The Origins and Ironies of Thanksgiving

Imagine someone from a galaxy far, far away coming to America in late November and thinking we worship the turkey goddess—or the football gods. When strangers do cross our path—that is, refugees or immigrants, international students, the homeless—would we invite them to a Thanksgiving meal and explain its meaning?

For Thanksgiving two years ago, my wife Sue and I invited a family of seven Iraqi refugees to share our Thanksgiving meal. Their big question, as Muslims and newcomers to America, was this: “Is Thanksgiving a Christian holiday?” I answer, “No, it is not uniquely Christian; all grateful hearts may participate.”

However, there’s a rub as we thank God for the grub: Some may not be feeling so thankful this year. To get in the right mood, a gratitude journal helps. This accords with the research of Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons, who conducted a psychological study with three control groups: One group journaled weekly about things they were “grateful” for, one about things that were “hassles,” and a third group about “events” that were unremarkable. After just nine weeks, the gratitude group reported better well-being, better health, and increased optimism than the other two control groups.

For another take, I invite you to consider the origins and ironies of our Thanksgiving holiday. Centuries ago, the Pilgrims faced squalor and hunger in Europe, along with the fear of being assimilated into the Dutch culture of the day. Hence, they came to America, “the land of opportunity,” to build a better life.

Most immigrants at our southern border, as well as those in Spain and North Africa coming from sub-Saharan Africa, and those in Germany fleeing from the Middle East, tell similar stories of hope for opportunity and a better life.  (I personally heard many of those Spanish, North African and German stories in 2016, 2017 and just a few weeks ago.)

But in making this 400-year-old cross-continent parallel, I sloughed over a crucial difference. The Pilgrims of 1620 were met by the local Indians, who moved from hostility to hospitality. During their first New England winter, being short of food to start with, nearly half the immigrants—indeed, 14 of the 18 wives—died!  Nevertheless, they set aside a day of thanksgiving out of human resilience and undaunted hope. Wow! I want that, don’t you? Persevering in prayer and assisted by helpful Indians, those Pilgrims reaped a bountiful harvest the following summer.

The surviving Pilgrims then declared a three-day feast in November of 1621, to thank God and to celebrate with their Indian friends. We traditionally celebrate this event as the first Thanksgiving in America.  But rival claims for “first Thanksgiving service” are made by Virginians as early as 1619, by the Spanish in Texas as early as 1565, and by French Huguenots in Florida—all before the Pilgrims arrived. Never mind that the Indians had such fall festivals long before. How ironic.

At Thanksgiving in the Gruen household, or in phone calls made that day, I ask, “What are you particularly thankful for this year?” Eight shares later, I conclude we have much to be thankful for—good health, good jobs, good friends, good kids, three wonderful grandkids. I take mental notes, gather pics that fit, and prepare my “dear-all, what-a-wonderful-year-it’s-been, count-your-blessings” annual newsletter. Some of you get that. Many of you do the same thing—focus on the positive, and not just in newsletters.

But for families grieving the loss of a loved one this season or suffering through a bad year, your letter—if you send one at all—will differ. You better acknowledge the giant “turkey” in the room. Don’t let some yahoo like me force you to share one thing you’re grateful this coming Thanksgiving. Don’t dance at the office Christmas party or sing joyous carols all night just to please other people. In acknowledging your grief or apathy, go ahead stuff the turkey and enjoy all the trimmings—it is comfort food, after all—but don’t stuff your feelings.

You can grieve and be grateful. In 1863, amidst our bloody Civil War, President Lincoln saw fit to issue the proclamation creating the day we now celebrate. Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation came at a time of spiritual crisis for him personally and for a divided nation. Personally, he’d just buried his 11-year-old son, Willie. “The severest trial of my life,” said Lincoln. Now, as we are again polarized and losing loved ones to health crises and acts of violence, it will help to turn to the first Pilgrims and Lincoln for enduring reasons to be grateful. Our forebears invite you to give thanks in word and deed, in all circumstances—that is, in life and death, in abundance and want, in sickness and health, amidst great adversity and diversity, remembering both wrath and mercy, victors and victims, grieving family and joyful friends alike.

Rev. Dietrich Gruen is Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Columbus and Bethany Presbyterian of Randolph. He is also the Benevolence Coordinator at High Point Church and former member of the Global Missions Team at High Point Church.

Carrying One Another’s Burdens: Lessons From Málaga, Spain

A group from High Point Church traveled to Málaga, Spain and North Africa for a 10-day trip where they provided women’s health education and reusable menstrual hygiene kits through Days for Girls and worked with Diez42, a community center serving refugees and immigrants.

