Today I Saw God
This Thanksgiving was a simple one for our family. It had been a rocky few months with work and potential financial setbacks that I defaulted to my most instinctual response to my world spinning out of control: I wanted my family. So, this year, we spent Thanksgiving with my mom, my younger sister, and my hero, my grandmother. My grandmother is 90-years-old and will be 91 in January. She still makes the best yeast rolls (a BIG pull to family meals at my mom's house), looks like she may be in her late-60s or mid-70s, and she is mentally sharper than most people alive. Though physically she isn't as spry as she used to be, she can motivate you to do your best with just a raised eyebrow, and that is just what I needed going into the holiday season.
You see, I would be nothing without my grandmother. My grandmother stepped in to fill the void of a father when mine passed away when I was only eight months old. My mother was 20 and had two children under two. My nanna was and is the best father figure that any young child could ask for, in my opinion. She is musical, playing with amazing skill any instrument she touched. She led the student choir at my church with the same professionalism she led the adult choir and her all-state winning choirs at the high school. She was well-read and promoted reading and education at all times. One of my favorite sayings of hers is, "When you have learned everything, you know your time on Earth has come to an end." She is my mentor in exploring music and the arts. We discussed Degas, Serat, Van Gogh, Rimsky-Korsikoff, Rachmoninov, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Aaron Copeland, Rogers & Hammerstein, the Gershwin Brothers, Balanchine, Tallchief, Pavlova, Petipa, Fosse, The Nicholas Brothers, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Scott Joplin, Sarah Vaughn, Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Bojangles, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, and Herbie Hancock just name a few (and if you don't know who most of those people are, fortunately, there is Google). She taught me the joy of research and the power of learning who you are. She also taught me that who you are and will be is so strongly influenced by who you come from.
In the Bible, there are endless entries that discuss people's lineage. Even in the case of Christ, Matthew makes a point to take the most circuitous route possible to show his relationship to the great King David. That continues even today. Walt Disney and the Disney corporation honor the importance of lineage with the appearance of at least one apple in every major Disney film. This is their way to represent and honor Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the first full-length animated feature film. It introduced us to the movie soundtrack, was Walt Disney Pictures' first majorly profitable animation, changed the landscape of animation as it was known, won the first Oscar ever for an animated film, but could have also been the film that ended Walt Disney's career.
In business and politics, we acknowledge the lineage of such families as the Rockefellers, the Hearsts, the Rothschilds, and the Kennedys. We watch the antics of their latest generations because their families have access to the mediums that draw us, "the unknowns" in, and many of us desire to be like them. In the world I grew up in that was based in the Southern African-American Baptist lineage was viewed much differently. It was the foundation of the "generational curse," in which it was believed that the circumstances of people today is a direct result of the sins and mistakes of their forefathers. This always baffled me because I always wondered why those who bore the names of slave traders, early settlers that killed entire populations of indigenous people, slave owners, and Confederate generals never hung their heads in shame or faced persecution because of the "sins" of their forefathers? When I informed a boy in high school that my grandmother and I learned his family had actually owned members of my family, instead of asking if I had learned anything else, his response was a snide one of, "well, I guess you're glad you're free now then. I would have made you miserable," followed by laughter. The fact that my ancestors were owned by someone was not a point of sadness or shame for me. My grandmother taught me by learning as much as we could about ourselves, we would find more commonalities and more reasons to live in harmony than we would not to get along. We all in a way have humble beginnings that are changed by our belief that somewhere in our past and perhaps, even someone in our future can create a positive difference for our own part of the world.
Looking from the outside in, the difference from those whose lineage and power is derived mostly from money and very little else and those who lineage comes from investing in something they love that could hopefully better the landscape of the world for a lot of people is a difference of quantity and quality. Those in the financial and political spectrum have a power they control through money. Once the money is gone; once it has no value or a value far less than it does now, that power is gone. I acknowledge Walt Disney was no saint, but Disney made his imprint through quality work. He was obsessed with the quality to make a defining animation that would inspire wonder and imagination. He was not afraid to lose money because what he loved was not in the bank – it was in his sketchbooks and then in his films. Closer to home for me, my grandmother opened her heart, pantry, closet, wallet, and classrooms to students from all walks of life for almost 40 years. She taught in the agrarian areas of Virginia which were the home to impoverished Blacks with limited access to education. She taught in her living room and churches. She taught during segregation into integration. She opened the minds of Black students who only saw the limitations that society wanted them to adhere to, changed the hearts of skeptical White students and teachers, and empowered all her students to be their best self. Years after her students graduated and she retired, her students would come up to her and tell her what a difference she made in their lives. They would speak for hours, and her students would tell me how lucky I was to have her every day. Those were words I didn't need hear but was so proud that I could.
