Who Do Atheists Thank on Thanksgiving?

 

... Or a lesson in semantics in time for Turkey Day

Being a writer, I naturally wonder about the semantics of Thanksgiving. Thankfulness or gratitude requires an object. When someone holds the door for me, I thank them. I don’t do this if I open the door and walk through it myself. When someone gives me a present, I thank them; I didn’t thank myself this morning when I bought myself a new watch.

So, to my word-obsessed mind, the question naturally arises, “Just who are we giving all those thanks to?”

Or, to put another way, who do atheists thank on Thanksgiving?

The first Thanksgiving was a harvest festival, and as such, was a way to give thanks to God for His provision. For people who believe, as Scripture says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above,” tomorrow will be a day of real Thanksgiving to the God who cares for them.

But I have noticed that often when people (those of faith and otherwise) say they’re thankful, what they really mean is they’re happy or pleased. As in “I’m so thankful that I bought my turkey last week when it wasn’t crowded.” Or, “I’m sure grateful Aunt Sally didn’t bring that jello mold this year.”

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Thankfulness is focused on the source of the blessing; happiness on the receiver.

Tomorrow, at our Thanksgiving feast, we will go around the table and one by one, say what we are thankful for. When it is my turn, will I remember the giver of the gift, or settle for the pleasure it gave? Will I be thankful, or merely happy. Will you?

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Do You Believe in Magic?

“There’s not much traffic today.” My husband — my dear, sweet, non-neurotic, Midwestern husband — makes this benign observation, and I’m quick to shush him. “Don’t say that! The Evil Eye will hear you!” This is my Italian upbringing talking. Sicilians are mighty superstitious people, and they believe that the Evil Eye is just waiting for you to express some happiness or pleasure. Then, it will swoop in to gleefully relieve you of it. As soon as you say, “There’s not much traffic” you’ll find yourself able to count the blades of grass in the parkway median. The moment you observe, “What a lovely day,” it will pour. Exclaim, “I feel great!” you’ll be visited by ailments that would make Job’s suffering look like a day at the spa. If my family had a crest, it would say, “Whatever you do, never, never, tempt the Evil Eye.”

Now, I don’t really believe in the Evil Eye any more, but old habits die hard. The fact is, believing in magic (evil or otherwise) appeals to something primal in all of us. When confronted with things beyond our understanding or control, we instinctively seek to understand and control them. Sometimes this means seeking out a supernatural solution: astrology, Tarot cards, crystals, shamans, and psychics are just some of the kinds of “magic” people turn to when their own efforts fall short. Magic says: Make the right sacrifices, chant the right words, bring the right offering and whatever supernatural forces there are can be persuaded to grant your request.

Ultimately, magic is a transaction.

We present our desires, offer the prescribed words or actions, and voila! Easier than ordering a latte. This is why I think these forms of “magic” are so attractive to so many people. We think it is an impersonal, low-risk, “What have I got to lose?” proposition. And the best part is, if your wish is granted, the rest of your life remains unchanged and unchallenged. We think of magic as an encounter with the supernatural on our terms, and those are the terms we like best. (Of course, if you believe there is a malign force of evil in the world — and I do — than any encounter with it through magic is not spiritually neutral. We may think we are in control of this transaction, but we couldn’t be more wrong.)

Now, miracles are a different story. And by miracles I mean God’s intervention in our world in ways that defy our understanding of time, space and matter or are beyond any human ability.

If magic is a transaction, then God’s miracles are about revelation.

Scripture is full of God’s miracles: Creation. The parting of the Red Sea. Jesus healing the sick and feeding the multitudes. The resurrection. It is easy to think of most of these as God seeing a problem and fixing it. Need to get across a body of water? No problem. Not enough food to feed the multitudes? I’ve got this. Blind? lame? Possessed by demons? Bring it on.

While God’s miracles did accomplish those things, their purpose is much grander, much more cosmic than fixing problems. Every time God breaks into our world to act, it is an act of self-revelation. In creation, He is saying, “I am a creative God, a God of order and of beauty.” When He parted the Red Sea He was saying, “I am a God of rescue and restoration.” When Jesus feeds the five thousand, He is saying, “I am the God of provision.” When He heals, He is saying, “I am the God of Shalom — of wholeness and peace.” When He raises Jesus from the dead, He is saying, “With me, death never has the final word.”

God’s self-revelation is an invitation to relationship.

God is not making these proclamations just to hear Himself talk. He longs to be in relationship with his people, and as with any relationship, self-revelation is the first step. “This is who I am. This is how much I love you.”

