Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Power of Gratitude

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:4-5)

Black Friday. While I write this in the safety of my office, the mobs are in the streets, filling shopping malls, or doing that slow drive behind other shoppers heading to their cars, hoping to get their parking space. They'll come home with car trunks loaded with presents for family and friends, and maybe a little something for themselves tucked in as well. And then the analysts will tell us what we bought, and if we bought enough, and what all that means for our economy.

Wasn't there a time when our economy depended more on what we produced and less on what we bought?

A lot of the Black Friday shoppers sat at full tables yesterday, letting very few serving platters get by untouched. That's kind of what Thanksgiving is in America, circa 2010: we eat more than we probably ought to, and buy more than we can probably afford. Oh, and watch more football than ought to be humanly possible. Was Tom Brady somehow playing for the Jets last night, or did I just get mixed up?

I'm not saying that's necessarily bad, though. There's something good about celebrating when we have plenty. I don't think it's immoral to overeat while celebrating with friends and family, or overspend on gifts for those we love. I doubt I'm alone in feeling that way, but the church hasn't always shared that opinion.

The church has historically had a mixed opinion at best on overindulgence. In some times, and in some places, Christians have taken a decidedly more ascetic stance toward things like food, money, and entertainment. There's a reason for that, too: overindulgence can bring out the worst in people. We aren't always good at distinguishing “want” from “need” in the best of circumstances, and when we get used to always reaching for a double handful of whatever we want at the moment, there are consequences in terms of relationships, spirituality, and even physical health. Take, for example, the 27-year-old woman from Long Beach, California, who was quoted by the LA Times today as she waited in line at Toys R Us to buy Barbies for her daughters.

“We are in it to win it,” she said. “Go hard or go home.”

For Barbies. I hope I don't get between her and whatever else she might want.

But despite the human inclination to confuse “want” and “need,” I don't think the answer is to avoid every want and deny or delay every need. Contrary to the impression the church may have given at times, Christianity isn't all about the denial or avoidance of human wishes and desires. Oh, there are times when devotion to Jesus will require us to say “no” to ourselves. But there have always been those who take that reality and twist it into a rule that all wishes and desires are always bad, as if “physical” equals “evil.” And that's as dangerous, probably, as the undisciplined fulfillment of every desire.

In reality, the Biblical writers all affirm in one way or another that God's physical creation is good, and that it is a mistake to sharply distinguish “physical” from “spiritual.” God called his creation “good,” and that includes human beings with their needs for food, sex, and companionship. He created the world around us to be enjoyed, its plants and animals to be eaten as food. It's because of him that we can create art and music, or earn money, or dance, or be intimate with our spouses, or appreciate a gourmet entree or a fine wine. And just because all of those things can be twisted and used in ways that he never intended doesn't mean that we should feel compelled to always avoid them.

Part of the fallenness of human beings is that we can find ways to twist and deface the best of God's creation. Part of the glory of God is that he always finds ways to redeem it.

So how do we enjoy the good things of the physical world that God created, without worshipping them or making attaining more and more of them the chief end of our lives? Well, I'm thinking of our dog, Isaiah. Last night, after we finished our Thanksgiving meal, he got a nice treat: one of our turkey's leg bones. He took it out into the yard and had a wonderful time with it.

And then he came back in and whined for more.

No gratitude. He didn't lick my hand to say, “Hey, thanks for the bone. It was great.” He got what he wanted, but as soon as it was gone he was figuring out how to get more.

I expect that from a dog, but human beings have a greater capacity for gratitude.

And that's how we can appreciate the good things God gives us without making them what our lives are all about. It's very simple: we say “thank you.” We show gratitude to the God who gives us so many good things, and we show gratitude to the people through whom he often gives them. “Everything God created is good,” wrote Paul, “and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” (1 Timothy 4:4-5, emphasis mine)

You'll have a hard time living as if you're entitled to the blessings you have if you cultivate the habit of being thankful. You'll be less likely to misuse the good things God has created if you often say “thank you” to him. Get used to being grateful, and you'll be more likely to share what you have with those who don't have. Remember to thank God often, and you'll also remember that your desires and wishes are not God.

And if thanking God for what you're doing or enjoying seems somehow out of place, or makes you uncomfortable, then it's a good bet that what you're doing or enjoying is a misuse of his blessings.

Enjoy what God has given you. Indulge in a little extra, from time to time; there are occasions in which to throw moderation to the wind. But never forget from Whom those blessings come. Remember to be thankful. Remember to worship the Creator of all the good things you've been given.

