23 November 2016

Thanksgiving, 2016

Thanksgiving is such a warm, nostalgic holiday for me, just in terms of its laid-back atmosphere and its proximity to the end-of-the-year season.  Specific moments are somewhat vague -- I can remember lying on my belly drawing cartoons out in our sun porch (the toy room), and another year putting together a cardboard, punch-out farm set that my grandmother got me -- but my appreciation for the holiday is a messy bundle of pleasant, quantitative recollections of rest and family time.

That said, I know I'm not the only one who can use the holiday like a checkpoint -- a momentary pause to say thanks for my blessings and fill up my gratitude tank before heading back into my normal, humdrum way of living.  It's easy on Thanksgiving to be thankful, because it's easy to be happy when thing are comfortable.  But normal life (and sometimes holidays too) isn't always (ever?) comfortable.  Outlined below are three questions that I need to be asking myself regularly, none of which will rock anyone back on their mental heels in revelation.  However, learning to be content isn't just about accruing new practical ways to don a brave face when things are ugly.  For Christians, it's about learning deeper appreciation for the reality that has always been in front of us.

How an I practicing "24/7/365 gratitude," not just "Thanksgiving gratitude?"

I heard the story of an elderly preacher who, after years of faithful ministry, suddenly began preaching the same sermon to his congregation week after week.  At first, the people were polite and said nothing, but they all wondered if their minister was starting to show his age.  Finally, as weeks turned into months, they began to grow concerned for his mental health, and one of the trustees was nominated to approach the pastor and inquire whether or not he thought it might be time to retire.

"...because you do realize," the spokesperson said nervously, "that you've been preaching the exact same sermon each Sunday for six weeks now, right?"

Calmly, the pastor replied, "Tom, I'll move on to another topic as soon as this one actually sinks in."

Personally, I don't need the reminder to be thankful every time Thanksgiving rolls around.  I need it every day.

According to the Apostle Paul, joy and gratefulness should be among the chief, distinguishing qualities of Christ-followers (Phil 4.4).  To be anything but grateful in the face of what we have been given is to be both self-centered and incredibly short-sighted.  We all know how easy it is to set aside just one day of the year to take a deep breath and re-evaluate the silver lining.  We also know that it's much harder to maintain that spirit of peace and thankfulness on a daily basis -- largely because we have a penchant for always expecting things to go our way.  We read, "All things work together for good for those who love Him" in Romans 8.28 and conveniently ignore the fact that the biblical idea of "good" is tied to our spiritual growth, not to our personal comfort.  And in the midst of such skewed thinking, our spirits become jaded to the lessons God might be trying to teach us and we sink to begrudging the hours rather than redeeming them.

But maybe it's not just our attitude that needs to be examined.

Maybe it's our view of the Almighty.

Faith and trust are key elements in maintaining daily thankfulness for God's provision.  But they aren't just attitude words.  They're belief words.  Together, the joint exercise of faith and trust logically expresses the reality that I don't possess all the knowledge, and that there are things completely outside of my realm of control.  In that regard, maybe my struggle with gratitude is not because my faith in God is weak, but because my conception of God is.  Do I really esteem Him to be good?  Faithful?  Omnipotent?  Or have I stunted my understanding of Him by inflating my own abilities, esteem, and expectations?  Forgive the not-so-latent Calvinistic flavor, but either God is sovereign or He is impotent.  Any in-between is a contradiction in terms.  And frankly, a God who is not in control is not much of a God at all -- certainly not one to place my faith and trust in.  Certainly not one to whom thanks and praise are due.

No wonder our faith is so small if we have such small views of who God truly is and what He can do!

Here's what I know.  The same God Almighty who expends sufficient mercy and grace to all sinners also gives the necessary resources that His children need for life and joy and worship (Matt 4.4Luke 11.13Jas 1.17).  He is good and He is big and He is holy and He is trustworthy.  As Christians, we can rest in His sovereignty even when circumstances are poor, because our faith is placed in what is truly "for good" -- not in the stunted, shortsighted promises of American consumerist spirituality, but in the aim of holiness that our Savior has sovereignly purposed for all of His children, and in the hope of eternity spent with Him.

How am I giving thanks for the little things?

