The Habit of Thankfulness

I know that I don't stay thankful enough. Gratitude, it seems, is a lifestyle. It's not a one-time, check the checkbox and move on, kind of thing. The joy and peace that come from gratitude, that you see in the writings of people like Ann Voskamp, doesn't come from occasional thankfulness. If you can't muster up the discipline to thank God every moment, or even every hour, is it really so hard to find one time a day to stop for a minute and thank Him for as many things and people as you can think of?

How can you remind yourself to stop, just once a day, and express your gratitude? Is it really so hard? Is there a downside to it?

Give it a try.

Ignorance

Some people experience God in ignorance. They are already experiencing God, but they don't realize it, they don't recognize Him. They have other ways of conceptually structuring their experience, to explain what happens within them as well as in the external world.

But in my experience, no other worldview explains so much of existence, so much of reality, as well as orthodox Christianity. This is one of the main reasons I remain a Christian: I can make better sense of the world through the holistic understanding provided by a thoroughgoing belief and practice of the Christian worldview. That doesn't mean that I have all the answers; but I am left with fewer huge questions unanswered with that than I am with any secular worldview.

As I understand things, my experience of God is not guided by an ignorance of His character, but by real knowledge of His reality. I pray that this understanding, this awareness, of the presence and activity of the living God will also fill you, and displace the emptiness of ignorance.

Inseparable

My history has taught me first to see the world, the natural world, through the lens of physics and science. It has seemed a cosmic machine, mechanically acting, particles and waves and matter and energy all moving like the ultimate Rube Goldberg invention. The next level out of this atheistic vision was seeing God as the one who started it all, the deist's vision of the universe.

But in recent years I've come to see that God is the one persisting all things in existence. There is no separation between this aspect of reality, God behind and beneath it all,  and the mechanical events happening within Creation.  They are indeed woven together as one reality.

The next level is seeing, understanding, all of that as woven together with the character of God, especially as seen in Jesus. When you see a Picasso painting, whatever stories you've heard about the artist's character and personality and history are intimately woven into the experience you have in seeing and making sense of the painting. Similarly, when we see Creation, we should also bring into our experience the full knowledge of Who is behind it, now and throughout all of history. Really woven, really intimately, in a way such that you can't separate the mechanical from the spiritual, maybe like you couldn't separate the working of baking powder and flour and the other ingredients that make pancakes rise and cook the way they do from your experience of having someone you love make those pancakes just for you, just the way you like them. The point being, of course, not that you get what you want, like ordering pancakes from somebody who makes them to fulfill your desires, but that the love of that person for you is woven together inseparably with the mechanical things that are happening within the means that they choose to use to express their love for you.

Love. That's the one concept that's really powerful. The one particular aspect of God‘s character and nature that was the first foot in the door for these ideas for me, so to speak, was and is love.

These thoughts started as I was sitting quietly in my car, waiting for the engine to warm up, in my garage. I saw the light of sunrise coming from behind me, over my car, against the garage back wall in front of me. I saw the waves of heat and cold mixing together in that sunlight against the back of the garage.

Now I am driving to work. And I’m reciting and reinforcing these ideas in my head as I look around at what I see. So even if you see the highway signs as this artificial, manmade blight on the holy vision of natural beauty, they are still within the universe that God created and sustains and allows action within. One of the great challenges, at least for me at this point in my life, is to hold onto, to retain, a rich understanding of God‘s character even as I look at His creation, even as I see evidence of the fallenness of creation.

It also occurs to me that this should be one of our primary goals for the education of our children: to see the mechanical actions of creation as inseparable from the character of the one who created and is still creating. For example, to imagine the concentration camps of World War II Germany, or the horrific conditions that exist at this moment in North Korea, and to still see a loving God, THE only living and true, loving God, as inseparable from those horrible pictures and scenarios, and yet still see God as loving, and see those things as horrible, all in the same picture.

And this is only part of the challenge before us.

Difficult and Wonderful

Years ago, back when I was single, a married couple around my age said something I never forgot. They had been married a short time, maybe a year. And one of them used a quote from someone else to describe that year. I remember the quote as, "It was the most difficult and the most wonderful year I've ever been through."

I keep remembering that because life in general keeps being like that. Some periods (like our early marriage) have been more wonderful than difficult. Other aspects (like parenting) have been more difficult. But there's always been that mixture, rather inseparable, of the stuff I was thrilled to see in my life, and the challenges that I never asked for, but were firmly attached to the first category.

The Wealthy With You

You will always have the wealthy with you.

There will always be those who do financially well within a particular economic system. A few will find ways to succeed no matter what the system. Others succeed only because they match up well with a particular system in a particular time. And as the system changes, or the person moves to a different society with a different system, their economic fortunes may rise or fall.

Degrees of economic inequality will rise and fall. Tweak or change the system and the inequality will rise or fall. But it never disappears. As long as wealth exists, there will always be wealthy people.

And even the population of who is poor and who is wealthy changes. Not all the poor stay poor, and not all those born wealthy stay wealthy.

None of this should be taken fatalistically, as though there's no point in trying to help the poor, as though we shouldn't make care for the poor a central goal of any civilized society. But neither can we avoid these realities. No set of policies will eliminate poverty. No government action will result in economic equality, or even near-equality.

The answer is not in what the government does. What it does will have an effect on society, of course. It can be more helpful or less helpful. The key, in my view, is on what is happening in the rest of society. You could have a critical mass among politicians and policy wonks that came up with the best policies a government could have to reduce poverty. But if there's no similar critical mass among the population as a whole, government action won't make a significant sent in the problem.

So go ahead, have wealthy people. But if they don't care about others, don't care about the poor, they won't be part of the real solution, and the problem will persist. And the government can create every conceivable safety net for the poor, craft every possible policy to give them a hand up instead of a handout. But if the poor are similarly self-oriented, and don't see a reason for self-improvement, you won't see a significant dent in solving poverty.

