The Golden Grace…

Silence is golden! It reminds me of the Psalmists words from Psalm 46:10, where he wrote, “Be still, and know that I am God!” Silence makes us uncomfortable, though, and if you find yourself uncomfortable sitting in silence for 30 seconds, you might need to develop the habit of solitude.

Solitude and silence are two sides of the same coin, for they are both about quietness—inward quietness and outward quietness. We can remove people from our lives but still fill the void with noise, and we can be in a great crowd of people and remain empty and lonely. The habit of solitude is a means of grace that brings inner fulfillment.

What do I mean when I talk about the habit of solitude? If fasting is the abstaining from something (primarily food) for spiritual purposes, then solitude is withdrawing to privacy for spiritual purposes. It is a “going away,” or “getting away” for the purpose of listening for the voice of God. We should note, however, that solitude is as much a state of mind and heart as it is a particular place. We don’t necessarily have to go away to get away. We can possess inward solitude that can set us free from loneliness and fear no matter where we are.

LONELINESS AND FEAR

Let’s talk about that for a moment because it is loneliness that keeps many of us from developing this habit of solitude. I have over the years had the opportunity to go on a few silent retreats—most of them at Catholic abbeys. I remember the first one I attended. I was a first year “resident in ministry.” That means I was fresh out of seminary, beginning the “provisional” process toward ordination and the Conference begins that process by the practice of silence and solitude. I will confess I was scared to death. I’d never been on one before, and this was going to be for three days. I had four children and a spouse. I had just completed three years in seminary with friends and colleagues. I was appointed to a new church with people I needed to get to know. I’m a people person! What in the world was I going to do on a silent retreat for three days? I was going to go crazy, that’s what! But, when it was over, I couldn’t wait for the next one!

Loneliness is inner emptiness—so says Richard Foster. For some of us, we don’t like to be alone because we don’t much like our own company, or because our personality is so shaped by the people around us, we don’t even know who we are when we are alone. It may have to do with whether we are an introvert or an extrovert – introverts gain their energy from within, and are drained by exterior stimulation. Extroverts, on the other hand, gain their energy from exterior stimulation and are drained by interior work. Whether we’re an introvert or an extrovert, whether we don’t like our own company, or whether we don’t know who we are when we’re alone, we need to cultivate this habit because as a means of grace it strengthens our soul.

JESUS’ HABIT

Jesus knew the power of solitude and he practiced it often. Mark’s Gospel records a time when Jesus and his disciples had been busy doing miracles and ministry across Galilee. There were so many people coming and going that Jesus and the disciples didn’t even have time to eat. In this span of ministry, Jesus has been rejected in his hometown, commissioned his disciples for a ministry tour and received the tragic news that his cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded. He’s literally “had it up to here,” and so he says to his disciples, “Come on! Let’s get away to a quiet place and rest.” He knew that the clamor of busy-ness will sap even the greatest person’s strength.

Mark’s account wasn’t the only time scripture records Jesus getting away. Jesus began his earthly ministry by spending forty days alone in the wilderness (Matt. 4). With three disciples He sought out the silence of a lonely mountain as the stage for the transfiguration (Mt. 17:1—9). We could go on, but you get the picture that seeking out a solitary place was a habit for Jesus. So it should be for us, too.

GET REAL

What grace comes from solitude? What benefits? Let me mention only two. First, solitude provides an opportunity to get real with God. Charles Caleb Colton once said “Character is who you are when no one else is looking.” If we are going to be real with God, we need to get alone with God. In the quiet of solitude, all pretensions can be stripped away, all the things in life that are trying to mold us in their image are removed, all the requirements of the world disappear, and we can stand before God “just as I am” as the song says.

This is scary for some, but it is in solitude that we am reminded that above all else our identity is caught up in the fact that we are God’s chosen child. If we are not really sure of what God thinks about us, being alone with him might be pretty scary! If we’re not so sure that God loves us, get alone with him, listen to his voice – the first thing that the Holy Spirit teaches our spirit is how to say “Abba, Father” If we can get alone in silence with God, the first thing we will hear is the Spirit whispering in our ear “you are God’s adopted child – he chose you, he loves you.”

Dallas Willard, who wrote The Spirit of the Disciplines, said that the discipline of solitude is for strengthening. You may remember the story of Elijah from the Old Testament. Elijah was God’s prophet to the nation of Israel at a time of great apostasy under King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel. There was one instance when Elijah challenged 450 false prophets of the god Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah even did so mockingly, and he called fire down from heaven that destroyed all 450 prophets of Baal and the surrounding altar and their sacrifice. It was a victory of monumental proportions. Immediately after the victory, though, Elijah flees because he’s afraid for his life. Weary and worn out, it’s on a mountain in the Sinai desert that Elijah encounters God, not in a windstorm, not in an earthquake, not even in the fire, but in a still small voice. It was after Elijah encountered God on that mountain that he was able to complete his calling. He poured out his heart to God, he got real with God, and God strengthened him.

When you and I get alone with God, we’ll hear him say he loves us, and we’ll find strength to face life whatever challenge it might bring our way.

GET CENTERED

Second, solitude provides an opportunity to get centered. Jesus sought out solitude before he made big decisions in his life and ministry. Before he chose the twelve who would be his closest disciples, Luke tells us Jesus spent the entire night alone in the wilderness. Following the healing of a leper Jesus “withdrew to the wilderness and prayed” (Lk. 5:16). As he prepared for His highest and most holy work, Jesus sought the solitude of the garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36—46).

Billy Graham, in his autobiography Just as I Am, recounts the period in his life when he was being pressured by Charles Templeton to give up his belief in the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. Graham took some time in solitude and he realized that intellect alone would not solve his problem – that it was an issue of faith. So he placed his Bible on a stump in the middle of the woods, and knelt down and said, “Oh God; I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Templeton is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God.” And through that time of solitude Billy Graham was shaped into the man the world came to know as the greatest evangelist of the 20th century. We get perspective when we get centered, and we only get centered when we get alone with God.

PRACTICAL STEPS

Solitude is as much a state of mind and heart as it is a place, but even so, we can’t forget that habits are actions, whether inward or outward. We can be pious and talk about the solitude we practice in our hearts, but if that doesn’t issue itself in how we act, we missed it altogether. We need to take it from theory and put it into real life. How do we do that?

