I belong to a wonderful, tightly knit denomination. At our annual pastor’s gathering this year I was introduced to about a thousand new people, and remembered some of them. A few months ago, I received a follow-up email from one of the new faces, an editor for our denomination’s monthly magazine. Cathy asked me if I was willing to write something up for the denomination, and I obliged. Thanks to Cathy’s masterful editing, a briefer version of the article below will be posted in the November Companion magazine. For both of my blog readers, I thought I’d reward you with the extended version. The topic was “thanksgiving”.
My family used to have a wanagan. When I lived in Alaska, my family built an extra room—wanagan is an old logging term used to describe a shack or room to store goods–onto our trailer so that we could store food for the winter. Living on Kuiu Island, there were no grocery stores, telephones or paved roads and supplies arrived from the nearest towns via floatplane. In winter, brutal snowstorms often meant weeks or a month between deliveries, isolating us from the world. Necessities like toilet tissue were ordered by the case, milk came seven gallons at a time and joined the fish, deer, and in a good year, moose, in the chest freezer. Looking into that room, my mother could tell what we needed for our next order, if we were running low, or if she should send my brother or me to borrow from a neighbor before the next plane arrived. Our survival depended on our ability to prepare well for the coldest season, and when fishing or hunting was plentiful, we joyfully gave thanks. What can we learn from these patterns of harvest and rejoicing, storing up the means to sustain ourselves through the long cold seasons of life?
In any church, there is cause for great rejoicing, and cause for great mourning. This past year, we have grappled together with death, illness, unemployment, loss and disappointment. In the midst of such circumstances, how can we encourage one another to rejoice, give thanks, and know we are prepared for the arrival of our own winters? Praying for a parishioner this week, I was reminded of the wanagan. While storing up provisions in Alaska meant hunting, smoking fish and ordering ahead from the grocery store on the next island over, here at Quest storing up spiritual nourishment means gathering regularly for Sunday worship and community groups. Tucking away words of encouragement, scripture, song, and lessons learned in Biblical teaching, we fill the storerooms of our hearts. Hearing again each week the Gospel message of a God who “so loved the world”, we cannot help but respond to such news with hearts of thanksgiving. If we recognize the importance of storing up material provisions of food and necessities to make it through the long winters, how much more do we need to store up spiritual provisions to help us make it through the long, cold seasons of our lives?
During those winters in Alaska everything would shut down, drifts piled so deep the Alaska Pulp Corporation closed operations. With storerooms full, knowing we could borrow from one another when supplies ran short, the few families who wintered in the logging camp built a deep bond. As the Northern lights came, we would run from house to house, knocking on doors to let them know the show had begun. Together, we would trudge in our snow clothes to a clearing, and lay on our backs in the snow, staring up at the brilliant, living tapestry of light overhead. The kids would break out sleds, the adults would brew coffee, and together we rejoiced in the cold.
Just as preparing the bounty of a material harvest protected us from hunger and allowed us to enjoy the winter, the fruits of a spiritual harvest are critical to survival in community. Ministering to those in situations of deep heartache and need, we are called to remember those promises stored up in times of plenty, how God has spoken to us and showed Himself real in moments of crisis. Together each Sunday, and during our personal devotions, we mine the rich depths of scripture to learn of God’s character and promises. In Psalm 30 we are promised that “weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” We are given the ultimate expression of God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ and the sacrifice made for us (John 3:16). In Revelation 7:9-17 we glimpse the final restoration of God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven, where all God’s children are gathered in worship. As we look inside our own spiritual wanagans, how have we been outfitted to survive the seasons? Do we remember to pause in thanksgiving for the promises we have been given as children of the living God, and are we willing to share our gifts with those around us in need?
The litany of suffering in community is all too familiar to those in ministry. Another couple separates and prepares for divorce. Cancer brutally ravages the life of a young family. A father finds himself for the first time without employment or the means to support his wife and children. The local hospital calls: the family has requested a pastor to bless a newborn baby before he dies. Can you come? These are the cold seasons, the times of desolation. Faced alone, they can seem overwhelming, a spiritual wasteland without end. But we are not alone. In seasons of need or doubt, we are called to come alongside one another for encouragement and prayer, and we are sent the gift of the Holy Spirit, that God might minister to us directly in our pain.
Standing alongside that newborn baby boy and his family, I prayed to God for help. I am not yet a mother; I can guess but do not know how this young woman and her family are feeling as the life support is removed, and the tiny infant laid in her arms. I pray, and I hear the Spirit nudging: ‘sing to the baby’. Asking, I learn there is a song they have sung often in the short weeks of this child’s life. In one voice, we all sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” as both blessing and benediction. Precious in His sight, as we sang together that afternoon the baby joined his twin in the arms of Jesus. While I could claim it as my own idea, acting out of my own wisdom, the truth is I have no background or gifting in music. I wriggle out of singing the benediction at church as often as possible. And yet in a small room, with a dozen people present, I felt the Spirit urging me to use what I perceive as my weakest weakness to bring comfort. In this postmodern age, we may consider ourselves removed from the act of laying up provisions and offering thankful sacrifices to a God who has given us the means to survive a difficult season. In that hospital room, God provided when I was sure I was lacking. For that provision, and for all of God’s provision, I give thanks.