were gathered. We’re called to be grateful.
Here, God’s goodness is re-presented, smelled, and tasted. ‘Lift up your hearts with joy,’ we say. We confess our mindless eating—the degradation of soil and lives. ‘We have not love you with our whole heart…we have not heard the cry of the needy.’ We receive the meal side-by-side with friends, stranger, enemies. Boundaries are erased. The bread and the wine are a reconciliation back into a common life together, where everyone is interrelated and no one is estranged. Finally, we get up and leave the table pledging to offer our bodies to one another—just as the body had been offered to us.
It's a transformation of the mind.
The simple practice of noticing and saying thank you is not natural, but if it’s something we can muster up weekly, or even more often, then it might spread to all of our tables—the breakfast nooks, sandwich shop counters, and dinner tables. And who knows what might happen next.
Thanksgiving might even become the beginning and the end of our lives together— so much so that there’s no thinking without thanking.
Three years old is a bit premature for a first existential crisis. My family was visiting Yaya and Grandpa, my wife’s parents, when my daughter spotted a picture of my wife from middle school. There was Danielle, sandwiched in between her two brothers, all of whom looked noticeably younger. They were really only children.
“Where was I?” said Eden.
This wasn’t going to end well. Jean Piaget wrote that children in this ‘preoperational stage’ of life are so egocentric that they have a difficult time perceiving a world that doesn’t contain them. Seems to me that some of us never quite make it out of that stage. I knew this and I still smiled as I walked right into the trap.
Well, you weren’t born yet,” one of us responded. I’m not sure whether it was my wife or me. It doesn’t matter. I do remember the way Eden’s head so slightly dropped and how the little wrinkles formed around her eyes as she squinted in confusion. Someone once asked Augustine the same question about God: “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?” Augustine replied, “He was preparing hell for people who pry into mysteries.” That’s as good an answer as any, but unfortunately it’s inappropriate for my three-year old daughter.
My wife, who was grasping at straws, said, “Well, you were with the stars.”
Look, it’s instinctive to try and protect kids from the harsher realities of life for as long as possible. We know it’s not right, but it’s not terribly wrong. Aren’t we all just star dust, anyway? Not really. It’s cliche and sentimental, but she’s a three-year old who can’t read. It didn't work. Unfortunately, this vague answer about being with the stars didn’t appease her. Why do three year olds insist on better answers than so many adults?
She said, “I was in the dark. Alone? I don’t want to be in the dark! I don’t want to be in the dark! I don’t want to be in the dark!”
So much for the soothing lull of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’
Here’s what’s worse: a couple weeks later I caught her drawing pictures of herself in the stars. I asked her how it felt to be with the stars. She said two words: “It’s sad.” This is a terrible and heart wrenching thing for a parent to observe. It was as if she was drawing a portrait of hell—an existence that’s only dark. A life that’s only isolation.
What should we have said?
Most Christians have no doctrine of pre-existence. There’s no rebirth, cyclic existence, or reincarnation. Origen of Alexandria (185—254 C.E.) gave us the most prominent Christian idea of pre-mortality. He taught that God created a limited number of rational beings (logikoi) outside of time, but they fell from their divine contemplation and took on flesh. Thus, here we are. It explains these troublesome bodies of ours. But the church named it a heresy at the Second Council of Constantinople.
If there is any pre-existence, it’s only very relative. Augustine makes a compelling case that the past returns to existence in the present through our memories and the future, through our expectations (Confessions XI.20). We can conjure up events and relationships in our memories, so that they return to existence—albeit imperfectly. In our expectations, we create that-which-is-not-yet in the present moment. And so our expectations create existence, not in a proleptic sense, but as anticipation and hope.
I like that thought—Eden and Pax have always been with me, maybe even existing before me. Eden was settled in the hearts of my parents who must have dreamed of children and grandchildren who were birthed out of their own particular memories and expectations. Until she then became an expectation in my own heart. I thought about these kids most of my life. Sure, I never dreamed of a precocious, blonde hair, and blue eyed live-wire. But I did hope for God to call someone into existence for me—boy or girl, brown eyed or blue eyed, biologically-mine or adopted-mine.
It’s not the same, is it, as true being?
