Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Giving thanks in a broken world

The other day my family was at Kraay Family Farms near Lacombe. It is a fun place. We went through the corn maze, took a look at the animals, and we ran through the obstacle course. Then my boys lined up for a chance to fire a small pumpkin out of a cannon at an old school bus. As I watched a pumpkin shatter off the side of the bus a thought passed through my mind. … How can we have so much while people in the Sudan are starving? How can we have so much food that we fire it out of cannons, while other have nothing?

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. How can we celebrate thanksgiving when people in Mexico have been dealing with the aftermath of a massive earthquake, and those around the Gulf and in the Caribbean have been dealing with hurricanes? … My parents just came back from Las Vegas, which was a very different experience as a place people go to for fun. A friend of mine recently told me that in the last 477 days there have been 521 mass shootings in the United States, which is defined as an attack on more than 4 people. Nearly every day I used to drive past the place where the police officer was attacked in Edmonton.

It’s not like the world has ever really been that different. Go back a few years and we are dealing with the rise of ISIS, then the attack on the Twin Towers. Go back a bit farther and we are dealing with Rwanda, and Cambodia, then Nazi Germany, and so on. When we are confronted by tragedy we have to sadly say, “it has always been so”.

So what does it mean to give thanks in a world like this? Some might suggest we shouldn’t give thanks at all. Maybe we should just lament and mourn on behalf of the suffering in the world. How dare we be happy and celebrate in such a world?

In the ancient world there was a heresy called Gnosticism. One of the general beliefs of Gnosticism is that it believed that the world we live in was created by an evil power and we needed to escape this world to become free to go to the good immaterial world created by God. The physical world is a kind of a horrible prison for our souls.

The Gnostics were named a heresy by the early Church because Scripture states that the world was created by God, even though it is broken in some ways. God looked at the world and said it was good. And we affirm that the world is good, while still recognizing it is infected by sin and lacking some of its original goodness.

It is tempting to get lost in this judgement on the world for its brokenness and sin. Life is suffering. Life is tragic. There is so much pain in the world. How dare we celebrate? How dare we feast when there is so much pain in the world?

I have noticed a tendency in the psychological world, and it has had an effect on those interested in spiritual formation. You sit with someone and it seems like the only really valuable insight has to do with pain. When I was training as a chaplain people often joked that we did our job well when we left people in tears. We touched pain and therefore we touched something real. For some reason we thought that being happy was a mask over the pain. Happiness was a mask. Only the pain was real. … I learned to journal as a part of my formation and it seemed to me that the more pain I explored, the more meaningful it was. It was seductive. I could get lost in the pain.

We don’t want to ignore the pain. We are dealing with real pain and evil in the world. … But, we cannot ignore the original goodness. We are called ultimately to look to the future promised by Jesus. We are to live now out of that promised future. That means we are called to joy. It has been said that Christians are like trees who have their roots planted in the future. Our energy comes from that future reality God has promised, where all the wrongs have been put right.

One of my favorite theologians, Alexander Schmemann, once said “of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy”. If the Atheist Frederick Nietzsche encountered a Christian community without joy, then he encountered an incredibly broken community. St. Augustine said, “The Christian should be an alleluia from head to foot”. As a community, Christians should be joyful. It is one of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5), after all!

In John 15 Jesus said, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). As Christians we are to look through the pain and suffering to the prophetic joy when all things will be made right.

God’s people are commanded to celebrate and feast throughout Scripture (Ex 12:14; Lev 23:4, 37; Num 10:10; Ps 126:2; etc). This includes a weekly observation of the Sabbath. Regardless of what they were dealing with and what was going on in the nation they were commanded to take regular time to celebrate and remember the goodness of God.

C.S. Lewis clued into this truth about God. In one book he said, “It is a Christian duty … for everyone to be as happy as he can”.[1] … In the Screwtape Letters, another book by by Lewis, he imagines things from a demon’s point of view. The demon Screwtape laments that they are not able to produce any real pleasure to tempt people with. They have to take the pleasures God has created and twist them before they can be used for evil ends. The demon complains about God saying, “He’s a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore.’ … He has filled His world full of pleasures. … Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side”.[2] … God created a world full of pleasures.

Again, this isn’t to diminish the pain and suffering in the world, but our call to joy is a call to believe that God’s goodness will overcome the pain of the world. Resurrection will overcome the cross. The kingdom of God will overtake the Empire. … The prophets talk about a time when God’s justice will overtake the suffering and evil in the world. For God’s people to celebrate in the midst of a world full of pain is a protest against the darkness. It is a declaration that God will overcome, and evil will not have the last word. … We sit down to a thanksgiving dinner in protest against the darkness in the world. We celebrate to express our faith that God is good and created a good world.

The Eucharist is a thanksgiving meal. To this day if you want to say ‘thank you’ in Greece you say, “eucharisto” (pronounced ‘efharisto’ in modern Greek). Every Sunday what we are doing is having a thanksgiving meal. We are remembering what God has done for us. We look through the pain of the cross to the resurrection and we declare that pain and suffering and brokenness will not have the last word. God ultimately has things under control. It is in celebrating the Eucharist that we remember our true nature as created beings. Again, the theologian Alexander Schmemann says, “When man stands before the throne of God when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks. Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man. … Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven.” … Thanksgiving is our true and eternal nature as we respond to all God has done. The suffering and pain is temporary and we dare not treat it as eternal. What is eternal is thanksgiving and that is the reality God’s people are called to live- that is our true identity.

The pain and suffering of our world is real. But the goodness of God is more real. The goodness of the creation will outlast the brokenness of creation. The cross is overshadowed by resurrection. Jesus has called us to be eucharistic people. We are people of thanksgiving, and into the midst of the darkness we sing our songs and celebrate because we are a people with our roots in God’s future. AMEN

[1] A Severe Mercy, 189  
[2] The Screwtape Letters, 112-113

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