Why not start simply? Start with those first few moments as we awaken each morning. Rather than thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to get up,” why not think, “God, you love me and I love you”? My daily solitude comes with that first cup of coffee in the morning. Nothing but my Lord, my coffee and myself. No computer. No television. No telephone. Just silence…well, and the ticking of the clock. Silence is often hard to achieve.

Could you try silence and solitude while you’re driving? Turn the radio off for a time. Sure, you’ll hear road noise and passing cars, but you also might just hear God’s voice. Could you, instead of saying a blessing as your family gathers at the table, simply bow and sit in silence for a minute? Parents, why don’t you challenge your children when you’re on that long vacation road trip to a game of silence? See who can be silent the longest. It may only last five minutes, but those will be blessed minutes. We might do something as simple as slip outside for five minutes before bed to taste the silence of the night. We can redeem the time in many, many ways. Grab little moments that help us reorient ourselves to who we are and whose we are.

There are other more intentional and intense things we can do. We might not want to immediately through ourselves into a three-day silent retreat, but we can be intentional about designating a place to be quiet. My place is my couch early in the morning. It’s comfortable. It’s quiet. It’s cozy. Perhaps some of you have heard of Joel Hemphill. He’s a Christian singer and songwriter. Vanessa and I visited with him and his wife when they were building their new home in Nashville a few years ago, and the pride he had to show us was the room he had specially built to be his “quiet place.” Why can’t we find a room, or designate a space in our home to be quiet? Maybe your space needs to be a park, or by a stream. Wherever it is…find it…and use it!

Here’s another idea: Try to live one entire day without words. Spouses, please tell your significant other if you chose to do this! Otherwise, they might just think you’re mad at them, and that won’t do anyone any good.

Others have suggested three or four times a year, take three or four hours to get away and reflect on your life’s goals. You can stay late at the office, or you can go sit by the river. Better yet, use it as an excuse to go to the beach. Take a journal and write it all down. God may just surprise us with some new alternatives we never considered.

Then again, you might just want to try that three days of silence in a retreat. Here’s a way to make that happen.

The fruit this habit will bear in our lives is a more acute awareness of the voice of God. That’s grace to us. But, it will also bear an increased sensitivity and compassion for others. Like Jesus, we must go away from people so that we can be truly present when we are with people. There is a new attentiveness to their needs and a new responsiveness to their needs, and that becomes grace to them. Solitude is the habit that can be grace for everyone, and that is just perfect!

Until next time, keep looking up…

What About Us, Jesus?

Of all the names/titles given to Jesus, i.e., Lord, Savior etc., this name “Healer” is perhaps the most challenging for us in the 21st century. What do we mean when we say “Jesus is Healer?”jesus-is-2

We survey the ministry of Jesus and depending on how one classifies the event, there are between 30 and 40 healing events in the four Gospels alone. We read a passage like Luke 4:40 that says, “As the sun went down that evening, people throughout the village brought sick family members to Jesus. No matter what their diseases were, the touch of his hand healed every one.

So, what gives? After all, we pray for healing all the time, but far too often, the healing we seek never comes. If Jesus is Healer, where do we see this healing happening in our world today?

Who needs Obamacare? There certainly wasn’t much of a problem with healthcare with Jesus around. The folks in 1st century Israel called their health care plan Jesuscare! Got a backache? Go see Jesus! Got the flu? Go see Jesus. Surgery? Who needs surgery? Just go see Jesus! One touch is all you need. Must have been nice, and no increase in premiums. It sure would have been nice to get in on some of those healings. Makes us want to ask: When did Jesus go out of the healing business? Don’t we rate as much as the folks back then? What about my friend with cancer? What about us, Jesus?

FAITH HEALING

I’m going to challenge us for one moment to take all the pre-conceived ideas of “faith-healing” out of our minds. Don’t think about Benny Hinn, and let your memories of Kathryn Kuhlman and Oral Roberts fade. But still it leaves us to wonder why we don’t just go down to the local hospitals and clear the places out in Jesus name.

Boy, I wish I had the power to heal! There are folks in the world who say that I simply don’t have enough faith, or that those who are sick don’t have enough faith to be healed. Just believe a little more—faith of a mustard seed and all that, right? Hey? That’s the kind of faith four friends had one day when they brought their friend to Jesus (see Luke 5: 17 – 26).

Luke tells us when Jesus saw “their faith,” his healing power went into action. Notice, Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the paralyzed man’s faith. Perhaps he had no faith at all, certainly none that was expressed in this episode. Yes, faith is often present when it comes to healing, but whose faith is most important?

Or more, the same people who would say today that I don’t have enough faith would also say the problem must be un-confessed sin. That’s part of the issue on the day Jesus was healing this paralyzed man. Jesus knew the Pharisees and scribes, who were a sect in Judaism who had a strong belief in the idea that if someone was sick or blind, there must be some sin in their life that caused it, were watching. Paralyzed? What did you do to deserve that? Confess your sin and perhaps you can get well. That was their attitude.

I wonder if that’s why Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “Young man, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus didn’t address the physical ailment first. He first addressed the spiritual reality, and man, that set the Pharisees off. “Who but God can forgive sins?” The Pharisees question and Jesus’ response might help us understand what was happening then, and what is happening now.

Jesus looked at the Pharisees and said, “Just so you know, I’ve got authority to forgive sins on earth, I’ll say, ‘Take up your bed and walk’.” At Jesus’ word, the young man jumped up, took his bed and ran out of the house. Jesus’ healing power was a sign.

Here’s an important point to understand those 30 – 40 healing accounts in the Gospels—the healings were signs designed to point to the eternal blessings Jesus was bringing, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus was bringing to earth. These healings pointed ahead to the ultimate healing that Jesus was in the process of accomplishing, and that ultimate healing was not limited to the folks back then. No, it is for all of us, too. Yes, every one of us here today–Jesus loves you and me as much as he loved those folks back then. We are at no disadvantage to the people who were healed in his ministry.

So, here’s the deal, as I see it—Jesus is still in the healing business, just not necessarily in the same manner now as then. What do I mean?

MIRACLES AND MORE

First, let me acknowledge that sometimes, for unexplained reasons, God chooses to miraculously heal someone. A tumor is present on one visit to the doctor, and the next scan shows no trace of a tumor. Poof! Just like that, and there’s no other explanation for it but that God did it. All we can say is God surprises us with His mercy, and in those times all we can say is, “Praise the Lord!”