And, next time you're shopping, be extra careful around the Barbie shelf.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 19, 2010


You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16, TNIV)

Merrie Harris didn't intend to shatter preconceptions. She just wanted to help someone.

Jay Valentine didn't intend to subvert any stereotypes. He just asked for some help.

Both of them, though, probably made a lot of people think differently about a lot of things. Maybe they will you, as well.

When a homeless man approached Merrie, a New York City ad executive, in a SoHo cafe last summer and asked for money, Merrie realized she had no cash to give him. She did, however, have an American Express credit card. And, without any more than momentary hesitation, she handed it over to him and asked that he bring it back when he was finished.

Friends and bystanders told her she was crazy, that she'd never see the card again, that she should cancel it immediately. All Merrie said was, “Are we only supposed to trust people we know?” So she wasn't surprised at all when the homeless man, Jay Valentine, returned the card.

“I didn't have to thank him,” she said. “I trusted him all along.”

Jay also brought her a receipt for the total he charged to her card: deodorant, body wash, water, and cigarettes.

Twenty-five dollars.

When asked if he was tempted to take advantage of Merrie's generosity, Jay, a former real estate agent who has been homeless since he lost his job a few years ago, said no. “I wasn’t tempted at all. She trusted me, and I didn’t want to violate that trust. I would never do that.”

“It sets a good example that people in need – like I am or worse – can and should be trusted.

I wonder how many people a day Jay asks for spare change. And I wonder what most people say, or think, when he asks. We tend to assume the worst, don't we? We tend to think homeless people are homeless through some fault of their own. If we pass them by, it's often because we tend to assume they can't be trusted to use what we give them as we think they should. If we help, it's usually with the nagging thought in the backs of our mind that the spare change we give them will have turned into a bottle of Night Train by the end of the day. Sometimes trust is hard to come by, especially the kind of trust that Merrie showed.

Jay demonstrated, though, that at least sometimes when you trust people – even people in the most difficult of circumstances – they vindicate your trust.

And Merrie – well, Merrie blew up a neat stereotypical category herself. She didn't demonstrate the greed and self-interest that we sometimes associate with successful corporate executives. She showed how generous successful people can be.

OK – a reality check: There are some people who you couldn't trust with your credit card. Thing is, those people aren't always homeless, and in fact they sometimes live in the nicest homes in the nicest neighborhoods. As Jay showed, “poor” doesn't always equal “addict” or “criminal.” And sometimes, the very thing those who are poor need is the one thing it's hardest to get: trust. Sometimes the only thing that might lift someone out of a bad situation and into a better one is for someone to believe in them enough to take a risk and give generously.

When Jesus calls his followers the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world,” it isn't because he sees us as morally, ethically, spiritually, or intellectually superior to the people around us. It comes at the end of what we know as the Beatitudes, where Jesus calls “blessed” those who will subvert their natural reactions and knee-jerk responses enough to trust in the coming Kingdom of God for things like wealth, comfort, power, joy, justice, and peace. And it comes right before a long section where Jesus tells us to act with uncommon generosity, trustworthiness, and love toward the people around us. Being light and salt, in short, is less about our own personal piety and more about how that personal piety changes the way we act toward the people around us.

What he calls us to, I think, is living lives that anticipate the kind of world that God is busy bringing into existence. And to the degree we do, he says, people might get the chance to see what that world is like and what that God is like and worship him.

Maybe the most valuable currency we can give the people around us is trust – trust that they will receive our generosity and do right with it. And sometimes they will, and sometimes they won't. That's why it's such valuable currency: It costs something to give it. We will never be the salt and light Jesus wants us to be, we will never be able to live lives that anticipate the joy and justice and peace and love of the Kingdom of God, if we aren't willing to open ourselves to being disappointed, taken advantage of, and even hurt. Jay could have taken Merrie's card and caused her all kinds of pain and trouble. And that's exactly the reason her gift meant so much.

We should know, because of course we've received such a gift. God gave us his Son, and Jesus gave us his life, without requiring any guarantees as to what we would do with that gift. Jesus gave all he had to give without protecting himself at all. As recipients of his generosity, we should know how to do that too.

Isn't there someone in your life who needs you to give generously of the most valuable currency you have – your trust? Someone who needs to see in you the anticipation of the Kingdom of God? Maybe it'll require your credit card, but it will certainly require more. It will require that you care, and that you make yourself vulnerable, and that you know going in that it may even hurt.