The following article was written by Dietrich Gruen, one of the members on the trip.

“I can never carry anyone else’s bag,” Sue said, apologetically, after Ty grabbed hers and schlepped it across one more interminable airport terminal. Then she rebounded playfully, “But I can help carry their baggage.”

Carrying another’s “too heavy” baggage or burdens—that fulfills the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2,5). That also typifies our 10-day vision trip, October 23 – November 2, and, dare I add, life together here at home. In Málaga (Spain) and North Africa, we educated women on menstrual health and provide free reusable menstrual pad kits made by “Days for Girls.” Six groups of 20-30 women across four cities and two continents delighted in receiving our home-made-with-love kits. Others caught the vision and will offer the same education and kits to yet more people in weeks to come.

Why do this? you may ask. In 140+ countries where Days for Girls operates, girls who can’t afford sanitary pads may be forced to stay home from school during their menstrual period. Missing five days a month, every month for years, means they fall behind the boys and don’t graduate. Not graduating, women are systematically held back in society. Our reusable menstrual hygiene kits help alleviate this huge burden—at least for 3-5 years, if properly cared for.

Hunger is another obvious problem, which we help with. The European Union is lifting this burden for refugees, but they need partners on the ground to help distribute the food, track distribution, and extend other resources. Hence the founding of Diez42—a city-wide community center living out Matthew 10:42, “giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name.” Volunteers from area churches and seven NGOs unload the semi-trucks and vans full of food one day; then, for two days, we host 200+ client families among the refugee community.

Refugees in Spain depend solely on this free food—up to 63 lbs of produce per family every week. Without proper documents, refugees can’t find work to buy food—except in the greenhouses, who force desperate refugees into hard farm labor for low pay—then string out that process of documentation for three years.

How to survive during that 3-year waiting period is a burden too much to bear for some: While we were there, one hopeless woman threw herself off a 3-story building on the same block we are working. Such suicide attempts call attention what else these collaborating churches and NGOs provide besides food: social services, job training, sewing classes, English conversation, counseling and prayer. Many suffer “secondary trauma” from getting hands and heart so involved in the lives of these hurting people.

One of our own, Adrienne, gets too close to the action and a pallet of food lands on her toe. Upon seeing this, a former nurse jumps out of the food lines to address the toe with cleansing, cauterizing meds, gauze and bandages. Others provide footrest, support and companionship. We all pray for healing.

Caring for Adrienne, head to toe, provides a microcosm to see the Body of Christ in action. Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ…. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it”the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 12:12,24-26). Hence, a lost toenail for one is felt by all. A body abused in sex trafficking causes us to cry out to God in shared pain. A refugee who loses her housing or his job and fears deportation—that stirs us to intercede and act as one. There are no little people, no unwelcome people in the faith communities we observed. Not just the Christians caring for Muslims, but the Muslims hosting us. We are the stranger in their midst, and they made us feel so welcome.

God hears and provides someone to carry the burden every time we cry out to him—Tori as a nurse for Adrienne, Ashlyn to sub for Adrienne as lead presenter, Lynn with meds and other first aid for one and all; Anon to diplomatically and heroically stop one fierce brawl that broke out between clients; Ty, Mark and Kory to safely navigate narrow passageways and scary roundabouts; Laura to keep—and flex—our schedules on time. Exhaustion, physical and emotional, is common to our team and bonds us in many ways, in prayer and support.

Where we see God is working, we join in common cause there to help lift burdens. Such burden-bearing bears witness to Christ in a world of hurt. And not just in Málaga or North Africa, but also
here at High Point Church, though our small groups and deacon’s care ministry. When one part suffers, we all suffer. When we part rejoices, we all rejoice.

For more, you can also read Dietrich’s interim ministry reports:
Report from October 28, 2019
Report from October 31, 2019

Rev. Dietrich Gruen is Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Columbus and Bethany Presbyterian of Randolph. He is also the Benevolence Coordinator at High Point Church and former member of the Global Missions Team at High Point Church.

Photos taken by Sue Finley of Tree-Hollow Cottage Photography (https://thcphotography.zenfolio.com).

2019 Dominican Republic Team Updates

We have a team in the Dominican Republic this year, with a focus on relationships and spiritual growth. They are spending time doing child sponsorship visits, teaching Vacation Bible School to kids, holding Teen Chats, and doing prayer walks in the community. They do all this while, most importantly, sharing the Good News of the gospel of Jesus. Pray for them, and check below throughout their trip for updates as the team invests in the Dominican Republic!