Second, let’s also acknowledge the healing power of medicine. Advances in health care are astounding compared to the first century. There were physicians in the first century. Luke, the Gospel writer, was one. People who were sick sought out physicians for their maladies. Recall the woman with the flow of blood. Luke tells her story, too (chapter 8). She’d spend twelve years going to doctors, but none of them could heal her. The health care advances of just the last 25 years would likely have led to her healing. The Lord uses doctors and medicines to promote healing today in ways never known before. Medical care is a great gift that promotes healing, and we are right to view it that way.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, knew the importance of health care. He even penned a volume that was required reading for his assistants. Wesley’s Primitive Physick was the equivalent of a New York Times bestseller. It went through twenty-three printings and was used well into the 1880’s, decades after Wesley’s death. In that volume, Wesley encouraged the use of doctors, and even promoted the idea that his preachers should offer health care to those in their charge, thus his volume of remedies and advice on health and healing.

For all that healthcare does for our healing, we still face the question, “Why not everyone?” I remind us that Jesus did heal this paralyzed man, and he would heal many others, too, but I also remind us that every one of these persons he healed would later die. Their physical healing was only temporary. Was Jesus’ faith not strong enough? There must be an expiration date on miracles!

ULTIMATE HEALING

We come to Jesus seeking a cure for what ails us, and there is no cure for death…there is only healing. When we proclaim Jesus is Healer, it is a statement that reaches beyond the physical. We go beyond the temporal to acknowledge, even as Jesus did, that healing is first a spiritual process before it is a physical one. Curing the body is a physical process. Healing the soul is a spiritual one. Curing the body is temporal, but healing the soul is eternal. We come to Jesus as healer seeking a cure for something physical. What Jesus as healer offers is something eternal.

Jesus gains the ultimate healing for us, the eternal healing, by dealing with the root problem of sin. Sin. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a particular disease or illness can be traced to a particular sin. That would be simplistic and wrong. There are a lot of unrepentant sinners who are perfectly healthy, and there are a lot of good, faithful Christians who are afflicted with chronic illness and pain.

I’m speaking, rather, of the general sinful condition that pervades this fallen world, ever since the time of Adam, and the sinful nature that we all inherit from Adam and pass down to our children is the root problem that results in all the damage and disease and misery that afflicts the human family. And to fix this, Jesus had to get to the bottom of it.

And, Jesus did so by carrying our sins in his body to the cross. When Jesus sheds his blood for the sins of the world, that my friends, is big medicine! As Isaiah 53:4-5 says,

“Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
a punishment for his own sins!
 But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.”

Do we know that? Do we know that it was our sins for which Jesus died? Yes, our sins–of not loving God, of not hearing and heeding his Word. Our sins of wanting to be our own god, to make our own decisions about what is right and wrong. Our sins of lack of love for our neighbor. Of being jealous of our neighbor’s success. Of grumbling about those the Lord has placed in our life. Of gossip and greed. Of selfishness and un-forgiveness. Yes, those are our sins that Jesus is bearing, bleeding on the cross.

The fact that Jesus is bearing our sins, that Jesus is shedding his blood for them–Jesus on the cross is purchasing our healing. Sins forgiven means curse lifted. Resurrection ahead. Healing ahead. For you. For me. Forever. It’s as good as Christ’s own resurrection from the dead. It’s ours, through faith in him. He shares his gifts with us.

Don’t misunderstand–death is not the ultimate healing as some have proclaimed. Resurrection is! Resurrection is the gift of healing that Christ offers us all.

How does this gift get delivered to our door, with our name on it? Two words—Word and Sacrament. The ongoing ministry of the church is God’s means of delivering the gift Christ won for you and me on the cross. Word and Sacrament are not clichés. They are God’s delivery system for life and salvation, for healing of the soul, and, yes, healing of the body, too.

God is not just interested in saving our soul. He has also promised to redeem our body. God is committed to restoring creation, and that includes our bodies. God is going to raise up our bodies on the last day. We believe in exactly what God has promised: the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

In the Word preached, the Gospel is heard with our ears and taken into the heart with gladness. In baptism, water is applied to these physical bodies, and in communion, the bread and wine represent the body and blood, and we receive the elements—we eat, we drink—and in so doing we receive Christ. Physical elements for physical people, yet working out an eternal healing that redeems both body and soul because Jesus is Healer. And, because Jesus is Healer, we pray—we pray for healing in the body and in the soul.

Until next time, keep looking up…

On Moons, Passion and Worship…

We are a month into 2017 today and most of our new year’s resolutions have already gone by the wayside. We began the year with the best intentions, but intentions are rarely enough to sustain us when life happens…and I’ve learned that life always happens. Heck! Some days I can’t even remember what my resolutions were. January 1st seems like such a long time ago.

blue-moon-treeRather than making more resolutions, I think I’ll discover a new passion. Some people are passionate about running. I used to be. I thought I wanted to run a marathon. I thought that would be my new passion, but when I reached the nine-mile mark, I decided that I didn’t really want to run a marathon, I just didn’t want to gain weight. I thought a marathon was the goal, but the real goal was simply to not be fat. I can’t really be passionate about that.

Then, I thought I would play more golf. That’s something I could be passionate about. I started to play more. I like golf. I’m not any good at it, and the only way to get good at it is to play more. But, I don’t LOVE golf. As much as I want to be, I’m not passionate about it, and I would have to be passionate about it to play more. Golf wasn’t going to become my new passion.

I could add any number of activities to the list: hunting, fishing, scuba diving, reading, traveling…eating, etc. You could make your own list, too. I also discovered as I sought out those new passions that it’s a fine line between passion and worship. The thing we’re passionate about can soon become the thing we worship. Then, I thought, “Well, why not make Jesus my passion?”

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “You’re a preacher! Isn’t Jesus supposed to be your passion?” Well, yes, but like I’ve said before: “There’s a reason my blog is entitled ‘Not the Perfect Pastor’.” Actually, for all us (preachers and non-preachers alike) who call ourselves disciples, Jesus is supposed to be our passion.

As a preacher, I’ve even been passionate about preaching. But, being passionate about preaching is not the same as being passionate about the One we preach about. We can be passionate about preaching for the accolades. We can be passionate about preaching for the adrenaline rush it brings while doing it. There are any number of reasons we can be passionate about preaching, and most of them have little to do with the subject of our preaching. My prayer is I’ll be passionate about Jesus. It may not do much for my preaching, but it ought to do much for my life.

