10-1-2017, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Lectionary Series on Barriers to Gratitude
By the time we had our second and third children, I was lucky enough to be be a stay-at-home mom.
We wanted and were blessed with three children. Like the Israelites had prayed for their lives, we had prayed for healthy children, especially after we lost a child during pregnancy and conceiving again took longer than we had hoped.
So here I was, surrounded by my three cherubs! I loved their baby days. I loved getting up in the middle of the night to feed them, while our house and the world around it was fast asleep and oh, so quiet; sitting with them for hours, cuddling; reading books on the sofa or lying in bed soaking in the love, their little arms and legs forming a cocoon around me. Those were the days!
I loved the smell of my children; the sweet baby fragrance, later replaced by the fresh-air-and-earthy smell when they came in from playing outside. In fact, I loved those days so much, that even now, when I look through old pictures from that season of our lives, I want to weep for missing them. Truly, those were the days! <p>
When my children were young and I was a stay-at-home Mom, I took up journaling. It was a way to preserve my sanity, though some may question how well it really worked.
Life with one school-aged child and two toddlers was a little crazy, often totally exhausting, and sometimes really frustrating. Most days, there was just not enough of me to go around.
While I was cleaning up one mess, the “cherubs” were usually delightfully busy making two or three more. I was outnumbered.
With three to run after, schedules to juggle, and living far from any of our family, with minimal support system, those days could be hard. Many of you have been there.
Through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, I look back blissfully on the wonderful, sweet, utopian memories of those days, and think how perfect they were. The journals I kept are a great reality check.
As I read through them, I read loving reflections on the blessing of motherhood, followed by the details of a day to day existence that was fraught with tension, exhaustion, frustration, loneliness, isolation, confusion, worry and fear. Some days as I wrote in my journal, I just skipped the “how blessed is motherhood” part and went right into the venting part.
When I pick up one of those journals now, I read about the days I thought I would lose my mind. I read about the relative lack of reward for so much hard work and heartache. I read words reflecting my worry that I might not be getting it right – could I be permanently scarring my children with my mothering choices? In the pages of those journals, I read of quite a different experience from the one of my nostalgia-addled memories. <p>
Not long before the events of our First Reading take place, the people who have been praying so hard for God to liberate them are freed from the cruel grip of slavery in Egypt. They who have suffered so long in misery as slaves under Pharaoh, were finally and quite dramatically led into freedom by Moses.
God did the incredible, answering their prayers and giving them miraculous, safe passage not only away from the despot, Pharaoh, but away from the hard labor, heartache and demoralization of their slavery.
Through Moses, God to lead the Israelites on a path to freedom, parting the waters of the Red Sea, and giving them safe passage away from the pursuing armies of the Pharaoh. The first response of the people after their liberation was a grand celebration. The women danced and Miriam sang, ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
But, not long after, within a few verses, in fact, the miracle has worn off and the people fall into a pattern of grumbling. They forget to trust God. They keep forgetting all that God has done – they forget about the Passover and the parting of the Red Sea; and the gift God gave them in this leader, Moses, whom God equipped to guide them through the rough places toward a promised land. They fail to look around and see God’s presence and provision for them each day.
In our text today, we see it again. When they tested and stressed, rather than trust God, they grumble.
Now, this truly has to be one of the signs you’ve really lost it: when you start to idealize your past, even though your past involves being a slave to the Egyptian Pharaoh: “Back in the good old days,” you enthuse, “when we spent all day in the hot sun, making bricks and doing the back-breaking work of building pyramids, when we had no rights, no freedom, when we could be beaten to death for not producing enough, for being too old or weak or sick or slow, and the Pharaoh occasionally killed all our male children - yeah, those were the good old days!”
And then, what happens next? These Israelites get so lost in their grumbling that they end up going in circles for forty years! An entire generation passes away because they are lost in their nostalgia and nostalgia, candy-coated, much-improved rendering of what once was never leads you forward; it casts an impossible standard. .
I sure loved those baby days; Except when I didn’t. We sure were happier, more secure, more complete; except that we really weren’t.
