What Are We Grateful for During COVID-19?

A journey through expressions of gratitude during the pandemic reveals how we’re helping each other through it.

In many places around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic means perpetually living under the gun. When we walk out of our doors, we can’t let our guard down. Even grocery shopping can feel fraught with danger. Moreover, many people fear for their jobs and futures. This has also been a period of intense political conflict in the United States and of fires up and down the West Coast. Seeing threats everywhere triggers stress and anxiety.

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At the same time, the pandemic has profoundly limited the scope of many lives. It’s cut many of us off from variety. It means our home-cooking, day after day, instead of restaurants or potlucks. It means being alone in our apartments—or seeing the same people every day, in the same house, and not meeting new ones in other places. There might be a lot of good in our homes, but at a certain point, through sheer repetition, we might stop seeing how others enhance our daily lives. Humans already tend to take the good things for granted—a psychological phenomenon called “hedonic adaptation”—and the groundhog-day nature of lockdown only exacerbates that tendency.

Threatening or just mundane, pandemic conditions do not make fertile ground for thankfulness. But gratitude is one of the tools we can use in both of these circumstances. When we give thanks for everyday things, we make them visible again. When we’re able to do that, numerous studies suggest, we give our happiness a little boost and train our brains to see the good, even amid so much bad.

Gratitude is a tool that many people are using right now on Thnx4.org, the Greater Good Science Center’s online journal. There, people can sign up for a gratitude challenge that prompts them to document and share “thanks” on a regular basis. They can also record times when they were thanked by someone else, and how that made them feel. We survey participants about their well-being before they start the Challenge, and again after it’s complete, in order to understand the impact of Thnx4.

When we analyzed data from the past six months, a couple of patterns stood out. We found that journaling your gratitude during the pandemic on Thnx4 is beneficial—after a challenge, people tend to be more resilient, more satisfied with life, and less lonely. However, these same effects were greater in the period before the lockdown began. 

In other words, people aren’t doing as well as they were before the pandemic—but even at that lower baseline, giving thanks still helps. The data also suggest that the people using Thnx4 have been on an emotional rollercoaster: They were sadder, but felt more affection and less anger than they did before the pandemic. We also saw a significant increase in people hearing gratitude from others, which we take to be a very good sign—it suggests that we’re taking care of each other.

In reviewing public gratitudes during the pandemic period, we discovered a vivid progression from shock to acceptance—and a growing appreciation for the good things we get from other beings, including our pets, and from nature and society. A journey through expressions of gratitude during the pandemic reveals how we’re helping each other through it. And so, here, we thought we’d share examples of gratitude during COVID-19, grouped by major categories.

Romantic Partners

Family, Children, and Pets

Friends and Neighbors

Cooperation, Help, and Solidarity from strangers

Technology that enables connection

Jobs and Coworkers

Frontline workers

Exercise and Fresh air

The opportunity to help others

Time with yourself

A Pandemic Thanksgiving: Gratitude For What We Do Have

Thanksgiving is supposed to be fun and for many of us a sacred time to count our blessings. If we allow the pandemic to steal our joy, it can compromise our mental health and turn the season into a sad and scary time. This has been a stressful year, most of us quarantined and working from home during the pandemic. We’ve faced ups-and-downs in the economy and the unease of political and racial unrest. Pandemic stress has led to a rise in anxiety and depression, and many working from home feel isolated, unappreciated and unrecognized for their contributions at work.

A SWNS research study found that remote workers say they aren’t feeling the appreciation from higher-ups as they toil from home, especially with the struggles of 2020. The study of 2,000 Americans conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Motivosity revealed over half of employed respondents working from home said they haven’t felt much gratitude from their job since they stopped commuting. It seems the lack of appreciation has added to an already strained workforce as 70% are working harder than ever before. Two-thirds (68%) of those working from home say they feel unmotivated to work since everything they do seems to go unnoticed.

Doubling Down

No matter how dire the circumstances, it’s still possible to find blessings in the disappointments and celebrate a stress-free, grateful Thanksgiving. So what are American employees grateful for this holiday? On October 30, 2020, Monster conducted a poll of 1,700 members of the nation’s workforce to shed light on what workers are most thankful for this season. Not surprisingly, their findings showed most of all people (70%) are thankful for their health. And the majority (94%) said they were motivated by gratitude from managers. Other key grateful findings were:

• More than one third of workers are thankful for having a job (35%) right now and a quarter of workers (25%) thankful to work remotely.

• The overwhelming majority of workers believe both that expressing gratitude at work helps ease stress and anxiety (97%) and receiving gratitude motivates their daily work (94%). 

• The majority of workers (91%) agree that they express gratitude at their workplace, though sadly under half (46%) of workers do not feel that they are recognized for their contributions at work. 

An Attitude Of Gratitude

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama says there are two ways to reach contentment. One is to acquire everything we want and desire: an expensive house, sporty car, fashionable wardrobe, gourmet foods, perfect mate, exotic trips a perfectly toned body. The list is endless. The problem with this approach is that this type of wanting is a bottomless pit and never leads to contentment. Sooner or later there will be something we want but can’t have or make happen. The second and more reliable approach to contentment is to want and feel grateful for what we already possess. When we have a strong sense of contentment, it doesn’t matter whether we obtain the object of our desire or not. We are content either way. When we focus on abundance, we have more of it.

