November 19, 2017
Where did the semester go? I feel like the opening bell of the year was only a few weeks back, and now, with finals only a few weeks away, we are nearing the end of the sentence.
I don’t know about you, but my fall was a blur! I love the falls here in the Pacific Northwest – where the evergreens stay green, the grass grows thick, and the people wear fleeces that feel like moss. We had fantastic weather – which in the Pacific Northwest means that it rained every three days, rather than everyday. Here the sun spotted between concrete skies, giving rays of light that look like a spotlight shining down from heaven.
But the weather has turned, and the chill of the North is on the edge of the wind. As House Stark says in Game of Thrones, “Winter is coming!” Which reminds me, I’ve been enjoying your top 10 Facebook series on the Norwegian word Koselig – the idea that winter is a time to enjoy by creating experiences that create warmth, intimacy, cosiness – Koselig. But to experience Koselig you need Koselig things. I was trying to explain to my friend Ellis James the benefits of a Koselig mindset. Ellis, being socialized in a southern climate, has a hard time understanding an argument that winter should be enjoyed – not just endured. So I showed him some of your posts – like the joys of wearing hats, scarves, reading a good book in a chair, hot soup with bread. He was not convinced.
It’s Thanksgiving break at Despondent University. We start our break on Monday and treat the break as a long reading week. The campus is empty as the old maple tree that grows stately in front of my study at Revelation Memorial Chapel. From my window I can see students getting into their cars with stuffed backpacks and duffle bags, and driving home for the holiday recess. Some who are leaving who are going to go home, some are going with friends, and a few remain behind, like the resilient leaves clinging to the branch, to work on final papers, or simply because home is too far for travel. I’ve invited a handful of students who can’t get home, as well as some friends and faculty who have no family in the area, and we’ll eat turkey, and green beans, and eat hot rolls with butter, and eat mashed potatoes with brown gravy, washing it down sparkling water in fancy goblets on my best fine china that is semi-chipped (a lot like my life). We’ll watch football in the background, and we’ll go around the table asking each other what we are thankful for.
I’ve been thinking about what I want to say in expressing thanks this year. That is what has inspired my letter today. I need some space to work it out and think and I always think better when I am writing a friend. So I am writing to you about being thankful. I don’t know what the chief virtue of the Christian life is, but I think one that ranks at the highest level must be that of gratitude.
I think this is important to name because we live in a moment in time where the air feels toxic. The words I hear are often sharp and barbed; there is an epidemic of looking for fault in others – where comments are laced with bitterness. We can feel more empowered by naming what is wrong rather than trying to find and name the good. In my experience, this is sometimes magnified on a college campus – especially in November – when everyone is tired. Speaking only for myself, when I am tired, little things become bigger things – issues that bother me or I find irritating become more magnified – and its dissonance can grow like a seed in my imagination. Which is why I find thanksgiving coming at just the right time – at just the moment when I can feel a sense of a deep fatigue that makes me cranky, I’m invited to a table with friends where I can give thanks. Thanksgiving is an open invitation to emotionally pivot, to take stock, and to name that which I am thankful for in my life.
There is a verse in the book of Philippians I love. I use it as a breath prayer – the kind of prayer that you say over and over and over again – that is prayed between the words of life. Paul writes in Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
I love this verse because it always speaks to my life directly. “Do not be anxious about anything.” How long have we known each other? It must be seventeen years since we were all hanging out at the Roundel in St. Andrews – sipping coffee, dreaming about an undefined future, talking ideas, what we would do, who we would be! Now we are in the future we imagined, and I still struggle with some of the same baseline anxieties. I thought it would be gone by now, that I would have grown out of it, but I have not. I get anxious. All the time. I get anxious about the world. I get anxious about the Church. I get anxious about my friends. I get anxious that I’ll be alone. My anxiety is palpable in my body like a pulse, beating in a constant rhythm (or maybe it’s just that I drink too much coffee? I don’t know.)
But this verse reminds me not to be anxious. “Do not be anxious about anything!” About anything! It’s a declarative. What would it be like not to be anxious anymore? When I pray this I am reminded of the truth that God is bigger than my feelings, my circumstances. That in the wide lens of the gospel: God has already conquered that which I am most anxious about. God has saved my life. In Christ, God has already saved the world. God offers me eternity now. In Christ, I am not alone – God has given me a family in the Church. In Christ, God has given me his own spirit which allows me to have fellowship and communion with him forever, every single moment of my day! Which means that my life with God is forever, now! My life is not perfect. Trygve you know me – and my issues are legion – but in Christ I am also a beloved daughter of God. I am a saint. I belong body and soul to him, my faithful savior Jesus Christ. Now and forever. So what am I really anxious about?
