Rare contentment in an epidemic of affluenza

Celebrating Thanksgiving Day? That’s traditional. Living thankfully year-round? Now that’s counter-cultural!

Our culture encourages you and me to want and grab more and more. It’s practically an economic virtue. Depending on who you ask and what you all include, you’re exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 ads every day whether you’re looking at Snapchat or the logo on your shirt. Combined, all the advertisers in the US spend nearly $200 billion a year to get their products and services in your face. And while each one may offer something unique and even good and useful, together they give the same message: “You will not be content until you buy what we’re selling!”

Advertisers know that, in general, we have a lot of buying power, whether using our savings or racking up credit card debt. More than ever before, they know we have the ability to take them up on their offers. Yet, ironically, never before have people been so discontent. I think it’s crazy the whole phenomenon of Black Friday immediately following (even usurping) Thanksgiving Day. We pause to be thankful for what we have… only hours later to frantically grab for more!

Author Peter Schuurman refers to all this as “affluenza.” He writes: “We are sick. Sick not from some sort of deprivation, but rather from an excess, an overabundance.” In general, we have so much more than we need, but at the same time, our culture trains us to feel like we never have quite enough. To be thankful, to be content is rare in an epidemic of “affluenza.”

I receive the antidote for this sickness from a surprising source: A prison inmate languishing in jail. This inmate’s name is Paul and what he writes to the church in a city called Philippi is just as relevant to the people of Sioux County: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Even in the slammer, Paul experiences more freedom than a lot of people on the outside shackled to their discontent. He has a contentment that gives him joy even in the worst circumstances (like a cruel Roman jail).

What’s the secret? “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Another way you could put it is like this: “I have everything in him who gives me strength.” Paul is so thankful for what Jesus has done for him: He is a forgiven child of God through Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection on the third day. Being blessed like this is better than anything else Paul’s world (or my world) can offer. No matter what happens to him, Paul knows God is with him and for him. That finally gives him contentment.

Contentment will not come from taking advantage of a Black Friday sale. There will always be something new to buy. I’ve learned that contentment comes from allowing the Holy Spirit to nurture within me the reality that Thanksgiving is not simply a day on the calendar but a lifestyle God invites me to experience in Jesus.

Thanksgiving graphic found via Google

I wrote this for this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
Of course, my Canadian readers will have celebrated
Thanksgiving Day back in October!

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Grace and mercy

Mercy and grace graphic found via GoogleIf you spend any amount of time around a church, I hope you regularly hear the words grace and mercy. These are two words I often use interchangeably and I sometimes mix up which one means what exactly. Singer Wayne Watson has cleared it up for me in his song simply titled “Grace” from his CD Living Room:

Grace keeps giving me things I don’t deserve.
Mercy keeps withholding things I do.

Grace is free and unmerited favor. It is a gift. I cannot earn it. I do not deserve it.

Some people say they want what they deserve. I know my heart too well to demand that. What I deserve is God’s wrath. The holy God doesn’t have the time of day for the slightest trace of sin, yet I have soiled myself in it. Nothing imperfect or unholy can exist in God’s presence, but through Jesus, God welcomes me into his presence, into his family as his child. God’s mercy withholds what I should have coming to me.

Back in the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther discovered this truth afresh. He grew up believing that he had to earn God’s mercy and grace through acts of love for God and neighbor. As one of my seminary professors, Lyle Bierma, explains it, Luther perceived divine favor “not so much a gift as a reward” for good behavior.

I feel you and I need this history lesson. We might be able to define grace and mercy, but I don’t think we consistently live as though we truly understand them. Our is a “performance-oriented society, dominated by a can-do spirit,” observes Prof. Bierma, and I agree. “We work for good grades in school, earn victories on the football field, compete for awards, receive merit pay at work, and get demerits if we misbehave. In the middle of all this striving and achievement, it is not easy to admit that when it comes to meeting the deepest need of our existence, our restlessness for God, we can do absolutely nothing ourselves. We are totally reliant on outside help.”

Enter mercy and grace: I deserve for God to ignore me, to even punish me because of my sin. Instead, in Christ, I am forgiven and restored. I rest assured in him for today and eternity.

Discovering this does not leave me unchanged. Impacted by God’s mercy and grace, I want my life to overflow with that same mercy and grace. With God’s Spirit encouraging and equipping me, I want my life to be filled with acts of love for God and neighbor – the same thing for which Luther strived. But instead of doing these things to get God’s attention and favor, I do these things in profound gratitude for his mercy and grace. I want to be thankful for his gift.