Studies show that when we express gratitude, it raises our happiness by 25%. It’s simple science; whatever we focus on expands. When we express gratitude to the people we work with (for who they are and what they do), not only does it lift us up, it lifts them up, too. Consider making a gratitude list of the many things you’re grateful for—the coworkers, your career and other people and things, even pets—that make your life rich and full. After you’ve made your list, contemplate your appreciation for each item, especially anything you’ve taken for granted that would leave your life empty if you didn’t have it. Then share your gratitude through a card, email, Zoom or text to colleagues in the workplace.

Studies show that most employees put gratitude from their managers at the top of their list. For every worker who is thankful for having a job, others are not. In the SWNS study, 75% of remote workers said their mental health would likely improve if they had more appreciation and recognition. And seven in 10 admitted that appreciation meant the most from a manager or executive. Many managers do express gratitude in the workplace. But if you’re one of the many employees who feels shortchanged, one consideration is to let him or her know how important recognition and gratitude are for your engagement, motivation and job performance.

If that approach doesn’t seem feasible, a second option is initiating gratitude first, instead of waiting for it to come to you. That requires a shift from a grievance to heartfelt gratitude—something you appreciate about your manager. We can gain enormous happiness when we’re faced with a challenging situation and are able to take the higher road, anyway. Even if you have to do a deep dive, everybody has something of redeeming value. Practicing an attitude of gratitude, regardless of what you’re getting in return, can keep you from losing heart and feeling defeated. It can restore motivation, reboot your productivity and propel you forward in your career.

If you’re a manager, Scott Johnson Founder and CEO of Motivosity offers sage advice on what you can do this Thanksgiving season: “If you’re trying to improve your company culture, focus on gratitude and appreciation. Enable teams and individuals to be appreciative of each other. That’s the kind of culture that improves eNPS scores, keeps customers happy and wins ‘Best Places to Work’ awards!”

“Persist In Hope” (by Kyle Joyce)

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“Be patient with one another, for creating sacred community is arduous and even painful. But it is to loving community such as this that each is called. Be courageous and visionary, believing in the power of just a few vibrant witnesses to transform the world. Be assured that love will overcome the voices of fear, division, and deceit. Understand that the road to transformation travels both inward and outward. The road to transformation is the path of the disciple.”
​~Doctrine and Covenants Section 161:3c-d

“Listen carefully to your own journey as a people, for it is a sacred journey and it has taught you many things you must know for the journey yet to come. Listen to its teachings and discover anew its principles. Do not yearn for times that are past, but recognize that you have been given a foundation of faithful service, even as you build a foundation for what is yet to be. As a prophetic people you are called, under the direction of the spiritual authorities and with the common consent of the people, to discern the divine will for your own time and in the places where you serve. You live in a world with new challenges, and that world will require new forms of ministry. Do not be discouraged. You have not been promised an easy path, but you have been assured that the Spirit that calls you will also accompany you.”
​ ~Doctrine and Covenants Section 162:2a-c, 3a

Being a disciple in the 21st century means that we are invited to embrace tension.

Whoa! *Embrace* tension? Mostly we try to alleviate it, quickly come to a resolution, run and hide from it, and/or pretend that it doesn’t even exist. Whether we like it or not, tension is and always has been part of our existence and, without it, we don’t learn or grow. Tension is a natural and historic part of our faith movement. So, it is not a matter of whether there will be tension or not in our lives – it’s a given that there will be – the question is how will we live in it and how will we use it in positive ways.

Tension exists within all aspects of our lives: in our relationships, our jobs, our communities, our nation, our world, our faith movement, and beyond. Tension arises out of the gap between our current reality and our desire or vision. As disciples, we have a natural inclination and motivation to resolve this tension.

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​This gap exists for each of us as individuals and as a faith movement full of prophetic people. Think about the boldest dream or vision you have or have for the church – now compare that with our current reality. I’m betting there is quite a gap? Can’t you just feel the tension already? Maybe even disappointment, frustration, anger, annoyance, or even sadness? Think of another disciple that you know. Think of the commonalities and differences between the two of you. It becomes a lot more complicated, doesn’t it? Cue “Unity in Diversity” and “Blessings of Community” sermon.

Personally, I have many applicable examples of tension around church topics. However, one example most of us can relate to and understand is our recent World & National Conferences. I can testify that God has big dreams for Community of Christ. The tension that I frequently encounter is how quickly I feel that we should move towards Zion when others believe we are already moving too fast. I believe we are moving incrementally toward Zion (but would like to move faster) while others may feel that we are moving further from Zion. Whew, talk about tension! Cue “Faithful disagreement” sermon.

How do we live in the tension between what is (what we are doing right now) and what we envision could be (what God is calling us to become)? One way we could deal with the tension is to limit our vision. That would reduce the gap and therefore reduce the tension, but it also reduces what we might attain. That is certainly a strategy we disciples often adopt, because tension can be uncomfortable and even painful. The alternative is to change our current reality and move it closer to our vision or desire to reduce the tension in a more positive direction. Tension is a process or structure for promoting change between what is and what could be.

I truly believe that is what God desires of us. This is how we create and achieve Zion, Heaven on Earth. God desires that we use the tension to grow and use tension in creative ways to promote good outcomes. God knows that we live in the tension all the time – and God lives in it, with us, too. God is in every moment and every event in all of creation and so God is in our tension, too – not just as observer, but as inspirer, guide, partner, and collaborator. And in our struggle with the tension, God always approaches us with an attitude of immense love, compassion, and forgiveness. God is an immensely present force in our creativity, in our expressions of love, our preaching, our prayers, our meetings/gatherings (even online), and our pursuit of peace and justice.