When I come home and sit among the comfort of my family, I am thankful for the line of women I continue. My grandmother's persistence to do well in all things, my mother's desire to always do better than the previous day, week, or year, and the overall drive that those women taught me about never giving up is more powerful than any financial lineage I have read about or witness on the world's stage. It is Christ's example of giving to those who need it, loving those who don't deserve it, and raising up those who feel the least worthy. I am bathed in the stories of triumph in the face of discrimination, calm in the face of violence, compassion in the face of inequality, and truth in the face of lies. There is a world out there that would reduce my family down to the whitewashed history of slaves, loud-mouthed preachers, and uppity-negroes, but what I see are the descendants of the same people who can claim the One True King as their own. I hope to continue the line of people who inspire others to be in the world but not of the world. I couldn't ask for a better lineage to claim as my own.
"Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each," writes Paul Goodman in the Nine Kinds of Silence.
"There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy;the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face;the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts;the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, "This this";the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity;the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear;the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and sub-vocal speech but sullen to say it;baffled silence;the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos."
What a beautiful display, like the unfurling of cards in your hand. At first, one, and then one by one, slowly displayed and made available to be played.
Silence, not just one thing but many. Mesmerizing. As in the magical world of The Phantom Tollbooth
"Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven't the answer to a question you've been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you're alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully."Norton Juster
Ah, the moment after the door closes when you are all alone in the whole house. Silence is so much more than quiet. It is shush. It is thinking. It is fear. It is failure. It is overpowering. It is overpowered. It is an expectation. It is reciprocation. It is listening. It is distracted. Isn't silence amazing?
Goodman and Juster have inspired me to think about the many kinds of Generosity, for "not giving and giving are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each."
There is the selfish generosity which withholds because it doesn't notice need; the generosity of scarcity which hoards and stores, fearing scant days ahead; the glad generosity which gains by opening generosity's door; the generosity of the perfect gift which smiles in anticipation; the generosity of giving without expecting anything in return; the generosity of listening which, by its attention, strengthens and grows; the shrinking generosity of payment due, extracting joy; the gift declined; and yet, yet, the generosity of spirit, unbidden, uncompelled, offered wholly back to God and to those whom God loves.
Giving and not giving are both human ways of being in the world. Only one remains.It is not the gift God loves, it's the giver.
Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.Each one must give as he has decided in his heart,not reluctantly or under compulsion, forGod loves a cheerful giver. ~2 Corinthians 9:6-7
Editor's Note: Last week 16 middle school students and fiveleaders traveled to Romney, West Virginia to participate in theJeremiah Project. The following is a blog post from one of the students on the trip, Sydney Schneider.
During the mission trip there were plenty of sermons, but one sermon really stood out and helped me grow in faith with God. The key word in worship that day was "love," and the verse was 1 Peter 1:22.
The verse states, "Since you have purified your souls by obedience to the truth, so that you have a genuine love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from a pure heart." Summarized, this verse says to love others with all your heart.
Throughout worship, we got to acknowledge all the people in our life who have impacted us. We learned that by loving others with our whole heart, we can have a big impact on them.
I really felt a connection with God when we were told to write the names of everyone who has impacted us on a little black piece of paper cut into the silhouette of a face. As I was writing all the names of friends and family while reflecting upon all that was said in worship, I realized just how much love is in my life. I could feel the presence of God with me. Thanks to the Jeremiah Project, my faith and trust in God has grown tremendously.
How do you give thanks when you are feeling low? In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, I lacked my usual enthusiasm, instead passively waiting for Thursday to arrive. Last year, my aunt brought a gratitude journal to dinner to record our collective thoughts. Everyone more-or-less wrote the same things: health, happiness, family and iPhones. But this year my family weathered some severe storms: aggressive cancer treatments, substance abuse and addiction, debilitating depression and anxiety and much more. I expect the mood will be different at dinner this year.
