“So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me. Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him.” (Deuteronomy 26:8-10)
From the summer of 2009 to the spring of 2010, I served in the Iraq War. There was a constant threat of violence. For the first few weeks we were in Basra, we were rocketed every Thursday night. Three young men died in one of those attacks about the time we arrived. People would go through the week, quietly counting down to Thursday. “Well, it's Monday, I’d better make sure my laundry's done.” “Well, it's Tuesday, I’d better send out those e-mail I've been meaning to write.” “Well, it's Wednesday, I need to make sure I get a chance to call home.” “Well, it's Thursday again.” That sort of thing.
Before leaving on the deployment, I had begun coming out as trans, and had briefly been living completely out. Going back in the closet was hard. I've never been good at pretending, and I don't think I convinced too many that I was a straight man. There was constant tension about whom I could trust.
What kept me going was my beloved friends and family back home, the idea of home and a future waiting for me, and my faith in Christ tying it all together. After a few of the Thursday-night rockets, I started a Compline service on Thursday night with a few folks from the unit. We gathered and prayed and read scripture.
There's never been a time when I understood the Hebrew Bible's yearning for the Promised Land better than when we were in the sandbox.
I have a clear memory from an evening in the summer of 2010. I was sitting on the porch of the house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that I was renting after leaving the Army, grilling chicken and drinking a glass of iced tea. My friend John had come over to eat and was giving me a guitar lesson. After dinner I was planning to meet up with a beautiful young woman whom I was dating and maybe see a movie. John had gone in the house, and I was left alone out front.
It suddenly struck me that if this wasn't the Promised Land, this had to at least be an image of it, a sign post pointing the way.
What do you do when you realize you've come to a place like that? Looking at today's passage from Deuteronomy, one idea is that we give our “first fruits” to Lord, that we pay our tithe. Now, the tithe isn't just some income tax, it's a recognition of God's work in our lives and our dependence on that work – a celebration of the Lord's goodness with the resources we are blessed with. No amount of money could ever repay the blessings the Lord gave me.
I don't think the first fruits spoken of here are just money. We are called to give part of all our blessings back to the Lord, our time, our energy, our joys and sorrows, our particular knowledge and wisdom. We're also called to give part of ourselves. In giving, we get to help create a world where there are more blessings for everyone, maybe a world where there is room in the Promised Land for everyone.