I think this is exactly why some people have a hard time accepting God’s miracles. I have known people who were perfectly willing to believe that the scent of apple blossoms would help them find their lost keys, but flatly reject God’s miracles. I have known people who believe that shaman incantations can cure disease, but consider Jesus’ healing miracles laughable.

I think that we know instinctively that God’s miracles are inviting us into something deeper, something beautiful and just a little frightening. On the most basic level, it means acknowledging there is a Creator God who is powerful beyond our understanding and operates in ways we can’t predict, often don’t understand and can’t control. In short, there is a God, and it’s not me. For independent, self-actualizing, self-sufficient, self-made people, this can be a tough pill to swallow.

Unlike magic, which leaves us unchanged and unchallenged, meeting the God Who Reveals Himself leaves open the possibility of new life. And while new life with God can mean liberation from things we long to shed, it can also mean that God will ask us to let go of things we want to hold onto. This, too, can be a stumbling block.

In His miracles, God declares, “This is who I am. This is how much I love you.” No forces of magic offer this. No Evil Eye is interested in our flourishing, our peace, our joy. No amorphous auras care about our pain, much less want to enter into it. The Universe doesn’t wait with outstretched arms for us to come “home”. It is only the God who creates, parts the sea, heals, feeds and defeats death who does that.

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The Day After

On this Day After, I feel I should be adding my voice to the chorus of lamentation over the death and suffering in Paris. I believe that somehow I should have something to say, some insight to offer, some outrage to give voice to, some balm for our aching souls. I have none.

I feel I should be posting encouraging Scripture verses that reassure us that God is still on his throne, despite the evidence to the contrary. Or perhaps I should be offering prayers of comfort. Maybe my contribution is a clenched fist of solidarity and a vow of “No retreat, no surrender!”

I can’t seem to muster any of these things. I am just sad. And mad. And afraid. The words of the Isis statement claiming responsibility are meant to strike fear in my heart, and although I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of frightening me, they do. They are words of darkness and chaos; people who say yes to this kind of mass murder are not likely to say no to much else. And while I feel safe here, now, I know I have no more reason to than those who innocently went out to dinner, or to a concert, or to a soccer game yesterday in Paris.

I ache for the lives lost, for the suffering ahead for the wounded, for the people afraid to leave their homes for fear of what a trip to the bakery might hold. And I know that God wants me to feel compassion, to mourn with those who mourn. I know that when I do this, I am most like Jesus. And yet, I somehow have to do this without being overcome by the horror of what has happened, I have to hang onto some hope. Hope that God will comfort. Hope that God’s justice will prevail. Hope that this will not be the final word.

But maybe The Day After it is too soon for me to hope. This morning, I opened my Bible app and this is what I saw:

I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

                                                             (Psalm 121:1-2)

On The Day After, as I resist being pulled into the vortex of death, darkness and despair, all I can manage is to lift up my eyes to the hills and wait for the Lord to send his help.

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Seeing Red

Social media has been abuzz the last two days over coffee cups.

That’s right, coffee cups. Specifically, Starbucks’ “holiday” coffee cups, which this year are plain red. No Merry Christmas. No Happy Holidays. No reindeer, snowflakes or jingle bells. Someone posted a video online railing against them for removing all references to Christmas and accused them of “hating Jesus.” The mainstream media are reporting that Christian groups are calling for a boycott, when in fact, no “group” has done so. I think this whole kerfuffle tells us more about the disproportionate power of one cranky guy with a cellphone video than it does about some grass roots, widespread outrage that a coffee cup doesn’t say Merry Christmas on it. I also think it speaks volumes about media and our culture’s image of who Christians are, but that’s a story for another day.

Still, it got me thinking. It doesn’t bother me at all that a commercial establishment isn’t wishing me Merry Christmas or Happy Hannukah or Joyous Kwanzaa. In fact, I kind of like it. The “holiday season” as we are now to call it, has become an unrecognizable mash up of traditions, beliefs and customs of these three holidays.

The only thing they have in common is gift giving, which is I suppose why retail is so invested in celebrating and promoting them. These December holidays celebrate different things and mean different things, and yet by accident of timing, find themselves squeezed into seats in the middle row of an airplane, sharing armrests uneasily, on a very long flight.

They do have one other thing in common. They all have an element of joy and love, and so I guess it’s natural to want to acknowledge this to people you encounter during this time. But what do you say?

Giving holiday greetings can require a kind of “spiritual profiling” that is risky business.