But don't let the difficulty of it discourage you. Because that kind of thing can change a world.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Fantasy Church

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. (Hebrews 12:22-25)

My son and I have a fantasy football team this season - the Odum Titan Steelers. Maybe you're familiar with fantasy football – it's become something of a phenomenon, with millions of football fans worldwide joining leagues. It's pretty simple to play; you join a league online, draft a team made up of actual NFL players, and then use their game statistics each week to determine your score.

It's nothing like playing football in real life, of course. And it's nothing like actually owning or coaching a team. It's a fun way to make NFL games that you might not otherwise care about more interesting. It gives you something of a rooting interest where maybe you wouldn't have had one. It gives you reason to get more immersed in the statistics of a particular season. Some people get pretty competitive about it, usually because they play in a league where actual money is at stake. But for Josh and me – and most fantasy football players, I think – there's nothing real about it. That's why it's called fantasy football.

You might not know it, though, if you were with us watching a game where one of “our” guys is playing. At any given moment, we might be yelling at the coach to give “our” guy the ball near the goal line. Or we might be bemoaning a dropped touchdown pass, or cringing at an interception that hurts “our” quarterback's stats. Though we have no investment whatsoever in the players and coaches on our TV screen, we sometimes act as if we do. Though it won't really matter much to us one way or the other if our team ultimately wins or loses, for some reason we sit in our living room and criticize coaching decisions and player performances that we'll shrug off five minutes after the game ends. Such is the nature of fantasy football.

It makes me wonder if there might be such a thing as fantasy church.

Stay with me here. I wonder how many Christians are roughly as involved and invested in a church as Josh and I are in the NFL. We’re sort of brainwashed, after all - by history, by habit, by churches, even - to think of church as another organization to join. We keep our church directories in the drawer with our PTA membership lists and the address and phone number sheets from our kids’ soccer teams, and maybe church occupies the same drawer in our minds as PTA’s and soccer teams. That being the case, it shouldn’t surprise us if our usual experience of church is about as close to the reality of church as the Odum Titan Steelers are to a real NFL team.

We sit on the sidelines and watch, instead of actively participating. After all, it’s the leaders, the long-time members, maybe the largest contributors that make the decisions, right? Teaching is best left to the professionals, or at least to those who know the Bible best. Service, ministry - well, we just don’t have that kind of free time. Fellowship, real relationships, really being a part of the lives of other Christians - we already have friends, and don’t have the time, the room, the emotional energy for more.

So we content ourselves with fantasy church. We show up at worship - once in a while. We criticize decisions and take notice when someone messes up. We celebrate from time to time, when there’s reason. But then we shrug off everything that happens and go back to our day-to-day lives, largely unaffected by it all. We have little investment, little connection, and so there’s little reason, honestly, for us to care one way or the other.

Ultimately, what difference does fantasy make? It isn’t real, and life is real. Our problems are real. The decisions we have to make, the priorities we have to set - those are real. Fantasy, well, it’s fun for a while, but in the end it’s just an empty entertainment.

That’s why I love the way the anonymous writer of the book we call “Hebrews” describes church. His potent images are a corrective to fantasy church, a radical rebuttal to the notion that church is to be experienced from the sidelines. He says that church isn’t about coming to a building once a week to listen to a lecture. It’s about living life in God’s city, with celebrating angels, other people who have a place in heaven, and in communion with even the faithful who have gone on before us. For him, church is a parting of the curtain, a glimpse of and participation in the new world that is surely overtaking the old one. It’s a new relationship with God, sealed with the blood of Jesus. It’s the receiving of “a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” And so, he says, “let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” (Hebrews 12:28)

No fantasy church there. Which hopefully leads us to realize that, to the degree that our limited experience of church doesn’t look like his and doesn’t lead us to be thankful and worship God with reverence and awe, perhaps something is wrong.

The church is people. Not the building, not the structures of leadership, not the programs. We make the church what it is, not they - whoever we may think “they” are. Which is why the writer of Hebrews draws some shockingly mundane conclusions: Treat each other as family. Show hospitality to strangers. Remember those who are mistreated and forgotten. Value marriage. Imitate the faith of those who have gone before. Profess the name of Jesus. Do good and share. Submit to leaders.

Point is, church isn’t experienced and lived from a couch, watching others. Church is us, together, thankful for the kingdom we are receiving through Jesus, worshipping God, and treating each other like a loving family. Being part of the church demands that we get off the couch and stop being satisfied as spectators with no real investment. It demands that we give up fantasy church once and for all.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.