Look at what we can learn from the early Christian church and even our very own church history. We are WHO and WHERE we are today because of a history full of disciples in tension. Disciples of the past worked with and through tension with blind hope and faith that the future would be better because of it. Was it difficult? Were there some uncomfortable conversations? Was there a lot of passion when they spoke? Did people go home mad, upset, angry, and believing that they were right and the other person was wrong? I’m certain all of those situations occurred, even among the best disciples.

You all should know that I believe Jesus (fully human and fully divine) was very political, subversive, and even socialistic. To me, Jesus was all about turning things upside down. He overturned cultural norms, challenged the authorities, undermined the establishment, and generally shook everything up. He was a (good) trouble-maker, a dissident, and a thorn in the side of the establishment. His stated mission was to bring an upside-down Kingdom that would be good news for the poor and oppressed (Luke 4:18).

Can you imagine the tension with following Moses because he claimed that a burning bush told him that God would free you from slavery? As slaves, it wasn’t wise to upset Pharaoh! You don’t just confront corrupt systems of power without paying for it…sometimes with your own blood.

Can you imagine the tension with being one of the 12 disciples and following this radical man and his teachings during that time? Watching Jesus practice civil disobedience (Mark 2:23), associating with socially marginalized (Luke 5:29-32), modeling upside-down economics (Luke 3:10-11), preaching non-violence instead of militarism (1 Maccabees 13:49-51 & 2 Maccabees 10:1-8), and consequently his death as a dissident which changed everything…forever. Again, you don’t just confront corrupt systems of power without paying for it…sometimes with your own blood.

Can you imagine the tension in following Emma Smith into the reorganization after her husband was murdered and the church fell into disarray? Emma knew that you don’t just confront corrupt systems of power without paying for it…sometimes with your own blood.

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It’s not always easy or comfortable. But it is worth the effort. Conflict and tension hold within themselves the possibility of blessing and of new outcomes not previously envisioned. Tension requires an openness to the Spirit of God, difficult conversations, restorative practices, and the ability to compromise. There is always tension. There is always the need to live with it and work with it respectfully. So, don’t run away from the tension – embrace it! Learn and grow from it. Lean into it and learn to use it peacefully, engaging with God, and in community with others.

The Spirit of the One you follow is the spirit of love and peace. That Spirit seeks to abide in the hearts of those who would embrace its call and live its message. The path will not always be easy, the choices will not always be clear, but the cause is sure and the Spirit will bear witness to the truth, and those who live the truth will know the hope and the joy of discipleship in the community of Christ.
~Doctrine and Covenants Section 161:7

Kristine and I have a foster son, whom we love dearly. He has experienced a lot of (too much) trauma in his short life. He constantly has large amounts of anxiety about what the future holds. He’s even said “I try not to think about the future because I cannot control what lies ahead.” Kristine and I are also expecting our first child (a little girl) sometime during the first week of September. What lies ahead for her? What will she have to look forward to? I don’t have anxiety…but worrying about their futures gives me anxiety.

​As parents of both kids, Kristine and I don’t have a crystal ball and we can’t see the future. We worry about their futures. We want the world to be a much better place than it is currently. We hope there is more acceptance, more understanding, more peace, less injustice, more love for the environment, and less arguing over things that SHOULD be inherent human rights. Unfortunately, there are no street signs pointing to the best route on how to get there. We can’t see our/their final destinations. So, we will do everything possible to make their world better- regardless if it is marching for a cause or “flipping tables”, raising awareness on issues or challenging unjust systems, or preaching on Sundays or engaging in conversation with church leaders. Our children and their future are worth every bit of tension and struggle.

“Lift up your eyes and fix them on the place beyond the horizon to which you are sent. Journey in trust, assured that the great and marvelous work is for this time and for all time.”
~Doctrine and Covenants 161:1a

In 2018, Steve Veazey gave a powerful International Youth Forum (IYF) address. What he said, even to this day, spoke to my soul. In that address, he proclaimed: “People will try to discourage you from going beyond the seen horizon. Some don’t like new challenges, new understandings, and necessary change that come with increased clarity. They say ‘we’ve already arrived. There is nothing more to discover.’ I say ‘Don’t believe them!”

If I’m being honest, I frequently get caught looking “beyond the horizon” because I enjoy “new challenges” and “new understandings”, which can cause tension when some feel that “we’ve already arrived”. I welcome the tension to learn more about and work with those neighbors and how we can move forward together. To be a disciple in the 21st century requires and asks a lot of us. It might even cause some discomfort. We are called to create a better future that we cannot see, only imagine. There is no map, no instructions, and no promises. We do have each other, though, and that comes with the good and the tension. We can live harmoniously in the tension within ourselves, in our relationships, within our communities, in Community of Christ, and beyond. We are creating and leading the way.

God, the Eternal One, has been with us in our past, continues with us in the present, and already is waiting patiently for us in the future. My prayer is that we have the strength, discipline, and awareness to recognize it, even in tension.

 

Where Is Your Treasure?