Prayer, in general, is crucial.  Without a prayer life, I'll find it impossible to be truly grateful for anything.  Specifically, praying before a meal might seem like just a mundane habit -- more like family tradition or a teaching tool for children than a genuine expression of gratitude.  However, maintaining this kind of practice is a small way to live in constant dependence upon God.  Having this kind of discipline is an indicator that I don't just run to Him in a panic when the sky is falling, but have intentionally disciplined myself to be prayerful.  When relationships fail and work is a mess and my life seems to be in shambles, there are still fragments of goodness and hope to be found in commonplace things that altogether point to the bedrock fact that God is still working.  However, if I haven't learned beforehand that there is nothing I've been given for which I shouldn't be deeply thankful, I'll find it difficult to find anything meaningful in the rubble.

Conversely, what I'm quick to complain about (i.e. NOT pray about) also shines a spotlight in the direction of my values.  It's so easy to sink into irritation and downright bitterness rather than wait for the grain of sand to become a pearl.  However, if I train myself to express gratitude when things are good, by pausing to be thankful for the proverbial "little things," I can preemptively form a habit that's hard to dislocate.  If I teach myself not to take even the most mundane things for granted, suddenly those are the things on the tip of my tongue when I'm hard-pressed to find reasons to be thankful in difficulty.  Giving thanks regularly for the dispensable things makes giving thanks at all that much easier when things become difficult.

This kind of thinking involves a large measure of training and self-discipline.  It's not our natural inclination to express gratitude, not when things are difficult, and especially not when we live in the middle of a generation that feels entitled to only the best.  I must work at expressing gratitude by engaging when I don't particularly sense a need to, so that in the future -- when the world is collapsing in around me -- I can more naturally turn to my default response.

Praying before meals, for meals, is a tiny way to do that.

How does my gratitude (or lack thereof) reflect my response to the gospel?

My perpetual emotional/spiritual state should be one of deep-seated peace and joy in what Jesus Christ has done for me.  My response to poor circumstances indicates just how deeply the message of redemption has sunk into my heart.  Am I quick to complain and find it impossible to see past the sickness, the loss, the circumstance?  Well, maybe I don't truly understand the gospel.

No matter how unbearable life becomes, no matter how badly we screw up our own plans, no matter how poorly other people treat us... as Christians we rest in the confidence of knowing that our salvation is both unmerited (on our part) and unshakeable.  I didn't earn it, and so I can't lose it.  I was a wretch to whom God showed unfathomable mercy, and now I can rest my hope in eternity and be deeply, truly thankful -- even when the present is a frighteningly miserable experience.

The reality of what we've been saved from and saved to is cause for incredible joy and thankfulness.  No more am I a lost and broken enemy of God, earning wages upon wages of destruction and judgment for my lifetime of sinful investments.  Now I am a favored child -- a rescued and redeemed saint, a member of the priesthood of all believers, part of God's ransomed family, covered by the blood of Jesus.  The righteousness that His perfection attributes to me is a permanent state, and nothing can take that away.

With that perspective in place, it is far easier to be grateful for the little things, the big things, the good things, and even the bad things.  We can be motivated to express our deep gratitude for salvation and demonstrate attitudes of joy and contentment even when everyone around us is opting to complain and despair.  It's no wonder countless ministers of the Word have historically encouraged Christians to preach the gospel daily -- to ourselves!  It is by reaffirming what the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ has accomplished that the problems of life, the universe, and everything shrink in stark, almost embarrassing contrast.

Nothing can touch what God has done.  Nothing compares to the blessing of my sin -- not in part, but the whole! -- being nailed to the cross so that I may bear it no more.

This Thanksgiving, let's pause as always to reflect and refresh.  But let's also strive to carry that spirit into the day after.  And the day after that.

15 November 2016

The "no, yeahs" and the "yeah, nos" of modern communication

Tara and I were recently laughing with some friends about a strange phenomenon that exists in American conversations.  There are plenty, of course, but I'm talking specifically about the "Yeah, no," "No, yeah" thing that we all unconsciously do when we're conversing.

No, it's not just Californians or Miami natives as the memes suggest.  It's all of us.

On one hand, this is an amusing artifact of speech, much like the "ums" or the "you knows" that proliferate within our conversations (though grammarians might twitch a little bit when we hear other people speaking this way, or realize that we ourselves are doing it!).  To some degree, these habits are just sentence filler.  We don't know what to say, so we say something to keep the conversation from lapsing into awkward breaks of silence while we connect thoughts together.

On the other hand, I think there's something fascinatingly complex about this "nervous tick" of language that we all employ.  It has everything to do with a zealous and ingrained sensitivity to the ways we relate to others.

"Yeah...  No."