I figure if I make Jesus my passion, I won’t have to worry about that fine line that exists between passion and worship. Oh, I can still participate in those activities I find enjoyable. I just won’t pour my life into them. I’ll pour my life into Christ. He’ll become the priority of my life. He’ll become the One I worship.

Worship. Passion. Not far between the two. We cross the line because we’re created to worship. We will worship something. Worship is as natural as eating or breathing, and the Enemy of our soul (yes, the Devil…or Satan… or,) knows this, and he will take advantage of that fact to defeat us. He’ll turn our attention away from Christ and focus it on all the wonderfully enjoyable activities of life. It’s then he’s won the victory.

The devil is sly enough to know that not many of us will sell our soul to him. We’re not that bold, nor brave. He doesn’t actually want us to sell our soul to him. He doesn’t even necessarily want us to worship him. He simply wants us to worship anything but Jesus. So, he takes our passion and twists it to side-track us from that for which we were created. Yes, the devil is a sly one.

He tried the same thing with Jesus, too. Read the story in Matthew 4. The devil tempted Jesus with the same things you and I are tempted with, but the last temptation was the temptation to distract Jesus from that for which he was created. “Hey,” the Devil said, “just do things my way. Worship me!” He knew Jesus had the capacity to win the hearts of the people, so he tried to put it in Jesus’ heart to discover another passion. He does the same thing to us. We fall for that temptation too many times.

Jesus was passionate about His Father. He would not be distracted from that one thing throughout his earthly life. He enjoyed a good night out on the town (with sinners and tax collectors even!). He enjoyed telling stories. He obviously enjoyed traveling (he was always on the move). He was content to enjoy much that life had to offer, but he would not be distracted from his single, solitary passion–his Father. He was in love with his Father, and everyone could see it.

When we fall in love, people see it. We want to spend time with the one we love. We want to hang out with them. We want to get to know them. We want to discover what makes them happy. That’s the nature of worship, too. When we fall in love with Jesus, people see it. That’s because love is reflected.

Take the moon for example. I’m not sure where I first heard the illustration, but it provides a beautiful image of how love is reflected. The moon is a dark place filled only with craters, dust and rocks. Based on the explorations of Neil Armstrong and others, we know there is no life and no light on the moon. But, when we look up into a clear night sky, we can see the moon and we’ll even sometimes exclaim, “That’s a beautiful moon tonight!”

We see light from that dark, dusty, rocky place, but the light isn’t coming from the moon. It’s simply being reflected from the sun. When we fall in love with Jesus, when he becomes the source of our worship, when he becomes our passion, then we reflect the light and glory that comes from him. Jesus is the sun and we are the moon. When he becomes our passion the world looks at our lives and sees, not the dark, dusty emptiness of our lives, but the light of the One who loves us supremely. Now, there’s something to be passionate about.

I’ll confess. I’m still learning how to make Jesus my passion. This much I know. It starts with worship.

Until next time, keep looking up…

2,500 Miles in the Wrong Direction…

If I might use the superlative “great” in reference to the AMC series Breaking Bad, I don’t think it would be out of place. Breaking Bad was a great series with great characters, a great storyline, great actors, great dialogue, great drama and a great and tragic ending. That’s a lot of “greats,” isn’t it? One great scene that sticks in my mind is the last episode of the series. Walt and Jesse, his former partner in crime, stand face to face, and Walt is just ready for his life to end, and he taunts Jesse to do the deed. It’s a great ending to a great story.
jonah3The ending to the series Breaking Bad is so incredibly similar to the scene in which the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, finds himself at the end of the book (Read Jonah 4 here). I think I can use the same superlative “great” to describe Jonah’s story. As a matter of fact, the author of the book of Jonah uses the word “great” no less than fifteen times in the fifty-eight verses of the book. There is a “great” city. There is a “great” wind and a “great” storm. There are sailors with “great” fear. There are “great” people. God is “greatly” displeased, and there is “great” calamity. There is also “great” joy, and we must never forget there was a “great” fish that was part of Jonah’s story. We find Jonah sitting outside the city of Nineveh wishing for his life to end. Jonah is angry, and he challenges God to just kill him, already! If anyone ever needed an “attitude adjustment,” it was Jonah. So, how did Jonah get there?

Jonah was one of the “minor” prophets of the Old Testament. He’s best known for being swallowed up by a great fish, but there’s more to the story than that. Jonah’s journey begins when God calls him to “go down to Nineveh and preach.” But, Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh, and he certainly didn’t want to preach to them.

What does Jonah do? He hops a ship and goes 2,500 miles in the opposite direction. He wants to get as much water between he and the city of Nineveh as he can. God calls, and Jonah doesn’t answer, “Here I am, Lord, send me.” He put it in high gear and hightailed it to a place called Tarshish.

It is Jonah’s hightailing response you are most familiar with. You may remember that when he hopped that ship that God went with him, and the story goes there was a great wind and a great storm so that everyone on the ship thought they would perish. Jonah slept through the storm until finally the captain woke him up and challenged him to pray to his god for deliverance as all the other sailors were doing. Jonah eventually admits that he’s the cause of the storm and implores the sailors to throw him overboard to save themselves. Very noble wouldn’t you say? See, it’s not that Jonah is unconcerned for people in general. It’s just the Ninevites that he has a problem with. He was thrown overboard by the sailors and was swallowed by a “great” fish. Three days and three nights of severe indigestion caused the fish to vomit Jonah out onto dry land, and wouldn’t you know, it was on the same seashore from which he left. Right back where he started from, and still confronted by God’s call to “go to Nineveh and preach.” So, what’s a guy to do standing on the seashore smelling of fish? “Alright,” Jonah says, “I’ll do it, but I won’t like it.”

Jonah goes to Nineveh, which is so large that it takes three days to cross it (that’s about sixty miles for those of us with pick-up trucks). Jonah arrives on the edge of the city and begins to deliver the shortest sermon in history—one sentence—five words in the Hebrew and eight in the English translation: “Forty days from now, Nineveh will be destroyed.” There are no flowery speeches, no illustrations, no three points and a poem. Short, sweet and to the point.

Someone said, “There’s no such thing as a bad short sermon.” That’s not true! I’ve heard some bad, short sermons. Jonah’s, however, was a great short sermon. It was great, not because it was short, but because it was effective. Jonah didn’t get a third of the way across the city before the people of Nineveh started repenting. They started putting on sackcloth and ashes, and what’s more, even the animals felt the power of Jonah’s message. Even the King, who heard the message second-hand, was touched and commanded the whole kingdom repent and turn to God. WOW! Billy Graham had nothing on Jonah! The problem was that such rousing success only served to make Jonah angry.

