Nothing moves as fast as the last six weeks of the year; the final “42” get sucked into the vortex of holiday activities, and perhaps, like the sun that seems to move faster at sunset, these last days of the year pick up speed before they’re sucked beneath the horizon of 2013, never to be seen again in their past form. There is something manic–and something very special at the same time–about the holiday season. And we can miss what is most relevant if we fail to consider some big picture issues, and indeed if we fail to pause at a few junctures along the way and take time to consider the same.
I’ve been blogging exclusively about Africa ever since returning from my travels in July. Those of you who’ve only started following this blog in recent months may not know that before I went to Africa, I never wrote about Africa. In fact, truth be told, the “ink” of my writer’s pen had just about run dry in the first half of the year; due to schedules and stresses and the fact that good writing is hard work and takes time–there wasn’t much going on from my end. Then God detoured my agenda with a trip to Africa. What I experienced there caught my attention and gave me something to write about again, and that has been good. I realize today with some sadness that I’m running low on the notes I took during the trip, and my travelogue of that journey must certainly be nearing a logical end. I still have a few more installments; after that, well, I’ll pray that God will continue to fuel my passion and pen, and that I’ll be able to refocus a bit on the big picture that shows God’s abundant grace, given so freely to real people–real messes–like me. Every single day, if we pay attention, proves that God cares much more than he should for people who have it together much less than we should. But I’ll also be eager to continue finding ways to show how God’s grace is very much with the people of places like Africa and that indeed if he cares about them, then so must we.
All of this musing as the year runs low on days brings me to ask, how should my experiences this year color my perceptions of Thanksgiving and Christmas? Let’s tackle the Thanksgiving angle today. My perspective on Thanksgiving, as it pretty much always has been, is primarily that of a child who never missed a meal, never lacked for clothing or shelter or love. My gratitude has never been hard to find because, in part, neither have my blessings. I’m a free citizen (at least for now) of what still is a country in which almost everyone in the world wishes they lived. I was raised on and have come to understand my spiritual blessings in Christ. I have a great job with great people to partner with me in a great effort. I have a great family, all of whom are doing well and are healthy. My children (I love them dearly!) have all left the nest and only come back for welcome visits that have a beginning and end. My only debts are mortgage-related and manageable with an end in sight. I have a little retirement fund and a little savings and am even able through God’s blessings to give away a little more of it every year. I had great parents who, although they never had much materially, had the riches that only come to those who know true gratitude for what they have, and whose God never once let them down when it came to providing for their needs and beyond. What I’m trying to say is I’m blessed and I know it.
But then this summer I was reminded anew of the fact that most of the people in the world have few or perhaps none of the things I’ve listed above. This was not an “awakening” awareness, as I’ve seen poverty and hunger before. I’ve been to impoverished Caribbean islands, I’ve been to rural Russia, I’ve been to Mexico every summer for the past 16 years. I’ve been to slums in Amarillo and I’ve waded through the sea of “humanity in need” that lines up at our Family Service Center 4 times a week. I’m not naïve about need and want. But there are times when God makes it personal–and Kenya made it personal. My time in Kenya gave names and faces to people who are just struggling to survive. And since I am now personally/financially/spiritually invested in these people–I see them in a different way. And I have had to come to terms with some confusion about blessing and provision.
As one of the world’s tiny minority–one of “the haves”–I live everyday and take for granted hundreds of blessings I don’t see and that most of the people in the world (the “have-nots”) couldn’t imagine. By almost every standard, in comparison with the vast majority of the world’s seven billion people–I’m rich. But I’d be wrong if I only see them as poor, or paint them as poor. Because even though these people I’ve met may well have almost nothing to call their own and struggle every day just to find food and water–the ones who know Jesus Christ stand right alongside me as equal heirs in the kingdom. We are both made rich through the gift of Jesus. We both once were impoverished orphans and now we eat every day at the King’s table, with a seat of our own. Neither of us should be there, but we are. The distinction of “haves” and “have-nots” does not exist at this table. We become simply, all of us, the sons and daughters of the King. And being that, we lack for nothing. Our Daddy is the King, after all.
So this Thanksgiving finds me so aware of my material blessings, and more aware than ever of what Jesus said about “those who have been given much.” But my experiences of the year have made me mostly aware that real blessing is not primarily of the material kind. The people of Kenya I met in churches there are some of the most “blessings-aware” people I’ve ever met. They see themselves as rich, in spite of their needs. And that is because they are. They live every day in a close-quarters kind of provision from God’s hand to their mouths…and that makes them much more able even than am I to sing and praise and thank God for what he’s done for them. They depend on him alone, with no confusion about their part in the equation. That makes them rich indeed, a people whose understanding of God’s ability to provide is far more than only academic.
From my side, it serves to make me aware of how responsible I am. While America may seem to be the “bulls-eye” of God’s blessings–and He certainly has given us much–on spiritual terms the impoverished multitudes of Kenya are equally blessed, God having met their most basic need through his son Jesus. Maybe in their material deprivation, almost certainly, they are “more blessed” than we are–because they can see it better. And they sense the hand of God on very personal terms. From this point on I will never again refer to America as “the most blessed nation”–although in many material senses I could make that argument. I choose to see America, including myself as a proud and thankful American, as “the most gifted nation” on Earth. For we have been given so much; and that makes us the most obligated nation on Earth. With the great gifts of God come great responsibilities, not the least of which is to find ways to share some of what we have with those around the community and world who “have not.” And we must find more and more ways to do it with more and more unselfishness and less and less tendency to think anything is “ours to have” in any role beyond that of stewards who’ve been gifted much so that we can share much.
I am so thankful for the bounty of God’s blessings; I can count thousands! But I’m especially thankful this season to have been given new eyes to see how God is blessing his people all over the world; when I become a part of that blessing, the cycle is complete, and my thanksgiving becomes a lot more than just a word.