Stop the Hate

Thank you to Ethicsdaily and to the Knoxville News-Sentinel for sharing the love I tried to write about in Using God to Bully.

“At some thoughts one stands perplexed, above all at the sight of human sin, and wonders whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide ‘I will combat it by humble love.’ If you resolve on that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force: it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.”

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, from
The Brothers Karamazov

Sadly, so many today see love not as a strong force for transformation, but as a weakness. Dostoyesky’s words are a helpful reminder that love is more powerful than we realize.

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Being Thankful

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18). Read literally, these admonitions from the Apostle to the church at Thessalonica seem impossible to do.  Given the hardships and difficulties of life, how could anyone expect to rejoice always? With the busyness of life, how is possible for a person to pray constantly? For those situations and events that we wish had never occurred, how do we begin to give thanks in all circumstances?

For some people, these words have led them to believe that Christian faithfulness dictates that they should always be happy, rejoicing in the face of tragedy, and giving thanks in the midst of calamity. Such a reading pushes one to sometimes say what is not truly felt, and to act as if what has happened has not truly happened. While such utterances and actions may provide a temporary respite from the pain of the moment, yet the deeper grief remains untouched. Therefore, it lingers, still hurting and still impacting the life of the one who boldly and bravely tried mightily to rejoice and give thanks.

For some people, these words make no sense and are therefore dismissed, filed away with biblical ideas that are too hard, too irrational, or to impractical to be taken seriously. While such a response may seem the wiser, it leaves unexplored a deeper spiritual reality and richer intimacy with God.

When Paul says to give thanks in all circumstances, the implication is that circumstances are not be the determining factor of one’s thankfulness. If one can be thankful regardless of circumstances, then one’s circumstances are not the deciding factor in whether or not one is thankful. For Paul, giving thanks is something more than a gesture of politeness, good manners, or heartfelt gratitude.  Normally, when we give thanks there is a reason —  our family, our job, our friends. There is someone or something that touches our life in such a way that we express thanksgiving. Yet, Paul seems to point to something more than someone or something for which we are grateful, to a way of being. Be thankful, with or without someone. Be thankful, with or without something. Be thankful, with or without an apparent reason. There is more to giving thanks than our circumstances, whatever they might be, would indicate.

In a similar way, when Paul says “Rejoice always,” I do not think he is suggesting that we ought to rejoice because of this good event or this bad event. Again, the attitude of rejoicing is not determined by the circumstance or situation. Interestingly, one of the ways that the Greek word “Rejoice” was used was as a greeting. It was similar to our “Hello, I am glad to see you.” Perhaps Paul is suggesting that we greet each moment that comes our way with joy. Such joy is not circumstantial or situational, but takes a longer view. Julian of Norwich, 14th century Christian mystic, seems to have understood this sort of joy, “. . . All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

The gratitude and joy that Paul speaks of are the fruits of a prayerful life. Prayer is central for the follower of Christ. It is the oxygen of living a daily Christian life. For Paul it cannot be relegated to a particular time of day, it must be a constant. This does not mean that all activity stops and the believer does nothing except pray. It does mean that everything the believer does can become prayer, a mindfulness of the presence of God, and of being in that presence. Rejoicing and thanksgiving are rooted in such mindfulness.

With joy and thanksgiving for the way God has made us God’s own, we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. We have much for which to be thankful, but nothing more so than the reality that God has come to us and made us children of God. Everything is different because of what God has done in Jesus Christ. This Advent, as we remember God first coming to us, and how radically changed the world is because God did come, we are going to ask the question: What if the birth of Christ could change the world again? Is it possible for the joy and gratitude that we have experienced in Christ to impact the world in a way that makes a difference in the lives of people? Let’s conspire together and see what God will do.

“THX THO”

I was the only kid in school with a Buffalo Bills Jacket.  Santa Claus had brought it to me for Christmas.  Living in East Tennessee long before the Oilers moved to Nashville, Atlanta was the closest NFL team.  I decided at some point to be a Bills fan because of O.J. Simpson.  Yes, that O.J. Simpson.  I was young and so was he, but I loved to watch him run the ball.  I could have chosen the Dolphins, the Steelers or even the Cowboys. Those teams were all winning games and championships when I was a young; but I chose the Bills.