Jonah was reluctant to go to Nineveh because the Ninevites were the mortal enemies of Israel at this time in their history. The Assyrians were known for their extreme cruelty to the captors, and Israel had experienced that cruelty often during the years of the minor prophets (circa the 5 – 8th centuries B.C.). Assyrian records brag of live dismemberment wherein the victims were often left with only one hand so the Assyrian attacker could shake it before the person died. Another practice was making parades of heads, requiring friends of the deceased to carry them elevated on poles. Jonah really had no desire to go to Nineveh for obvious reasons. He might well have expected to be arrested, tortured, or become training fodder for the Assyrian army until they got tired of him, and led him through the city streets to hang as an act of national pride and unity.

Not only were the Assyrians enemies, but they were Gentile enemies. Do you know how much the Hebrews hated Gentiles? The daily prayer of the Hebrew man was to thank God they were not born slave, female or Gentile. The Gentiles were not God’s chosen people. They were not special like the Israelites. Surely, Jonah didn’t expect that God really wanted him to go to Nineveh?

Actually, Jonah knew that’s exactly what God wanted him to do. Jonah refused to go to Nineveh, literally went 2,500 miles in the wrong direction, was swallowed and vomited out by a great fish before he finally consented to go because, in his own words, “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God.” Imagine! Jonah’s bad attitude is because of God’s grace and mercy, and it’s so bad that it throws him into such a deep depression that he despairs his own life.

“I knew you’d relent, Lord.” “I knew you’d save them, Lord, and I just didn’t really want you to do that!” “They deserve to die for their wickedness and evil ways!” Imagine Jonah saying that, and never stopping for one moment to consider the same gracious and compassionate God had saved him from the belly of a fish not many days before.

In his anger, Jonah leaves the city and sets up camp on the off chance that the Ninevites show their true colors and revert to their evil ways, or God might wise up and destroy them anyway. Underneath his little brush arbor, God decides to give Jonah an attitude adjustment. A vine grows and provides shade for Jonah. “Ah, cool,” he thought, but the next day, a worm comes and destroys the vine while a scorching wind begins to blow. “Awe, man! Just let me die!” exclaims Jonah.

But, God said, “You’re angry because a vine died, and yet you didn’t make it grow or tend it?” The Lord continued, “Look Jonah, there’s a city down there with 120,000 people that I care about, not to mention the animals. You should care about them.” God lets him know that he misses the point totally.

Jonah’s attitude is laughable if it didn’t sound so familiar. A gracious and compassionate God—what a depressing thought! Until, of course, we are confronted with our own enemies and we come face to face with the realization that the same God who is gracious and compassionate to us seeks to be gracious and compassionate to them, too. As those called to follow Christ, we must put feet to our faith, and that is where the rub comes, especially when we realize the desire of God’s heart is to use us as vessels of His grace and compassion even to our enemies.

How do we do that? Listen to what Jesus told his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount:

43 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.    Matthew 5: 43 – 45 (NLT)

Loving our enemies may never be easy, and our attempts to avoid doing so (though probably not met with encounters with great, stinky fish) will always be met by God’s persistent call to obedience. Giving up deeply held resentments will be the hardest part, but our failure to do so will likely result in heaping anguish and pain on ourselves—not the least of which might be depression not unlike that which Jonah faced. That’s the attitude we need to break. We need God’s attitude to be our attitude. We need to see God’s perspective. Otherwise, we’ll just keep running 2,500 miles in the wrong direction.

A gracious and compassionate God! What a depressing thought!

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Value in Growing Smaller…

A phrase kept going through my mind: Reduction is a strategic endeavor. Like a song gets stuck in your head, I simply could not put those words out of my mind. I finally got up at 3:30 a.m., and wrote them down.

tape measureAt first, the phrase didn’t make sense to me, especially in light of the fact that I’m supposed to be “growing” a church. That was my first connection to the phrase, but for some reason, that left too much undefined. So, what did I do? I went to Facebook (isn’t that what we always do these days?). I posted the phrase with two companion sentences: Reduction is a strategic endeavor. Some things must grow smaller before growing larger. Some things get better by being smaller. I asked for comments. Yes, I got quite a few (and no, there were no snide comments about reducing my waistline), but they all helped bring some clarity to the idea that “reduction is a strategic endeavor.”

Here’s what I’m thinking:

It’s a personal statement about de-cluttering one’s life. We must be strategic in eliminating the right things from our life to make margin for those endeavors that are fruitful and beneficial to helping us live healthy lives. There are a lot of things with which we can occupy our time. Most of them are good things, but not all of them are the best ways for us to grow as healthy persons and disciples. We must be strategic in eliminating the distractions, and focus on the things that matter most.

Okay, so it’s also personal, and can refer to my waistline. If we want to lose weight (and I can’t think of many people who don’t want to lose weight), we must develop a healthy strategy of exercise and diet. Without a strategy (and subsequent implementation) we’ll never take the first step in doing the necessary things to accomplish the goal. I might add, this is purely self-referential. I’m not casting a dispersion on anyone else and their waistline. Developing a strategy for healthy weight loss allows us to plan our work and then work our plan.

As I reflect, I understand that “reduction is a strategic endeavor” is also an intensely spiritual statement. I am reminded of John the Baptist’s words in John 3:30, “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” It is a statement about humility. We must be strategic in living lives of humility so that our mind becomes the mind of Christ. What are those things that keep me from humbling myself before Him? Is it my pride? How do I deal with that issue? Is it my arrogance? How do I deal with that? Is it my self-centeredness? How must I deal this that? Is it my laziness? Is it the fact that I rather enjoy having my own way? There are so many questions I ask myself that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what it means to become less and less that He might become greater and greater. More than identifying them, how do I develop a strategy for dealing with them. Come Holy Spirit!

I discover the statement is also a professional statement. As I ponder this aspect of “reduction is a strategic endeavor,” I consider the “busy-ness” of many churches. We are busy with activity, but is the activity fruitful. Activities become the “end” for many churches rather than the “means.” We end up doing activity for activities sake, and that only serves to make the church more insular and stifles involvement in the community (where the people who need Jesus hang out). Thom Rainer did a great podcast on the subject recently, and made some very salient points:

  1. Activity is not biblical purpose.
  2. Busyness can take us away from connecting with other believers and non-believers.
  3. An activity-driven church often is not strategic in its ministries.
  4. A congregation that is too busy can hurt families.
  5. An activity-driven church often has no presence in the community.
  6. Activity-driven churches tend to have “siloed” ministries.
  7. Churches that focus on activities tend to practice poor stewardship.

