The God who is for us

On this Canadian Thanksgiving day, all the other things I’m grateful for are finding their proper, smaller place next to this:
All three persons of the Triune God stand turned toward us in love and blessing, extending grace and peace. 

Grace and peace to you from the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come; from the sevenfold Spirit before his throne; and from Jesus Christ. He is the faithful witness to these things, the first to rise from the dead, and the ruler of all the kings of the world. (Rev 1:4-5 NLT)

The trees lift their arms in celebration, calling us to join in the worship of this God who loves us more deeply than we can imagine.

Looking back to move forward

“For all that has been—thanks.

For all that will be—yes.”

(Dag Hammarskjold)

I stand in the crack between what has been and what will be, scanning the years, gathering courage from past memories and present Presence as I move toward the not yet.
The word “remember” comes 176 times in Scripture, and as I read through the verses containing the word, I realize I’ve just read the whole story told in terms of what God remembers (or doesn’t remember) and what we are commanded to remember.
God remembers his covenant. He remembers our human frailty and has compassion on us. He doesn’t remember our sin.
We are to remember that we were slaves and God brought us into freedom. That He has blessed us not because we deserve it (we don’t!), but just because He loves us. We are to remember how He has led and provided for us all through the years, and are to pay special attention to how God has been toward us in the years of slavery (seeing our misery, hearing our cries, being touched by our need, and coming down to set us free) and in the desert years (tending and caring and providing when we weren’t able to provide for ourselves, and, not for the last time, causing life-giving water to spring from stone and bread to descend from heaven).
Above all, we are to remember the One in whom all this protection and provision, this sin-removing, freedom-bringing, covenant-keeping love is embodied: “Do this in remembrance of Me.”
I skim through my own story, seeing the unmistakeable fingerprints of the same life-saving, freedom-giving God. The right person in the right place at the right time to help me make the impossible decision to leave Afghanistan. The friend who came to set up my apartment when I was too sick to shop for bookshelves and wastebaskets. The right course at the right time all the way through my degree, my path twisting in ways I never anticipated but each turn tenderly, thoughtfully placed by the One who was leading though I couldn’t always see Him.
I see the way this whole story—at times painful, but also beautiful—has been leading me deeper into freedom to trust His love, freedom to be myself—and to be His!—without fear. I see how the most painful places have also been the places He has tended me most gently, and the most terrifying places (the ones where I felt trapped between the Egyptians and the deep red sea) my passage into freedom.
Standing in the present Presence and looking back and remembering, I say with all the others who have stood through the ages and looked back and remembered God’s faithfulness, “For all that has been—thanks.”
And as I remember that this same God who has shaped my past and cared for me in it, leading me toward freedom and providing when I couldn’t care for myself, is going with me into the future, my heart says with Mary and with all who have, like her, opened themselves to the thrilling, painful, miracle of God coming to live and grow in and be born through them, “For all that will be—yes.”

How ungratitude can heal your heart

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“For what moment today am I most grateful?” and “For what moment today am I least grateful?” Most nights lately I’ve been asking these two questions from the Linn’s marvelous little book, Sleeping with Bread. Practicing gratitude isn’t new to me. Practicing ungratitude is. I’ve been startled to discover that the second question is drawing me even more deeply into God’s love than the first.
The first time I asked myself that second question I cried. I didn’t even have to answer it; it was enough to be sitting quietly in my Father’s love hearing Him ask not just “What was the nicest thing that happened to you today?”—a very good and important question—but also “What hurt you today? What made you feel sad, or angry, or helpless?” He cares. He wants to be with me in whatever life holds, however lovely or painful, small or large. There is room in God’s love for all of me.
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“You belong to Me. You live in my world. And I give myself to you.” The preacher spoke the words, a paraphrase of God’s final words in Ezekiel 34, over us at the end of yesterday’s service.
Earlier in the service we had sung “This is my Father’s world,” and I’d remembered the hours I’d spent ten or so years ago arranging pictures from my little village in Afghanistan to that song. I’d needed to remember, in the middle of my years there, that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” I’ve needed to remember again recently, as I’ve watched, from a distance, a hospital going up in flames, staff and patients victim to a series of impossible-to-understand bombs dropped by people who are supposed to be trying to help.
There is so much beauty in the world, and courage and life. And there is so much wrong.
In the world.
In my country.
In my own heart.
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I pulled out my Freedom Journal last night, that place where I write things I need to bring to Jesus and leave with him. I’m using a journal a friend gave me in high school, one which has sat, empty, on my shelf for twenty-five years. I’ve never loved it. It was too dark, too stark; I wanted pretty. Now I can’t imagine another journal that could speak the strong, gentle truth more perfectly. It’s a somber black with threads of gold woven through it, defying the darkness. Its unlined pages haven’t provided enough structure for my perfectionism, but they offer plenty of grace-filled space for the messiness of life. A flap folds over to cover the raw edges of the pages, and a gold cord, long enough to wrap around it three complete turns, closes it.
I opened it last night. I had a list to bring to Jesus.
And when I’d finished writing, I turned again to the front, to the words I wrote when I first used the journal: “I leave this process with you and will soon close the book, letting this process be enfolded in your embrace and wrapped around with the glorious love of the Trinity. Where could this process, this journey toward freedom that matters so much to me be any safer?” The words sometimes change: in the moments when I feel like I’m trying to choose not the best candidate but the least bad one, “where could this country that I love be any safer?” Where but enfolded in the embrace of the Trinity could this friendship, this project, this world, be any safer?
We belong to Him. We live in His world. And He, daily, offers Himself to us.
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“For what moment today are you most grateful? Least grateful?” The two questions are blurring, becoming one. As I become honest in God’s presence about the things that hurt and find myself once again loved—I God’s, and He mine—that tender moment of lovedness becomes the moment in the day for which I am most grateful.

