Thursday, November 19, 2015

Being Thankful in a Thankless World


Thankful or thankless -- which word would you say better describes our society today? It seems like the majority of our culture lives with an attitude of entitlement. People feel they are entitled to better pay, better benefits and more stuff.  People feel that if they cannot afford it, then they can rob Peter to pay Paul so to speak, or better yet, have the government pick up the check. The majority never stops to give thanks for what they have, but loudly voices their desire to have more.  We have, in many respects, devolved into a society of thankless people, and there are repercussions. The greatest irony in all of this being that – Thanksgiving has been overrun by NoThanksButIAmShopping. For many people, it is about greed…I am going to get something ahead of you.  This is just the opposite of Thanksgiving.  This is not to say that shopping is evil, just whether greed is dominating our lives, or gratitude.  If we are thankful for what we already have, it should help us not to be so needy or greedy.  We have enjoyed so many blessings that we have come to expect them. We even have begun to display these same attitudes when it comes to God. People acknowledge God less and less…they don’t give Him honor and glory for their success in business, or as pertains to life in general. They will tell you it’s because of their own hard work that they have accomplished these things.  In this familiar passage (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), Paul reveals to us that thankful hearts shows that we are healthy Christians.  God expects us to be a thankful people. As Christians, we are called to live counter-culture. With the approach of Thanksgiving, let’s discover how to have a thankful heart in an unthankful world.

There are some important realizations that we must own, if we are to live like Christ. One is that we are not entitled to what we have, but understand they everything is a blessing from God.  “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17)  Even at our most economically unstable times, we have so much wealth in the United States that it is easy to take for granted simple blessings.  What we consider to be poverty today far exceeds the standard of living that most people enjoyed a century ago.  We have gained more possessions for ourselves today than at any other time in history.  While a great portion of the world looks at the United States and sees great wealth, many people tend to view it as what we are entitled to for being Americans.  If we encounter situations that cause us to have to tighten our belts (so to speak), and our standard of living has to change, we become upset because we feel we are being denied what is rightfully ours.  The person who believes that the world owes him a living is not going to be thankful for much. He thinks he is doing others a favor by permitting them to serve him. And allowing others to serve should not be a bad thing…it is good.  But, the thankful heart is usually humble…a heart that gladly acknowledges God. When we understand that God is the source of all blessings our natural response should be gratitude. The principle of thanksgiving, including the holiday, allows us the opportunity to put everything in proper perspective and to thank God for His abundant blessings.  A truly thankful heart will change our lives. It will keep us from becoming overly critical or constantly complaining. It will draw us closer to our Heavenly Father and make us more conscious of His presence. Thomas Merton wrote, “Gratitude takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder, and to praise of the goodness of God.”

Finally, this exhortation by Paul proves our need for the Spirit of God, because in our own strength we could never obey it. Gratitude makes us alive! When we are grateful we realize that God is the source of all our blessings, and this keeps us from complaining or taking blessings for granted.  In fact, the word “gratitude” comes from the same root word as “grace.” And “thanksgiving” comes from the same root, as well…they are all connected. If we have experienced the grace of God, then we ought to be grateful for what God brings to us.  Where the Spirit reigns, there is gratitude to God, a deep sense of appreciation, and a spontaneous expression of it. Take some time to think about everything that you have, realize that it was God that gave it to you. When we line up our lives with God’s will, we will discover that it will become easier to be joyful and easier to be thankful.  