This verse reminds me I don’t have to be anxious anymore, because Jesus Christ is Lord – period – over all my life – over this broken and fragmented world. So I am invited to pray with supplication – bringing all my requests to God – but to do so with a spirit of thanksgiving! With thanksgiving! The spirit of prayer is one of thanks. A thanksgiving of joyful recognition of what God has done, is doing, and still promises to accomplish in this life, in this world. Today, I’m writing to claim that the spirit of thanksgiving is now. Thanksgiving is the relocation of gratitude back to God. Gratitude is the key that unlocks us from the cell of solitary bitterness. Gratitude is the passport given to citizens of the Kingdom of God to explore this world of many gifts.
Gratitude is a way of seeing the reality of God in the ordinary corners and cracks of our daily existence. Gratitude – thanksgiving – begins, I think, with the wonder of simply being alive. The poet sings in Psalm 139: “I will give thanks unto God, for I am fearfully and marvelously made; wondrous are his works; and that my soul knoweth exceedingly.” (Psalm 139:4). I worry sometimes that we are losing the profound wonder for simply the gift of life itself. I love how the great Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel reminds us of this need for thanksgiving rooted in wonder when he writes: “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Humankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.”
I think that is right. We will perish not for want of more information, but from a shriveled spirit – from a want of appreciation – from a lack of gratitude – for forgetting that thanksgiving is our birthright. Because if we can’t see what to be grateful for, then we will only see what is wrong – viewing everything and everyone cast in the shadow of suspicion. We will never be able to see with clarity all that God has blessed us with. We will take our information and view each other with fault – instead of realizing that each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made. I am declaring enough, and pushing a kind of spiritual Koselig for the soul by being thankful!
So today, I walked around my campus – Despondent University – and tried to name some of what I am grateful – appreciative of – Giving thanks to God for all the people I saw. I want to be awake in life and to see with the eyes of appreciation.
So I did. I walked to my coffee shop, Life’s Hard Café, where the motto is “Life’s Hard…have a cup of coffee.” Students were hanging out – sitting and having conversation, debating, talking, thinking, drinking coffee and lattes – with “The War on Drugs” playing in the background. And I am grateful for them, and for my cup of coffee, for the spirited conversation and relationships that place encourages.
I took my coffee to go, and I got my feet on the sidewalk that took me through Viking Square, the center of campus, and saw one of our grounds crew blowing the water out of the sprinklers before the winter freeze. I saw a man on a ladder wintering the windows, another cleaning up the leaves from the grass. I’m thankful for their work, for their care of our campus, and for the green grass those sprinklers will water in the spring.
I kept walking, sipping my black caffeine. I passed by Pavlov’s Hall, our science building, and I was filled with deep appreciation for all the faculty who teach there – and in all the other halls – and all the students who go in there, into the classroom and lab to study and do research – preparing their minds to serve others and the world. I kept walking and my journey of gratitude took me passed “The Tower” where our administrative team works, and I saw someone on the phone probably doing the behind the scenes work with a donor, or a board member, or an accrediting agency – lobbying and securing the funding for our little school and the work that happens here. And in that moment I was filled with gratitude for all the ways that the leadership – Deans, Presidents, Provosts, Advancement, Admissions, Administrative Assistants – work behind the scenes to help things function, to meet our expenses, to provide for us in ways that allow our college to function with the precision of a watch. I want to give thanks because it’s easy to take their work for granted.
I kept walking and I walked past one of our dorms – Valhalla Hall – with the ivy growing on the side over red brick facade – and I was filled with gratitude for the RD’s, the staff in Student Development, our Dean of Students, all who work to care for our community. From an open window of Valhalla I could hear the voice of Taylor Swift, and I literally started to skip in gratitude to “Look What You Made Me Do.” #Reputationisawesome!
I kept walking, with the skip in my step. I saw coaches coaching, professors lecturing, students studying, friends laughing, couples holding hands, leaves flying in the wind – and I was overwhelmed – simply overwhelmed with a cozy feeling of intimacy – a simple love for life. Maybe this feeling is what the Norwegians mean by Koselig?
And after this walk around campus I knew… I knew a simple truth. The truth that I’m grateful for this life I’ve been given. I want to make the most of it. I want to participate in something true, and good, and beautiful – but to do so in community – in this place – with these people. It’s complicated and hard, and yet this life – this community – this awareness of what is – is part of what I am grateful for this Thanksgiving. I am thankful to be in a world charged with the grandeur and glory of God. I am grateful to see it. I’m grateful to see and be alive to give witness to the simple glories on a little campus, of people doing their work everyday with excellence, and I wanted to write it all down before I forgot it – or became numb to the glory.
I know I won’t be able to say all of this at the table on Thanksgiving Day, but at least I can say it to you, as I write, sipping my coffee and looking outside at a bare Maple tree – feeling grateful for this amazing life and all its wonders. I hope you see it too. And if you do, write me back and tell me what you see.
Stay Koselig my friend! Life is short. You are loved. Give Kristen my best and love, and tell Trygve and Ella that Aunt Karis is sending them a cool Christmas gift! Well, that’s all I have from Despondent U. Keep loving your people, your place, and above all the Word. Walk this world of many gifts and be grateful.