Give Thanks

Thanksgiving is a discipline. It doesn’t come naturally. We have to teach our children to say thank you in acknowledgment of the contributions of others. Even then, a verbal acknowledgment is no guarantee of heartfelt thanks. And this is not an issue only for the young among us. In a culture that drives us to always amass more, to upgrade to the latest model, to keep up with the Joneses, being thankful can be a challenge. After all, if our eyes are always on the lookout for the next “big thing,” they aren’t focused on the many blessings that we already have.

The above observations are put on vivid display by one of the great ironies of our culture: Thanksgiving Day, a day set aside for remembering and giving thanks for our blessings, is followed closely by Black Friday and Cyber Monday, both of which are days set aside for insatiable consumption. No sooner have we heard the call to count our blessings than we hear the call to take advantage of “great deals” to amass more. It seems that our culture believes that giving thanks and wanting more go hand in hand, but can this really be the case? Can we really focus on both at once?

I suspect that we can’t. Giving thanks is a matter of remembrance and gratitude, while consumption is so often a matter of forgetfulness and discontent. Yet we allow days of consumption to invade our day of thanks, driving us away from the very purpose of Thanksgiving!

Am I arguing that we boycott Black Friday and Cyber Monday? No. I’m just pointing out one glaring irony that is probably representative of many more of the same in our lives. The point is not that we fool ourselves on Thanksgiving Day, though many of us certainly do. The point is that we fool ourselves about thanksgiving all of the time. Thanksgiving is a discipline, and perhaps especially so in our North American context.

So this Thanksgiving, let’s practice a discipline that we should adopt all year round. Let’s enter into the discipline of giving thanks. Let’s take a moment to refocus our eyes toward the blessings that we enjoy. Let’s notice our material blessings. Let’s notice the relationships that we treasure dearly. Let’s take note of the spiritual treasures that we possess in Jesus Christ. Let’s take a moment to see, to truly see, and then offer thanks – first to our good God and then to the people who are such blessings in our lives.

The Messiah Complex

As the presidential election approaches, I can’t help but think that we citizens of the United States of America have something of a messiah complex. By this I don’t mean that we view our own country as a savior, though that is sometimes true. Rather, I mean that we the people tend to go looking for messiahs to save us. Most often these messianic hopes are attached to politicians. I remember well the hype that surrounded then Senator Obama in the 2008 election. Obama’s supporters had so much faith in what he would accomplish that John Stewart compared him to Jesus on the Daily Show. Isn’t that an interesting comparison? What kind of society fosters such a state-of-affairs? How can we even begin to compare a politician to Jesus Christ?

We can make such an absurd comparison because we place great faith in our political leaders. This is certainly true in the 2016 presidential race. We have one candidate who promises to “make America great again” and another who calls us to be “stronger together” with promises to carry forward the legacy of the current administration. Regardless of what you think of either candidate, just listen to the fervor of their supporters. Surely this candidate will bring about the change our country so drastically needs! Surely this candidate can act as an American savior!

To Christians this phenomenon should be utter nonsense. You see, we already know the Savior. He conquered death around 2000 years ago, and he has now taken his ascendant place at the right hand of God the Father. No other savior is needed, which makes this American messiah complex especially troubling for Christians.

At least it should. But how many times have we found ourselves entering the political fray just like everyone else? How many times have we been guilty of pledging our allegiance to a party or placing our faith in a candidate? How many times have our peers known more about our politics than about our faith? How many times have we been Americans before Christians? This is a sad state-of-affairs.

“But what is the alternative?” some may ask. Simply put, we place Jesus first. If we did this, we would see very quickly that Jesus is not beholden to either political party, and indeed that he calls both democrats and republicans on the carpet. For instance, Jesus would chastise many democrats for their support of abortion. And he would in the same breath rebuke many republicans for their neglect of the poor. When it comes down to it, Jesus would condemn both parties for their disagreements with the kingdom of God. Then he would call them to repentance. A similar argument can be made for presidential candidates, perhaps especially in this election.

Our allegiance to this Jesus means that we cannot pledge allegiance to a political party and that we cannot place our faith in a political candidate. Can we support them? Sure. But there is a world of difference between support and allegiance, and there is a world of difference between support and faith. In the end, our political choices are choices for the present age. As those called to look to the good of our cities, we must interact with the political machine. At the same time, doing so often means little more than making the best choices that we can with the fallen alternatives before us as we pray for God’s will to be done. (More positively, we can also seek to affect our laws and policies for the better, but that is a different discussion.)

