Thankfulness

I have just finished writing in a spiral notebook that I have entitled “Thankfulness Items/ Daily Thankfulness.” It’s nothing special. It’s just a notebook where, in the past, I have tried to write a small bullet point every day detailing something I am thankful for. There are notes in this book stretching back over a year, but for the last few months I have found it more difficult to have this very simple moment of thankfulness for the day I have just experienced. The last time I wrote in this thing was three months ago. I was just too busy.

That is to say, I didn’t make the time. Every so often, I get into this mindset that I am a victim of my schedule, of my circumstances, of my indiscipline. But I think it’s more honest to say that sometimes, my priorities get out-of-whack. There’s no guilt in that for me, at least not the weight of guilt and shame. It makes me think of the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years. Even when they had God’s ongoing provision and miraculous presence with them, they still occasionally grumbled and complained and forgot to be thankful for what was right in front of them. I know that at certain points in the past, I thought that was extraordinary. In truth, for the sake of my feelings on thankfulness, the Israelites are like us. I’m not fundamentally different than those people. I too struggle sometimes to be thankful, even in spite of God’s activity in my life and the lives of others.

I don’t really have any other specific thoughts to share today. Just remember to be thankful, in whatever way that works best for you. I do recommend having pencil and paper where you can write down what you are thankful for; there’s something much more concrete and contemplative for me about writing vs. typing something into a computer. But if a computer works better for you, go for it. Just take the time to be thankful.

Generosity in the Life of Stuart Scott

As I sit and watch a playoff game in the National Football League, I find myself thinking about something that I heard earlier this week. It was a major event in the world of sports that Stuart Scott, an analyst for the sports network ESPN, passed away last weekend.

Thoughts and memories go out to the family, friends, and colleagues of Stuart Scott, a man with a generous reputation.

Now, I’m no sports junkie. I enjoy watching American Football and there’s one sports radio show I listen to. That’s about the extent of my interest in sports. So, when I heard that Stuart Scott has passed away, I had no idea who that was or what he had done. It was only in the course of hearing about him through his colleagues that I learned about him.

There was something that was said about him that has stuck with me. Cari Champion, a television personality, spoke in memory of Stuart Scott. After she started at ESPN, he would send her text messages of encouragement to her, timely messages that would lift her up at critical moments when she needed them. It was until she was telling this that some of the other anchors with which she was talking said, “He did the same thing for all of us.” It was then that Cari Champion used a particular word to describe Mr. Scott: she called him a generous man.

Now, generosity is a powerful word to me. It is something that I would like to write about more sometime soon, but I believe that generosity is one of the clearest marks of a person who is trying to follow Jesus. When I read the Bible, I see that the God of the Bible is a generous God. He created the entire universe, and he created it extravagantly! There is a mind-boggling number of stars in the universe that we have discovered, and as far as we can tell, there’s many more. When mankind rejected him, God spared no expense – not even his son – to create a new way in which we can come to know him. That is extraordinary generosity.

Now, when most people think of generosity, they think of financial generosity. And that is important. However, I think that generosity extends beyond what you do with your money into the areas of how you approach your relationships with others, how you treat others, how easily you forgive those who hurt you, and more.

I guess this sticks with me because I’ve become one of those task-oriented people. I have to-do lists for my to-do lists. I like setting goals, and then meeting them. I also recognize the danger in that, because it is easy to get so caught up in getting things done that I put people – friends, family, and others – in second place, and the Bible makes it clear that loving God and loving people is at the heart of following Jesus (Mark 12:30-31), not getting stuff done. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting stuff done, but there has to come a point where people come before our to-do lists.

Now, I do not care to speculate on Stuart Scott’s faith or lack thereof. Like I said, I didn’t even know who he was until I heard that he had passed away. I just find that as I consider my way of living and loving those who am I closest to, I am challenged to greater generosity by Stuart Scott: greater encouragement, greater selflessness, greater kindness.

