Thanksgiving Sunday! We’re singing the hymns and smelling the pumpkin and thinking about the Dallas Cowboys getting ready to play with a twenty million dollar a year backup quarterback cheering on the rookie that has taken his place as leader of the team. Everything is heartwarming, peaceful and congenial and we are grateful. But then again, we haven’t met with the family at the Thanksgiving table just yet. And come to think of it, this will be the first many of us will see extended family since the presidential election – what timing! Maybe you have a certain uncle that will be coming with Make America Great Again hats to pass around, a second cousin who will bring a table-sized diagram outlining the failings of the Electoral College and your sister’s new boyfriend who will try to cut the tension by saying he didn’t like either candidate and wrote in Greg Brady. There are spoof videos surfacing of course. The Saturday Night Live sketch from a year ago that depicted a family fighting over the political campaigns at Thanksgiving. When things heated up, the lone child at the table would play Adele’s song “Hello.” It was the only thing that could neutralize both sides of the table.
This week, the Holderness family, made famous by their funny viral videos, put out a Thanksgiving offering this week called, “Welcome to my Couch” using the television as a distraction from political conversation with the family.
Author Christian Piatt, who visited here a year ago, made some suggestions about how to talk to your family at Thanksgiving who voted differently than you did in the Presidential election. Because this is a definite reality many of us may experience, let me take a minute to share a few of his suggestions. Very straight forward and simple ideas.
- Listen more than you speak. Easier for some of us than others.
- Focus on personal stories. Nobody can argue with your own personal experience – something that really happened to you and how it made you feel.
- Don’t generalize or label. This is a move from the “basket of deplorables” comment or applying any general label to an entire race of people or religion as has been done this political season. This is not helpful and only says, “I don’t value you as a person. I only see you as a part of a general group.”
- How about this for one of my ongoing favorites: Would you rather be right or be in relationship? Focus on the love your share that is greater than your differences. Nowhere in the Gospels does it say, “Thou shalt be right.” It says plenty and often, however, “Love one another.”
- Try hard to find common ground. There has to be things you can agree are important – serving the community or, if nothing else, appreciating grandma’s homemade gravy.
- Don’t talk at someone; talk with them and… don’t ask loaded questions. That’s just not fair. If you ask something you’ve already decided has only one right answer then you’re just being passive aggressive.
- In a similar spirit, watch snarky humor. Probably too soon. Try to laugh together but not at the expense of another’s ideas or feelings. Remember, underneath what you may see as bad politics, ideals, or haircuts is a human being with much at stake just like you. Respect that.
You know my favorite question asked during any debate or throughout the political season was asked at the town hall style debate. It was the last question of the night. Essentially it was this: “Name something you admire about the other candidate.” Hillary complimented the Trump children and Donald lifted up Hillary’s no-quit spirit. When you’re at the family table this Thursday, try to find something positive to say about the person or ideal they hold. It seems we are more ready to be a threat to our family members and friends with opposing views than truly seeking to have a healthy understanding of why they feel how they do. In the end, love is really all we have to hold us together. Let’s not give up on that. Let’s work to pass the rolls gently this week instead of throwing them at each other. Pay forward a little love.
That’s what we’re all about today as we wrap up our Pay it Forward stewardship series on this Thanksgiving Sunday. The gifts we pile together … the pledges… the commitments… and even the paper hearts that will hold on them your plans, and mine, to pay God’s love forward in 2017. These are all things we celebrate today with the deepest sense of gratitude in spite of our various hardships. The strength of our resolve to share the ups and downs of this journey determine what is possible in the year ahead. And our commitments should be celebrated. So let’s do that today as we always do in worship and as we feast together tonight as a family of faith. God is good indeed!
The Psalms are a great place to find a spirit of thanksgiving. Many of us learned how to pray to God and how to praise God by praying and singing through the Psalms. The Hebrew people had a several-centuries head start on us and assembled what is by far the greatest prayer book we could ever claim. It’s an honest collection of prayers: praise, lament, despair, desperation, help. Anne Lamott said prayer is most easily summarized in three short words: “Help! Thanks! Wow!” The collection of Psalms would essentially agree. King David, to whom many of the Psalms are attributed, offers in Psalm 116 an account of what he’s been through, what he’s overcome, and who he credits for that reality. Spoiler Alert – it’s God! And you think, “Come on.” David was a wild and crazy dude with a rap sheet and promiscuous eye and yet moment to moment he finds a way through and he leans on what we’ve loved to call him: “A man after God’s own heart.” We may think, “Who gives God such credit?” And I can say, “You do.” Two separate occasions this week, I had the privilege of hanging with a HACC friend who said, “I know without a doubt that I could not have pulled through the darkness I was in without God.”
It was a week for such statements of gratitude as I also had the privilege of hosting a Stand in the Gap table this past Tuesday at a ministry awareness event. We heard powerful stories from people who claim a new life through the ministry of those willing to stand in the gaps in their lives. The guest speaker was former mobster, Michael Franzese. “Former mobster” is not a common phrase unless used to describe someone who has died and was also a mobster. In fact, in 1986, Fortune Magazine listed Franzese as number 18 on its list of the “Fifty Wealthiest and Most Powerful Mafia Bosses.” Franzese commented on this last Tuesday saying of the 50 that made the list, forty-six are dead, none by natural causes, three will die in prison, and the other one is him.