Blessings, Don

Thursday, September 10, 2015

At the Heart of Jesus' Religion


Tim Smith offers this -- Gary Morsch is the founder of Heart to Heart in Kansas City. As a physician, he has done magnificent work around the world taking medical supplies to low income people. Many years ago, he took a trip to Calcutta and Mother Teresa's House for the Destitute Dying. He took 90 volunteers and 12 million dollars of medical supplies.  As he made the trip, he thought to himself, "A lot of these people don't have to die. I can save their lives, and maybe we can turn it from the House for the Destitute Dying to the House for the Hopeful Living." He was going to make that happen.  When they arrived, Sister Priscilla began to assign everyone their tasks. As this was happening, Gary put his stethoscope around his neck to let Sister Priscilla know he was a doctor.  Everyone got their assignment and Gary found he was the last person.  She directed him to come with her. They went to the woman's unit and didn't stop to help anybody. They kept going and went to the men's unit and he thought this is where he was going to begin to help. But instead, they walked into the kitchen. He asked, "What do you need for me to do here?" She said, "Just follow me."  They walked out the door, and he sees a huge pile of putrefied trash.  She hands him two plastic buckets and a shovel and saw. "What we need you to do is haul this garbage to the city dump just down the street two blocks away. You can't miss it." Then she smiles at him, turns and walks away.  He is standing there thinking, "Did she not see my stethoscope. I'm a doctor! Doesn't she understand what I can do with these hands?"  In a silent shock and a bit of self-pity, he began wondering what to do. But there was only one thing to do. So all day, he carried buckets full of putrefied trash to the city dump, and by the end of the day having moved that entire pile, he was a sweaty, sticking mess.  He walked back into the building and saw this sign from Mother Teresa: "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."  He said, "At that moment, my heart wilted. On this day, Mother Teresa pierced the armor I had worked so hard to construct. And my life was changed by the act of hauling garbage down the street and becoming a servant for others in need."

In essence, this is what Jesus communicates to some of the religious people of the day who are following Him and asking questions.  In this section of Matthew (9:9-17), Jesus presents two pictures…one is concerning the physician and the other is the bridegroom.  Each picture comes in response to questions from those in His audience.  The Pharisees are already in full opposition mode as they come to Jesus’ disciples to ask them a “religious” question.  The question is intended to trap them, because if they are good religious Jews, and most of them appear to be, then they should only be able to come up with the one answer required…the one that pleases the Pharisees.  Jesus, hearing this question, intercedes on His disciples’ behalf and makes a statement that would cause the religious leaders to have to pause for a moment in the midst of their attacks to consider what He is saying.  And what is it that Jesus is saying?  He is not making a case for a religious argument that people should go to a doctor if they are sick as opposed to staying home hoping for some miracle.  He wants the Pharisees to consider the big picture concerning what god they really serve.  Do they really serve the God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe…or a religious symbol of a god that they choose to serve in the name of God?  If they would understand and serve the one true God, then they would know Jesus, and that He came in order that sinners might have a relationship with Him and His Father.

So, Jesus quotes a basic and critically important principle from the Old Testament (Hosea 6:6) to show to them that right religion has always been about people more than about “principles”.  Or, that our principles should be about helping people rather than keeping laws that prevent us from helping people.  And this is certainly the prevailing thought that continues in this section, as Jesus entertains a question from John’s disciples.  On the surface, this portion of the passage might appear unrelated to the first part, but they walk hand in hand.  Continuing with the theme of adhering to the law, the disciples of John notice a difference between themselves, the Pharisees and Jesus’ disciples concerning fasting.  They all (the Pharisees and John’s disciples) would keep regular fasts by which they would dedicate themselves to the keeping of ritual traditions.  John’s disciples would be in mourning, because their leader is being detained in prison. But, the allusion to the bridegroom is Jesus speaking about Himself, and that while He is with them, they should be rejoicing at having Him.  So, Jesus indicates that “fasting” is a matter of joy not sorrow. He has come to put a new face on their religious traditions. The Christian life is a feast not a funeral. 

Much as he does with the Sabbath and other traditional practices, Jesus wants them to understand that there is a larger picture that they need to grasp. This is why He moves into the illustration concerning the wine and the wine skins. Jesus comes to fulfill the law of the Pharisees and John and bring “spiritual wholeness.”  Jesus did not come to “patch us up” religiously, only to have us fall apart. He comes to fill us to the full…and to overflowing.  The Jewish religion was a worn-out wine skin that would burst if filled with the newness of the Gospel that Jesus is bringing.  He knows that the old ways, or old paths of the old law are not going to be sufficient in order for newness and wholeness to take place.  This is His purpose in coming…to fill us up and make us mature in Him.

