As a human, and as a citizen of the United States, I find it easy to become full of ingratitude and thanklessness. I see what others have received and what others have accomplished and the false deity of the “American Dream” tells me that it is my right to possess more and to accomplish more. My Adamaic-self says, “Why yes, I shouldn’t be satisfied with all of the other trees in the Garden. I think I’ll take a shot at that forbidden one!” The aforementioned idol plays on my inherit weakness and there I go chasing other gods foolishly.
This last week at AAR/SBL created quite a tension for me. I was in the middle of a city that I love: San Francisco, CA. I was taking part in a society that I am coming to love: AAR/SBL. On the one end I was in my favorite “place” in the world while also partaking in vocational fulfillment. Often I wonder, “Where do I fit?” At AAR/SBL I realized that there are thousands of people who like me spend time asking big questions, seeking answers, and enjoying every minute of it.
At AAR/SBL one panelist reminded an audience of young scholars that this is a “privileged life”. She said that even those who are working odd jobs while they earn their doctorate are partaking in the blessed “life of the mind”. It is true. Sometimes I forget this, because it is hard work. Then I think of the vocations that many in my family have been given and I realize my own is easy in comparison.
Every day after sitting in sessions with amazing and brilliant people who are studying religion, biblical literature, and Christian theology I had to make a twenty minute trek back to my sister-in-law’s apartment where I was staying. My pathway was through the Tenderloin of San Francisco. This neighborhood has many who are down-and-out: homelessness, addiction, sexual perversion abound. I never know how to “thank God” at times like this. I don’t have the feeling in my heart as that of the Pharisee who thanked God for everything while the sinner beat his chest in true repentance, though I know it is all too easy to become that person.
As a Christian I believe God has given me gifts and that my life is a blessing. I know people may ask, “Why would God allow you such great things while giving these others such a hard life?” I don’t know if I can explain the interdynamics of human will, social-constraints and social-priviledge, and God’s sovereignty, so I won’t try. All I know is that I found gratitude in the Tenderloin.
Sometimes you must be reminded of all that so many do not possess in order to avoid the ugly temptations of envy, greed, and gluttony. These sins take root when thankfulness and gratitude are removed from one’s life. When King Nebuchasnezzar II looked at Babylon as the city he had built he suddenly found himself abased like an animal. In some sense he did build Babylon, yet his error was thinking of himself as sovereign. I gather from this that while we may not know how God’s grace interactions with our will, motivation, and ambition, we should never, ever, ever assume that we could have done what we have done or become what we have become if not for the grace of God.
Likewise, when we find gratitude and thankfulness we sense obligation to the “least of these”. We see that are blessed not to hoard goodness upon ourselves, but to be a blessing to the world. This is part of what it means to be a child of Abraham. God gives to us so that we may give to the world around us.
I know I am not better than the hurting humanity of the Tenderloin in San Francisco. They are Christ’s brothers and sisters. They are the “least of these” whom Christ has called us to love and serve. They are a reminder of both blessed and responsibility.
I thank my God through Jesus Christ and his Spirit for a lovely wife; a caring and loving family; the wonderful, global family of God; the local communities of Grace Bible Church in Portland and the San Francisco Lighthouse; my academic and occupational family at Western Seminary; my food and drink; my comfy apartment in my lively neighborhood; all my gadgets and toys; and the boundless future of opportunities that God has given me. I pray that I have a heart like Job who looked to the God “who gives and takes away…blessed be the name of the Lord” even as I have been given with little taken at this juncture of my life. I pray that in all the gifts God has given to me that I may be a blessing through my healthy relationships, my studies, my writing, my speaking, my working, and even my material possessions. My heart is full of amazement and wonder on this day.