While we Christians must live in the present age, we belong to and wait for the age to come. This is the age of Christ, when everything that disagrees with God’s kingdom will be brought into line, when every knee will bow and tongue confess the Lordship of Jesus, when there will be no more mourning or crying or death or pain. Because we belong to the coming age, we must always hold the present age before us at arm’s length. Our challenge is to be in but not of the world.

In a presidential election, this means that we make the best choices we can with the fallen alternatives that we have. It also means that we refuse to enter the frenzy that names candidates as messiahs and parties as the kingdom. We Christians are reserved for a higher kingdom, and Jesus, the King of that kingdom, requires all our allegiance and faith. Let’s be careful in coming days to remember where our loyalties lie.

Rest

The New Year is upon us, prompting many of us to assess our current places in life.  Sometimes we are pleased with what we see.  Often we are not.  For many, the New Year provides a unique moment when we allow the problems that we have been ignoring to come to the fore.  We have known that we are not healthy enough but have largely ignored this fact.  Now, with the sense of new beginnings, we seek to face it head on.  Or we know that we have not paid enough attention to our spiritual lives.  For months this knowledge has tickled at the back of our consciousnesses but has remained largely unaddressed.  But now in the moment of newness, we seek to blaze a new trail of spirituality that does justice to the faith we profess.  These commitments are called New Year’s resolutions, and they have the potential of bettering our lives.

At the same time, New Year’s resolutions prove difficult.  The discipline required to overcome habit is elusive, and many of our resolutions fall by the wayside.  Thus, New Years becomes not only a moment of great potential for change, but also an opportunity for guilt.  Knowing our less-than-stellar track records, many of us simply pass over the newness of New Years in order to spare ourselves the same cycle of commitment and failure that we have endured in the past.  There is a realism in this choice, but there is also a sense of defeat.  Or we make our resolutions half-expecting to abandon them in short order.  This, after all, is how it always works.

Into the midst of this frustration, I don’t have much advice on how to do a better job of sticking to resolutions.  I expect that we can watch any number of the morning news shows to glean such pointers.  Instead, I offer a thought for possible reflection: As we focus so much on the problem areas of our lives and our past failures, it is easy to forget that we are loved.  One of my favorite stories from Jesus is the parable of the prodigal son.  In it, we see a wayward son who has dishonored his father and squandered his inheritance.  In a low moment, he chooses to throw himself on his father’s mercy in hopes of being given a lower place in his father’s household.  Whereas he was once a son, the young man now hopes to simply be taken on as a hired hand.  As he focuses on his shortcomings and failures, those problem areas of his life, he doesn’t expect much.  Even being accepted to the point of becoming a hired servant is a gamble.

But the father is surprising.  Instead of waiting with a stern demeanor for his son to come crawling home in shame, he sees his son in the distance, and he begins to run.  Running is not befitting for a man in this culture during this time.  It is unseemly.  Yet the father throws decorum aside and rushes to meet his son.  Instead of finding a stern and cold reception, the son is met with compassion and is swept up in the father’s embrace.  He will not be a hired hand.  No, he will be restored as a full son to the household, and the father throws a party to celebrate his return.

As we begin a New Year that is fraught with potential for both success and failure, perhaps the place to begin is here in the Father’s embrace.  For we, like the wayward son, have also been met with compassion and grace if we have turned in faith to Jesus Christ.  And while the Father does indeed lead us by the Spirit to make changes for our good, his first word to us is not one of disappointment or disapproval.  His first word is love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NIV)  In Jesus, we have been caught up into the Father’s embrace, and in the cross, we know the depth of his love.  Of course, God’s love for us militates against the destructive and apathetic areas of our lives, just as the love of an earthly parent trembles to see the self-destructive behavior of his or her child.  The call to change is an act of love as well.

In the moment of newness that is the New Year, perhaps rest rather than activity should be our starting place.  Instead of focusing on our shortcomings, perhaps we should simply rest in the Father’s love.  And as we rest, perhaps we should then listen to the words of a loving Father who desires our good, who does indeed call us to change.  But let us remember that love is the first word, not shame or guilt.  And let us also remember that God does not leave us alone.  If he calls us to it, he walks with us through it, no matter how we stumble and fall.  The call is to keep walking and relying on grace as we do.

May you rest in the Father’s love this New Year.