TRANSLATION: The answer is no, but I understand where you're coming from and affirm that perspective as a logical, reasoned, and perfectly appropriate way to think.  I in no way intend to convey, by my opposite perspective, that you are in any way to doubt your own position or feel insecure in holding that perspective.  However, I am going to present my alternate point of view.

"No, yeah!"

TRANSLATION: The answer is yes, but let me begin by diffusing any possibility that you might think I disapprove of or disagree with your opinion, which you are perfectly entitled to hold.  I in no way want to misconstrue your original idea or present it as something negative or inferior to my own.  The fact that I am about to supplement your idea with my own thought should not in any way be taken as an argument.

Doesn't that sound like legal jargon to you -- the fine print at the bottom of a bill of sale, or the preface to your tax return agreement?  Ironically, while we are saying a whole lot with very little, we're also doing exactly what all legal documentation does: expressing a simple idea in complex and nuanced language to prevent all possibility of the message being misrepresented.

And in doing so, we of course make it far more confusing than it needs to be.

Americans are in the business of affirming and apologizing.  Even if we are going to unabashedly speak our minds, we're still -- at least in word -- "letting the other guy down easy."  You and I are products of a culture that thinks with the heart it brazenly wears on its sleeve, yet dresses in incredibly thin skin.  We sense the danger in our balancing act of fitting in with our society yet standing out in some way -- a practice amplified to such degrees by the modern, social media lifestyle that it is far easier to retreat to the safety of a 5-inch screen for "real" interaction than it is to hold face-to-face conversation.  We are unabashedly who we are on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, but when it comes to in-person interaction, we timorously distance ourselves from the possibility of conflict.

"No, yeah"/"Yeah, no" is pacifying language.  It's verbally tiptoeing around the feelings and sensibilities of others.

I think we've reached a point in our tolerance-based culture where we are in a constant apologetic state.  We apologize for asserting ourselves, for taking our turns, for expressing our opinions.  We are terrified of being seen as bigots when it comes to our religious and social views, and so we are incapable of even disagreeing on sandwich preferences without being neurotically apologetic.

That said, I'm still torn on whether or not to label the mentality behind this as completely negative, because I think it's of the utmost importance for us to know how to be sensitive and thoughtful toward other human beings.  There's no point for Christians to argue the sanctity of life from the Bible if we are just going to treat one another like garbage.  Maybe this quirky habit of language can help communicate our underlying concern for other people's sensitivity.

After all, Paul's epistles are chock full of commentary on the ways in which Christians are to go out of their way to be kind and edifying (Eph 4.29Col 4.6); to live in harmony with believer and non-believer alike, despite the inevitable differences of opinion that arise between all human beings (Rom 12.18); and to surrender our own preferences on peripheral issues in order to preserve unity within the body of Christ (Rom 14.13; 1 Cor 8.13).  If it's truly important from a Biblical standpoint to prioritize the needs of others (John 13.34; Phil 2.4), then gentle, nuanced, and understanding communication with others is key.

Here's my concern, however.  All believers still need to prioritize integrity and honesty, speaking unabashed truth tempered with loving compassion (Eph 4.15; Titus 2.8).  Just because the world in which we live doesn't want to hear our message doesn't mean we should swallow it and keep it to ourselves.  We certainly shouldn't be characterized by arrogant, in-your-face condemnation.  But we also shouldn't be characterized by the kind of hesitancy that is born out of fearing to challenge others' perspectives.

Affirmations and apologies (in this context) are petty and largely self-interested.

"No, yeah" -- TRANSLATION: I affirm you so you, in turn, will affirm me.

"Yeah, no" -- TRANSLATION: I affirm you so you don't get angry with me for saying what I really think.

In other words, let's avoid conflict at all cost and just give each other shots of validation.  Let's bring the "live and let live" philosophy of tolerance to its only logical conclusion: isolationism, because tolerance can really only result in uniformity, and uniformity -- while equalizing -- is deeply alienating.  The only other alternative is to crush others' individuality with our own and even more dramatically expose the inherent paradox in the coexist philosophy: insisting on my right to think and speak a certain way when it conflicts with another individual's right to think another way means I'm just as intolerant as I claim the other guy is.  Rather than reveal this structural flaw, we hunker down behind barricades of disarming language, affirming and apologizing so none of the landmines ever go off.

I don't want to spend the rest of my life ducking disagreements in everyday conversation.  I intend to be a peacemaker, sure -- whether speaking in-person or commenting back on Facebook.  But being a peacemaker and being a pacifist are two entirely different things.  I want to speak truth boldly to my neighbor, communicating from my heart with kindness and concern, yet seeking even in disagreement to be respectful and understanding and non-confrontational.

