Friday, November 19, 2010

A More Authentic Thanksgiving

How could we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land?
Psalm 137:4

At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing "happy songs" in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.
Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (2002)

One unintended consequence of the Thanksgiving holiday is that it has a tendency to program Americans to shelve everything that plagues our minds and souls as we come together as a family to celebrate life. Over the past year, millions have lost jobs and homes, moving in with relatives and living on food stamps and unemployment checks. Millions of families suffered from displacement, divorce and/or domestic abuse. And millions more have continued to unsuccessfully fight off addictions to numb their pain, losing a grip on sobriety in 2010. When we live in dire straits what does this national holiday require of us? Are disciples of Jesus called to unquestionably give thanks to God, to simply grin and bear the burden of depression, repression, recession and oppression?

Over the past 30 years, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has worked with a 3-part schema to study and utilize the Psalms for faithful worship and living: both the ancient Psalms and our contemporary life-stories flow from a rather settled orientation (normal life) to painful disorientation to a hope-filled new orientation. The well-used Israelite prayer book has given voice for God's people for the past 30 centuries in every season of life. Sure, "rejoice in the Lord always" is a popular refrain, a call to give props to the Giver of every good gift, but the 150 Greatest Hits of God's People is filled with raw laments and pleas that give us voice to our pain and brokenness. Yes, as it turns out, we can have a real relationship with the Creator and Redeemer God: "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?" (Psalm 13:1).

What is brilliant about Brueggemann's analysis of how the Psalms are used in church and family life is his proposal that Christians, by and large, move to thanksgiving and praise far too quickly. As we have been trained to keep our eyes on a "creation faith" chanting Psalm 104 ("My soul is for your blessing for you are very great"), we have lost the voice of "lament Psalms" like Psalm 86 ("Listen to me, answer me, for I am desperate") which give authentic voice to what is happening in real time. This selective quoting has bred divided souls who put on a happy face in church (and the Thanksgiving table) and weep through the rest of life.

Brueggemann's prescription is not, then, simply to drown our collective sorrows in a depressive funk of lament Psalms, but instead that we can use the Script more faithfully when we use all of it: "In a society that engages in great denial and grows numb by avoidance and denial, it is important to recover and use these psalms that speak the truth about us--in terms of God's engagement with the world." To be Christian is to live authentically with both our lives and our prayers, while we wait on the only One who is powerful enough to mysteriously surprise us with new life and hope.

For the janitor at my workplace who recently lost his 92-year-old mother, an authentic Thanksgiving dinner will require a grieving process that, perhaps, resists a forced charade of gratitude (what must it feel like to "celebrate" Thanksgiving without mom for the first time in 55 years?). For the 60 employees of the Irvine Embassy Suites who are grossly overworked and obnoxiously underpaid, the holiday will hardly be a reality because of the extra job they've taken in order to make ends meet. Real Thanksgiving, according to the Psalms, requires congruence between our words, actions and souls.

-->If you come from a family who has experienced a disorienting 2010, consider praying one of the "lament Psalms" that has sustained God's People through exile, war, drought, famine, socio-political-economic instability and familial strife from the very beginning: Psalms 13, 74, 79, 86 & 137

-->If you have suffered an injustice from an enemy (a spouse, a former business partner, a thief, the banks, a competitor, a neighbor, al Qaeda), consider replacing your usual diatribes with Psalm 35, which calls on God to bring ultimate vengeance on the evildoers, those who make the lives of the innocent and hard-working a living hell: "How long, O Lord, will you look on?/Rescue me from their ravages/my life from the lions!!"

-->If God has resurrected you out of disorientation and refreshed your soul in ways you could not ever have imagined, consider praying Psalm 13 (notice the change dramatic change between verses 4 & 5) or Psalm 22 (between verses 21 & 22).

-->Those of us living in security and comfort (our lives are settled: "blessed" with the same job, same house, same spouse, same routine) may also take this opportunity to pray lament psalms on behalf of all of those regions throughout the world that continue to experience war, corruption, disease, famine and unjust policies. For billions all over the world, God's presence seems allusive and evasive. Pray in solidarity that the least of these would experience God's touch in surprising & mysteriously tangible ways.

This Thanksgiving, may we pass the gravy with authenticity as we praise and lament to the One who will triumphantly make all things new out of our broken hearts, shattered dreams, disappointments and unfulfilled promises. Amen


  1. Amen! I love this! Thank you, Hoops. Makes me want to pick Brueggemann up off the shelf again. This post touched me so deeply I am sitting here crying in Starbucks right now... can't really find words for it, but it awakens part of me that does not usually feel permission to be alive.

  2. I think your quite right in suggesting that we far too often pray the thanksgiving prayers and praise prayers and neglect the protest and lament prayers. To be honest, I think it has a lot to do with how the church teaches us how we ought to pray. We are raised to think that prayers of thanksgiving and praise are the marks of true faith and the right attitude, while prayers of protest are not ours to make. Who are we to question God? Of course, such an attitude is forged on a shallow understanding of the psalms, as Brueggemann and John Goldingay would affirm. We need a holistic understanding of prayer. Thanks for the words, easy.

  3. So beautiful - it amazes me that our God touches every aspect of our lives and gives us a way to pray and praise him through all these times and to join David as he did in the Psalms - humbling and inspiring.....