There’s a better answer than this vague sense of existence, though Eden’s too young to grasp it. It’s this: you were created. We are given a beginning, just as there was an initial beginning to all things. It’s a miracle that there is something rather than not-something, even more miraculous that there is conscious life, and an even greater miracle that there is someone like Eden. Or maybe it’s not. God is self-determined and resolved to be Creator. Not out of compulsion, necessity, divine struggle, or a boundless will set to dominate. It’s only love—from the bottom to the top. God’s love couldn't be contained. Nor, could it be locked away in a warehouse. It spilled over into galaxies with stars and planets because God is God. And it keeps overflowing because no one's quite figured out how to make it stop.
It took four and a half billion years, but it finally spilled into you.
Creation is the word we use to name the world and our existence. And it's important. The first thing we can say about each other is that God has created us. We are, each of us, God’s love enfleshed and put in motion. It teaches us how to be human and gives shape to our lives. It instructs us how to be in relationship with every facet of the created order—whether the oceans or mountains, beluga whales or grasshoppers, the neighbor or the enemy. You are gift. And so are they. Never treat anyone, or be treated, as less.
After Eden drew the pictures of the stars I told her that she wasn’t actually with them. I told her something like this: ‘God was making you, but it takes a long time to make babies. Meemaw and Poppa had to love me and raise me. I had to grow up and go to school to meet mommy. Then, we could have you. But that whole time we were thinking about you. You were in our dreams. And in our prayers. We thought about what you would look like, the ways you would talk, and how you would grow. Now, you’re finally with us. God finally made you. God made you at the perfect time (kairos).’
And she replied, “Daddy, that’s ridiculous.”
It is ridiculous. And yet, that’s what makes her grace—a completely undeserved and beautiful gift.
Soon the lush greens in our forests will change into bright yellows and deep reds before it all disappears. Sometimes, as the adage goes, it’s beautiful to watch the dead things fall. But that’s not always the case. There are years when the leaves disappear from the trees seemingly overnight. The temperature drops too low, and if it’s accompanied by strong winds, then that’s that. There are no colors. There’s luxuriant life and then, a skeleton. No one is prepared for what follows—the grey skies and lingering emptiness; the numb toes and cold bed sheets. How could you be? We all struggle to reorient to new seasons and different forms of life.
Life, as Walter Brueggemann says, moves from orientation, into disorientation, and then back into reorientation. There are longer days and shorter nights, as there is joy and lament. There is cold and warmth, as there is anger and thanksgiving. There is freezing rain, which is obviously a metaphor for cursing. We teach our bodies how to cope with new seasons at a very young age. There’s appropriate clothing like plaid and winter coats or miniskirts and swimming suits. But what about our inner life? When summer fades into fall and then drops deeper into winter, what shall we wear?
For thousands of years the Judeo-Christian tradition has relied on Psalms as a guide through the changing of times. These are our “school for prayer” and a catechesis in learning to talk to God. Or maybe, they're also a type of clothing for our inner life. When we put on the ancient words we discover garments for a new season, a new way of being.
The Psalms are the heart of the Bible both in location and purpose; they pump blood into the Scriptures as they also enliven our worship and life together. John Calvin called them “An Anatomy of All the Parts of the Soul,” where our deepest yearnings find a voice and a new harmony. They give form to our spiritual lives and grant us permission to bring our feelings to God no matter what joy or rage lingers in our hearts. What do you say when you hold a new born baby? How about this: “you knit us together in our mother's womb. I praise you because we are fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139). Regrets take shape and cursing is given permission. Say your worst; God has already heard it and the church has canonized it. With confessional Psalms, our hearts are aired out like an open house.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
Perhaps this is why families often request Psalms to be read at funerals. They are poems and songs, which means that they heal in a way that theology lectures can’t. The raw emotion counteracts the platitudes about grandma singing with a choir of angels and daddy playing golf with Moses. Psalm 23 (‘The Lord is my Shepherd) is requested most often—a top of the Billboard Charts and time-tested word of comfort. But there’s another that is particularly common in the mountains: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Imagine reading that in a cemetery settled in the middle of a valley while death’s claustrophobia overwhelms as in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. It's a desperate plea for healing to the One who promises it.
But the poem is also a close friend. When the seasons change, certain Psalms sit with us in the middle of the night, as did Job’s friends, and hold our hands through the pain.
There’s something cathartic about being placed in a long tradition as we speak the same healing words as many others have before us and even more will long after we’re gone. They first belonged to David or Solomon and the post-exilic community who wrote them out of their heartache and struggle. These are the prayers Jesus prayed—the ones he may have memorized in Sabbath school or getting tucked in at night by Mary and Joseph. They were later the same words he prayed while hanging on the cross when all else scattered. And since they are Jesus’ prayers, they are God's thanksgiving for beauty and lament for a world broken.
Jesus continues to pray these Psalms through us, his body, as we continue to pray them through him. And so the Psalms put us in harmony with one another—whether that’s within a congregation or across the globe. If a certain Psalm is not your prayer, maybe it is somebody else’s. You may not be currently find yourself in the pit of despair, but certainly someone in the world is at the end of his tether. We may not be hungry, but someone is hungry because of our apathy. What would it be like to read a cursing Psalm from the point of view of a starving child?
They gave me also gall for my food; And in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
Let their table before them become a snare; And when they are in peace, [let it become] a trap.
Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see; And make their loins continually to shake.
I read these words because it’s not just my prayer, but ours. They are words to pray with someone else’s lips and in another’s grief. It's a prayer that I might repent and turn from all the selfish ways of living. One day the reverse might be true. There could be someone—a friend, a brother or sister, a stranger—who is praying a Psalm and it’s not for her own sake, but mine, because the mouth of Jesus is continually praying for its body.
If we are to get through the changing of seasons, we'll do it with the help of one another.
A Lutheran theologian Martin Marty read through the Psalms with his wife during her struggle with cancer. The Psalms became their respite every night when she woke up to take her nausea medicine and waited to fall back asleep. One night Martin’s wife caught him skipping from Psalm 87 to 91. Some have called Psalm 88 the one with no hope, where ‘darkness is my only companion.’
"Why did you skip that psalm?" his wife demanded.
Marty told her he wasn't sure she could take Psalm 88 that night.
"Go back. Read it," she said.
"If I don't deal with the darkness, the others won't shine out."
The beauty of the Psalms is that most of them end in praise. Even the gravest laments and raging curses somehow bend back to God's goodness and faithfulness. And that's the promise of the Psalms and the pattern for our lives. We will move from dark into light if the Psalms are any consolation. In fact, hope is just one chapter away—or even better, a comma. Life will be redeemed, and though it will never look and feel exactly the same as a previous season, there is still the promise of reorientation.
Or maybe it's better to put it this way: there's always hope for a final season. And that's the season of resurrection.
‘We should do this more often because, like, people are happy,’ I overheard after our worship gathering the other week. It’s a shame that we don’t say it every week, or even most weeks, and that it’s a surprise when we walk out of worship muttering 'well, that wasn't as boring as usual.'
A couple of times a year ten of the local United Methodist Churches get together for joint worship. About half of each congregation shows up, but it’s enough to fill an entire sanctuary and leave the stragglers searching for parking. For others, it's a free Sunday off. I get it, because it’s tempting to wake up and smell that coffee and then remain in pajamas. Life is busy. You can get more done if you stay home. I’ve heard that voice before, too. The leaves will get raked, groceries bought, and you’ll still have time to catch the Panthers game.
And yet I have a lingering sense that half of our congregations missed out on something:
Methodists usually teach that church is a verb. You don’t go to church; you are the church—go, do, be. “The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning,” says Emil Brunner. I think that’s right, but there’s still a sense for me that church is also the place where we intentionally participate in the God who is where we live and move and have our being. Worship is the center of our life together—an event where an ancient book of stories, myths, poems, and angry prophecies becomes a vessel for the risen Christ to walk among us, up and down the aisles. A meal of bread and wine reveals God’s presence among us as Christ is re-presented in a sacrament of thanksgiving and hope. God’s love is made visible in our peace—the hugs and laughter.
We are, first of all, a Sabbath people who worship a God who celebrated on the seventh day. And secondly, we are Easter people with lives built on a resurrection festival. And thirdly, a Pentecostal people of sprawling wild fires, violent winds, and a dove that hasn't found its way back to the cage.