This week, churches that follow the lectionary have a choice for their Hebrew Bible reading: Genesis or Isaiah. We choose Genesis because the Genesis reading refers to God’s promise to Abram that he will become the “father of many nations.” It was Abraham (same man; name changed to reflect the plurality of nations to which he became the father) who, along with his first-born son Ishmael, built the Kabba, the first mosque, according to Islamic tradition. As Muslims celebrate the major holiday of Eid Al Adha this weekend, it seemed appropriate choose the Genesis text in honor of the Muslims from many nations descended from Ishmael’s line who are making a pilgrimage this weekend, whether in body or in spirit. Adam and I wish a blessed hajj and Eid Mubarak to all our Muslim siblings around the world.

Blessings, Trust, and Justice

This passage begins with one of scriptures most frequent and comforting refrains: “Do not be afraid.” Why would Abram be afraid? Well, perhaps because the understanding of the divine throughout history has been rather terrifying. Humans tend to see power in force and violence, and in a frightening world, ultimate power is associated with death and destruction. Yet in scripture, the constant refrain of God, Jesus, and the angels is “Do not be afraid.” We are ever being led out of an understanding that associates divinity with fear with the continual revelation that God is Love.

Abram is also afraid because he has no offspring, and he’s getting up there in years. And this is an existential crisis: “What will become of me? What will I leave behind? Who will carry on my name, if I have no children?” We all wonder what our legacy will be; what will become of us… and having children leaves an impression upon the world. Abram may be worried about the mark he will make on the world, or worried that he has displeased God since his wish for children has not yet been granted. He cries to God that if he dies childless, his slave Eliezer of Damascus will be his heir.

This is the part that initially troubles me; that Abram is so reluctant that his servant should receive any of his inheritance. It seems that it is one thing to want offspring, but to be so distraught at the possibility that one who has been forced to serve in your home would receive some inheritance strikes me as cruel. Eliezer is not a child of Abram, but he is a child of God. And yet it seems his only role in this story is to be denied.

Yet the blessing of Abraham’s descendants is to be a blessing to the world. All the nations of the world will be blessed through Abraham. Eliezer, too, will be blessed.

If we read only small excerpts from scripture, it can seem as if there are those whom God leaves behind, those whom God favors over others. But taken as a whole, we find that no one is left out. Scripture subverts the idea that God’s favor resides with the powerful; that success and prosperity are the hallmarks of God’s approval. Exodus is the story of God’s liberating love leading slaves out of captivity. Though Eliezer will not inherit directly from Abraham, through Abraham will be blessed by God.

Abram’s fears are quelled by the end of this short passage because he believes the Lord, “and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” He is not merely making an intellectual assent to believe in God’s words; he is trusting, despite everything, that God will deliver on God’s promise. That is the trust of intimate relationship, not simply an intellectual affirmation of a fact. Abram’s anxieties are eased by trust. God told Abram not to be afraid, and love is casting out fear. What Abram wants more than anything, God will give in God’s time. The waiting may be hard, but trust is established, and God reckons that to Abram as “righteousness.” In Hebrew, the word for righteousness is ‘tsedek.’ It means both righteousness and justice. True righteousness is about our relationship with God and about our just relationships with other people. Righteousness with God and justice with our fellow human beings go hand in hand. So justice is built on a foundation of trust, on a relationship in which fear gives way to faith. In what other ways might justice prevail if human relations replaced fear of one another with faith in each other?

Treasure to Share, Not Possess

We turn now to the Gospel, where we also begin with Jesus telling his disciples not to fear. He has just told a parable of a rich man who died before he could enjoy what he had horded for himself, and he has contrasted that with the ravens and the lilies, for whom God provides all that is needed. He tells his “little flock” that it is “the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Therefore they are instructed to sell their possessions, give alms, and “make purses that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

First of all, the nerd in me is thrilled that a quote featured in Harry Potter and the Deathly Halllws falls in the lectionary this week, on the birthday of Ginny Weasley, where Harry’s heart definitely is, no less! (Warning: Harry Potter spoilers ahead!)

Potter fans will recall that the epitaph “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” is etched onto the gravestone of Kendra and Ariana Dumbledore, Headmaster Albus Dumbledore’s mother and sister, respectively. It was Albus who chose this epitaph, to remind himself of what truly matters in life. He lost his sister, Ariana, in part through his own neglect, because he was so busy chasing power and glory that he did not follow through with his responsibilities to his younger siblings after they had lost their parents to death and imprisonment. For Dumbledore, this quote is a reminder to treasure our relationships with the people around us, and to be present to the people who need us. If we treasure wealth or fame or power above all, we will follow those things to the detriment of the people in our lives who need our love and our care. Albus Dumbledore learned this lesson in the most tragic way possible.

Love is the treasure that no thief can steal, no moth can destroy, no decay can wither. We store up love by being present in the lives of others. We store up love in service to those in need. The relationships we forge in this lifetime have lasting effects in the world; the good we can do for each other ripples out from us to touch others. When we value the joy and well-being of one another, we invest in a treasure that never diminishes but only multiplies.

So Jesus tells his disciples to sell all of their possessions and give to the poor; to treasure relationship and service above all else, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” He is identifying his flock as children of God and heirs of the kingdom, and therefore they will want for nothing, so they may give everything.