Majesty for the Unworthy

The sky is dark.  The land is silent.  For the shepherds it is like any other night.  They watch their flocks as they always do, expecting nothing out of the ordinary.  But tonight is not an ordinary night.  No, something cosmic is underfoot.  God himself in human flesh; the Son of God become son of man.  It happens all so quietly.  A baby born like any other – born in a stable at that.  The moment is passing with the world unaware.

But not for the shepherds.  They are not respected.  They are not important.  They inhabit the lower rungs of the social ladder.  But to these, the lowly, there comes the message.  It is theirs alone to hear.

The messenger is terrifying, an angel in glory, but the message itself is pure grace.  A Savior is born, the Messiah, the Lord!  Then appears the heavenly host.  Something this great cannot go unannounced.  They herald his coming with praise:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14; NIV)

The announcement is made, but why here?  This is not the seat of power.  These are not the lords of the earth.  This is a field.  These are shepherds!  Everything is upside down!

Grace has a way of doing that – turning things upside down.  It visits the unworthy with majesty.  It happened to shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth, and it happens today to people like you and me.  “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)  How can such a thing be?

In Christ God has visited us.  In Christ he redeems a world gone astray.  The gift is for all who by grace will receive it, and to them is promised an inheritance of glory.  Majesty for the unworthy, indeed!

And grace continues to turn things upside down, for the lowly become messengers of glory.  The shepherds find their sign in a stable and become heralds of the Savior themselves.  Through their lips pass the message of angels.  Can we who have also been visited by majesty become anything but the same?

Grace to you this Christmas season.  May you be visited by majesty.

Be Still

As many of you know, Emily and I spent a few days at The Cove (near Asheville) this past month.  The Cove is a beautiful place where time seems to slow down.  We stayed in a suite with no TV.  With no schedule other than mealtimes, we moved at our own leisure.  Without responsibilities, we “wasted time” by exploring hiking trails, visiting the chapel, and perusing the bookstore.  We met other Christians during mealtimes and engaged in slow and meaningful conversation.  And we also took time to ponder God and his leading in our lives.  The time was refreshing to say the least.

Throughout our stay, we were often confronted with the words of Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God,” which were displayed in various places.  I don’t know about your experience, but my own points to the difficulty of being still.  Sometimes it seems that life is driving me rather than the other way around.  There is always something else to be done, always something that needs attention.  And when things do let up, I just want to veg for a while in front of the TV and be entertained.  Life can get put on auto-pilot, and I end up wondering where all of the time has gone.  Or I set aside time to “be still” and find that circumstances won’t allow it.  Children wake up early or something pressing demands my attention.  Being still is not easy, nor is it natural in an age of constant motion.  Yet it is the call of the disciple who would know and please God.

Emily and I went to The Cove in hopes of gaining perspective.  We came away with the blessing of refreshing stillness.  We remembered God.  We remembered his calling on our lives.  We stood in awe of the one who created such beauty and trusted in his power to undergird us today.  Being still proved to be a needed and refreshing experience!

Now we’re back to the daily grind where stillness seems so elusive, and that elusiveness can be frustrating.  The stillness that came so naturally and even unexpectedly at The Cove does not always come so easily in the midst of everyday responsibility.  And yet the experience carries forward.  Stillness at The Cove led to renewed perspective on what is truly important in our lives.  More than this, it led to a renewed vision of God.  These things can’t help but inform our living.

And maybe this is the point of stillness; not that we stay in a beatific state, but rather that our stillness would give us perspective and strength to live well before God when we return to the everyday.  After all, Emily and I don’t live at The Cove.  We live in Durham.  This is the place of our life and work together.  And this is the ground of our calling.  The beauty of The Cove is not that it is a place to perpetually stay.  No, the beauty of The Cove is found in that it came home with us.  It informs our lives today.

Not to say that we won’t return to The Cove or some other place like it!  Emily and I are talking about making stillness retreats a regular occurrence in the Smith household.  After all, every journey needs rest stops along the way!  Our recent experience has taught us this, and we are thankful to God for meeting us in the stillness of our time away.

I wonder if you have found time to be still before God lately.  Or are the demands of life driving you instead of the other way around?  May you experience rest in God’s presence.  May you receive a renewed vision of who He is.  May you gain perspective on life now.  May you carve out time to be still and know that He is God.

