Gratitude … and the Day After Christmas

First of all, just let me say that I believe gratitude is a good thing.  Not only is it a good thing, it is a Biblical command – “Give thanks in all circumstances …” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  But there’s a problem with gratitude.  Gratitude looks back at what’s been done, given, or accomplished … therefore is an inadequate motivation for looking forward to tomorrow (John Piper helped me work this out years ago in my favorite book of his – Future Grace).

You and I said “thanks” for our gifts on Christmas morning, but we need something more to motivate us the day after Christmas.  What is that something more? Looking forward to the gifts that God continually bestows every day until He returns and for all of eternity!  That’s what Piper calls “faith in future grace”.  Here’s why I think this is a big deal:

We know what’s expected of us

It’s easy to be grateful on Christmas morning.  Most of us that have reached an age of understanding social norms recognize that we are supposed to say “thank you” to grandma, and express appreciation for what we were given whether we like it or not.  Any moralistic, behavior-oriented, socially-aware individual can do that (most of the time).  We are conditioned to perform, and even “giving thanks” can become a conditioned response.  I’m not suggested that we don’t say “thanks”, I’m just suggesting that we recognize where our gratitude can malfunction, and that there is more to gratitude that often gets revealed the next day.

When the expectation to perform is no longer present

In our house the day after Christmas ends up being the day to return what you didn’t like, didn’t fit, or want the cash from to buy something else.  Gifts cards that were gratefully received on Christmas get bartered away between siblings for cash to get what you really want.  Of course there isn’t anything wrong with returning gifts, it just alerts us to the great reality that the gifts of yesterday don’t satisfy in being the gifts of tomorrow.  We want more, different, or even if we loved what we got we want that feeling of pleasure to last as long as possible (I’m still basking in the glow of my Apple Watch, but it’ll fade over time).  My point?  The expected social gratitude … and even the proper Biblical heart response of gratitude is a flawed motivation for tomorrow.  It’s always looking backwards, and it’s often seeking an experience or feeling.

We get pleasures forevermore … greater than Christmas morning

The truth of the matter is that for the follower of Jesus even if everything falls apart the day after Christmas, we still have the greatest gift one could ever receive.  The kids can complain, the relatives leave grumpy, the house left in shambles, but Jesus is still enough.  The new year may hold suffering, disappointment, and broken relationships, but the Spirit of God is still at work sanctifying and conforming you into the image of Christ.  If we are merely motivated by gratitude when this stuff hits, then there is nothing to be grateful for anymore, and you have to coax up some regurgitated gratitude of days gone by to get you through.  But if motivated by faith in the future pleasures of God then we can face the day after Christmas … and everyday knowing that God is at work … and it only gets better!

So be grateful … I’m sure you have much to thank God for.  But be a person of faith … we have a God who gives good gifts to His children every day, and never ceases to make the delights of the Gospel precious to those who seek Him.

Advertisements

What Might Star Wars and Your Church Have In Common?

This morning I heard a movie critic on the news describing the blockbuster-opening weekend of the new Star Wars movie. At one point he was celebrating the communal event of everyone in the theater together. I’ll admit I gasped! Communal event? Then I thought, yeah that’s probably right … that is the definition of a communal event in our culture – A lot of people in the same place united by a common pleasure who don’t know each other and leave feeling just as alone as when then arrived. I wonder how many people have that same communal event experience at their local church? They hear the words community, fellowship, and relationships, but have neither given nor received anything close to what those rich Biblical terms promise. Just what is the communal event that the Bible offers and what is being asked of me to participate in that event?

It requires inner attitudes other than those of consumers

 A consumer heads to the theater expecting to be entertained. He purchases a ticket in anticipation of being “wow-ed”. Once he enters his particular hallway he searches for a seat that gives him just the view he wants and situates himself in a way designed to repel others from sitting next to him. He’s quickly annoyed if someone forgot to silence their cell phone or a child becomes disruptive. And he leaves having formed his review to post online long before even opening his car door to head home. I’ll just say, as a pastor, that scenario is one of the most important things we combat in the local church. There is nothing in that movie-going description that should mirror that of a child of God entering the doors of his local church. He should head into his local assembly eager to worship the King of Kings in spirit and in truth. He has purposed in his heart what he will give to the work of the Kingdom. He looks for brothers and sisters to interact with, sit next to, and encourage through his engagement in the service. When the inevitable disruptions come he is patient with people in process, and those children being taught how to sit through a worship service. He isn’t quick to rush out, and hasn’t formed his lunchtime complaints. Rather, led by the Spirit, he looks for new people to introduce himself to, faithful friends with whom he can share the weeks heartaches, and people in need of a genuine embrace.