As the body of Christ, we must be strategic in eliminating every activity that does not specifically address the mission of reaching others with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We will probably get into some touchy areas, but without a strategy, we will continue to be busy, but not rather effective. What a shame!

I also reflected on “reduction is a strategic endeavor” for the church as a whole. It sounds counter-intuitive to us as we see “mega-churches” (and now, “giga-churches”) growing by leaps and bounds, and we know that growth is good, especially when others accept Christ as Lord and Savior. But, I was given pause as I considered the words of John 6:66, “At this point, many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.” Sometimes, discipleship is simply too hard. It’s easier to turn away from the challenges of being a disciple, and one reason the western church may be (and I’m only speculating here) in the state of decline is because we’ve had a lot of “cultural Christians”–those who were part of the body of Christ for the benefits that came from a religious affiliation. Perhaps (and again, I’m speculating) persecution is the Lord’s strategy for winnowing out His church.

Finally, there is another consideration on the phrase “reduction is a strategic endeavor” that I’ve pondered. It stems from my time as a District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church. It’s painful, but it’s true, and I hesitate to even mention it here, but I feel compelled. There are many congregations in the UM Church that lack effectiveness (for a number of reasons). Those small congregations draw resources, energy and attention away from the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Is it a matter of stewardship to develop a strategy for dealing with those congregations, for developing a strategy for reducing the number of congregations that are not achieving the mission? That’s a challenging thought, and one for which I will receive much push back, but shouldn’t someone be asking the question?

There are probably many other considerations I should make, but that’s about where I am this morning. And, now, you know what I’m thinking (as though you even cared!).

Until next time, keep looking up…

Dealing with Difficulties…

psalm 46Henry David Thoreau once said every writer’s duty was to give “first and last, a simple and sincere account of their own life.” Most songwriters take that philosophy to heart, too. That’s certainly true with Taylor Swift. Almost all her songs have to do with break-ups with former boyfriends. I don’t want to diminish the pain felt by a teenager who endures a break-up—after all, pain is pain no matter the source, but the truth is that many great songs have been written out of the depth of painful experiences. It’s true of the great hymn of the church—A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

Martin Luther, the great reformer, penned the hymn in the 1520’s after the Diet of Worms at which he was charged with heresy, ex-communicated from the church and declared an outlaw. He lived the rest of his life in hiding. Through his trials and tribulations, Luther would proclaim, “A mighty fortress is our God…” Luther would take his famous hymn from another whose life had known hardship, the psalmist who penned Psalm 46.

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
    God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.  Selah

Psalm 46 is a song of radical trust in the face of overwhelming threat. The author never clarifies the nature of the threat, but reading the psalm it would indicate that is was likely a political threat, or possibly even in the midst of a war. One commentator speculates this was another of David’s psalms and was written at the time of the Assyrian invasion of Judah to give hope and assurance of God’s presence, protection and provision in the face of the invasion.

We Americans have our own illustration of that which the psalmist sang. We call it 9-11, and most of us here remember that date, don’t we? We remember where we were and what we were doing on that day. Even on the evening, we opened our churches and held prayer meetings, and it didn’t matter what pastors planned to preach that following Sunday, it was changed so that words of comfort and hope could be spoken. There were countless sermons that called on this 46th Psalm to bring words of comfort and hope to people whose foundation had been shaken. Politically, our world has been shaken. We don’t know quite what to do with it.

Culturally, too, we feel the ground shaking around us. There are some significant cultural shifts taking place in this world. They are happening so quickly it’s like the earth is shifting underneath our feet and we can’t seem to get our footing solidly underneath us before the next shift is taking place. Technology has hastened much of that shift. The changing of societal norms has hastened that shift. We scratch our heads dealing with one cultural earthquake, and before we can figure out how to deal with that one, the next one is already overwhelming us. From same-sex marriage to climate change to immigration reform to the disintegration of the family to the legalization of drugs we’re faced daily with questions and more questions, and we’re not sure we like all the answers.

Individually, too, we can feel the earth move under our feet. We get the word from the doctor—“It’s cancer”—and the mountain crumbles. Our marriage fails and we wonder what happened. We lose a child tragically and there seems to be no reason to live. We lose our job and we’re left to wonder how we’ll manage to feed the kids and pay the mortgage. We lose again the battle with some addiction and we just get tired. All we want to do is give up the fight. Our interior lives can be shaken by the brokenness of our own sin. And, the ground shakes, the earth quakes, the mountains crumble, and we need hope. What do we do? We do exactly what the psalmist did. We cry out to God. We put our trust in him.

I see three truths the psalmist acknowledges that allowed him to put his trust in God. The first truth the psalmist acknowledged is this: God is real. The psalmist begins, “God is…” I’ve been a pastor for almost 25 years, and the one thing I’ve learned is the more I learn about God the more I discover I don’t know about God. The closer I get to God, the more questions I have about God. That does not, however, cause me to doubt the existence of God. William Murray says, “Humanism or atheism is a wonderful philosophy of life as long as you are big, strong, and between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. But watch out if you are in a lifeboat and there are others who are younger, bigger, or smarter.”

We live much of our lives as what Craig Groeschel calls Christian athiests. Christian athiests are those who believe God exists but live their lives as though He doesn’t. We’re like the atheist in London making a speech at Hyde Park who said, “My hatred of religion is inherited; my grandfather was an atheist; my father was an atheist; and, thank God, I’m an atheist, too.” When we live as Christian atheists, we wander away from God. We foster violence in movies, television and music. We become obsessed with lust. We allow greed to possess us. We kill unborn children for the sake of convenience. And, when the ground shakes beneath our feet, we tremble in fear and live with the anxiety. but, when we believe God is real, we find God is our refuge and strength. We don’t live in fear. I love how the psalmist says it in verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God.” We hear the words “be still,” and immediately we think of getting quiet. We think of solitude and silence. There is an element in that, but the Hebrew literally means “cease and desist”—stop what you’re doing. It’s like God is speaking to two fighting children and says, “Stop that!” Stop what you’re doing. Stop being afraid. Stop worrying. Trust me. Acknowledge that I am.