The present can never match an idealized past, and being lost in that past keeps us from seeing the things that are all around us that are truly gifts from God for our present. Nostalgia leaves us stuck in the quicksand of our edited memories, perpetually ungrateful for the place we now find ourselves. Clinging to a season of our past, nostalgia quietly steals our joy and even, our hope; it makes us indifferent to the flowing streams of living water God is providing even now in our wilderness.
Like the Israelites, when we are trapped in the rosy past, we are blinded to the constant provision of God - today. When we focus on the idealized past, we are numbed to the way that God is acting - now. When that happens, we, too, become trapped in the spiritual lands of Massa, meaning “test” and Meribah, meaning “find fault.”
Nostalgia not only cripples us as individuals, but also as a community of faith. We recently held a series of Cottage Meetings. During those conversations, we named concerns about our life together today, and we got to name hopes and dreams for tomorrow. We also identified the ways we are blessed today, and gifts we see among and around us; we got to name ministries and activities we do really well.
Here are some anecdotal observations about those conversations that reveal some interesting patterns:
First, the greater the institutional memory of the group – that is, groups that were made up of a higher percentage of long the higher the percentage of the group was made up of long-time members, the lower their ability to name blessings. Conversely, groups with a greater percentage of new members present, having little to no institutional memory in this community, were more able to name blessings and gifts, and were more able to hope and dream for the future of the church.
Similarly, groups with longer-term members, had a greater number of concerns framed by comparison with the past. This is not surprising. Discontent of today was viewed through the rose-colored lens of yesteryears.
As a whole while the Christian church is struggling and declining, we are apt to frame our grief through the glorified visions of the churches of the past.
Yet, the church of the idealic past had problems of its own. Massive building projects often tore away at the unity of congregations, we saw the beginnings of white flight, churches divided, the stirring of the Civil Rights movement caused dissention within churches in many places, and the establishment of suburban communities drew thriving ministries away from the cities. This led the theologian Paul Tillich to call suburban Christianity, “one of the greatest dangers for Protestantism.”
All this led to the beginning of the unraveling of what many today would call the traditional church.
Back in our Cottage Meetings, newer members named more blessings, drew lists of things to be grateful for, recognized more places where God is working within the church, which led to more hopes and dreams being named, particularly in outward-looking ministries.
Nostalgia affects us all. It takes practice and intentionality to look around us and to recognize the blessings and gifts with which our world and our very lives are blessed on a daily basis.
My babies grew up and have all become fine young adults. I still miss those baby days sometime, and I cherish my memories of those days, but can appreciate and even look forward to the ways they will bless the world.
Grace is nearing it’s one hundredth anniversary. Ministries have come and gone and our culture during her lifetime. Our culture has vastly changed, but there is a rich community into which God is sending us to serve and to share his presence, gifts and love. I see God at work inspiring us to ever greater generosity in our feeding ministries, in providing school supplies for youth service projects, in the youth ministry we’ll kick-off this afternoon, in the quilting group that will meet on Wednesday and in the groups that use our building, every day of the week.
God is at work in our ecumenical relationships and work; in the faith discussions that take place each Sunday morning around the tables in Fellowship Hall. I see God in our ministry focused on the care of creation, in members reaching out in the past few weeks to so many who have been devastated by storms; God is present in the beautiful music we so enjoy. The best way I can see to stop being paralyzed by the past or kept from building up the future of this church, is by intentionally increasing our gratitude quotient.
I invite you to practice seeing how God is present and active in your life each week. God is constantly reaching out and blessing us, growing us, stretching us, using us, and accompanying us in all we do. When we open our eyes, ears, and hearts, we will see God at work in everything.
Rather than the sugar-coated, rosy-lenses of nostalgia, let’s develop the practice of seeing God’s presence, activity and love in our world, and responding to it with deep gratitude.
Liberation from our past will allow us to walk in faith toward God’s future, full of promise and blessing, casting a vision for generosity and gratefulness living. AMEN.