 It requires outer actions other than those of superficiality

 Now some people “get into” Star Wars and the new movie. They come dressed as movie characters, equipped with light-sabers and their childhood action figures. They may interact with one another, exchanging memories of days gone by, favorite scenes, or the buzz they read online about the direction this movie takes. But none of that touches the soul, nor lasts past the final credits … it just doesn’t have the staying power of relational depth. As the body of Christ we are to be engaged in intentionally redemptive relationships. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the movie we just saw, it just means that we won’t only talk about the movie we just saw. Maturing followers of Christ push for spiritual transactions not merely superficial interactions. Here’s a few descriptions of what those look like:

  • Selfless Questions – You don’t ask the question that you can’t wait to answer, you ask the question that invites someone to share life knowing they’ll be listened to. Selfless questions come from a heart that is ready to have self forgotten should nothing be asked in return. They are motivated simply out of a desire to serve another and the healthy human need to speak of their experiences and feelings.
  • Thoughtful Input – Do you ever prepare for a conversation you intend to have with someone on a Sunday morning? Yes, I mean you actually come with a plan to pursue seeking a particular someone out to share something you have been thinking through – a word of specific spiritual encouragement, insight God gave you as you prayed for them this week, an observation about their life that has taught you, etc. Input doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t always be) spontaneous … you can plan to give input.
  • Vulnerable Sharing – You get to let people into your life, even when they don’t ask. It’s called asking for help. Go to a friend (old or brand new) and ask them to pray for you. You do have needs don’t you? Why not think through what is weighing heavy on you, what is causing tension in your soul, or what is approaching fast that makes you fearful. My guess is that your step of faith in being vulnerable will be met with at least one question in return. Sure, some will feel caught off guard, but most will feel honored that you trusted them.
  • Godward Praying – When in doubt, pray. No really, if you don’t know what to ask, don’t have any Biblical insight to offer, and aren’t ready to share something about you … just ask if you can pray together. It might be awkward (at first), but imagine a truly communal event where people are actually being the community of God’s people. They don’t just chat, hang out, or rub shoulders … they turn to the Lord together with grateful hearts for the work of Almighty God who always cares for His children.

None of that stuff happens at movie openings … but all of that should happen at local church gatherings. So, practice community … then go see a movie together!

Getting Happy

I love preaching on worship … because I love talking about the glory of God.  I mean really, what better subject is there to teach on? Everything centers on the wonder of who God is and what He has done through His Son in redeeming mankind … the greatest display ever of His glory to this fallen planet.  As I reflected further on this subject in my own life yesterday I remembered one of my absolute favorite quotes from one of my “hero dead guys” – George Muller, listen:

“But according to my judgment, the most important point to be attended to is this: above all things, see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord! Other things may press upon you; the Lord’s work even, may have urgent claims upon your attention. But I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all other things to have your souls truly happy in God Himself. Day by day seek to make this the most important business of your life.”

What is being happy in the Lord other than a life of worship.  Muller had it figured out and sought after this life with every breath he took.  I think it looks something like this:

Not Finding Happiness in Lesser Things

Contrary to some “christian” teaching, I believe that the Gospel is about enjoying the good gifts of God on earth in anticipation of the good gifts of the new earth.  Our Father isn’t about giving us stones when we ask for bread.  He doesn’t shove a rock at us and tell us to make the best of it.  Rather He indeed has given us “all things richly to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).  And it is only when we recognize them as good gifts and not little gods that we can actually enjoy them to the glory of God.  When we try to suck life out of football and turkey, we ruin a good day.  But when we recognize the God of all glory who redeemed us from the futile way of life we formerly walked, then (and only then) can we rightly enjoy parade-watching, warm crescent rolls, and a lazy afternoon of beating your family at cards.  Why? Because we’re not trying to find happiness in those lesser things, we’re just enjoying them for what they are – little gifts from the God of glory who is the only truly satisfying Gift!