I wish I could prove God is real. I would want to point to the beach to prove God is real. I lay at the beach, especially at night, and I see the stars spread across the vast universe and I think, “This couldn’t just happen!” I hear the waves roaring and beating against the shore, and it reminds me of God’s majesty and power. The apostle Paul said creation was the best evidence of God’s existence. He wrote, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen” (Rom. 1:20). I lie there and I know it’s the sun and moon and gravity all working together, but I consider the fact that the earth is the perfect distance from the sun to support life. If we were any farther away from the sun, we would freeze; if we were even slightly closer to it, we would burn up. It’s obvious (to me, anyway) that God is real. I would also point to babies and beetles, to the bible and to the fact that the church exists. I would point to Jesus, and to my relationship with him, but it would all be pointless if I proved he were real because then it wouldn’t be faith. By faith, we acknowledge that God is real, and though our whole world crumbles around us, we will not be afraid.

The second thing I see the psalmist acknowledge is that God is present—always! We experience tragedy in our lives, or in our culture, or in our nation and we ask, “Where was God?” Where was God on 9/11? Where was God at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Where was God in my cancer? Where is God in all this cultural upheaval? The same place he was in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were rebelling. God was present waiting to cover their sin. Was He really present? Couldn’t He have stopped it before it began? Oh, it is not a matter of whether or not He could have. It is a matter of our choice. But, He was there!

God was with Joseph when he was rotting in jail – ever present. (Gen 37-50) If ever anyone’s world came crashing down, it was Joseph’s. Yet with all his hardships, problems and abuse, Joseph was able to honestly say, “You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.” God was there when his brothers sold him into slavery, and God was there when Potiphar’s wife accused him of rape, and God was even there as he languished in prison. Every step of the way, God was able to take Joseph’s circumstances and mold him ever more closely into the man he would one day become. He was there all the time, though I am sure Joseph must have wondered at times where God was, in the end all knew well He was there all the time.

We could go on and on and tell of experiences such as Moses (Ex. 1-4) on the backside of the desert – being prepared for greater service. Or, Samson (Jud 14-16) groping in darkness – being strengthened in his hour of weakness. Or, Peter & John (Acts 3-5) beaten for preaching the Gospel – being given greater opportunities for sharing the good news of Christ. Or Paul (Acts 14-28) being stoned, shipwrecked and imprisoned – yet being assured that all things work together for good to them who love God.

“Where was God?” The same place He was on a Friday when His own son’s life was being taken from Him. Ever present – Jesus was God in the flesh, enduring the pain for the benefit of others. And even the Father didn’t flee the scene. Even Jesus felt forsaken, and asked God why His presence wasn’t felt. But God was present, and sin ran its course, and that is always a most ugly scene! Where was God when His Son hung dying on the cross? Didn’t He know? Shouldn’t Jesus have been able to come down from that cross? Couldn’t the Father have prevented it? Was He helpless? Didn’t He care?

Of course, He knew! Of course He could have stopped it! And, Of course He cared! The Father knew it was happening, could have stopped it, but He didn’t. And, aren’t we glad! There was a greater good to be accomplished by the suffering and death of Jesus. Through the suffering of One, many would be made whole. Through the sacrifice of One, many would have their sins forgiven. Through the death of One, many would be made alive.

God is ever present, even when the world comes crashing down around us.

One final thing to acknowledge, briefly—God is in control. That knowledge should enable us to see our circumstances in the light of eternity. Sometimes, life is like being in a waiting room. You know there’s something wrong but you’re not quite sure what it is. You just want to see the doctor and find out what’s wrong so you can get it fixed. A waiting room can be an unpleasant and unhappy place. You want this to be over and not have to wait any more. It is all you can do to obey the scripture that says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).

Jill Briscoe says, “I remember a time when I was waiting for soon to become now. I went down in Oconomowoc to a little lake where we live, and I sat there very early in the morning, praying, pleading with God that my soon would become now. ‘God, I cannot see you working. What about all these prayers that people are praying? This is a terrible situation. What are you doing about it?’ God said to me, ‘Any fish in that lake?’ I looked at the lake, which was like glass, and I said, ‘Sure. Of course there are fish there.’ ‘How do you know? Do you have to see fish jump to believe they’re there, Jill?’ I remember sitting there for a long time until I could say to God, ‘If I never see a fish jump, I will believe they’re there and active. If I never see you answer a prayer, I will believe.’ We all have a choice when trouble comes knocking at our door. We can curse God and die, or we can trust God and grow.”

Whatever circumstance you’re facing—God’s got it. Whatever our culture is facing—God’s got it! Whatever our church is facing—God’s got it! Let’s put our trust in Him. Let’s live obediently to Him! Let’s be faithful, come what may. That’s the song the psalmist is singing. If we sing it, too, we’ll discover that God is actually writing a song from our lives, taking the good and making it better, and taking the bad and working it for good, and in the end, it’ll be a sweet, sweet song of faith and hope.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Who Said Church is Dying?

This past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday. For those from non-liturgical traditions, Pentecost Sunday is the day we acknowledge the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first disciples 50 days after Jesus resurrection. Luke records events in Acts 2 that occurred that day. Let’s call it the birthday of the Church, and it was one of the most awesome displays of God’s power recorded in the Bible.

pentecostUnfortunately, in many circles today the Holy Spirit is either neglected, forgotten, or misunderstood. The Holy Spirit was given to unite the body of Christ, but the Spirit has become the center of controversy. Sometimes I wonder if we lack unity because we’ve quenched the power of the Holy Spirit in our churches, and in our personal lives. I wonder if we could actually have worship without a bulletin on Sunday morning. Dr. A. W. Tozer, author and pastor, said, “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.” He said that prior to 1963. I wonder what he would say in 2015?

The first Pentecost was a demonstration of God’s power that changed the world forever. God’s power brought transformation. That’s what God’s power does. Not only was this past Sunday Pentecost, but it was historically significant for those of us who call ourselves Methodists. We Methodists call May 24th, Aldersgate Sunday. It was May 24th, 1738 that Wesley recorded these events in his journal:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death…     After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.”

John Wesley had an experience with God’s power, and it too, changed the world. It was Wesley’s Methodist movement that is credited with reforming England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Historians have suggested that England didn’t go the way of France in the 18th century because of John Wesley. It was Wesley’s Methodist movement that swept across North America when, by the beginning of the 20th century, it was the largest Protestant denomination in America. One in five Americans called themselves Methodist. Today, 80 million people worldwide find their religious roots in Wesley’s Methodism. That’s what happens when the power of God explodes on His people. The same power that was present on that first Pentecost is the same power that was present with John Wesley on Aldersgate Street in London, and it’s the same power that’s available to you and me today, and it’s the same power that fuels the church.