Ken Pell from the First Church of the Nazarene in Broken Arrow, OK shares this -- There is not much you can do about it. Once you have been around it everybody else knows. I’m talking about the red dirt of western Oklahoma. It’s caused by the iron in the soil that, after being oxidized, turns to rust. It seems that nothing can erase or clean the stain from that red dirt on your shoes once you have walked there. If you have new shoes – everyone knows -- because they are not red ... yet. If you are from the city (OKC or Tulsa, for example) and you make your way into the western ranch lands everyone can tell "you’re not from these parts" simply by looking at the color of your shoes. The inverse is also true; if you go to the city and are wearing shoes that you have previously worn out "out there" everyone knows where you are from.  It’s not a judgmental thing. The cities in Oklahoma are intimately connected to the ranches and open lands; no one thinks they are better or inferior; it is simply a recognizable and distinct line of demarcation. There is simply no getting around it.  Godly love (Agapé) is like that too. It is such a contrast from the world’s love that it becomes immediately recognizable and "different." The world looks at the sacrificial, serving, grace-filled love of God and says "You’re not from around these parts." It cannot be duplicated, at least not for long, it can be "faked" for a little while (vv. 1-3) but even the masquerade is evidence that it isn't Godly love. When it has been poured into your hearts it cannot be hidden; that’s the nature of God’s love. It's just there and influences the lives of those it touches.

False religion in the name of Christianity is suspicious, protective, distrusting, critical, and prejudiced…whereas the freedom that Christ brings liberates us to love completely, be at peace, serve with vigor and be willing to learn and thrive in fellowship together.  This is the point that Jesus is trying to make concerning the attitude of the Pharisees, and even John’s disciples, as compared with those who would be His disciples…there is supposed to be a BIG difference.  And so it is amazing that believers today will still settle for a watered down gospel that is inept in order to empower their lives or make any real significant difference in this world, because it is more focused on keeping relatively meaningless regulations than on being like Jesus.  Jesus does not want us to settle for the old wine skins that we have in our lives that are incapable of producing love, joy and peace…but, wants us to be filled with the Spirit who can bring these virtues alive in us.  Jesus does not want us to settle for the old traditions, such as the illustration of keeping a regular fast for the purpose of keeping a regular fast, and miss the genuine life that He has to bring.  Jesus didn’t intend for us to do the same thing day after day, week after week, settling into a rote system without hardly lifting up our heads to breathe the spiritual air that is there for us to breathe.  Jesus did not intend for us to go through the motions of so as to miss out on what it is that He is really wanting to do in and through us!  This passage is the essence of Jesus’ religion…we need to consider and reconsider what it is that Jesus expects from us.  We have a mission here on this earth to fulfill, and we need to continue to invent and reinvent the wheel as it relates to what it is that Jesus wants us to discover in relationship to this.

Blessings, Don

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Shining Like Stars


If you have been watching the news, and you have an interest in science…particularly astronomy…then you are likely aware that astronomers believe that they have found a star and planet similar to our sun and earth.  The planet is called Kepler 452b (after famous astronomer Johannes Kepler). Both star and planet are slightly larger than our version of “home”, but this is interesting news for those who would like to escape this world. The universe is a really big place…so large, that we can’t really begin to comprehend it.  As one person shared…one way to try to grasp it is that the earth is like a grain of sand, and the universe of other stars, planets and galaxies would be all of the sand on all of the beaches of the world.  And even this wouldn’t even begin to be enough. That is difficult to wrap the mind around if you are a typical human being.  Some scientists try to tell us that everything that we know came into existence via some cataclysmic event called “the Big Bang.”  I experienced a big bang one time when I walked near a significantly large firework blast that went off by me when I was a kid. :-) What I do know, and understand by faith, is that God created the universe. And, if He chose to do so through the process of some sort of big bang then that is His business.  What I also know is that God created “light.”  And He has been sending His light into the world ever since.  He did so via the sun.  Then, at the appointed time, He did so through His Son.  Now, God sends us out as His instruments to be light to the world.  We do not have to light up the entire universe…but, you and I have the ability and responsibility to light our world.  As such, Paul tells the believers in Philippi that, as Jesus was the Light, they also must shine like lights in the darkness of the world.  We do indeed have the same responsibility!