John Lennon told us to “Imagine all the people sharing all the world.” What does it mean to give up possessions? Does it mean we will be left with nothing? What does it mean to possess something, to own something? Are not our greatest treasures not possessions but people, not owned but loved, those who give us their time and their friendship and their support and their love as we also give ours to them? What if all the world was not owned but shared? No sense of owning land, no sense of property, no sense of national boundaries to kill or die for. All that God creates is a gift to us; all that we create is a gift to each other. What if Jesus did not mean, “Go with nothing,” but “Renounce ownership, for the true gifts of this world are not yours to grasp or hoard, but to give and share. Everything of true value need not be possessed, but loved.”

No, I’m not ready to live in a commune or give up all of my possessions. But I find the idea beautiful. When we consider how much rivalry and violence are born of coveting, of wanting to possess for ourselves at the expense of others, we can imagine a world at peace when coveting and competition are replaced with cooperation and communion, when there is no “thing” that we desire more than the delight of one another. In the Kingdom of God, all that has been created in Love is given away. There is no ownership in the Kingdom; only overflowing, generous love.

Finally, Jesus tells us to be “dressed for action,” like slaves waiting for the return of their master.

Again, this may be problematic language to our ears, but Jesus is using the slave /master relationship in order to completely subvert it.

The master who finds slaves ready and alert will throw a banquet in which the servants are served. A “master servant” is completely nonsensical to Jesus’s time… and ours as well! Servants serve; masters command… but Jesus flips this on its head. The “master” is not a domineering tyrant but rather a model for the servants, showing them how to serve by serving them!

The master will reward the servants who are alert, who are ready to serve when the master returns. How do we know when the master returns? Jesus says, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” Blessed are those who are ready at all times to see Jesus in those who need our service. Blessed are those who find Christ in the refugee, the prisoner, those whom we may help. We must be constantly prepared to find Christ anywhere, because wherever there is suffering, Christ is in its midst.

For the blessing God gave to Abraham, the blessing we have all inherited, is to be a blessing to the world. We are blessed to serve the world. We are blessed to give ourselves in love, for that is how we live into our image as reflections of the Love in whom we have our being. When we give our hearts in loving service, our treasure overflows.

Change is Brewing

In Matthew’s gospel, we read of a societal change that was brewing in Jesus’ day: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’” (Matthew 9:35-38, Luke 10:1-2)

The image of a plentiful harvest and few laborers to reap it would have spoken volumes to the audience that Jesus’ teachings resonated with. In that audience would have been indentured farmers who now found themselves being little more than indentured slaves. They had used to own land but now labored hard to survive from day to day on land that now belonged to their wealthy creditors.

It has been said that you can’t force a revolution, and all one can do is be ready and prepared for one.

The Jewish societies of 1st Century Galilee and Judea were brimming, boiling with the spirit of sometimes violent revolution, and things were about to boil over. The poor were becoming more and more exploited. The indentured farmers were becoming more and more enslaved. The laboring class was becoming more and more oppressed by a wealthy aristocracy. And political oppression from the Romans combined with economic oppression from the Jewish aristocracy and temple class was about to reach its limit.

The Jewish Roman war of 66-69 CE is evidence of this. This war didn’t just happen out of thin air. There was a long and slow build-up that finally erupted, and the horrific outcome was the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Jesus’s saying above is best understood with this historical backdrop. I want to believe that at this stage he was wanting to avert a failed revolution and the Roman backlash that would possibly result. Just like Hillel before him, Jesus was endeavoring to present a nonviolent revolution of restorative and transformative justice in the place of the divisive and violent revolution and the spirit of retribution that was growing in popularity at that time.

Revolution was brewing.

The Harvest was Ripe

But finding those who understood the larger picture of what would result and how to avert catastrophe was a challenge. The numbers of those who sought out and taught the kind of revolution Jesus taught were few, according to this passage. This different revolution was centered in wealth-redistribution embraced by the wealthy elite. It also involved resource sharing, mutual-aid, nonviolent enemy confrontation and transformation, reparation as a response to past injustices, and the restoration of justice to those presently being oppressed. It was rooted in the wealthy forgiving and canceling debts, and the poor laboring class taking care of the sick and sharing of food with each other. In short, if embraced, it was a way of ordering society that would have revolutionized Jewish society as well as threatened the Roman way of life to its core. This is why I believe the gospel authors chose the politically charged word “kingdom” of God to sum up Jesus’ gospel rather than the more general terms of community or family of God.

The societal elements were ripe for this kind of harvest, but the workers, those who would labor a revolution characterized by these elements, were few.

Various Gospels

This saying of Jesus is also found, not just in Matthew and Luke, but also in the non-canonical gospel of Thomas:

Gospel of Thomas 73: “Jesus says: ‘The harvest is plentiful, but there are few workers. But beg the Lord that he may send workers into the harvest.’”

The fact that this saying survived to be included in the more platonic, introspective Gospel of Thomas is significant. This statement has an urgency even when removed from its Galilee/Judea context.

The way the synoptic gospels use this saying is worth noting, too. The gospel of Matthew, the first we know to have included this saying, situates it in a more sympathetic, compassionate context. Jesus is traversing the countryside, teaching, and healing, and, on seeing the crowds, views the people as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” More violent “shepherds” would surface in the coming years, and I can’t help but believe that Jesus understood the social dynamics in play and longed to save the “sheep” from being slaughtered.

Luke takes this saying and places a context of Jesus actually appointing and sending out seventy-two promoters, campaigners if you will, that would engage communities ahead of his arrival as he continued to travel and teach. These seventy-two campaigners would have been those who had already bought into the kind of society envisioned in Jesus’ “stump-speeches” later written about in Luke.

