Thursday, November 24, 2005

On Raking Leaves and Giving Thanks

"Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

I raked leaves yesterday. Raked and raked and raked. They’ve been falling since sometime in September, recent weeks seeing the heaviest deposits on my lawn and driveway. Yesterday was my first effort to bring order to Mother Nature’s random acts of unkindness. I was severely outnumbered. The piles into which I gathered the leaves seemed mountainous. I stayed at it from noon until 5 pm and all I did was clear the deck behind my house, the driveway, and the walk leading to the front door. There’s still more to do, plenty more.

This morning as I went downstairs to make coffee, and then climbed those stairs again to come to this room, I could feel in my back and legs every stroke of the rake, every leaning over to pick up leaves. I will admit feeling some gratification at laboring for hours and then seeing my cleared driveway. When you rake leaves there is a tight connection between effort and result. Every handful of leaves bagged is making a difference, even if that difference isn’t immediately seen. That’s not always true of my “regular” work as a pastor. Still, even with obvious results after more than four hours of work, I didn’t enjoy raking the leaves. This shouldn’t be hard for most people to understand. There’s nothing enjoyable about raking. It’s tedious repetitive work.

And yet, the leaves that so inconveniently cover my yard and driveway and deck are themselves laden with grace and majesty. This is too easily missed. The very nature of raking leaves requires staying focused on the ground, on the dead foliage that has become nothing but litter to be removed. I cannot say that there was a moment yesterday when I stopped and looked up. The leaves at my feet had come from majestic tall trees that stand in my yard. Trees that were there long before there were streets nearby or houses; trees that predate my birth and the birth of my parents. Months ago those very leaves had emerged with the warmth of spring and the approach of summer. They emerged quietly and without being noticed.

I think of the opening lines of one of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems:

I go among trees and sit still.
All of my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.

I didn’t do that yesterday. I went among trees and complained silently within myself and endured the moments and cursed the breezes that blew my neighbor's leaves into my yard and disturbed my neatly formed leaf-piles and made it harder for me to get the job done quickly. I missed the grace of creation and the wonder changing seasons, how they move in line, each taking their turn up front.

The leaves at my feet were like manna. Not edible of course, but there on the ground every year, every fall morning as a gift – the gift of time. Like the Hebrews who eventually grew tired of the gift of manna, I too saw only inconvenience. I did not give thanks. The movement of time is too gradual and quiet to notice and the massive towering trees were above me where I never bothered to look.

I am more like Jonah. As Jonah waited for God to destroy Nineveh God provided a tree for shade, a comfortable place from which the prophet could see God do exactly what he wanted God to do. After a while God sent a worm that withered the tree and killed it, and the sun baked Jonah’s exposed head and made him miserable. Jonah became angry because he understood the tree solely in terms of his own comfort and convenience. God was trying to teach Jonah about mercy, but the little book of Jonah ends and we never see the prophet celebrate or give thanks for God’s grace in sparing Nineveh. We leave Jonah sulking, inconvenienced and disappointed because things were not working out as he had hoped.

Raking leaves yesterday reminded me that genuine gratitude will never come from a heart that measures everything in terms of convenience or some direct benefit to the self. One who cannot go among trees and sit still, or who never bothers to look up and gaze at what towers above or who fails to realize the simple gift of every day – such a person won’t truly give thanks.

In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians there are at least three times where he mentions being thankful or giving thanks. None of them have anything to do directly with Paul. He gives thanks for their steadfast faith and for the way they responded to the message of good news concerning Jesus Christ. At the conclusion of the letter his counsel to them is simple and straightforward. “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18). The truth is, not all circumstances are convenient or pleasant or desirable. Yet God wills that we be thankful in all of them. This will require seeing something above us and beyond us.

For that reason, giving thanks isn’t an occasion as much as it is a discipline. We’re not always good at it. We need practice. Tomorrow I’m planning to rake more leaves in preparation for visiting family. Maybe tomorrow I’ll go among trees and in the midst of the labor look up and give thanks.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Reflections on a Long Life that Only Lasted 54 Years.

Jonathan Edwards only lived to be 54 years old. At the age of 42 I began reading George Marsden’s masterful biography of Edwards, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. At the rate I’m going I’ll be 54 before I finish this hefty volume.