When it’s Thanksgiving and you want to feel it

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So there it was—Thanksgiving Sunday—and I was doing my best to get into it. I want thanksgiving to characterize my life every day of the year, so it felt especially sad that on this weekend that our Canadian forefathers and mothers set apart to give special thanks, I was full of self-pity. Yuck.

I know sometimes thanksgiving is a sacrifice; we’re to give thanks anyway, even when it feels hard. Often that choice—to give thanks anyway—opens my eyes so I can see again how good God is, and joy creeps in and my thankfulness switches from something I’m doing out of sheer obedience to something I’m doing because God is so big and so good and loves me so much that what’s not to give thanks for?

But there are days—like yesterday—when I want to feel thankful, I try to give thanks anyway, and my eyes stay glued shut and my self curved in and my thanks stays tasting like cardboard. I wondered why.

So I asked.

“God, You are so good—there’s enough in Your character to keep me giving thanks forever. And on top of that you’ve poured out so many other blessings. Why don’t I feel thankful even when I want to, even when I’m trying to give thanks?”

“It’s hard to give thanks for a gift you’ve just pushed away.”

Huh.

I think we’ve been here before, He and I.

I can feel deeply thankful in the middle of illness, in the middle of grief, in the middle of just about anything—as long as I feel loved. And since God’s love for me never changes, when I’m not feeling loved, it’s because I’m pulling away, or pushing him away.

So I ask another question, one that I plan to keep handy for every time thanksgiving fails to open my eyes, “Jesus, where am I pushing away your love?”

A string of questions follows:

  • Am I insisting on carrying burdens that God wants to carry for me?
  • Am I berating myself (perhaps for not feeling thankful enough?) while God is whispering that he loves me and just wants me back in His arms?
  • Am I refusing to receive His love through the hands of a friend? Failing to rest when He invites me to? Prioritizing the do-list over the moment of celebration He has invited me into?

He brings me back once more to a prayer that helps me stop pushing Him away:

“Blessed Trinity,

I receive your love,

your presence

and this day as a gift from you.

I open my heart to you.

Please lead me deeper

into your transforming love

as we live these next hours together.

Amen.”

And as I give thanks for Grace that always welcomes me home and Love that wants me to know I’m loved and parents who listen and a friend who drives, my cardboard thanksgiving catches fire and I wonder if the world will end before I run out of things to give thanks for. And this—this Love in which we find ourselves—is the flame that turns thanksgiving to thanksliving and moves us out to change the world.

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When you don’t feel thankful

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Last year on Thanksgiving we used coffee beans, this year Shreddies, five by each plate and a small bowl in the table’s center to collect our tokens as we took turns offering thanks for God’s goodness. Five Shreddies, five times around the table, five opportunities to express gratefulness.

This year the thanks came slowly. Too slowly. So we took the Shreddies out of the bowl and started again. And again. And gradually our hearts caught up with our hands and our words. “I’m thankful for friends that keep loving in the mess.” “Me too!” “This gift needs two Shreddies!”

Am I alone in this, or do you, too, ever wonder why, when we’re surrounded by blessings, it is so often hard to give thanks?

Sometimes it’s that I don’t see. My eyes are on struggle rather than beauty and I jump in and out of the hot running water, eat the whole plateful of delicious food, and walk by the window’s beautiful view without feeling or tasting or really looking at any of it. Here, giving thanks (whether with Shreddies or a notebook and pen) helps, training me to look and listen, to notice the blessings.

Often, though, when I’m not feeling thankful, it’s not counting gifts I first need, but lament. Trying to push past pain into thankfulness without space for honest tears shapes only empty words, not a heart full of gratitude. A cry for help, anger at injustice, a tearful “where are you God?!” – many of the psalms begin here. Grace teaches lament, receiving it as holy prayer rather than condemning us for not seeing the always present blessings. And Grace makes lament a pathway to praise. As the poet pours out pain and finds himself welcomed, he discovers honest reason to be thankful. (Isn’t this the best reason to be thankful – that we can come as we are and find ourselves welcomed?!)

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving Day!

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What helps you most when you’re not feeling thankful? What are you most thankful for today?