How do you know who will welcome a “Merry Christmas” and who will not? I guess this is the dilemma that the bland “Happy Holidays!” is meant to solve. (I don’t really mind it, except once, in church, someone wished me a Happy Holiday and my head almost exploded. I mean, come on, if we can’t say Merry Christmas in church then all is lost.)

I do understand the need to find some generic way of acknowledging the disparate celebrations that share a month. I can live with Happy Holidays because it’s a fact of life: there are several celebrations going on at the same time and the speaker often doesn’t know which one (if any) you celebrate. Not an elegant solution, but it’ll do.

What does bugs me is when we try to redefine things within any of those traditions. Case in point: Holiday Tree. It’s not a holiday tree. It is a Christmas tree because it is part of the tradition of celebrating that particular holiday. Now, you don’t have to be a Christian to have or appreciate a Christmas tree, but the fact is, it is inextricably bound with that Christian tradition. You don’t see anybody trying to call a dreidel a holiday spinning toy, do you? Well, maybe that’s next.

Finally, two scenes came to mind when I starting seeing that Starbucks red cup all over Twitter: The first was in a parking garage where the cashier was Muslim (it seemed so by her dress and headscarf. Spiritual profiling is tricky). As she handed me my change, she said, “Merry Christmas!” Next, I’m walking in the Old City of Jerusalem on a Friday morning. I asked someone for directions, which she gladly gave and as she left she said, “Shabbat Shalom!” Both of these women made assumptions about who I was, what I believed, what I celebrated. Neither offended me. Quite the opposite. Each of them offered me warm human connection. Each offered me a blessing. They made me smile.

So, I welcome all expressions of good wishes and blessing, regardless of whether you “guess right” about what holiday I will be celebrating next month.

Or, if you’re like Starbucks, and you have no celebratory words for me, that’s fine, too. I prefer to get my blessings from people, not coffee cups.

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Faith and Fear

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When I was 30, I thought that my life had become too safe. I decided that every time I went on vacation, I would do something that terrified me. So I parasailed over the Atlantic Ocean. One time, despite my fear of heights, I climbed a series of rickety ladders leaning unsteadily up against the side of a mesa in Arizona. I keep pictures of these accomplishments on my bulletin board to remind me that it is possible to not let fear rule my life.

Fear is just part of being human, which is why the Bible talks about it a lot. (The word itself appears 399 times!) Scripture assumes that we will feel fear. The question it asks is, “What are you going to do about it?”

One of my favorite stories is from the book of Daniel. Here we find Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, condemned to die because they would not worship the golden idol of the king of Babylon. They expected God would be faithful to His faithful promise to be with them, even if he didn’t save them from the fire.  Now it’s easy to think that their great faith in God meant they weren’t afraid. I think they were plenty afraid.

But faith is about what we do with our fear.

Do we allow our fears to set the boundaries of our lives, then resign ourselves to living within them? Or do we acknowledge our fear, even respect it, but make it subject to boundaries set by God – what God expects of us and what we can expect of God.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did that. Afraid or not, they knew what God expected of them: You shall have no other gods before me. Afraid or not, they knew what they could expect of God: God would be faithful to them, too.

Now, they weren’t sure how God would do that. They just knew he would. And when they are thrown into the furnace, we see how God fulfills his promise. A fourth man, “who had the appearance of a god” enters into the fire with them, and all four emerge, unharmed. Instead of removing these three faithful believers from the danger and pain, God was with them – in the most literal sense.
And for a completely different picture of faith and fear, I think of Peter. Peter and the disciples find themselves in a storm — the wind is howling, the boat is pitching back and forth and when he sees Jesus walking on water towards him, he thinks it’s some ghost come to finish them off. But even though it looks like Jesus, and sounds like Jesus, Peter needs more proof. He says, “If it is you, tell me come to you on the water.” Peter gets his proof – he is able to walk on the water towards Jesus. Then Peter looks at the storm and sinks because in that moment, he doubts that God is with him.
In the middle of the fire, you can almost hear Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego look at the fourth man and say, “God is with us!” as if they expected him all along. Of course God is with them! That is what God does.
In the middle of the storm, Peter seems to say, “God is with us?” as if he can’t quite believe it.  Peter not only didn’t expect God to be with him in the storm, he didn’t believe it when he was.

Faith is about what we do with our fear.  It is not about some unshakable certainty. It is not some superhuman bravado. It is expecting God to show up when what we fear has come true.
When you are in the middle of the storm, or the fire, or the health crisis, or the family problem, what are you expecting?  Do you expect God to show up?  More importantly, do you recognize it when he does?

 

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