If you see any gifts from God in your life – a loved one, a job, a skill, even grace itself! – let’s team up and find ways to show him and others how thankful we are for them.

I wrote this article for last week’s Rock Valley Bee
to commemorate Reformation Day today.

Would Jesus attend Orange City Pride?

In light of the Orange City Pride event happening this weekend, a couple letters appeared in the Rock Valley Bee denouncing the Pride flag photo found via Googleperspective that a Christian could be part of such a thing. I think this question is rooted in an even bigger one: Would Jesus attend a pride event?

First of all, one must be very careful in declaring what Jesus would or would not do in 21st century, North American contexts. Cultural and historical differences aside, we each think Jesus would join us in our causes because we believe them to be noble and right. Conflict naturally arises when two opposing groups of Christians believe Jesus is on their side rather than their opponent’s side.

In the case of whether Jesus would attend a pride event, each side offers biblical arguments. Some who say Jesus would not attend such an event emphasize Jesus’ holiness. Operating from a biblical framework that perceives same-sex relationships as contrary to God’s plan and sinful, they argue that as the holy Son of God, Jesus would not and could not associate with what is sinful. It logically follows that followers of Jesus would avoid what is sinful, too, in our case an event that celebrates same-sex attraction.

On the other hand, some who could see Jesus at a pride event emphasize Jesus’ compassion. Operating from a biblical framework that sees Jesus eat in the homes of tax collectors (which would have been a much more public activity than a typical meal at someone’s house today), they argue that Jesus engaged sinful humanity in order to draw it back to God. Jesus did not get contaminated by the sin around him; he “contaminated” those in sin with his redemptive grace and goodness and now calls his followers to do likewise. Some Christians go further and question the correlation made between biblical references to homosexuality and same-sex relationships today, arguing that Jesus could attend a pride event like the one in Orange City because it seeks not to celebrate the kind of homosexuality forbidden in the Bible that may have been specifically associated with abuse and pagan worship.

As they unfold, the tone of these debates often becomes most uncharitable. People get mad and use the Bible as a weapon, firing texts back and forth to try to destroy their opponent’s argument (and maybe their opponent, too). I can’t help but wonder whether our accusations against one another sound too much like the complaints of the “good” religious people in Jesus’ day who complained when Jesus didn’t do things the way they expected, including getting too close to sinful humanity in questionable circumstances (again, thinking of dining with the tax collectors and others despised as sinners) or calling people to a seemingly impossibly high standard (I think, for example, of the disciples’ protest when a rich man is asked to sell all he has).

Personally, I must guard myself against holding more firmly to my position than to my love for my neighbor, whether it is the gay person in the pride event or the individual condemning it. On this side of the new creation, neither position holds to the entire truth of the matter and both sides would do well to listen more to one another. That sort of attitude, one that pursues both truth and grace, is what we need more of if we are going to get anywhere in this conversation.

These reflections repeat a letter I wrote to the Bee.
As always, the perspectives expressed in this blog are my own
and not necessarily those of any organizations or individuals
with which I am associated.

Practicing knowing God

In Jeremiah 22:16, Jeremiah describes King Josiah as a good king, and then he moves on to say “because he looks after those who care for the poor” (that’s my paraphrase). And then Jeremiah says, “Is that not what it means to know me?” In other words, knowing God is not simply knowing things about God. Knowing God is a social practice—it’s a way of being in the world. It’s something we do with our bodies and our minds in the power of the Spirit. Now I’m not saying that you work your way into heaven! My point is simply that God is love, and Christ’s incarnation is the embodiment of love. Love needs to be embodied.

– John Swinton,
founder of the Centre for Spirituality, Health, and Disability
at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland,
in a conversation
with Church Health Reader,
quoted in the CRC’s Disability Concerns Oct 2017 e-newsletter

Sit, walk, stand

Years ago I memorized Psalm 1. It begins with three things people avoid if they love God. In his e-devotions the other day Dale Vander Veen offered three corresponding positives to put in place of the things Psalm 1 tells me to avoid. Dale graciously welcomed me to share them with you here.

::– –::– –::

Psalm 1:1 tells me that I must “not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers.” The “walk … stand … sit” reminded me of Chinese Christian Watchman Nee’s little book Sit, Walk, Stand.