Change is Brewing

In our time, even before our “current political climate & culture”, there were those who believed that a societal change was on the horizon. From authors like George Orwell to those in more contemporary counter-cultural movements, some point to ever-worsening polls and people’s growing contempt for the wealth disparity in our society as signs. The rumblings of our society suggest that a growing number of people are disenfranchised and ripening. It’s not so far-fetched.

As with all revolutions, we have choices. We have an opportunity to shape what our revolution will look like. Could our society benefit in any way from a revolution characterized by some of the values and elements that the Jesus of the gospels? Voluntary wealth-redistribution, resource sharing, mutual-aid, nonviolent enemy confrontation and transformation, reparation as a response to past injustices, and the restoration of justice to those presently being oppressed: could this be a revolution we could live with? We could have a revolution where the wealthy choose to forgive or cancel the debts of poor debtors, and a society where we take care of the sick together and ensure there is enough for everyone. We could have a safer, more compassionate, just world for us all.

This kind of revolution could begin in the hearts of humanity, allowing us to perceive one another and embrace our interconnectedness, our interdependence. It would transform our society. The reality is that it would also threaten our social elite classes. It could not be accomplished simply by replacing one hegemony with another.

There have been others, in every generation, especially from the marginalized and subjugated classes, that have envisioned this kind of society and worked to garnish support to experiment with what a society like this could look like.

Even theologians, who too often have benefitted in societies of oppression, are also opening up to a different lens. In the 1970s some sectors of Christians specifically were waking up to a whole new and more historically accurate way of reading the Jesus story itself. Gustavo Gutierrez, in the 15th-anniversary edition of his A Theology of Liberation, states quite correctly:

“Black, Hispanic, and Amerindian theologies in the United States, theologies arising in the complex contexts of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific, and the especially fruitful thinking of those who have adopted the feminist perspective—all these have meant that for the first time in many centuries theology is being done outside the customary European and North American centers. The result in the so-called First World has been a new kind of dialogue between traditional thinking and new thinking. In addition, outside the Christian sphere efforts are underway to develop liberation theologies from Jewish and Muslim perspectives.”

Where might this revolution begin for us, today, right now? Perhaps with a simple choice from each of us. We can embrace a way of life where people take responsibility for taking care of each other as people taking care of people. This seems to me to be the root that, if really perceived and embraced, could threaten the whole domination structure.

Today, a harvest is ripening.

And, unlike in Jesus’s saying, there are many “laborers” teaching values that parallel and sometimes even center the values and ethics found in the Jesus of the gospels. Some of these laborers are within Christianity, but quite a few of them are not. It is this universal set of values that we must begin to recognize.

To each of you out there laboring for change, you’re not alone. Keep living out those values, living in love, setting in motion a different tomorrow. In the words of the late Howard Zinn, “What really matters are the countless small deeds of unknown people that lay the basis for the events of human history. These are the people who have made change in the past; they are responsible for making change in the future, too.” (Quoted in Requiem for the American Dream.)

Mary and Martha Talk about Taking Walks, Master’s Degree, and Teaching

The stereotype of the Type A personality has become an entrenched part of cultural lore. Originally described by two cardiologists in the 1950s as the type of person who is most likely to experience cardiac arrest, Type A’s are familiar to everyone. Competitive, short-fused, action oriented, no nonsense, humorless, deadline driven, boundless in energy—these are people who not only don’t stop to smell the roses, but tend not even to notice the existence of the roses as they plow through their days, weeks, years, and lives. Type A’s are at risk of heart disease, stress related illnesses, and people just not liking them very much. Labeling someone or being labelled as a Type A personality is not necessarily a compliment, but we all know that we should thank the personality gods for Type A’s. They are the ones who get things done.

Then, of course, there are the Type Not-A (sometimes called Type B) folks, who are the opposite of Type A’s in every way. Laid back, less prone to stress than Type A people, Type Not-A’s can be prone to procrastination, but also are good at stepping back and seeing the forest instead of just the trees, have a contemplative bent, and are just “smell the coffee” sorts of folks. Given Wikipedia’s report that Type Not-A people often are “attracted to careers of creativity: writer, counselor, therapist, actor or actress,” also noting that network and computer systems managers, professors, and judges are more likely to be Type Not-A individuals as well,” one might expect that I am a card-carrying Type Not-A. And in many ways I am—but it isn’t that simple.

It is undoubtedly ludicrous to suppose that all human beings are easily sorted into one or the other of two available personality types. What the A/Not-A personality distinction provides is yet another crude tool to use when one needs to get a handle on the infinitely complex features of human nature, just another item for the tool bag, much like introvert/extrovert or high maintenance/low maintenance. Every human being has both a Type A and a Type Not-A person living inside; my year-long sabbatical a couple of years ago provided me with an extended opportunity to observe my internal Type A and Type Not-A trying to sort out who’s in charge.

Last Sunday at Bethel, we heard Kristine preach the gospel story of Martha and Mary, a classic Type A and an equally classic Type Not-A. This reminded me of a sermon that I gave a couple couple of years ago. When preaching, I spoke about two different kinds of time. Chronos time is measured time, the clock ticking in the background. Kairos is more reflective and intuitive, the sense of the “right” time for something. Chronos is quantitative, while Kairos is qualitative. Martha is about chronos time and Mary exists in kairos time.