He met and fell in love with a Christian woman whose love for Christ, and ultimately for him, led him to attempt the unthinkable – get out of the mob. He turned himself in to the authorities, took a plea deal concerning his racketeering scheme and spent time in federal prison – some thirty-six months at one point in the hole – solitary confinement. He had nothing but a Bible one of the guards gave him. Franzese said, “I’ve experienced every possible emotion you could ever imagine – endured some ridiculously crazy stuff and yet the hopelessness of the hole is the worst.” Reading the scriptures, especially the wisdom of the Proverbs, began to fill that emptiness with a hope he never knew before. You can go through anything when hope is present. And hope always leads to gratitude. Franzese speaks of his Christian faith all over the country – the last time he did in Oklahoma was at the invitation of Bob Stoops and the OU football program. He speaks to troubled youth. He speaks to inmates – one inmate particularly has his attention – his father, Sonny Franzese an Under Boss in the Colombo mob family who will turn 100 years old next year in prison – the oldest inmate in a US federal penitentiary. Sonny is back in prison following a wire-tap job Michael’s brother facilitated indicting his dad on further charges. Talk about a tough Thanksgiving meal with your family? Michael can’t fully explain why he’s still alive against all odds but he’s devoted whatever time and energy he has left to paying forward God’s message of love and grace for all people.
King David has been on his own wild ride of a life and notes in this Psalm – “I was at the end of my rope but God saved me.” He says, “Despite a ton of bad luck; despite giving up on the human race thinking they’re all liars and cheats, I’m alive and striding in the presence of God.” I think many of us can relate to David’s sentiment here – we’ve been through hard things – things at the time that felt like the end of all things – the death of life as we knew it. There were times – maybe especially of late if social media is any measure of such things – where you gave up on the human race thinking, as David claims, “they’re all liars and cheats.” In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that exact phrase on some Face Book commentary. My friends, the moment we expect our President to fix our lives is the moment we’ve lost sight of who God has created us to be. There is often a sense that our lives are like our favorite movies. You’ve probably even had to answer that question at some point in your life – “What actor should play you in a movie about your life?” And you answered ____________. Always a lot of Clooneys, Denzels and Julia Roberts when you ask these questions. Not usually a lot of Gary Buseys? He is a Tulsan, however, and grew up in a Disciples church. He is even and Academy Award nominated actor so maybe give him a chance.
Anyway – we see life as having that climax moment when the pain is resolved and the glory and ease of life is all that is left. It looks that easy in the movies and so we project that onto our lives as well. And it’s not that we don’t overcome hard things because we do. It’s just that we’ve got to learn to be grateful even through the hard stuff. And we can share this gift with one another as well. “When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are. And when you stop expecting material possessions to complete you, you’d be surprised at how much pleasure you can find in some material possessions. And when you stop expecting God to end all your troubles, you’d be surprised how much you like spending time with God.” When you look at your life and wonder, “God, why haven’t you fixed me yet?” you may very well be asking the wrong question. God is less Fixer and more Companion – thus the incarnation of the Christmas story which we begin working toward next week.
All of this leads David to gratitude: “What can I give back to God for the blessings he’s poured out on me?” I love his answer. He says, “I’ll pray in God’s name; I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do, and I’ll do it together with his people.” The end of his rope stuff turned into resolve: “I’ll complete what I promised.” The human race he once called liars and cheats he now calls partners, working together to complete what has been promised. All of it covered in prayer. If you get lost from day to day, sucked into somebody’s drama, lost in a state of apathy, or have no focused direction, borrow David’s three claims here: Pray. Remember what you’ve promised God. Fulfill that promise with the people God has entrusted your journey in the here and now. Maybe you need to make some new promises. God – you know who you are. You know who I am. You know who surrounds me now. Use us. Move us. Help us pay your love forward.
Friends – as we wrap up this series – think about what you’re paying forward to others in honor of God’s grace. I’ve been so moved by members of the HACC family who have been sharing their pay it forward stories this season. You all inspire me every day to keep my God-promises too. Hannah Lollman shared her pay it forward story in a very unique way. She is an amazing artist and Children’s Book Illustrator.
In fact, just in time for Christmas, here is one of her latest works (The Christmas Mouse) that tells a story her grandmother told for years with her amazing artwork to make the story come to life. When our Stewardship Team Leader, Bruce Cargill, who shared his heart with us last week asked Hannah to answer the question, “What does it mean to you to pay God’s love forward,” she began sending these amazing images that we’ve then used throughout this series. She sent this word to accompany her beautiful artwork: “For me, paying God’s love forward means loving everyone as Christ would love them (especially those who aren’t like me.) With that in mind, I created one image of a boy discovering a heart and going from person to person sharing an unending supply with everyone he meets.”
Just beautiful! And what a way to pay her gifts forward to support God’s movement at HACC. Hannah also regularly stations our welcome desk on Sunday mornings. She and her husband, Justin, are helping co-lead our new Cornerstone Young Adult Community Group with the Dyers. So many ways of paying God’s love forward…
What’s on your heart this morning? Literally – this heart you’ve been given – what’s on it? How will you pay God’s love forward in 2017? Let’s be that church that makes noise in the community for all the right reasons – because people are welcome here. Because love pours outside of the doors and into the community. Because we pool the best of who we are and thank God for the opportunity to share. We create the scenes of this story with the Ultimate Author of life. We pray. We complete the promises we’ve made. We do it together.
- https://www.facebook.com/christianpiattauthor/?fref=ts ↑
- http://www.michaelfranzese.com/. Comments came from his speech given at the Stand in the Gap luncheon I attended last week. ↑