This past Sunday, the Bills lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, in part because Steve Johnson dropped a pass that would have been a touchdown.  He actually dropped five passes during the course of the game, but the one that hurt Steve Johnson the most is the one that would have given the Bills the victory.  After the game, he tweeted this, “I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO…”  This was a lament if there ever was one.  It was written in all capital letters.  That means he was “SHOUTING” in the world of text/chat/twitter communications.  Literally, he was crying out to God, God who he praises 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Steve Johnson is not just a Buffalo Bill, but also a believer.

His next phrase, “AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!!,” is the one that have led many observers of professional football to conclude that Johnson blamed God for the dropped ball that would have won the game.  Maybe that is what he did, but there is blame, and then there is blame.  I could imagine how expressing frustration, or disappointment, or even heartache could sound like blame.  To be certain, Johnson’s heart was aching as he left the postgame interview with tears in his eyes, walking out into a blustery Buffalo day, dressed in gym shorts and a sleeveless shirt. God gets blamed for a lot of things that God should not be blamed for; but God is big enough to handle one of God’s own expressing hurt and anguish.  In fact, if all of God’s creation cried out in lament, God could handle it.  No, God does not care about the outcome of the game, but God does care about the people who play the game.  Regardless of how they are playing or how they are feeling, God cares.  Whether players are praising, blaming or crying out in frustration, God cares.  Just like God cares when those of us who are not professional football players praise, blame, or cry out in frustration.

God always desires, more than anything else, to be in an intimate love relationship with each and every person that God has created.  Being in that sort of relationship with God, or striving to be in that sort of relationship with God, does not shield us from disappointment, from failure, or from dropped balls.  We can be smack in the middle of the best relationship with God that we could possibly have and still experience difficult challenges and heartbreaking defeats.  That may be one of the lessons Steve Johnson learned from his game against the Steelers.  At least, I hope that it is.

The last thing that Johnson said in his Tweeter post, “THX THO,” which is short for “thanks though,” makes me think that he may have already learned that lesson.  That Johnson, on what well might have been the most disappointing day of his professional life, could find it within himself to thank God anyway, speaks volumes about his understanding of God and life.  In it, I hear echoes of I Thessalonians 5:16-18 “Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  To Steve Johnson, best wishes and good luck for the rest of this season, as well as future ones; and thanks for reminding us to give thanks even on the hard days.

A Hungry Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  The memories of long ago gatherings of family, food, and football at my grandparents’ house are some of my fondest.  These days we go to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving, trying to give to our children their own memories. This year, we are breaking our tradition of frying the turkey.  My brother-in-law wants to try to smoke it.  I feel a new memory in the making.

Recalling fond memories and making new ones is not all that makes Thanksgiving my favorite holiday.  In fact, memories take second place to the reminder that Thanksgiving gives to us to be, well, thankful.  While every day is filled with opportunities to give thanks, this holiday gives us a chance to slow down and take a whole day to reflect and be grateful.  Nurturing gratitude in our lives moves us toward a more mature walk with the Lord.  Gratitude in the face of adversity often indicates a life that is resting in God’s grace.

Some of you may remember me telling the story that my Uncle John told of my grandmother making biscuits and gravy with water and flour for supper when he was a boy.  She did that because that was all that she had to put on the table.  He will always remember that time, and I will always remember his telling of it.  For me, it is a story, not a memory.  I have no memory of times being that hard.

When I think of Thanksgiving, I recall that story.  Rather, it comes to me, not as if I have to exert any effort to think of it.  When I think of things I am thankful for, I cannot help but be grateful that the biscuits I ate at grandmother’s table were always made with milk — buttermilk if she had it — and she often did.   Even more so, I am grateful that my children do not have such memories.

Not all children are so fortunate.  A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study showed that a record number of families had difficulty obtaining sufficient food at some time last year.  The number of people living in U.S. households that lacked consistent access to adequate nutrition rose to 49 million people in 2008.  That is 13 million more than in 2007.

On a global scale, the number of hungry people is staggering. The United Nations reports that more than a billion people face starvation.  That number represents an increase of about 100 million people over last year.

In the face of such need, I am grateful not just for the basic blessing of food and shelter, but also for the many people and organizations who work every day to alleviate the suffering caused by hunger and hunger-related illnesses.  Many of those people and organizations are motivated by their commitment to Jesus Christ and His teachings.  Some of those people are missionaries that we support in this country and around the world.  They do what they do as an expression of their faith in and dedication to the life and teachings of the One who said, “When you have done it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters you have done it unto to me.”

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to remember and to be grateful.  It is also a perfect time for followers of Christ to recommit themselves to living, giving, and following so that the least of these might also have reason to be thankful.