It’s not that the book isn’t “good” or interesting. It is in fact a wonderfully engaging telling of Edwards’ life and the era in which he lived. But it’s not a book that can be read quickly. What’s more, Marsden is excruciatingly thorough. There’s so much in every chapter to take in and sort through and keep up with. Arnold B. Cheyney, in his little book Writing: A Way to Pray, recalls his surprise as a student when one of his professors encouraged students to feel free to “check out” in the middle of a lecture. The professor wanted his students to have the liberty to actually stop and think about something they had just heard.[1]

Marsden’s biography requires that kind of reading. It invites reflection – even requires it. I can’t truthfully say that my slow progress through the 505 pages of text can be attributed to my deep thinking about what I’m reading. Frankly, I’m easily distracted. I don’t do a good job of reading through one book before starting another one. Edwards keeps losing out to other things. But that’s what makes the biography interesting. I’ll read something from a contemporary author, and then discover that the spiritually engaging questions of today are nothing new. What captures us now captured a New England pastor in the 1740s. Some of the ways I’m seeing this in the life of Jonathan Edwards would include:

Upheaval and change in the culture: There’s no shortage of material being published today about doing church in the “postmodern” age. Old assumptions no longer hold. Established practices no longer work. Of particular interest today is a shift in the locus of authority. Authority no longer resides in the sacred text or the ordained pastor. While post-moderns may retain respect and regarded for the Bible and the pastor, something more is required. Truth is authenticated by the community, or in some cases by the experience of the individual. While the particulars are different, Edwards lived through similar upheaval. Edwards was an aristocrat and his worldview assumed a hierarchical structure to “the way things are.” This applied to pastoral ministry and the authority of the pastor in the church and community (which by the way were barely distinguishable). Edwards lived at a time when “grassroots” movements were gaining strength. The familiar hierarchies were being challenged. To some degree this factored into his eventual dismissal from his pastorate in Northampton. The world was changing, then and now.

Order and ardor (enthusiasm) in worship: what constitutes the right worship of God? In recent years the term “worship wars” has been coined and no small amount of carnage has resulted as congregations slug it out over what is and isn’t “fitting” for worship. These days music and musical styles seem to be at the center of the turmoil, but just beneath the surface are questions about what worshipers are expressing and how they are expressing it. At a superficial level, the issue is about emotion or emotionalism in worship. Some want worship that is “free” and “heart felt.” Others want worship grounded in the Church’s long established liturgies and thus well ordered. Again, there’s nothing new here. During the awakenings and revivals that were spreading throughout New England in the 1740s there were various expressions associated with the work of the Holy Spirit. A work of God in worship might lead to shouting or fainting or crying.

This kind of thing was known as “enthusiasm” in the 18th century and not all clergy welcomed such manifestations of the Spirit. Edwards’ chief nemesis in these debates was a Boston pastor, Charles Chauncy. Chauncy believed in seeking the Spirit’s outpouring on the church, but he also felt that much of what was being seen in the awakening was a “dishonour to God.”[2] Two camps emerged: the “Old lights” and the “New lights.” The old lights valued intellect. The new lights – Edwards among them – wanted both intellect and passion, what Edwards called the “religious affections.” Edwards and Chauncy traded carefully crafted blows in print and from their pulpits – and it seems that the issue has never gone away.

My slow trudge through Marsden’s biography of Edwards has been humbling, and not simply because of the daunting challenge it presents to my capacity for reading and comprehension. It’s humbling because it puts my era and my ministry in perspective. Where I walk now, others have already walked. The survival of the church really doesn’t depend on me getting it right on post-modernity or the emergent church. Reading about a pastor from almost 300 years ago reminds me that Jesus is the foundation of the church. From age to age, century to century, Christ builds the church just as he promised he would.

Making my way through the 505 pages on Edwards' life is like watching God’s deliberate and faithful work in history. And then I ponder that fact that the God who worked then is working even now. Suddenly, I don’t feel so pressed to finish the book just to say “I read it.” Edwards’ life was short. Marden’s Life is long – and so is the Kingdom. I’ll take my time.

Now for page 320.

[1] Arnold B. Cheyney, Writing: A Way to Pray (Loyola University Press, 1995), 1-2.
[2] Marsden, 271.