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Grace and Glory

Every field of knowledge has its own words meant to help people communicate and make that communication more effective. However, these technical descriptions can also make the field more difficult for outsiders to understand. They also can leave the impression on insiders that they know what they mean when in reality they are repeating jargon they don’t really understand.

This is especially a problem in religious faith. Churches and parents can easily adopt religious language that they hear repeated without really knowing what it means. This keeps their faith shallow, makes their attempts to share the gospel dramatically less effective, and confuses the church’s children into disinterest in the spiritual convictions of their parents.

For example. two of the most important concepts in the Christian faith are glory and grace. You will read these words in the Bible and hear them in churches and spiritual conversations. It is easy to convince yourself that you understand these words clearly – even if you don’t. Further, these words — grace and glory — are often not found together in many modern churches. To many Christians, the words seem to have cross purposes rather than beautiful and clarifying union. Yet if you misunderstand these two concepts, you cannot understand the gospel, or the message of salvation in Jesus, at the level of depth that produces full freedom and transformation. The gospel won’t change you that much, because you won’t know God that well.

So, let me try to give fairly brief clarifying explanations of the meaning of these two words.

Continue reading Grace and Glory

Why a sword if we are to love our enemies?

Luke 22:35-38  Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered.  He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.  It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”  The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied.

As we come to the end of the Gospel of Luke, one of the passages most people would rather skip over quickly is Luke 22:35-38. This is because in it Jesus commands his disciples to buy swords, which are no doubt instruments of violence. This passage is confusing to most modern Christians for a variety of reasons. First, why does Jesus command this? He seems to be something of a pacifist, and within a few hours, he will reproach Peter for actually using a sword on the high priest’s servant—likely one of the same two swords mentioned in this passage. Further, the commentaries on this point are puzzling. Virtually all of them interpret the passage in strange ways that strike me as cop-outs. This modern commentary by Robert Stein (1992) is typical of most that are presently in print:

“And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. Even if the exact interpretation of this verse is uncertain, it is clear that a new situation is envisioned. The disciples would soon encounter greater opposition and even persecution (cf. Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–2; 12:1–5). The reference to the purchase of a sword is strange. Attempts to interpret this literally as a Zealot-like call to arms, however, are misguided and come to grief over the saying’s very “strangeness.” Understood as a call to arms, this saying not only does not fit Jesus’ other teachings but radically conflicts with them. Also if two swords are “enough” (22:38), war with the legions of Rome was certainly not envisioned…The “sword” is best understood in some metaphorical sense as indicating being spiritually armed and prepared for battle against the spiritual foes. The desperate need to be “armed” for these future events is evident by the command to sell one’s mantle, for this garment was essential to keep warm at night (see comments on 6:29).”

Or to go further back, this is from John Calvin, who I often find very helpful:

“And yet he does not call them to an outward conflict, but only, under the comparison of fighting, he warns them of the severe struggles of temptations which they must undergo, and of the fierce attacks which they must sustain in spiritual contests. That they might more willingly throw themselves on the providence of God, he first reminded them, as I have said, that God took care to supply them with what was necessary, even when they carried with them no supplies of food and raiment. Having experienced so large and seasonable supplies from God, they ought not, for the future, to entertain any doubt that he would provide for every one of their necessities.”

Over the years, some commentators have even sought to show that when Jesus says “that is enough” in reference to the two swords, he is not saying, “Two will be plenty,” but “Enough talk of swords. Literal swords isn’t what I mean! Quit talking about literal swords.”

I disagree with all these approaches for a number of reasons. Let me list a few, but that is not my main interest. My main interest is how and why we accept certain interpretations of scripture.

Continue reading Why a sword if we are to love our enemies?

Why Sign Language Interpretation at High Point Church?

by Linda Sey

Hearing loss and deafness are largely invisible and isolating disabilities. Those with hearing loss learn at a very young age to mimic, nod, and laugh along, often completely lost as to the details, if not all, of the dialogue darting around them at breakneck speeds. They laugh at jokes they don’t hear (and therefore don’t understand), they nod yes in feigned understanding, wanting to fit in and be accepted, or thinking sincerely they truly did understand, because in reality, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’

“But, deaf people do speech therapy, talk, and learn to be really great lip readers, so it all works out in the end, right?!” Contrary to popular belief, the English language, at best has only 50% (and at worst, 30%) of the phonetic sounds formed and made visible on the speaker’s lips. This means ‘I love you’, ‘olive juice’, and ‘elephant shoes’ appear identically on the lips, as do the phrases ‘you have talent’ and ‘you have salad’.

Continue reading Why Sign Language Interpretation at High Point Church?

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