The recent Pew Research Center study on religion in America reveals some interesting findings about the faith of American Christians. As one who has served as a denominational official, and has studied the decline of our own denomination, the research only confirms what we already knew. I am blessed to serve a mainline church that is bucking the trend, but the truth is that mainline Protestantism has been in decline since the high-water mark of 1955. Someone said, “If 1955 ever comes again, the mainline church will be poised for explosive growth.”

While we may lament the decline of the Church in North America (and other places in western culture), the church is a long way from dying. The power of God revealed in the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost is still active today, and it is just as transformative as it ever was. The Washington Post ran a recent article sharing some of the amazing and encouraging facts about the growth of Christianity around the world. Here are a few facts worth noting:

  • Africa’s Christian population stands at 500 million today. Roughly one in four Africans are Christian.
  • Christianity in Asia grew at twice the rate of the population on the continent. In the next ten years, it’s projected that 110 million more people will convert to Christianity on the Asian continent.
  • Demographers estimate that more Christian believers are found worshipping in China on any given Sunday than in the United States.

As United Methodist, I’m particularly encouraged by what’s taking place in Africa. Today, there are nearly 5 million African Methodists, with an average of 220,000 more being added each year. Within ten years there will be more African United Methodists than in the United States. The Philippines is also seeing an explosion of Methodism. There, nearly one million people are  being reached through the 24 Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church.

There are other statistics I could point to that affirm the fact that Pentecost is still happening. People are being touched by the power of the Holy Spirit, and their lives are being changed. Though we lament the direction of the church in America (which says a whole lot more about us than it does the power of the Holy Spirit), it is a bit like Mark Twain said, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” No, the church is not dead. It’s not even dying. It’s more alive today than ever before. If we would be the Church, and see the power of God revealed then we must, once again, open ourselves to the mind-blowing, life-changing, and as John Wesley wrote, the heart-warming Holy Spirit.

Let the fire fall, O God! Let the fire fall!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Thanking Who?

Happy Thanksgiving! That’s simply enough said, and no, we haven’t slipped right past Thanksgiving and gone to Christmas (the store merchandising notwithstanding). I’ve noticed many instances on TV and radio reminding us to be thankful. And, we need reminding. What I’ve also noticed is that we need to be reminded who it is we’re really supposed to thank.

Thanksgiving-ImageI was watching Dancing with the Stars earlier this week (don’t you dare judge me), and there was a segment in the program where the finalists were giving thanks, but only Sadie Robertson gave thanks to God. The entire segment was a “thank you” to America, to the fans and viewers. Now, it’s appropriate for them to thank the viewers and fans. After all, without the viewers and fans, there would be no Dancing with the Stars, but thanking other people doesn’t capture the nature or intent of Thanksgiving.

Soon after watching DWTS, I saw a commercial advertising a holiday special hosted by reporter Robin Roberts entitled “Thank You, America!” According to the promo, this will be a special night shining “a light on the American spirit of gratitude,” and an evening that “recognizes ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their communities.” I’m certain it will be a nice, feel-good program for this Thanksgiving Thursday that will tug at our heart strings, and it’s appropriate to give thanks to others, and celebrate the good things they’ve done. But, again, I’m kinda’ thinking the program won’t capture the nature or intent of Thanksgiving.

I’m a little uncertain about what Thanksgiving is becoming, but may I offer a reminder about what Thanksgiving originally was? For us in the good ole’ U. S. of A., Thanksgiving goes all the way back to 1621, and the pilgrims giving thanks to Almighty God for a great harvest, and for the preservation of their lives. George Washington, in 1789, made a public proclamation saying “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor?” He recommended and assigned Thursday, the 26th day of November 1789 to be a day of Thanksgiving. And, may we never forget President Lincoln’s proclamation of October 1863, when in the midst of Civil War he proclaimed:

“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

 In every instance, the call was to remember God—to stop, to think, to give thanks TO God. It’s easy for us to think about family. Most of us will be going to be with family, or family will be coming to be with us, and we’ll be appropriately grateful. It’s also easy for us to think about food because most of our tables will be filled with turkey and dressing and all the trimmings, and pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie and pecan pie, and fresh baked rolls, and we’ll be  appropriately thankful. It’ll be easy for us to think about football, waiting anxiously for the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys to play their respective games, because they, too, have become Thanksgiving traditions, and we’ll be appropriately grateful that we can enjoy a lazy day of family, food and football. These are things we have, and the focus is appropriate. But our greatest focus today should be on God.

Psalm 100 is on my mind early this morning:

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth!
    Worship the Lord with gladness.
    Come before him, singing with joy.
Acknowledge that the Lord is God!
    He made us, and we are his.[a]
    We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
    go into his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good.
    His unfailing love continues forever,
    and his faithfulness continues to each generation.

The Psalms (the Hebrew song book) are filled with songs of thanksgiving. No less than 15 psalms have “thanksgiving” in the title, and a full 24 of the psalms give specific command to “give thanks.” Psalm 100 is one that includes both. Why did the ancient Israelites have so many songs about thanksgiving? The songs were reminders. So often throughout the early books of the Old Testament, God was always reminding the people that when they made it to the promised land, got settled there, got comfortable, were warm and well-fed, not to forget Him. God would say, “Don’t forget the reason you’re where you are. Don’t forget to ‘give thanks’.”

Psalm 100 is one of the songs the people would sing as they were going into the Temple. It served to set the attitude of the people’s heart as they went into worship. It was a reminder that when you come to worship, bring this attitude…have this attitude within you. It certainly gives the indication that gratitude was a matter of choice. Gratitude is a decision of the will, and if a decision of the will, the choice resides squarely with us. Psalm 100 is a reminder that God is good, God is merciful, God is faithful; that when we are in the ease and comfort of life, when it becomes so easy to forget, remember that we have God, and more importantly, God has us. I do believe that was the nature and intent of any of the early Thanksgiving holidays.

I kinda’ sound a little ungrateful, don’t I? I think I may even come across as a little whiny about the continuing secularization of our culture. I’m sorry if I do, but it just seems to me that someone ought to say something, and if someone ought to say something, it might as well be me. So, HAPPY THANKSGIVING, but please remember that our first thanks is to God.

Until next time, keep looking up…