What God Sees in You

So after a long, unintentional hiatus, I find myself writing a new post for this blog. Part of it is the New Year; I really enjoyed the short amount of time when I was regularly writing for this blog, and starting this year I would like to get back into it for various reasons.

One large reason for me in particular is that I am going to be leading a Bible study with my local church, sort of. It’s a responsibility, a leadership position. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I need to be the one who talks all the time, but it does mean that in some form or fashion, people are going to be looking to me in various ways for various things. And that scares me in some way.

Now, as I have spoken with friends and family, they’ve reassured me that I’ll do a great job. I’ve seen some of those short sayings like, “You are never too small for God to use you,” and “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.” Yet there is something about these interactions that I have not found fulfilling. They don’t really answer the thoughts of my heart and soul.

So, as I was thinking about all of this, my mind happened on the story of Gideon, found in Judges 6. When the angel appears to Gideon, he is beating wheat in the winepress because the Midianites are stealing food from Israel so that there isn’t enough food to eat. In other words, Gideon is either hiding or has been hidden away. Based on that alone, he appears either a weakling or a coward.

Then, when the angel of the Lord appears to him, he says, “The Lord is with you, o mighty man of valor!” (v. 12) Gideon protests the first part of that statement by asking how it’s possible for God to be with Israel when they are being starved by their enemy, but the part that I clue in on is the second part. The angel of the Lord called Gideon a mighty man of valor, i.e. a strong and courageous person, at a point when there has been no evidence of such traits in Gideon. If anything, he looks like a weakling at best, a coward at worst.

So why did the angel say this? Because God knew what Gideon was going to become, because God knew what Gideon had the capacity to become. And the same is true for those who are trying to follow Jesus: God knows who we are and he knows who we can become. I think that oftentimes, when I read that God knows me better than I know myself, I’m intimidated by that because, well, I know that there’s sin in my life that even I haven’t noticed…but I often forget that this also applies to the good in us.

This, I think, is a deep and profound truth. God declared Gideon to be a mighty man of valor, even though on the surface Gideon wasn’t that person. But God knew what was in Gideon, and he knew that Gideon could and would become that mighty man of valor who would lead God’s people. The same is true for you. God knows the good you can do and the person you can become. Not only has he put good things in you, but if you are trying to follow Jesus and have his Spirit within you, He is in you. We can’t just allow ourselves to say, “I can’t do this; I don’t have it in me.” If the Spirit of God is in you, then you will always have it in you.

Now, what that looks like may depend on who you are and what your challenge is. God’s power in your life may be that you have the humility to ask someone for help with a serious fear you have. It might be wisdom to ask the right questions as you try to make a life-changing decision. It might be nothing more than confidence and contentment through a dark and stormy season of life. It might be the strength to triumph over things that have chained you.

Whatever your situation, I think it is really easy to fall into the trap of feeling like life has presented you with a challenge that you cannot face alone. In a way, this is true: I believe that at some point, everyone hits a problem they can’t face alone. But if you are following Jesus, you aren’t alone. You are with Jesus. And guess what: he forgives us and, instead of seeing the sins we’ve committed, he sees who we can become if we walk by faith. The question is, will we trust him?

Proverbs: On Being an Idiot

Whoever heeds discipline shows the way to life,
    but whoever ignores correction leads others astray.

–Proverbs 10:17

–Said no one ever.

Nobody likes being corrected. Not even me, and I’ve had a reputation most of my life of being the “teacher’s kid,” the “good guy.” I hate having to be corrected. When I was young, I remember having to be corrected often and every now and then, I remember wanting to do exactly what I was being told not to do. Whatever I was being told to do, I wanted to do the opposite. You could call it rebellion, defiance or being obstinate, whichever you prefer.

The fact is, I am an idiot. There is a strong chord in me that would rather not be corrected when I’m doing something wrong. It hurts my ego, which would prefer to be told how wonderful I am and how everything I do is perfect. I think I’m in good company. This is a personal opinion, but I believe that we in the United States are actually encouraged to hate those who wield authority because they have the power to correct us.

