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!

Advertisements

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.

In good company on a mission

Clouds picture found via Google

Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are Good News. This is a season in the church calendar for joy: I’m filled with joy that Jesus lives and reigns; I’m filled with joy that sin and death no longer have the last word.

But this is also a season emphasizing mission: As Dale Bruner points Matthew - A Commentary (Vol 2) The Churchbook by Frederick Dale Brunerout in his commentary on Matthew, every appearance Jesus makes to His followers after His resurrection includes a call to mission. The Holy Spirit of the living Lord sends me on a mission to where I work, go out for ice cream, and even travel on vacation.

When this sounds overwhelming to me, I remember I’m in good company with the first followers of Jesus.

Maybe I don’t feel bold enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Well, I’m in good company then. Jesus first gives His commission to go and tell that He’s alive to a group of women who have been (understandably) frightened by a dazzling angel. He later commissions scared disciples hiding in the dark and sad disciples who will watch Him ascend to heaven. The truth is that Jesus equips and sends fear-filled people to free people from fear of alienation, sin, death, and hell.

Maybe I don’t feel qualified enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Well, I’m still in good company. Jesus appears to and commissions 11 disciples – an incomplete number following Judas’ tragic death. In the Bible, 12 is a perfect number, not 11. But the truth is that Jesus equips and sends imperfect people to do His perfect work.

Maybe I don’t feel official enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Guess what? I’m in good company. The Gospels refer to the disciples being commissioned by Jesus – no mention (yet) of specific leaders, church officers, or even the more official title of apostles. It’s simple people known as disciples who Jesus sends on mission. And that is all a Christian should ever want to be – a disciple. So the truth is that Jesus equips and sends ordinary people to do His extraordinary work.

Maybe I don’t feel spiritual enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. By now you’re not surprised to hear I’m in good company. Jesus first commissions a group of doubters. It’s not just Thomas, but a bunch of them who have doubts mixed in with their worship. But Jesus remains patient and forgiving: He does not divide up His disciples into two groups – commissioning those who believe and worship while telling those who fear or doubt to come back later when they have their acts together. No, in the Gospels, all are commissioned, leading me to see how Jesus’ sending power is far greater than His disciples’ faults and failings. The truth remains that Jesus equips and sends unsure and uncertain people to do His sure and certain work.

Maybe I don’t feel authorized enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Again, I’m in good company with those feelings. I think about how the very first people to be sent on mission by Jesus are women. Today that’s no big deal, but in Jesus’ day, a woman’s testimony did not count in the law courts of the land. Women were not allowed to stand as witnesses. Everyone would’ve said that as women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are poor choices as the very first witnesses and testifiers of Jesus’ resurrection. Yet the women are the first ones commissioned by the angel at the tomb to go and tell. Then they meet Jesus Himself who again confirms they are indeed the ones to go and tell the Good News. Throughout the Gospel, Acts, and the letters, we see women serving and proclaiming the Good News in wonderful ways. Still today the truth is that Jesus equips and sends all His sisters and brothers of all ages and cultures to do His work that enfolds everyone regardless of gender, age, and culture.

Jesus is raised from the dead and now reigns over all. This fills me with joy. It also sends me and all Jesus’ followers on a mission. The command “Go and tell” is for each of us. That’s joy and the mission of this resurrection and ascension season.

Losing Jesus

Epiphany starts today. The liturgical season of Christmas is officially over.

In another week or two, our family will take down our Christmas decorations. One of our favorite pieces is our Precious Moments nativity display. Each November we carefully unpack it from a box we have specifically for it and each January we carefully pack it all back in again.

Our Precious Moments nativity set

As you can see from the picture, baby Jesus is the smallest piece of this set. And baby Jesus is the first piece I look for when I open the box and the last piece I double check to ensure was safely put back in. I mean, it would be sad if we lost a sheep or even the shepherd, but it would be nearly tragic if we lost baby Jesus!

I think there’s a bit of irony in the thought of losing Jesus: As He is fully and holy God, I never need worry whether Jesus will become lost or stray from carrying out His redemptive plan for me. He came at Christmas so that I would never be lost!

So each time I put away the nativity, I give thanks that the care I take in not losing baby Jesus is actually infinitesimal compared to the care He took – as well as the pain He endured and the victory He achieved – to ensure I’m never lost.

Gloria in excelsis Deo!

A Christmas prayer

Lord Jesus Christ,

Your first disciples heard, saw, and touched you. They concluded that you are the very life – the essence – of God. You are eternal life. Yet they never forgot this crucial fact: You are also flesh and blood.

Too easily we lose touch with this reality. Too easily you become a pious name, an abstract idea, a theological term. Too often we talk about you as if you are not present with us. (But though we cannot see you with our eyes, you are near.) Lord, have mercy on us, sinners.

Grant us, Lord Jesus, during this Christmas season, the grace to contemplate you as the Incarnate One. In you, there is no darkness, no sin, no loneliness. You are light.

So we desire this same integrity that you embody in flesh and spirit. As we contemplate you, O God-made-flesh, dry up the roots of our sin and transform our inner lives into the likeness of you.

The Cradle and the Crown - A Regent College Advent Reader edited by G. Richard Thompson, et alAmen.

I slightly adapted this prayer for Advent
written by fellow
Regent College alum Alvin Ung
who suggests praying it in light of 1 John 1:1-2:2.
It appears in
The Cradle and the Crown.

God’s prepositions

…All this took place to fulfill what
the Lord had said through the prophet:
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel”
(which means “God with us”).
– Matthew 1:22-23

In the birth of Jesus, we see God coming in weak and vulnerable human form. God chooses to share our location and condition.
God is with us.

In the death of Jesus, we see God present in suffering human form. God chooses to take our part instead of being our enemy.
God is for us.

In the resurrection and ascension, we see God in victorious human form. In this form, insinuating Himself into the depths of our very being…
God is in us – as the Spirit of Christ.

…Here is what God is really like. He is the God who is with us, the God who is for us, and the God who is in us.

::– –::– –::

Days of Grace through the YearI just had to share this, my daily reading from Days of Grace Through the Year, a book of meditations drawn from the writings of the late Lewis Smedes. It not only connects with Advent-Christmas but with the entire church calendar as it follows the life of Jesus. Casting Crowns beautifully captures these truths about God in their Christmas song “God Is With Us.”

“God Is With Us” by Casting Crowns

What to wear for Advent

As I make my way through this Advent season, a quote shared with me by my retired colleague Dale Vander Veen continues to echo in my mind and resonate in my soul…

Our God, you dressed yourself
in the tattered garments of our human nature,
that we might dress ourselves with
your divine ways.
Help us, therefore, to wear our human frailties
with the dignity and resolve
of those who are the earthly cradles
of the nature of God.

– from Rueben Job & Norman Shawchuck,
A Guide to Prayer for All God’s People