Self-analysis tells me that my default choice as I go through life is to let Mary be in charge of my non-work life and put Martha in the driver’s seat at work. I am naturally laid back, patient, reflective, in love with ideas, and so on. But at work I am ultra-organized, task-oriented, always prepared several classes ahead of where we are in the syllabus, know where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing at every moment of the day—Martha is in charge. I have a pretty good pattern of “Mary time” and “Martha time”–Mary is responsible for the creative ideas and strategies that I bring to my teaching, while Martha’s job is to make sure that it all comes off without a hitch in real time. Mary’s task is to prepare while Martha’s assignment is to perform. I’ve only had thirty one years to get Mary and Martha to cooperate, and it usually works well. But not always…

First day of teaching:

• Martha: I’m pumped! What are we doing today? What’s the schedule? What’s the plan?

• Mary: We’re in charge of the day—there is no plan. We’re going to take things as they come—let the Spirit move.

• Martha: Oh. (ten minutes later) I’m bored. We’ve got to get organized here—we can’t just “take things as they come”, let alone for an entire school year.

• Mary: Why not?

On a walk around the neighborhood:

• Mary: Taking walks is the greatest thing ever. Life, uninterrupted—I’m noticing stuff I never see when Martha’s in charge. The birds, the breeze, the neighbors…

• Martha: Whatever. If we don’t pick up the pace, we aren’t going to beat our time from last week when we walked the neighborhood.

Earning a Master’s Degree:

• Martha: Okay, final draft is done and submitted, formatted according to the instructors specifications, and sent off to the instructors for grading. Table of Contents, Citations, and Bibliography are complete. What’s next?? I’m on a roll!

• Mary: Nothing for a week until the instructor sends the graded assignment with comments and suggestions. Until then, our homework efforts are on hiatus.

• Martha: Now what are we going to do?

• Mary: Let’s see what comes to us . . .

• Martha: AAAAGGGGGGHHHHH!

Overall, things work out pretty well with Mary and Martha on my Master’s Degree. The assignments in question got finished and were graded, and the next one was turned in and I received my degree. Still, Martha gets very impatient when waiting for instructors to get off their bottoms and grade and return my assignment in what I perceive as a “timely manner”.

Back to the familiar gospel story; Jesus is a guest at the sisters’ house. Type A Martha runs around cleaning, preparing food, taking care of everyone’s needs, and getting more and more pissed at Type Not-A Mary who is gazing at Jesus with adoring eyes and hanging on his every word. Eventually Martha has had enough and asks Jesus to tell her sister (who is sitting right there) to get off her bottoms and help. Jesus’ response to Martha—essentially “calm down and just relax—Mary has chosen the better part”—has gone down in the history of classic put downs of Type A energies.

But this is unfair both to Martha and Type A’s everywhere. Each of us has a Martha and a Mary living inside us. The question is not which is better than the other, but learning which should take the lead when. Maybe when the Son of God is visiting, Mary’s choice is “the better part,” and normal activities can be suspended. Learning when to chronos from kairos time is a skill worth developing. At the same time, Martha deserves as much attention as Mary—otherwise, as I used to hear occasionally as a kid, one might turn into a person who “is so heavenly minded that she is no earthly good.”

And THAT…would not be cool!

Believe it or not, the Church is meant to be a prophetic community

The writer of Ephesians says that the Church is like a building which is built on a foundation that is part apostolic and part prophetic.

Christ is the cornerstone, and the apostles and prophets make up the foundation (Ephesians 2:19-20).

Now, I can easily understand why Christ is the chief cornerstone. After all, none of this Christian stuff would exist without his presence and impact in history.

It’s also not hard to see why the apostles are part of the foundation. After all, they are the ones whom Jesus hand-picked to lead his movement after he was gone.

But why the prophets? Of all the groups in Jewish history, what is it about the prophetic tradition that makes it part of the Church’s foundation? The significance of this question recently dawned on me while I was preparing for a sermon for the congregation I serve.

Jewish Roots

The Church began as a sect within Judaism. of course. Some people even viewed it as a heretical sect (Acts 24:14). But soon the new community that formed around the Rabbi Jesus took on its own unique flavor. In fact, after the Gospel broke the boundaries of Jewish circumcision, the Church quickly became more Gentile than Jewish.

None of that changes the fact, however, that Christianity sprang from the womb of the Jewish faith. Both Jesus and all the apostles were Jewish. It makes sense, then, that the foundation of the Church would be uniquely Jewish.

Yet scholars and historians are apt to point out that Judaism, like any other faith, was not monolithic. Throughout history, there have been many different brands or versions of Jewish religion. Or, at least you could say there have been multiple streams of tradition within the Jewish faith.

Prophet vs. Priest

For instance, if you read the Old Testament carefully, you can see the conflict between the priestly and prophetic traditions in ancient Israel. In fact, one of the most outstanding characteristics of the prophets was the way they often critiqued the sacrificial system that was centered in the Temple at Jerusalem.

Take this famous line from the prophet Amos as an example. In contrast to the ceremonial observances the people were wont to trust in, the prophets emphasized the importance of practicing justice and living in right relationship. Speaking in the name of Yahweh, Amos says:

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” ~Amos 5: 21-24 (NRSV)

Then, as Amos does next in this passage, the prophets would often question to whom the people were even offering their sacrifices and offerings.

“Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves,…” ~Amos 5: 25-26 (NRSV)

In similarly startling fashion, Jeremiah questioned not only the people’s motives but the very origin of the sacrificial system itself. Standing in the gate of the Temple, he said,

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh. For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’” ~Jeremiah 7: 21-23

These few examples exhibit the conflict that existed between the priestly and prophetic traditions in ancient Israel. They also demonstrate the resounding message of the prophets to Israel, which was that nothing they did mattered if they themselves were not in right relationship with each other. No sacrifice or offering for sin would make up for the festering sore of injustice within the human community.

Jesus and the Prophetic Tradition

This all gets even more interesting when you turn to the New Testament and see how closely Jesus aligned himself with Israel’s prophetic tradition, both in his person and message.

For instance:

  • Like Amos, Jesus lacked the formal training that would typically qualify one to speak in God’s name (Amos 7:14, John 7:15)
  • Jesus used Isaiah’s language to liken himself to a “cornerstone” that was rejected by the builders of the Jewish establishment (Matthew 21:43)
  • Like Jeremiah, Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem even while he pronounced its inevitable judgment (Jeremiah 9:1, Luke 19:41)
  • Like all the prophets, Jesus critiqued the Temple system, particularly any practices that excluded or exploited the poor and outcast (e.g. Mark 3:1-5)
  • Also like all the prophets, Jesus was not afraid to call out religious and political leaders for their hypocrisy and domination of the people (e.g. Luke 13:31-32, Matthew 23)

In short, Jesus was apt to violate social norms and shirk religious customs whenever it was necessary to emphasize the “weightier matters” of the Law, which he described as justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Like the prophets, his message resounded with a single, overarching sentiment: Nothing you do in terms of religious devotion matters if you yourself are not in right relationship with your neighbor!

The Church as Prophetic Community

When you see this connection between Jesus’ ministry and Israel’s prophetic tradition, it is clear why the prophets are listed alongside the apostles as making up the foundation of the Church.

The Divine-human community that formed around Christ was intended to be the continuation of that ancient prophetic tradition. As such, it is meant to bear all the marks of prophetic ministry:

  • Speaking truth to power while avoiding entanglement with the political system
  • Disrupting injustice by offering non-violent resistance to the powers and principalities of the world
  • Urging faithfulness to the spirit of the Gospel over and above the letter of the Law
  • Discerning and speaking to the specific needs of the moment in times of spiritual crisis and moral decay

Am I going too far to suggest that the western Church has lost its prophetic voice? I don’t think so. I believe it is painfully obvious that most churches have sold themselves into irrelevance by embracing short-sighted agendas.

And it shows. Everywhere around us, it shows.

Is there any chance that we can turn things around? Time will tell. With any luck, the Church will rise from the ashes of its own irrelevance to live into its prophetic calling again. I just hope it happens sooner rather than later.

Sending Forth

Our 2018 Historic Caravan journey came to a close yesterday afternoon. We packed up and left Graceland early in the morning and heard to the Independence Temple. The campers watched a video about the Temple and took a tour of the worshiper’s path. ground breaking for the Temple started in 1990 and was completed in 1994. The shape of the building depicts a seashell and represents our call to spiral outward to share Christ’s story and mission.

After lunch, the youth led the daily Prayer for Peace and toured the auditorium.

After leaving Independence, we headed to Mission Road, where our journey began over a week ago. The youth led a closing worship service for the Mission Center and shared stories of their journey.

Thank you all for your love, prayers, and support over the last several months and the last 10 days. We had a great caravan experience and journey and it wouldn’t have been possible without your support!

Coming to a close

We left Nauvoo yesterday morning and headed to Lamoni, Iowa. Joseph Smith III moved the church headquarters to Lamoni in 1881. Joseph and his family lived at Liberty Hall, which we toured today.

After Liberty Hall, we went and saw the land that inspired the hymn “Old, Old Path”. The campers had a chance to stretch their legs and play some games.

Next, we ate dinner at the Pizza Shack and visited with a few Graceland representatives.

After dinner, Graceland hosted a campus-wide scavenger hunt and campfire. The youth shared their take always from the week while watching the sun set over Big G.

Today we head to Independence and then back to Mission Road for our closing service.

Another Day in Nauvoo

We spent another day in Nauvoo yesterday. We walked around the town and saw several homes and businesses in a recreation of the town. Favorite places included the Brickyard (where everyone received a small brick made from Nauvoo clay), the Blacksmith (where we all received a “prairie diamond” ring made from a horse shoe nail), and of course the fudge store.

Also, we walked by the Nauvoo temple (which is now an LDS temple- it was rebuilt after a fire in 1848) and went through the Visitor Center, which has artifacts from Nauvoo. Outside of the Temple Visitor’s Center, there is a Women’s Memorial Garden full of statues dedicated to the various stages of a woman’s life. It’s a favorite of mine!

Lach taught another class- focused on the Enduring Principles and how they were lived out by our church in Nauvoo. A camper asked a question about the structure of our church (the First Presidency, Apostles, etc.). According to Lach, our faith movement was “primitivist”, trying to model the Church after the book of Acts in the Bible. This is why we, as a Christian faith, have 2 temples (Kirtland and Nauvoo).

After lunch, we went to Carthage to visit the jail where Joseph and Hyrum were killed. The bullet holes can still be seen in the door (second photo below).

We wrapped up the evening with a campfire on the Mississippi River and spent the night at the Nauvoo House (a former inn and boarding house that was built as a public works project in Nauvoo).

We are headed to Lamoni this morning.