Anticipation that Fuels Contentment

I don’t live in the “holiday at the sea” that Lewis points us to, but that doesn’t mean that I should “live making mud pies in the slums” either.  It’s not an either/or, but a eager anticipation over a dismal acceptance.  I know that what God promises me is so much greater than anything this world as it currently is has to offer, and with such confidence I am fueled to live for so much more than mud-pie making.  That doesn’t mean I’m forced to a dismal acceptance of the current situation and must coerce contentment upon myself.   Nor does it mean I have to keep up a public persona of everything being “good, fine, ok” in the here and now.  It actually means I can be happy in the Lord regardless of the current mud without making mud-pies my food of choice … and I can joyfully anticipate the great feast awaiting me on my holiday at the sea.  That makes me happy and honest.

Everything as Worship

I think this is what Muller was getting at – When my soul is happy in God and that’s the daily business I attend to, then everything I do comes under this divine joy.  I can take out the trash with joy as much as when I study the Bible.  I can watch football with my sons with the same delight as I seek to help a struggling marriage in the counseling room.  And when the trash stinks, my study is laborious, the game is boring, and the couple’s marriage is disintegrating, my happiness is no less real … because it’s centered on the sure foundation of Jesus, and the not the shifting sand of the stuff of life on planet earth.

The Need For Other Voices

Last week in my blog I reflected on those situations we find ourselves in where we don’t know what to say and I offered some thoughts on how to respond wisely. Not only is it essential to often slow your voice down in relationship, but we need other voices in relationships as well.

Here’s what I mean … and I imagine this is an experience common to man.  You have been trying to help someone see something in their life and they just don’t understand or see it.  Then someone else comes along and says exactly the same thing to them and the clouds part and they wonder why nobody has ever told them this life-changing counsel.  Parents, you know what I’m talking about!  Your kid comes home from camp or youth group with awe over a truth that was illumined to them and shared it with you as though you’d never heard of it.  It is perhaps one of the craziest things in pastoral ministry.  People who come to understand a precious truth that you’ve been teaching, preaching, and counseling for years only to state that they’ve never heard it.  In my younger (and more arrogant) years, this would drive me crazy.  I so desperately wanted “credit” for faithfully teaching that or courageously sharing that with a friend.  Now in my slightly older (and slightly less arrogant) years, I am able to thank God for the “other voices” in people’s lives that help them grow.  Of course the spiritual reality behind it all is that not my voice or that of another is the “change agent” … it’s the Spirit that opens eyes, minds, and hearts to receive truth and delight in it!

Yesterday I enjoyed the great benefit of “another voice” speaking to a subject I love dearly – friendship.  As a pastor one of my greatest desires is to see the people of God in a local church love each other deeply from the heart … to be engaged in intentionally redemptive relationships as a norm for the life of the body.  But it is always of great value to have other like-minded voices teach that same truth … from their perspective, with their personality, and in the power of the very same Spirit to God’s people.  A friend speaking on friendship, how great is that?!  Pastor Jonathan Holmes taught us well from the unlikely friendship of Ruth and Naomi and guided us into extremely practical counsel for growing in spiritual friendship.  Listen to his sermon here, or buy his book here.  Listen to the wise voices God has placed in your life.  Invite other Godly voices to speak into your life.  But most of all know that the voice of God must ring the loudest in your ear … it is the Spirit that brings understanding!

When You Don’t Know What To Say

I’ve always loved reading Mark’s account of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13) and in the midst of one of the most glorious supernatural encounters with the human Jesus to read one of the most silly natural encounters with the human Peter.  There go Peter, James, and John up the mountain with Jesus.  They see this guy they’d shared meals with now become radiantly white and full of glorious beauty right before their eyes.  He is having a conversation with a couple of the great dead guys of the Bible – Elijah and Moses.  And what happens next? Worship, fear, silence? No … Peter opens his mouth.  “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.  Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (9:5).  My sense of this? “This is so cool Jesus, thanks for bringing us with you so we could see you like this.  It’s neat to see Moses and Elijah too.  I’ve gotta do something to help here, how about we build you tents to rest in”.  Really? Peter had just witnessed glory face to face and the best he can come up with is tents? Like men of such glory need to rest, like they’d rather retreat to isolation that enjoy the fellowship they were having, like they needed help from Peter if they did want tents to rest in.  What was Peter thinking? Why did Peter say this? Well, Mark tells us – “For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (9:6). 

