Giving thanks in the land of milk and honey

art-01-promised-landThe Lord . . . brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey (Deuteronomy 26:8-9).

When you come into the land God is giving you, the land God promised, bring the first and best of all you have, and present it to God as an offering of thanks, you and all the foreigners who live among you. God saw your affliction and delivered you from it, so when you come into the promised land, bring your best, you and all the foreigners who live with you, and bow down before God in thanksgiving (Deut. 26:1-11).

That’s what we’ll be doing Thursday when we observe Thanksgiving Day in this country. But as we sit down to dinner, a question will be on the minds of many: Is this what God promised? Is this the “land flowing with milk and honey” in which we are to bow down in thanks? A lot of people think this is less like a land flowing with milk and honey and more like the time described by William Butler Yeats when “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . . .”

Recently a disabled pastor in our conference wrote of his very real fear that people with disabilities and chronic illnesses will die under the economic and health care policies of a Trump presidency. A successful North Country business owner and naturalized U.S. citizen has fallen victim to repeated harassment and vandalism since Trump’s election, one of hundreds of documented cases in which minority groups in the U.S. have been victims of intimidation, harassment, and violence since election day. There’s even talk in the developing Trump administration of a national Muslim registry and of massive incarcerations and deportations.

And there are other challenges and difficulties we face: the burden of illness in someone dear to us; the death of a loved one; the loss of a job; the strain in a valued relationship; the difficult diagnosis you got last week from your doctor. Is this the land flowing with milk and honey God promised? It may depend on where you look for it.

Israel looked for it in the future. They began the journey from slavery to freedom with God’s promise to deliver them “to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:8). It was a destination that lay ahead of them at the end of a long and difficult journey.

It has been that way ever since. We look forward to a golden future, to “the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2), when life will be as it was meant to be; when nation shall not lift up sword against nation (Isa. 2:4); when lion and lamb will live together in peace (Isa. 65:25); when every tear will be wiped away and death will be no more (Rev. 21:4); when we see God face to face, clearly, and know everything fully (1 Cor. 13:12). As the song says, “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.”

Israel also looked for it in the past. When the journey from slavery to freedom got tough and the future seemed too far away, they started grumbling about their leadership. “Is it too little,” they complained to Moses, “that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness” (Num. 16:13)?

The past, even a past of hardship and slavery, can look pretty good when life’s journey takes us into a wilderness and there’s no clear way through and no sure sign of when we’ll reach our destination. At least in Egypt, they said, we had plenty of good food to eat, even if we were slaves; here all we’ve got to eat is this lousy manna (Num. 11:5-6).

Today we’re still longing for the land of milk and honey, for a golden future or a golden past, while we’re stuck in this seemingly endless wilderness between our loss of the past and our unrealized hope for the future, with no clear way ahead and nothing to eat but this lousy manna. “How long, O Lord?” the psalmist wrote. “Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me” (Ps. 13:1). And we echo the cry: How long, O Lord?

But here is some good news. Our time of waiting is over, Jesus said, and the life we’ve been waiting for, yearning for, dreaming about is at hand (Mark 1:14-15). We have arrived at our destination. The land flowing with milk and honey, Jesus said, is not coming with things that can be observed; it is already among you (Luke 17:20-21 paraphrased). The land flowing with milk and honey is all around us, he said, and we don’t see it (Gosp. Thomas 113 paraphrased). Here in this frustrating, broken wilderness of a world is God’s promised land, waiting to be discovered and claimed. How do we come to see it?

We come to see it, I think, by lowering our sights. We come to see it when we stop looking so hard at all the problems and challenges we face, the visions and dreams we aim for in the future, the memories we treasure from the past, and start considering all the blessings that are already ours, now, blessings so small and inconspicuous that we hardly if ever notice them. Like the land flowing with milk and honey, God’s abundant blessings are spread all around us, and we trample them underfoot while we run off to find them somewhere else.

Gerhard Frost, a poet and Lutheran pastor, in a little book called Blessed Is the Ordinary (Minneapolis, Minn.: Winston Press, 1980), offered a poem that is always inviting me to stop, to lower my sights from all the weighty problems of life, and to look down right where I stand.

It isn’t my story,
but let me tell it.
In the Scottish highlands
a man of science knelt,
crouched in the morning dew,
the better to hold a microscope
over a heather bell.

Lost in blue traceries of exquisite design,
he saw a sun-drawn figure,
the shadow of a man.
Gazing up into a shepherd’s face,
he quickly bade him look.

One long moment
the old man stood, beholding,
pierced by microscopic patterns
in the flower.

Then he spoke: “I wish
you’d never shown me that!”
“But, why?” was the surprised response.
“Because,” the old man said,
gazing at two worn boots,
“these rude feet have crushed
so many of them.”

These rude feet,
and this God’s day,
this most resplendent hour!
Father of mercies,
give me eyes,
make me aware:
I walk in Gift today.

We walk in Gift today, knee deep in the land flowing with milk and honey. Consider all the small, ordinary blessings that fill your life. And if the only prayer you ever say is “Thank you,” know that, as Meister Eckhart said, it will be enough. ▪

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