A dramatic shift in circumstances has created a tremendous challenge for me in terms of giving thanks. I asked questions like, "Is it possible to give thanks for health when your health is suffering?" As my family prepared by buying groceries and table settings, I felt like there was deeper work to be done.
The plan is to use gratitude as a self-care act that will restore and heal, rather than serve as an elusive goal for some other time. Just as we nurture our bodies with food, gratitude can nurture our souls as we deal with sadness. If there is anyone else out there who is experiencing a similar rough patch, I invite you to take the following steps with me. Let's give thanks as a radical act of self-care.
Articulate very clearly why you are thankful. Sometimes, it's easy to say, "I'm thankful for family." without taking the time to specify what that means. For me, rephrasing the statement to "I enjoy the time I spend with my family because they support and love me." or "I would experience great loss if I didn't have this person in my life." has a more personalized and lasting message.
Find one blessing and focus on it. Sometimes, identifying one blessing helps me see others. Friends, neighbors and extended family have come to our rescue so many times in the past year. I occasionally take this for granted. Now, I strive to intentionally notice and appreciate their generosity. It encourages me to be more loving, and subsequently, more happy.
Think about how limited your vision is compared to God. When I am experiencing hardship, I try to recognize that there is a divine understanding that is pretty much impossible to comprehend. People throughout history have encountered the same challenges, and their stories have played out in various ways. I am no different than them and neither are you. Gratitude gives us hope for resolution and peace.
Remember that gratitude it a way to restore ourselves and remember who we are as Christians. Expressing gratitude is a central Christian virtue. If it wasn't good for our emotional health, we wouldn't be encouraged so adamantly to give thanks.
"All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God." – 2 Corinthians 4:15. Express gratitude as if your health and happiness depend on it. God is always caring for us. When we are feeling low, this is especially true. Happy Thanksgiving!
I received a thank you recently from a friend. It was an email, probably no more than four to five sentences. I was struck that something so brief could have such an impact. This person shared something I had done that I had forgotten. When I read the note, I realized that not only did my action matter to my friend, but I did as well.
Few people demand to have their existence validated, but the smile that came to my face reminded me how nice it is when someone takes time to express their appreciation and let you know that they notice the things you do.
Since Sunday, October 16, I have written a thank you card daily to express my gratitude to people who have been a blessing in my life as a part of Floris UMC's "Gratitude Adjustment" sermon series' 21-day gratitude challenge. I have been left with two strong impressions.
First, for every card I write, I can think of several more that could be written. I have a lifetime of thank you notes to write given how often God uses people to bless my life in some way. Family, friends, neighbors and, sometimes, total strangers are so often thoughtful and kind that it is rather remarkable.
Second, as I compose each note, I re-experience the kindness that someone showed me. Choosing the words to write often leads to a deeper realization of the time someone spent, the expertise they offered or the care they demonstrated.
While the cards have helped me think about how I might bless others, my real hope is that the recipients will enjoy the affirmation of their words and actions. So often people do acts of kindness instinctively. They do not consider it a burden or a hassle and are surprised when their effort is acknowledged.
On Sunday, October 30, I hope you will join me in writing a different card of thanks. Every year I ask those who call Floris UMC their church home to fill out an Estimate of Giving Card to indicate what their financial giving will be in the coming year. I ask you to do this for a couple of reasons.
It enables you to have a conversation with yourself or with your spouse about the level of generosity you hope to pursue in the coming year. Studies indicate that without a goal, most people give very little of their income, less then 2 percent, to any charitable purpose.
The card also helps your church understand what level of financial support it will enjoy in the coming year. Being good stewards of your tithes and offerings requires a great deal of advanced planning. Your Estimate of Giving Card gives your church information that is very helpful in that process.
Most importantly, however, I hope that your Estimate of Giving Card will be a way to express your appreciation to God for the gifts you enjoy in life. Our "Gratitude Adjustment" series at Floris UMC has made me keenly aware of how many ways Jesus has shown me grace and love.
I am conscious of the forgiveness I enjoy and the purpose he has placed in my life. I am grateful for our church and the ways it is working to bless people in the community and world, even as it cares for those who call it their spiritual home.
I see God working in people around me each day, through their gifts and the time they devote to others. When my wife, Karen, and I agree to the figure we plan to give the church in the coming year, it is another way we say "thanks" to God. It is a way we tell God that we notice grace.