Basing his thoughts on Ephesians, Nee turns the negatives of Psalm 1 into three positives, explaining that I sit with Christ in heavenly realms, that I am to walk with Christ in love, and that I can stand in Christ against evil. The psalmist and the apostle agree.

Blessing pours into my life and flows out of my life to others when I sit with majesty, not mockery; when I walk in love, not wickedness; and when I stand in holiness, not sinfulness.

Sit, walk, stand graphic found via Google

“The Christian life consists of sitting with Christ, walking by him and standing in him. We begin by resting in the finished work of the Lord Jesus. That rest is the source of our strength for a consistent and unfaltering walk in the world. And at the end of a grueling warfare with the hosts of darkness we are found standing with him at last in triumphant possession of the field.”
– – – from Sit, Walk, Stand by Watchman Nee

Contagious courage

While we were in British Columbia this summer, my 10-year-old son and I hiked the Abby Grind. The trail begins a mile from my parents’ house at the base of Sumas Mountain and climbs 1,200 feet in just over a mile, making for some good exercise. It didn’t take long before we started huffing! Near the three-quarter mark, we were both tempted to just turn around, but then we knew we’d miss out on theAbby Grind lookout spectacular view at the lookout. So we encouraged each other on and both made it to the top.

On the one hand, we both needed to hike the trail ourselves. We propelled ourselves onward with our own legs, muscles, and willpower. But on the other hand, we needed each other’s encouragement to keep going, to cheer each other on. We were also encouraged by other hikers coming down the trail reminding us that the effort was worth it.

With satisfied smiles, we scrambled up around the last corner and saw the Fraser Valley spread out below us and Washington State beyond. If it had been a bit clearer, we might even have seen the ocean. A little later as we descended back down the trail, we encouraged other hikers making their way up.

Life sometimes feels like a serious hike in which we often deal with aches and pain. Sometimes we feel alone with our doubts and fears and secret desire to drop out. One of the reasons I think God places us in a Christian community is so that we can cheer one another on. Author Lewis Smedes once observed that “nobody else can have courage for us. But behind individual acts of courage there is usually a community. Courage is contagious. It spreads when we get close to each other.”

I see a church community as a place to experience the contagiousness of courage. Surrounded by fellow hikers on the path, we hear and see people cheering us on while we in turn do the same for others. Sometimes I’m the one reminding you that the effort of being a loyal spouse, a dependable parent, or a hard worker is worth it; sometimes you’re the one encouraging me.

This goes for faith as well: Sometimes I encourage you in your walk with Jesus and sometimes it’s me who needs your encouragement. Are you part of a community where you encourage others and other encourage you? Consider joining a church gathering this Sunday.

Yes, it’s possible that I could’ve conquered the Abby Grind on my own. But hiking it together with someone was not only more fun but also boosted the courage in both of us.

I suspect there’s someone with whom you’re hiking through life who could use a boost from you today.

I wrote this for the Rock Valley Bee a couple weeks ago
but kept forgetting to post it here!

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Bookends

My current Bible reading plan includes reading a psalm each day. The other day I was up to Psalm 41, the end of which marks the division between Book I and Book II of the Psalter.

It occurs to me that Book I (Psalms 1-41) opens and ends on a similar note, one of blessing. Psalm 1 begins with a blessing for the one who delights in the Lord and His will:

Blessed is the one who
does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the LORD,
and who meditates on his law day and night.

In short, the book of Psalms opens with a call to love the Lord our God and His ways.

It turns out that Psalm 41, the last psalm of Book I, also opens with the word “Blessed.” This time the blessing is for those who defend the powerless:

Blessed are those who have regard for the weak;
the LORD delivers them in times of trouble.

Here at the end of Book I we have a call to love the weak or, as the Bookends found at Wayfair.comESV translates it, the poor. Deliverance comes to those who love their neighbor as themselves.

I see Psalms 1 & 41 as bookends. Taken together, they foreshadow Jesus’ summary of the law which Psalm 1 upholds:

“The most important [command],”
answered Jesus,
“is this:
‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul
and with all your mind
and with all your strength.’
The second is this:
‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
There is no commandment greater than these.”

Together Psalms 1 & 41 reveal the secret to a blessed life, a life marked with joy and meaning: It’s an other-focused life. Instead of focusing on myself and pursuing my own happiness, I’m called to focus on God and focus on others. Loving and serving God together with loving and serving others – that’s where I (together with God’s people for millennia) have found the blessed life.