Coming against my stupidity is wisdom, which says that those who heed discipline – those who learn to listen to correction – lead a better life. Taken in stride, correction can lead you in a better direction. Correction from your parents (assuming they are teaching you right from wrong) can help you become a better student, a better adult in the making. Correction from a police officer can teach you to drive slower and get fewer speeding tickets. Correction from teachers can not only help you get better grades, but it can actually set you up to learn more. Correction can be a good thing if you respond well to it.

Now, it is crucial to point out that you have the power to decide what to do when you are corrected. You can either listen and respond positively, or you can refuse to listen. When you refuse to listen to correction…well, you see where this is going. Most of us will work with someone at a job who is like this. They keep doing the same things wrong and no matter who tries to help them – even if it’s their manager – they refuse to listen. This proverb basically adds, “Not only do they keep doing the wrong thing, they actually encourage others to do the same!”

No one likes correction, but we all have the power to respond to correction from others. So, how will we respond?

Spiritual Disciplines: What’s the Point?

As much as I joke in the presence of my friends and family about being old, I know that I’m really young. On the grand scale of life, I’ve only been an adult for a moment. As I am maturing, I am still learning a powerful principle of life: how you spend your time is a reflection of what’s important to you. If you can frequently be found in a gymnasium, people just might get the impression that health is important to you. If you spend a lot of time a work, that’s probably something that’s important to you. There might be other motives at work, but what you do still says a lot about who you are.

Why do people trying to follow Jesus end up coming to churches, reading the Bible and other things?

For those who are not trying to follow Jesus, I’m sure that we who are trying to follow Jesus might seem a bit odd in how we spend our time. We go to this thing simple known as “church,” and sometimes we do it in spite of everything else we need to do. There are some people who believe that following Jesus means that they shouldn’t do any work on Sunday, which probably seems really odd to those outside of faith. Then, we’re supposed to do this thing called “prayer,” where we talk to a divine God about stuff, and then we’re always told that we’re supposed to read this book called the Bible that was supposedly written thousands of years ago so that we could understand this thing called following Jesus. And these are just the beginning of what we Christians call “spiritual disciplines,” which is a big, nebulous word that probably doesn’t sound very self-explanatory.

What’s the point behind these things, behind spiritual disciplines? Well, first of all let’s talk about what spiritual disciplines mean and don’t mean. For example, doing spiritual disciplines does not make you holy, nor will you get to Heaven just because you prayed a prayer or read a book. You can read your Bible everyday while never getting anything out of it. If you are just going through the motions when you read your Bible, you’re missing out. The Bible is very clear on that point. You can read the Bible and not even be a Christian who is trying to follow Jesus. I’d bet that there are a few people out there who enjoy reading the Bible just because of the history or literary aspects of it.

Catholic churches during the Middle Ages used stained glass images to help teach their illiterate congregations the stories of the Bible. That way, they didn’t have to be able to read a Bible in order to understand the Bible’s stories.

However, even if you are a follower of Jesus, you don’t have to read your Bible everyday. Think of this: for the first 1,500 years of the Church’s history, not everyone could read and access to any reading material was very limited. Historically, that’s why the Catholic Church started using images of common Bible stories as teaching tools for their congregation. So, if they had a stained-glass picture of the baby Jesus in the church, any passerby could see that image and be reminded, “Jesus came down to Earth to dwell among us.”

So, the point of reading your Bible – or any spiritual discipline – isn’t to get on God’s good side. The story of Jesus is that God loves you, period. Even if you’ve been a total punk, God just flat loves you. But for most of us, we come to Jesus understanding that much of our life has been spent on useless, selfish things. That’s a fundamental part of sin: sin wastes. God gives all men and women energy, strength, and time to bring good things into the world, to make God’s presence known in the world. When we use those energies on ourselves instead, we are being sinful. We are wasting what God has given us on things that do not have any lasting significance.