So am I using "No, yeah"/"Yeah, no" in my speech because I'm attempting to be considerate, or am I just being a conversational pacifist?    Being conscious of the habitual ways in which we speak to others, and intentionally working toward communicating with clear purpose, can only improve our ability to relate to those around us as we communicate the vital gospel of Jesus Christ to lost and needy people.

08 November 2016

Good American ≠ Good Christian

I'm somewhat baffled by the stripe of American Christians who show up on election day in full patriotic fervor, getting to the polls early and posting "I voted" statuses on Facebook to shame everyone else into following suit, who tote out the heavy-hitting quotes of our (obviously Christian) Founding Fathers on the rights to bear arms and speak our minds freely in any given setting... and then disappear back into the woodwork until the next opportunity arises to take a bold political stand on something.

I'm a little concerned by (and for) these individuals, who take up the crusade when their exegetically, biblically-based American rights are threatened, lambasting other individuals who align themselves in different political circles, and yet claim to stand for such things as humility, kindness, gentleness, meekness, and self-control.

When it comes to casting the ballot, I'm surprised at how many Christians present either acute anxiety -- because "What if the wrong guy gets in??" -- or acute rage -- because other clearly unintelligent people are voting for the "wrong guy" and it is the Jesus-given mandate for Christians to educate the masses on why their political opinions are misguided and destructive to our great country.

I'm alarmed at how many people might read any of the above the descriptions and think it applies to someone else.

Don't get me wrong or misquote me.

I'm a registered voter who dutifully went to the polls this morning.  I care about and pray for America and her elected officials.  I am not implying that political issues are unimportant.

What I am saying is that my identity is found in Christ, not in America.  My security isn't in my driver's license, my voter registration, or my social security number -- it's in my Savior.

In that regard, what truly frightens me is how short-sighted our patriotic fervor is.  Yes, maybe we want a great nation for our kids and our grandkids, and it certainly isn't wrong to want safety, decent healthcare, good education, and cheap living expenses.  But this is altogether an incredibly out-of-focus perspective to have if that's what we as Christians are hanging our hats on.

In the light of eternity, does America's status as a great nation really matter?

Are we really making this an issue of stewardship, or are we just concerned that we have comfortable lives for the incredibly brief time that we inhabit this little planet?

Are we actually striking a good balance between living in the present and still investing in the Kingdom of Heaven?

Personally, that's where my citizenship is, and my Commander in Chief is a Savior who died on my behalf and rose from the grave to give me freedom and hope above and beyond anything American life can ever hope to offer.  To pin my constitutional rights on the cross and elevate free speech, gun ownership, and low taxes to the level of Christian rights is to make idols out of good things and cheapen the cost of redemption.

My Savior didn't die to make America great -- not ever, and certainly not "again."

I really believe that if the church truly has an image problem in the eyes of the world (and it does), it's largely because we Christians become far too impassioned about politics and hot-button issues and, in so doing, lose sight of eternity.  We claim to be about higher things but descend instead to the level of embittered patriots.  We tip our hand and reveal that we are far more concerned about the things that happen here than we are invested in what is to come.

In order for us to strike a better balance between actually stewarding well what God has so graciously given still maintaining an eternal perspective, we cannot lose sight of this crucial element.  When it comes to rulers and authorities whose names and policies will only be remembered for a brief time, we can know with certainty that it is God who truly builds the house (the family/the nation) -- not any given candidate (Psa 127.1).  Regardless of who is sworn into office as a result of today's election, the Heavenly Father is not only sovereign over that outcome, but is also building His own Kingdom -- a far greater Kingdom, and one that is not in the least bit affected by the political landscape of human history.  We give ourselves far too much credit if we think that, if we fail to vote in the "right" President, we are somehow responsible for the failure of God's directive.  We know that His purposes comes to pass, regardless of finite human intent (Gen 50.20; Prov 19.21).

In that regard, I'll continue to perform my civic duties as a citizen of the United States.  I'll vote and sign petitions and pay my taxes.  I'll stand for the national anthem, support and respect our military, and speak up when something is disagreeable or contrary to what I believe.

And yet, I'll hold tightly to the reality that America doesn't need to be a Christian nation in order for my God to accomplish His plan, for His gospel to be spread, or for my life to be robust and full -- physically, emotionally, spiritually.  As a child of God, my source of hope, my joy, and my sustenance are all found in one place and one place alone.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace