Monday, November 25, 2013

Thanksgiving Week: Day 1--Leanness of Soul

It’s Thanksgiving Week—maybe my favorite week of the year. Time with family. Elaborate preparations. Thanksgiving Day Eucharist. Seeing Elizabeth get excited about the Parade—not my thing but definitely hers. Favorite foods. The Iron Bowl. The beginning of Advent. Shopping. All-around fun.

In honor and celebration of all this, I’m posting each day this week on thanksgiving. What does it mean to be thankful? How is thanksgiving a fundamental aspect of faith? How can we grow in our gratitude?

How often do you read the Psalms? Do you pay attention to them? Are they mere “filler” that takes up space between the first and second lessons? The Daily Office—the services of scripture and prayer that are observed at various times during the day—always puts the Psalm reading before the other lessons. Because of that, it’s easy to skip over it. Those of us who say Morning Prayer using our computer, tablet, or smart phone screens and Mission St. Clare’s website can easily scroll down to the first lesson. Having become too focused on reading the lessons with a blog post in mind, I had fallen into the habit of skimming through them without letting them sink in—until this summer.

During one morning’s breakfast while I was in Africa, a clergy colleague asked if I read the Daily Office each day. I told him that I did, and a conversation about the slow but delightful progress we were making through one of the Old Testament books ensued. Then, he said something that convicted me: “Don’t you love the Psalms, though? They capture so much of life. Every situation, every circumstance is reflected in those prayers. They really sustain me.” I realized that I didn’t really know what he was talking about. Having studied the Psalms and even taught Sunday school classes on them, I knew that he was right, but it had been too long since I’d let those ancient words sink into my bones. I had forgotten the power that they contain.

This morning, we read the first eighteen verses of Psalm 106. And what a story they tell! The opening line is a shout of thanksgiving: “Hallelujah! Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!” The verses that follow recall the Exodus story—how God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt—but they tell them in a convicting way: “We have sinned as our forebears did…In Egypt they did not consider your marvelous works, nor remember the abundance of your love.” The Psalmist knows that his people often forget God’s saving help. They take his blessings for granted—much as their ancestors did. God, however, remains faithful: “They defied the Most High at the Red Sea. But he saved them for his Name's sake to make his power known.”

As I made my way through the Psalm this morning, I was already thinking about Thanksgiving Day. I’m preaching at Thursday’s service and then on Sunday, too, so I’ve needed to do some early work this week putting proverbial pen to paper. We forget to be grateful. That’s human nature. The Psalmist captured that sentiment in beautiful, ironic words. But I think he is most powerful when he describes the consequence of Israel’s ingratitude:

13   But they soon forgot his deeds *
and did not wait for his counsel.
14   A craving seized them in the wilderness, *
and they put God to the test in the desert.
15   He gave them what they asked, *
but sent leanness into their soul.

God sent leanness into their soul. Those haunting words have been tumbling around in my mind all morning. They forgot God’s goodness. They craved that which they did not have. God put them to the test by giving them what they asked and sending leanness into their soul.

Leanness of soul. Thin, scarce, inadequate and the deepest level. Perhaps you have a different understanding of how God works in the world, but I don’t believe that God reaches down from heaven and punishes people for making bad choices. (I don’t think he rewards people for good choices, either.) I think this leanness of soul is the consequence of their ingratitude. When you give a whiny kid what he’s whining for and never help him develop a sense of thankfulness, you’re setting him up for a life of want rather than a life of plenty. And that kind of longing—the kind that comes from leanness of soul—isn’t easy to satisfy.

How has leanness crept into our souls? We’ve got just about everything we want. What we don’t have is just as far away as another credit card. Where does it all come from? When we forget the true origin of all our blessings—when we forget the story of salvation that God has wrought in our own lives—the accumulation of wealth undermines our faith. Are we wealthy? Yes. Are we grateful? Let’s hope so. And, if not, let’s work on it. We can’t afford not to be.

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