Monday, November 22, 2010

Not by bread alone

Historians tell us that the original thanksgiving celebration was held by Pilgrim settlers in Massachusetts during their second winter in America in December 1621. The first winter had killed 44 of the original 102 colonists. At one point their daily food ration had dwindled to five kernels of corn apiece. Then, unexpectedly, a trading vessel appeared, and the Pilgrims were able to stave off starvation by swapping beaver pelts for corn and other foodstuffs.

The next summer’s crop brought hope, and Governor William Bradford decreed that a day be set aside for feasting and prayer to show the gratitude of the colonists that they were still alive. The tradition that has evolved into our Thanksgiving Day was born.

In the year 2010, I enjoy the religious freedom and economic opportunity that is the heritage of our Pilgrim forebears. I, too, am grateful to be alive and thankful for the partnership of others with whom I share joys and heartaches. One of the ways in which we discover meaning is by breaking bread together and sharing a communal meal. Fortunately for us, we need only take our shopping list to Fred Meyer to buy all we need for a Thanksgiving feast—which probably won’t even include corn. Perhaps it should, as at least a symbolic gesture of how God provided for his children at the Plymouth Colony.

Most of us have but a theoretical understanding of what it means for God to “give us this day our daily bread,” which the Pilgrims undoubtedly recited (on empty stomachs) as part of the Lord’s Prayer. Our bread, on the other hand, comes in seemingly endless variety: sourdough, multigrain, soda, baguette, naan, cinnamon raisin, matzoh, tortilla, pita, and on and on. If we come across bread that’s on sale, we sometimes buy enough to freeze several loafs. That, of course, takes a second freezer, which we keep in our garage, which is so filled with stuff that we can’t use it to park our cars, two of which sit unused in our driveway because their drivers are living away from home, which is only possible because of our privileged economic status that allow us to buy gourmet bread in the first place. Being thankful for the provision of our daily bread requires some serious self-delusion. There are plenty of other things for which we can give thanks, but literally speaking, bread is not one of them. The economic world of which my family and I are a part is one of embarrassing surplus.

It is possible to have too much bread and to still be humbled, however. The cancer I’ve lived with now for more than four years has helped us all, once again, to appreciate life in daily increments. In a peculiar way that I’m at a loss to explain, each member of my family has been touched by serious illness or injury in their lives. The details aren’t important, but it has changed how we live and view the world. I’ve written previously about how grateful I am, not for cancer, but for the fresh, invigorating insights that it has brought me. Serious disease is for many people a disaster, unmitigated by any possible goodness. This is especially true for the young, who have not yet lived the days that would seem to be their birthright. I cannot say the same. I am thankful beyond measure for how God has given me the days in which to explore more of who he is, how he is at work in the world, and what he wants me to say and do. The words you read here could not have been written if he hadn’t first granted me a unique opportunity to share his inspiration.

So perhaps this is a different application of the meaning of “daily bread.” Jesus himself told Satan, of all people, that man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds from the mouth of God. That’s a good thing, as it makes me thankful for something that I cannot store up in a garage freezer for my own convenience.

We sang a contemporary hymn at our worship service yesterday by Stuart Townend that never fails to grip me by the throat, especially when we come to the last verse, which appears below. This Thanksgiving, despite having all the corn and bread we could possibly eat, I will remain grateful for God’s provision of abundant food, but I especially want to thank him for his gift of time. The Ancient of Days has graced me with space in which I can pursue, perceive and reflect his glory. Thanks be to God.

My heart is filled with thankfulness
To Him who reigns above.
Whose wisdom is my perfect peace
Whose every thought is love.
For every day I have on earth
Is given by the King,
So I will give my life my all
To love and follow Him.

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