Take Your Place

If you compare different translations of Ephesians 4:11-13, you’ll find an interesting disagreement.  The passage speaks of Christ giving apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers to the church.  This is a point of unity among translations.  Disunity, however, comes in the reason for this gift.  The King James Version reads: “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…”  Newer translations (NKJV, NASB, and ESV among them) opt for a slightly different understanding.  The New King James Versions renders the reason for the gift like this: “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…”  Did you catch the difference?  The words are almost exactly the same, but the number of commas differs.  For the KJV, the reason for the gift of church leaders is three-fold.  They are to perfect the saints, work in ministry, and edify the body.  For the NKJV and the other translations already mentioned, the roles of these leaders are cut down to two.  They are to equip the saints for the work of ministry and edify the body.  The placement of a comma seems slight, but the difference in meaning is great indeed!  At stake is nothing less than our understanding of ministry.  Does it belong to church leaders or to the church itself?

In my opinion, the newer translations are nearer the mark, and all Christians have a part to play in ministry.  Unfortunately, things do not always play out this way.  Many times, church leaders are understood as solely owning the task of ministry, or small portions of congregations end up doing the bulk of the work.  Yet each of us is gifted by the Spirit and has been given a role to play.  And it is when we each inhabit our roles that we find a practical outworking of the body of Christ.

This idea of shared ministry throughout the body will be important in the next couple of months as Immanuel’s Nominating Committee seeks to fill different positions of service in the church.  As this process unfolds, I invite you to prayerfully consider your own giftings and the role that you might be called to play in the coming year.  And I invite you to take your place.  As the Apostle Paul said so well in Romans 12:6-8:

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (NIV)

My prayer for the coming year is that Immanuel will find itself full of ministers, each working according to his or her gifting, and that we will find that God has gifted us well for this moment in our life together.

Discerning Opportunities

Early in the Gospel of Mark, we find Jesus faced with an interesting dilemma.  His ministry has been met with acclaim in a town called Capernaum.  The people there have been awed by his teaching, and he has performed many healings and exorcisms.  In the early morning after a full evening of ministry, we are told that Jesus “got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35b, NIV)  The dilemma comes when his disciples come looking for him.  They exclaim, “Everyone is looking for you!” (1:37)  It seems that Jesus has an opportunity to capitalize on the success of the previous day.

The proper response to such news seems obvious: Jesus should take the opportunity for further ministry.  God has blessed his efforts, and a door stands open.  It would be irresponsible to turn away from such an opportunity!  But Jesus does just that.  With what I assume was incredible presence of mind, Jesus replies, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (1:38)  When faced with this great opportunity, Jesus walks away.

As I read this account, I am convinced that there is such a thing as a “holy no.”  There are times in our lives when we are faced with great opportunities, sometimes even great opportunities for great good.  But the mere presence of an opportunity does not necessitate that we take it.  Indeed, there are times when we should not, when a “holy no” is the proper response.  This statement may seem counter-intuitive or even irresponsible, but the example of Jesus points to a more discerning way.

Note a couple of things about Jesus in this passage.  First, his choice to walk away from this great opportunity is preceded by prayer; he got up early in the morning to pray.  Second, Jesus’ “no” to one opportunity meant “yes” to another.  Because Jesus refuses to return to Capernaum, he is able to go to other places.  Indeed, he must say no to Capernaum in order to fulfill his ministry.  After all, preaching in different places is why he came. (1:38)  It seems that Jesus knows exactly what he is to be about and is willing to pursue it to the exclusion of all other opportunities, even good ones.

So just how does Jesus know what he should be about?  I would argue that his prayer and his presence of mind are linked.  Perhaps Jesus is rooted in his purpose because he was first rooted in prayer.  His time on his knees informs his time on his feet, and he is empowered to discern between the opportunities set before him.  Thus, Jesus is able to offer a “holy no” to one opportunity in order to offer a “holy yes” to another.

We are coming to a time in congregational life when this kind of discernment will be important.  In the coming months, members of Immanuel will be asked to consider serving in various ways in our community for the coming year.  When such opportunities arise, we sometimes respond with too-quick responses.  Some reply “yes” in excitement for service or reluctant duty, while others reply “no” because of poor past experience or feelings of inadequacy.  The example of Jesus, though, points to the more discerning way – the way of prayer and purpose.

I encourage you to pray about your place in Immanuel in the coming year.  I encourage you to have the presence of mind to discern between opportunities, having the freedom to offer “holy no’s” to good things in order to offer “holy yes’s” to best things.  I encourage you to refuse to take on too much, and I also encourage you to refrain from taking on too little.

May we all pray for discernment, both corporately and individually, as we seek to serve God, one another, and the surrounding community.  And may our time on our knees inform our time on our feet as God grants the wisdom that we seek.