Paul wants us to know that we need to continually strive to be like Christ.  This requires obedience and effort, or as he tells the Philippians…”work out your own salvation” (Philippians 2:12-18). This is not to be confused with any mistaken concept of “working for or to salvation.”  I knew a lady one time that when I explained this principle, it was like a light went on. She had never considered that she couldn’t do enough or be good enough to be a Christian.  This was sad in one sense, but good in another. She began to understand that it is all about what Jesus has done, and our connection to it.  There is no way that we can work for, do enough, be good enough in order to gain salvation.  It is the free gift of grace from God through His Son, Jesus Christ.  This is precisely Jesus’ point with the rich, young ruler (Matthew 19). 

Paul is dealing with people who are Christians already, but some seem to be struggling and have quit growing to be like Jesus.  He continues to help them, and all of us, to continue to meet the challenge of growing in Christ by contrasting the life of believers with those of unbelievers.  God’s purpose for us, His people, is to achieve Christ-likeness.  Church and Christian living is never to be about you or me or anyone else…it is all about Jesus. He is to be our all in all!  Paul says that those who belong to the world make it a course of their lives to grumble and find fault, but not those in Christ.  We are to rejoice and give thanks at all times.  How can this be so?  We understand that we are not working to grab hold of some sort of victory, but that we are living our lives in Christ striving from victory.  We have every opportunity to be able to enjoy our salvation with fellow believers…those we meet with on Sundays…and those who we meet with at other times.  We have the greatest principle in common -- grace and thanksgiving as the result of what Jesus has done for each and every one of us in setting us free from sin, death and the world!  We have a unity in this which no one can take away.

And what is even more interesting is that grace, thanksgiving and joy all have the same root in the original language – char.  This is where our English words charity, charisma, and character find their meaning.  In this, we continue to work out God’s purposes for our lives, spiritually, charitably living as His witnesses…shining in the world around us.  As we are confronted with the needs and the difficulties of real life, we continue to grow and become more Christ-like.  The struggles we face make us better, stronger for Him.  We can offer thanksgiving to the Lord for the opportunity to continue to grow and become more like His Son. 

Another principle that Paul wants us to understand is that it is God who is at work in us, and He must be doing this before He can work through us.  Some people obey God because of pressures from the outside (people, circumstances), and not from the power that comes from within us (the Holy Spirit).  And this is to be the power working in us, the Holy Spirit…God’s personal presence.  The power is at our disposal -- truly “greater is He (Spirit) who is within us that He who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).  God uses “tools” such as the Word, prayer, suffering and fellowship in order to bear fruit in the lives of His people. We discover that as we continue to grow that all of these virtues on earth are transforming our spirits in order for us to be ready for the glory in heaven being prepared for us.  We receive eternal life and joy because of our submission.  Just as Jesus submitted Himself to the will of the Father and was exalted, so will we be one day.

The beauty of the spiritual struggle is that we are not left to simply muster more of our strength, but we are invited to tap into His!  It is only through surrender to His will, and allowing His Spirit to work in us that we are able to grow and understand spiritual matters.  This all means that the victories and accomplishments that we have in the spiritual realm should be acknowledged as coming from the Lord…and we should give Him the glory.  We cannot do good enough or be good enough to achieve this victory.  But, we need to be surrendered enough, committed enough to be able to live out our Christian lives abundantly from victory.  When we have spiritual character, charisma, we understand that grace, thanksgiving, unity isn’t something that we do…it is who we are!  It all simply means that we can live the Christian life, free from negative attitudes such as fear, bitterness, self-sufficiency, because our dependence is on Him.  And this is precisely why we can be grace-filled, Spirit-filled, thankful, united people…because it is not about us -- it is all about what Jesus has done on our behalf! 

Blessings, Don