Giving thanks

Twenty years ago, I realized it was about time that I quit making excuses for not being involved in church. I told myself that if anyone asked me to volunteer, I would say “yes.” (Notice that I didn’t start out by actually volunteering for anything.) I told our family we were going to give thanks at every meal, and we would no longer skip church.

Not exactly a great commitment.

But then one thing led to another. I said “yes” to teaching adult bible study; “yes” to being a deacon; and “yes” to being a guest preacher. Then Jana became a certified Christian Educator. Both our sons became serious about their faith; today one is a minister and the other is in seminary. I’ve been a minister now for over ten years.

Giving thanks was life changing.

Most of us had parents who taught us to say, “thank you” when someone did something nice for us. But the Christian faith teaches us to give thanks in all things.

Jesus gave thanks at his Last Supper, knowing he was about to be betrayed. But was only through Jesus’ betrayal and death that the world received the ultimate blessing of resurrection life.

Most polite people know to give thanks after some blessing comes into their life.

But for a follower of Jesus Christ, giving thanks precedes the blessing.

Giving thanks gives us an awareness of the blessings all around us. This Sunday, I’m starting a sermon series on gratitude inspired by Ann Voskamp’s powerful little book, One Thousand Gifts. Starting on September 8th, I’ll be doing a five-week study of the book during the Sunday school hour. Voskamp, a farmer’s wife in Canada, worked through personal tragedies to be able to see God’s blessings in all parts of life. I invite you to join me.

Idol worship

“God created man in his image,” the saying goes, “and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.”

I’m not sure who said it; I’ve seen it attributed to Mark Twain, Voltaire, and others. But whoever said it, it rings true. It seems the one, true God isn’t enough for us, so we create more.

Or we elevate ourselves to the position.

This week I saw on the news that a newly elected councilwoman in Missouri had taken the oath of office on a Dr. Seuss book. And she read this: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”

Look, I like the book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go. We gave it to our kids. I quoted it when I was a colonel in the Air Force speaking to new graduates of Air Force Honor Guard training. It’s fun, and speaks to the opportunities that many people are blessed with in a free country.

But swearing by it?

Can we really steer ourselves any way we choose?

And if we could, would we go in the right direction?

And what happens when we can’t? What happens if we fail? Get lost?

The freedom to steer ourselves is a great thing, but swearing by it takes a great thing and turns it into an ultimate thing.

That’s what an idol is, by the way; a great thing that we make into an ultimate thing.

And when we are the idol, when our god looks mostly like us, we’re in for a letdown. Could we just let God be God?

So with apologies to Dr. Suess…

With God in your heart, you’ll make a great start.

With God’s Spirit to guide you, you’ll know Christ is inside you.

And up hills and down, through thick and through thin,

No matter what happens, God will make you like Him. 

Meeting us in the madness

Pittsburgh was on edge last week, the result of mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, when a man walked up to a woman, stabbed and killed her while she sat at a bus stop. That bus stop is about 150 feet from my study.

In that very moment, a police officer had been checking on the woman, who seemed to be asleep.

The assailant had to reach around the officer to hurt her.

He then stabbed another passer-by before the officer could stop him, without a fight.

The woman who died was known to the downtown churches who had been ministering to her.

She was totally unknown to her assailant.

Mass shootings always set off the debate about gun control. We process our helplessness by raging against politicians we don’t like. We imagine that we can create policies that will stop the madness.

But what policy, what law, could have stopped the madness out on the street here last week?

Late in his career as an evangelist, the Apostle Paul found that God’s Spirit had so filled his work that handkerchiefs and sweat rags that Paul had touched had healing properties. A travelling band of exorcists took note of this power and tried to invoke it. “In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches,” they would say.

The thought of travelling exorcists invoking the name of Jesus for profit is bizarre. What kind of dark humor is this? Why does the Bible give us this image at the climax of Paul’s ministry? I’m not sure, but I do know I feel helpless sometimes. I call out to Jesus, and the call seems so weak, so imperfect, I almost sympathize with the exorcists.

That’s why Jesus had to come, to step into the madness, to do what only he could do.

Come, Lord Jesus. Give us courage as we serve on these streets in your name.