“Every Thanksgiving I pull out my favorite Billy Collins poem, “The Lanyard.” The poet opens the dictionary to the “L” section one day and his eyes fall upon a word he hasn’t thought about in years.
If you’ve ever been to summer camp, you probably know what a lanyard is. The arts and crafts director spins off several yards of multicolored cord and thin strips are slowly braided into a sort of necklace. Lifeguards blowing whistles at a pool are probably wearing lanyards.
Collins comes across this word and is swept back in time to an Adirondack lake where he (as a young boy) is weaving a red and white lanyard for his mother. He recalls the boy comparing her sacrificial love—spoons of medicine, thousands of meals, a beating heart—to his gift from camp and was sure “that this useless, worthless thing I wove out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”
Sometimes when considering my vocation as a pastor, I think of this poem—weaving inadequate words together in a hospital room, from a pulpit, at a graveside. “You gave me new life in baptism, Lord, forgave all my sins and flawed intentions with your body and blood, gave me direction and purpose with your words of life, and here is a little sermon that maybe you can do something with, a bit of money to show my gratitude, a cup of cold water for the stranger you just brought my way.”
Our faith responses often seem so small and lanyard-like next to the grand gift of new life we’ve been given by the one we call Lord. And perhaps that’s the point, right? We can never pay back somebody who’s given such a gift.
“When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess … you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground … and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name” (Deuteronomy 26:1-2).
God’s people have always offered gifts—not because it was legislated or divinely expected, but as a way of saying, “Thank you, thanks for this land, this mysterious life, this next breath, this common inheritance arriving unbidden and undeserved.”
Writer Anne Lamott says prayer often boils down to two basic forms: “Thank you, thank you, thank you” or “Help me, help me, help me.”
Vernon was a member of my first parish in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He was a wonderful man and lifelong farmer, an orchardist whose extended family for generations lived close to the land.
One day I found a bushel of carrots on our carport. You may not know that a bushel of carrots for a small family will last a while—a rather insane number of carrots spilled into our kitchen. I knew it was Vernon. What was he thinking? Just full of thanks, brimming over.
Take some of the first and put it in a basket.
On seminary internship, I helped dig a grave with several congregation members at Holy Communion Lutheran Church near Grandfather Mountain, N.C. Backhoes were forbidden in the cemetery. When someone died, a group came together for an all-day labor of love. At one point I was actually over my head in the grave, tossing up shovels-full of earth. We told stories about the deceased, giving thanks, knowing that God would one day raise our friend.”
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