So, when you come to the point where you can admit to God that you are a waster – that you have misused the gifts he has given you – then you come the point where you ask God’s forgiveness for your waste and you repent. Repentance is us saying to God, “God, help me to not be a waster anymore. I want my life to matter. I want what I do to count towards something worthwhile.” That is what spiritual disciplines accomplish. By reading your Bible, you start putting God’s words and thoughts into your mind so that they can change you from the inside out. By praying, you start interacting with God and asking him to use you in such a way that the world is a better place.

But the real point of spiritual discipline? Jesus said, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” (John 15:4) Let’s say that someone who was both really famous and also someone you really admired moved in next door to you and they said to you the next day, “Hey, let’s be friends.” As you build a friendship with that person, you start to learn who they are. You learn what makes them laugh, what disappoints them, what angers them and so on. You begin to “remain” with that person so that throughout the day, you hear their voice in your head. Not in a psychic way, but you begin to think to yourself, “Here’s what this person would say to them” or “Here’s how she would respond to that.” That, I think, is the true essence of remaining in Jesus. As you follow Jesus and you remain in him, you begin to think like he thinks, respond how he would respond so that you would begin to look like Jesus in the middle of your boring, mundane life.

And make no mistake, that is what spiritual discipline is all about. It isn’t about getting to Heaven; that’s already taken care of. It isn’t about going through the motions. It isn’t about just becoming a better person, though hopefully if you are committing yourself to Jesus in spiritual disciplines you will start to become a new person. It isn’t even about making a difference in the world, though if you are following Jesus and becoming friends with him you will start to change you world for the better. Spiritual disciplines help you spend time with Jesus. As you do that, you come to know Jesus, and then you start becoming a better person and then you can start changing the world for good.

This is the first in a series of posts that I would like to do where I discuss the whats, wheres and hows the spiritual disciplines.

What is your understanding of spiritual disciplines? If you aren’t a follower of Jesus, is there something in particular that we do that seems odd or weird?

Jude: Contend for Your Faith (Hint: It means more than you think!)

Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.

Jude 3

When I was in high school, I loved studying history, philosophy, theology and a bunch of other “-ologies.” When I got a chance, I would read, debate and discuss God, Jesus, faith and all the rest. I’m not sure if I had read this verse from Jude or not, but if I read this verse I would think, “Absolutely!” I would hardly call it a spiritual gift, but it really felt like that was something I was meant to do. I was a thinker born into a family of thinkers, so it made sense to me.

Now, before I go to the heart of my big idea for today, I want to say that there is something right about that. If you’ve been a follower of Jesus for long, you’ve probably been told that you should “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have…do this with gentleness and respect.” (I Peter 3:15)  If you can pick up a book and study so you can talk with others about Jesus, then by all means do it! If you love doing research and discussing big philosophical and theological ideas with others as a means of introducing them to Jesus, then do it. Be prepared for the moment when someone asks about your faith. Even better, learn to lead conversations toward the subject of Jesus.

Contending for your faith means a lot more than what you think.

However, I want to offer two cautions. When I was younger, I was an active member of an online forum for Christians. There was a debate section in the forum where both Christians and non-Christians could discuss their opposing viewpoints. I was a regular in this forum from time to time because I believed that I was “contending for the faith” by essentially trying to argue non-Christians toward Jesus. You can guess how well that worked. As a high school student, no one really took what I had to say seriously; “just wait a few years until you grow up,” I remember one guy saying. Even more, I began to realize that most of the time the people debating – me, my fellow Christians and non-Christians – weren’t really interested in hearing out someone else’s argument. We just wanted to find the perfect argument, the perfect words that could sway those who didn’t believe as we believed. Eventually I realized that there are no “perfect words” to persuade someone. Besides, most of what we did ended up being the equivalent of yelling our arguments at one another.

I offer that cautionary tale to those of you who are also trying to follow Jesus. There is a time and place to discuss faith. From experience, I’d say that comment sections on Facebook, blogs, news stories, etc. probably aren’t a good place to try to discuss the finer points of theology. I’ve never heard of someone being swayed one way or the other by something someone says on a website, but I’ve talked to plenty of people who have been highly irritated and insulted by those online discussions. Be careful with when, where and (most importantly) how you engage in those discussions.