Jesus’ life was festal even if it was also painful, ending in suffering and death. You’d often find him at a table sharing a meal or telling stories about wedding banquets and great dinner parties. That’s why it was fitting for Christian worship to begin as a celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Christians, at the beginning of our existence, weren’t uptight. We gathered on the first day of the week at daybreak, which is the day following the Jewish Sabbath, with bread and wine for koinonia, or fellowship, and song. The rationale is simple—when Christ’s presence is recognized among the gathered, the best response is to celebrate. And why not go hard? We are, after all, subjected to so much bad news the rest of the week that it's nice to have a day to let hope loose.
I must confess that the party template for worship isn’t appealing if you have mild social anxiety, especially when there’s not a bar to get a drink to make the small talk bearable. Parties can be uncomfortable. I assume there are others like me and that it is one reason why attendance drops when we gather with other congregations for shared worship. But God’s Spirit takes the place of alcohol by bringing us together and filling us with joy and communion. Why else would a group of sober friends, and oftentimes strangers, get together to hug, eat, and sing? If it gets real heated then hands are raised, except not to Journey, but to Charles Wesley. Surely, this Spirit explains why outside onlookers thought the early church was drunk on the day of Pentecost.
If we are a resurrection people then one thing is certain: we should throw better parties.
I happen to know that there are a few key ingredients for a good party: the first step is to think about who’s there, what they’re bringing, and the particular season for celebration. We call worship liturgy, or ‘the work of the people,’ because it’s something we join together to create in the Spirit in ‘full, active, and conscious participation.’ Like a potluck, the festival changes depending on who has created what or what has been brought to be tasted. The style of party—whether you have organs or guitars or hymns or Hillsong—won't matter as much as what gifts, attitudes, or needs are brought into the body. All of it is incorporated into a theme, or a season and focus, that gives shape to the time and more generally, our lives together.
Go ahead—plan the party, get the details hammered out, and then the people will take it and create an experience that you could have never foreseen or planned.
There’s a Spirit involved in our worship that can’t be predicted, but moves with the energy of our common life together. God isn’t coercive; God fills sanctuaries and hearts as we acknowledge the presence and make room. We show up with thanksgiving and the Spirit gives us a heart of celebration. But these parties aren’t only about being happy, either. We may arrive grieving a loss and the Spirit will come to us as Counselor. We only need come expecting to see God and each other, and God and each other we will find. Which is why this much is certain: if worship is another obligation or box to check off on our to-do list, then it will become a rote and dreadful thing to persevere. Visitors can sense this. The room is deflated, or what Marcus Borg calls ‘flat-tire’ worship, because all of the Spirit has been pushed out of the room. No one wants to go to a party that’s always a duty to fulfill.
On the other hand, a right experience of God bestows energy that we carry home with us and bring out into the world. Here’s why this is so crucial for us and the others around us: transformation rests on the shoulders of good parties. There’s better mission when there’s better worship. At the end of the service, the pastor stands up with open arms to give a benediction. It’s a blessing and also a rally cry to go back into a broken world that needs healing. Worship demands action. If saints aren’t being made more Christ-like, or if chains aren’t being broken and powers and principalities aren't vanquished, then it’s not a right experience of God. It’s just fairy tales and self-help, or worse—entertainment. The taste of the bread and wine must make us hungrier for real life, which is life as God intends in the kingdom of God. If we have an encounter that moves us and begins to shape our will, then we’re more likely to not just have church, but to do church.
To put it all more simply, bad parties don’t cut it.
We should bring better gifts, a bigger appetite, and an expectation that something good might happen—something we can’t risk missing. We owe it to God who has created a festal life and is inviting us into it. But we also owe it to our communities, especially if worship is a primary place that God changes our wills, sanctifies us, and makes us into the kind of people who transforms the world. Let’s not settle for routine when real goodness and truth might fall on our human hearts and then radiate out into the world.
When folks say, ‘something beautiful just happened,’ then pastors and other leaders of the church should listen. If it’s a better party to gather with the neighboring congregations, then why don’t we do it more often? After all, it’s beauty that will heal our broken world. Let us gather it to create another living performance of God’s drama of (re)creation.
Unless, of course, we think that there’s nothing to celebrate.