I know by now that one of the marks of proud people who have helping gifts is that they feel the great need to speak more than they should (Yes, I’m referring to me).  We (yes, now I’m including some of you too) think that people need our input, need our direction, need our truth-speaking … and in many cases they do.  But all to often, rather than taking time to pray, reflect, and formulate Godly counsel, we just speak because (1) We genuinely believe it will help, and (2) It genuinely makes us feel like we helped.  So here are a couple items to consider in our well-intentioned and often poorly-executed speaking:

Be Quicker to Listen 

Yes I know, I didn’t come up with that.  “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).  Do everything you can to make sure that when you speak you are speaking to the right thing.  That requires listening, active listening.  But did you know that active listening requires speaking? More to the point, active listening requires asking questions.  When you ask questions you are forced to think about not only what is being said, but what isn’t being said.  You have to consider who this person is, where they are coming from, and what it is that they most are needing.  When you ask good questions you are forcing yourself to resist the urge to make assumptions, think you know what they are saying, and offer a quick remedy.  Asking good questions does more than just get at information, it actually in-and-of-itself says, “I care!”  You don’t see yourself as their savior, fixer, or teacher … you just see yourself as their friend.

Offer Observations not Answers

If Peter had taken in what was happening a bit longer, and even talked out loud about what he saw rather than offer a “to-do”, it might have helped him better understand the scenario he was in.  Perhaps rather than providing an answer he would have observed that falling on his face was a better response that looking for tent pegs.  We all process information differently.  Some of us are auditory processors and we think through situations as we talk them out.  Others of us need to write things out to see on paper pros and cons, possible solutions or fixes.  And others of us just need time to soak it in, the processing comes slowly over a period of time.  Whichever the case may be, processing the situation is needed prior to applying our “fix it skills” to those we are looking to be a help to.  As we make observations, we are forced to reckon with our own presuppositions, our own experiences and story.  It makes us reflect a little more on the silly things people have said to us that weren’t helpful in our need, and hopefully prevent us from repeating that mistake.

Think Long-Term over Quick-Fix

If we enter into conversations with the goal being that we want to actually walk with this person and not just quickly move them on their way, we will not feel as urgent about the right information getting passed on.  We will be quicker to identify with the suffering they are facing.  We will be more sympathetic to the complexity of the circumstances they are involved in.  We will be prayerful about the help coming from the Spirit of God.  Rarely does solid, Biblical, helpful counsel come out in a one-time, thirty-minute conversation.  Truth can be spoken and obedience commended, but they, like us, are people in process … and process takes time.  So think about how to ask questions and make observations today so that you get to do it with them again tomorrow.

Creation and Humility

I spent my prayer time this morning at Holden Arboretum.  It’s one of my favorite places on the planet.  I feel safe, small, and satisfied in all the God is for me.  I don’t need gadgets, an office full of good books, or even anyone to be with me (and I like all those things).  They recently built a tower that ascends 120 feet above the forest floor over the tree tops where you get an unbelievable view of the fall colors and Lake Erie.  As I stood on the top and took in the beauty and prayed for my wife, kids, and church body … I felt really small.  It got me reflecting on the way humility works …

Small Looking Up

My regular position as a finite man is from the ground looking up.  It’s not hard for me to gaze into the sky and come to the awesome conclusion that there is a Creator and I’m not him.  Walking through the woods with towering trees over my head it only makes sense that I would be rightly (and delightfully) put in my place.  I like that.  In a world with such creative technology and scientific advancements, the illusion of control is all around us.  But on the ground looking up it’s a sweet conclusion to recognize – “I don’t control any of this, I’m needy, and overwhelming grateful that there is a Sovereign God in control of it all”.

