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!


Beatitudes and anti-beatitudes


I was rereading Jesus’ beatitudes the other day as well as looking what others have written about them.  In his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, Michael J. Wilkins has this chart that contrasts the blessings Jesus gives against the counter-values of our culture.  Repenting of when I blindly pursue the attitudes on the left and celebrating the Spirit’s work of producing the virtues on the right, this little chart certainly got my attention…

Our culture values… Jesus blesses…
self-confidence, self-reliance the poor in spirit
pleasure-seeking, hedonism,
“the beautiful people”
those who mourn
pride, power, importance the meek
satisfaction in stuff, practicality,
being “well adjusted”
those who hunger and thirst
for righteousness
self-righteousness, looking out
for myself
the merciful
“adult” content, broadmindedness the pure in heart
competitiveness, aggression the peacemakers
adaptability, popularity those who are persecuted
because of righteousness

From Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p. 220. Wilkins first found this in L.O. Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1987), p. 541.
Word art from Blogthechurch.


Last year I posted this video, “What If Starbucks Marketed Like a Church?”

It made me squirm uncomfortably.  How many things does the church – do I – do that unnecessarily alienates people rather than welcomes and enfolds them?  This movie clip challenges me to make God and church accessible and relevant.

Unfortunately, the temptation is to become so relevant to the culture that the church’s identity is compromised.  Kevin Flatt recently wrote an article in Christian Courier that counters the advice churches explicitly and implicitly receive to accommodate to cultural and/or other pressures lest they die in obscurity.  Based on his research into various traditions, he concludes:

Not only does accommodation fail to save churches, it hurries the very decline that it is supposed to prevent.  A growing body of sociological and historical research into church membership and commitment over the past 50 years has concluded that the strongest churches are those that are serious about what they believe, maintain clear boundaries [against false teaching], and expect sacrifice from their members.  Churches that water down their beliefs and lower their standards lose members. (Flatt’s article appears in the 23 Aug 2010 issue, p. 2)

David F. Wells echoes this in his book The Courage to Be Protestant, arguing that becoming too relevant to the culture may make us irrelevant to God!  In an article in The New York Times, this quote from Wells appears:

The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations.  What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God…

The further irony is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.

I wonder: What are things we do as church in an attempt to be relevant that actually undermines our identity and mission?  What things appear irrelevant or unintelligible to people on the outside but are nevertheless simply part of who – and whose – we are?  I’ve heard of churches that do away with calling people to confess their sins because talking about sin makes them uncomfortable.  Old hymns have been put aside to make way for upbeat contemporary songs, even though many of the hymns are more theologically sound.  It’s tempting for preachers to avoid parts of Scripture that may sound politically incorrect.

In some of these ways, we may simply have to choose to appear irrelevant: Confess our sins (and receive the assurance of God’s forgiveness!); choose songs on criteria other than their popularity; preach both the comforting and challenging parts of the Bible.  Having said this, however, we cannot create an environment where irrelevance is pursued as a virtue in and of itself (as is parodied in the coffee shop video clip).  Irrelevance should not be a goal, though sometimes it may be a result of obedience to God’s Word and Spirit.

I guess it feels a bit like a tightrope for me.  I want to make the Gospel appealing – a “pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.”  But I cannot make it so pleasing, so relevant that people can’t tell the difference between it and everything else with which our culture entices them.

Do you have any thoughts or success stories about balancing on this tightrope?

Mixed messages

A while back, someone left this behind after GEMS.  Instead recycling it, I filed it, and it came to mind again today.

The original exercise was to cut up each of the messages below, crumple them up, and randomly distribute them to people in the group.  Then the group participants decide whether the message is true or false – true messages get placed on a Bible, false messages on a stack of teen magazines.  Group participants are also invited to write down three of their own true or false statements to add to the mix.

Messages that get placed
on the magazines…

Messages that get placed
on the Bible…

You need smooth-as-silk skin to be beautiful. You need a pure and loving heart to be beautiful.
You deserve anything you want. Jesus is all you need.  He is your all in all!
You need to learn what the popular kids care about first. You need to learn what Jesus cares about first.
To be in, you have to be thin. You are beautifully and wonderfully made.
Cool kids wear expensive, trendy clothes. God’s kids clothe themselves in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Being popular and rich are the most important things in life. Loving Jesus and others are the most important things in life.
Read your horoscope to learn how to live. Read your Bible to learn how to live.
You’ll never fit in or belong. You have a place to belong forever when you say ‘yes’ to Jesus.

The exercise ended with choosing between these two questions:

A. Do you care more about what people think about you – what’s popular in teen magazines and with your friends?

B. Do you care more about what Jesus thinks about you – the truth that is found in the Bible?