But there’s another caution I want to give. You see, most people read this verse and they probably feel a little disappointed because they have a very particular idea of what it means to “contend for the faith.” They think of reading, studying, debating, studying some more; in short, intellectual pursuits. If that’s your only picture of contending for the faith you’re missing out on something a lot bigger: you contend for the faith when you follow Jesus to the best of your ability as you are living your life well.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
–I Corinthians 10:31

That doesn’t sound exciting. We like the romantic idea of swaying non-believers by the hundreds and seeing miracles happen – healing of physical ailments, financial provision when it’s needed most, answered prayers. We want to see God’s big miracles and I’m not trashing that! Right now, I’m praying for my high school history teacher and her husband because he has lymphoma. Make no mistake, I’m hoping for a miraculous healing for him and for their family.

(And by the way, if you are trying to follow Jesus, please pray for her and her family. Feel free to check out her blog and follow her family as they walk through this tough season of life.)

What I am suggesting is that God’s miracles – maybe even his better miracles – are in the everyday. Getting through a hard day’s work and having the strength to do everything that needed to be done is a miracle. Taking care of those jelly-faced toddlers without killing them? It’s a miracle. Having a consistently hopeful attitude even in the midst of suffering and confusion? It’s a miracle. Forgiving yourself when you stumble and trusting God to help you get back up? It’s a miracle. Living your everyday life in such a way that others can see something good in you – even if they don’t immediately recognize it’s Jesus – it’s a miracle.

You contend for the faith when you live your life well and do it in such a way that you honor Jesus.

Now, what does that look like for you? I’m not sure; I’m still trying to figure out what that means for me! But I think that that’s part of what it means to try to follow Jesus. Everyone has struggles in life. I believe that with Jesus’ strength, we follow him and honor him as we face our everyday struggles. With Jesus, we can struggle well.

If you are not trying to follow Jesus, what suggestions do you have for us in engaging people who believe differently from us?

If you are trying to follow Jesus, how are you doing in contending for the faith? How can you and I both do better as we try to contend for the faith and live lives that honor Jesus?

Where to, Captain?

So, this is a blog about a guy (me) who is trying to follow Jesus, and I’m hoping that I can share some of that journey with you. What could that involve?

Well, to begin with, I hope to share some thoughts from my personal study time in my Bible and other Christian literature. As someone who’s trying to follow Jesus, I want to do more than just read my Bible; I want to understand it, and I’ve often heard that one of the best ways to learn something is to try teaching it to someone else.

I also try to keep up with current events, so I may once in a while post a response to something going on in the news. If Christ was involved in the world around him – and I believe that he was based on my reading of the Gospels – I believe that those of us trying to follow Him should also be involved in the world.

“You’ve steered us toward philosophical discussions! What’s the matter with you?!”

Though I’m not a theologian, I do also think it will be interesting to take on big questions of faith from time to time: the problem of evil, the sovereignty of God, the divinity of Jesus, etc. I will try to be careful with this because no matter how much I read, think and talk about these subjects from people, I always feel woefully inadequate to really tackle these questions. Even so, Jesus never ran from hard questions and so I’ll do my best not to.

Whatever I’m talking about – be it theology, philosophy, current events, the Bible, Christianity, or Jesus himself – I will always do my best to give authentic responses. Honestly, I have some eclectic opinions and I expect that some of my readers will disagree with me and with one another. That doesn’t mean we’re sick or wrong; it means that we’re different people. A lot of people today think that differences in opinions are a bad thing. I happen to believe that differences in opinion can make us a stronger community if we deal with those differences in a healthy way.

But what about you, the reader? Is there anything that you would like to discuss or hear me talk about on this blog? I doubt I can get to all requests, but I do value the input of my readership. Leave your suggestions in comments. Thanks!