Small Looking Down

This morning my position was different, but the feeling was quite the same.  I was up high looking down.  I was above the trees and over the lake, in an “exalted” position.  But strangely I still felt really small.  Looking down on things didn’t make me feel big, rather it made me feel the bigness of my God.  He made it all, rules over it all, and sustains it all effortlessly.  And I really liked that.  The people of Babel thought a tower would give them power and control, proving they had no need for a Ruler God.  Thinking themselves small they sought to be big … making themselves big they were made to feel they’re small.

Humility From Either Perspective 

I know pride still courses through my veins … I think I have some measure of control, and more importance than I do.  But by God’s grace I have a growing delight in the feeling of smallness, finiteness, and neediness.  I’m aware of what awaits me in glory, and I know the victory that is currently mine, yet to act now as though I’m a king feels foolish and premature.  I’m the child of a King, and as such I have both an awesome identity and a wonderful perspective from which to look up at the throne of grace, gaze over the wonder of the Creator, and worship from bended knee … and I love it!  “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6).  This is nothing other than embracing humility and enjoying worship.  And I want every perspective I have, from the forest floor or the highest height, to produce that in me more and more.

Praise Coming in Pain

I’ve been thinking a lot about praise lately and how we just don’t do it enough.  We barely have to think about complaining about circumstances or what someone did (or even who they are), but praise doesn’t seem to come as naturally or flow as freely.  I want that to change in me.  Perhaps you’ve heard worship leaders speak of how “God inhabits the praises of His people”, but have never really known what that means.  Let’s reflect a bit on this …

First of all this comes from Psalm 22, arguable the greatest Psalm in the Psalter.  This Psalm was on the lips of our Savior while He hung on the cross.  Many have simply called this the Psalm of the Cross with good reason.  Written by David, but his situation and circumstances lay off in the far background in this case.  What captures our attention is the suffering Savior on the cross … the darkness of His final hours and the glory that would follow.  The opening words we are familiar with – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.”  The Son prayed (in Gethsemane and even in this hour) and felt no comfortable answer.  He cried out to His Father and felt distant, alone, with little hope of rescue.  It’s true.  Read it yourself (22:1-2).  Yet in his crying he knew – “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.  In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame” (22:3-5).  Jesus knew all too well the Father’s character and goodness to doubt His deliverance.  He knew that even if his prayer went unanswered that is was not due to His unfaithfulness, but for some other weighty and necessary reason.  He marveled at His holy Father who could forsake him, without diminishing His holiness nor going silent in his cries of agony.  He could argue with God from the foundation of His holiness … and know that praise and trust could flow.  Jesus needed future grace! He looked back at the fathers of Israel, knew that in their darkest hours they trusted the LORD and He delivered them.  They too cried honest cries and were rescued.  What is this flowing from the lips of Jesus other than true praise – I feel alone, my prayers are going unanswered, but you are holy, and you have always been faithful … so I cry (my role) and You rescue (Your role).  Jesus not only faced the wrath of God for the judgement of our sin on the cross … He modeled praise!

Praise fits every circumstance

How can this not be our very first takeaway?  If in Jesus’ darkest hour praise came, there is no circumstance whereby praise should be absent from our lips.  In every circumstance there is appropriate praise … be it cries of joy or cries of pain, both are praise if they are bound to the character of God and aimed at His redeeming work.  Do you and I need to work at this? I’d say so.  My grumbling about you isn’t praise, and your complaint about me isn’t either.  We need to learn what Paul had learned – “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need”.  What is that secret Paul? “I can do all things through him who strengthen me.”  When my life is locked down on the foundation of God’s character, then I can praise him from the dark cross and the flowing river.

Praise is pointless if it doesn’t point to God 

We all need to get better at encouraging one another, blessing one another, pointing out where we see God at work in one another.  But if it’s not pointing to the love, grace, rescue, and power of God it’s just empty flattery, and … “A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet” (Proverbs 29:5).  Your man-centered flattery is just as evil as your grumbling complaints.  So, learn to speak words of blessing that are rooted in the work of the Spirit in your own heart.  If praise doesn’t flow easily it’s merely an indicator that your heart hasn’t rested deeply on the One who was forsaken for you.  When you can say, “You’ve always been faithful, you will rescue me”, then you can turn to others and say, “I thank God for you, want to love you well … how can I serve you in your needs?”

This is the kind of honest prayer and praise that indeed God inhabits.  May it flow deeply, freely, and powerfully from our lives!