The poor and the wealthy you will always have with you. They are your neighbors. Love them. Show them the consistent, creative love of God, and (within limits) what the government does won't be that important.

...Always at Work

"God is always at work.”

That sentence is the Rosetta Stone for me between the Baptists and the Jesuits, between Henry Blackaby's Experiencing God and Ignatius of Loyola's 14 Rules for Discernment of Spirits (as well as much other Ignatian/Jesuit theology).

The first reality of the Bible study "Experiencing God" states, "God is always at work around you.” Later in the study, Blackaby discusses how when you see God at work, that in itself is an invitation for you to join Him.  Your ability to see how and where God is at work in the world is not a matter of you, the observer, being at the right place at the right time, witnessing something by accident. God reveals His work to you, and thereby invites you to join Him.

In an article on the British Jesuit site, Thinking Faith, the author says, "the story of the Tower of Babel might have a good deal to say in our multi-cultural society about the ‘common good’, which is sometimes attained despite our bad decisions and misguided choices; God is always at work to make things better, even when we pursue our own selfish interests. The trick for us is to see where the divine invitation is beckoning us, today.”

You remember the classic drawing that could, if you looked at it one way, be an old woman, or looked at another way, could be a beautiful young woman?  That image comes to mind when I think about how to look for God working around me, and in the world at large.  I have some sympathy towards those who look around them and at the world and see nothing of God.  Instead of elegance and beauty in the drawing, they only see the old and ugly.

But the very same life, the very same world, looked at through the very same eyes, can be interpreted 180 degrees in the other direction.  With different assumptions about what “should” be, we can realize just how amazingly, endlessly active God is today. I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, where she learns joy, learns to see God's work, from practicing gratitude for all that she sees around her, the ugly and the beautiful.  And she is not alone in the centuries of Christian doctrine and practice: gratitude is at the center of opening your eyes to see God’s work in the world.

There is remarkable agreement among the various branches of Christianity that God is always, even now, at work.  There is also agreement about the powerful, central role that continual thankfulness plays in tuning our eyes to see the divine work, and through that looking for the ways we might join Him in His beautiful, joyful work.  You probably won't see any burning bushes today, but perhaps, by practicing thankfulness, and keeping your eyes open, you might catch a glimpse of God's next invitation for you to join Him.

Healing, Faith, and "the Last Mile"

  • Your taking of the antibiotics has made you well.
  • Your faith has made you well.

We sometimes stumble on the second statement, perhaps seeing it as claiming that the healed one could take credit for the entire power and process of healing. The first statement, though, is easy for us to make sense of. We know that no one today would take credit for inventing, manufacturing, marketing, prescribing, and/or selling the medicines that made them well. But they might deserve an ounce of credit for taking them on time, or in the proper manner. Similarly, maybe people in first century Palestine, or at least Jesus, would have known that the claim about the power of faith was not meant to be taken as referring to all the power and process necessary for healing, but instead just the "last mile," the last part of the process necessary for the healing to arrive at the person being healed.

The Wise Know Their Whys

As my children grow older, they (and I) are learning that I don’t like to be forced into making an unnecessarily rushed decision.  Sometimes we’re forced by circumstances to make important decisions.  I get that, I accept it.  But if they want something, like ice cream, or staying up late to watch something, and I haven’t had a chance to discuss it with my wife, their mother, or at least to stop a few beats to think about it, I’m likely to just say No.

I came up with a phrase to help explain the way I prefer to handle decisions.  I want to make wise decisions, and the wise know their whys.  I don’t want to just spit out an answer to them, I want it to be a good answer, and to have good reasons supporting it.  And unless there are serious, negative consequences to waiting, I will say no before I will be rushed into a decision.

I know that they are watching, and remembering, the decisions we make.  On top of wanting to make wise decisions, I want to model making wise decisions.  Hopefully I embody that more than I embody the negative alternatives.

...Punishment After the Sin

Once we've given in to temptation, the tempter immediately changes "sides."  Before the sin, the tempter does everything to make the sin look appealing.  But once you've acted on that temptation, once that sin is locked into your history, he earns his title of "the accuser."  He does everything he can to help you see how wrong that decision was, to make you feel how dirty and disgusting you have become because of your action.

He wants to steal your joy.  Getting you to hack away at your innocence moves you away from joy.  He wants to steal your hope.  Reminding you of the lowness of your sin helps you believe that the door has been shut on a better future.  He wants to steal your awareness of the love God and others have for you.  He fills your mind with example after example of people having their sins exposed, and thereby being abandoned by their friends and family.

Just like during the temptation, he wants us to forget that alternatives even exist.  He doesn't want us to be reminded of God's forgiveness, of God's ever-presence. He wants all mention of God's unending love for us to be held far away.  He exaggerates every negative possibility that might even remotely be caused by our sinful action.  And he wants us to believe we are powerless against doing the same thing over and over again, for our identity to be wrapped up, woven together with, this and other sins.

But God does love us, even after we've committed heinous crimes.  His mercies are new every morning (and it's always morning somewhere :-).  We can't always escape the practical consequences of our actions.  But God does not abandon us.  Turn to Him, and away from the deceptive, degrading, depressive lies of the enemy.

Ignorance Before the Sin...

When you are tempted to sin, one of the counter measures that God uses to try and stop you from acting on the temptation is to show you all the negative consequences that will follow your committing that sin. The enemy, in contrast, doesn’t want you to have any awareness at all of any negative consequences that would follow if you give in to the temptation. If you have any thought whatsoever that there’s a possibility of a particular negative consequence to taking a certain action, that is one more barrier, one more hurdle that the tempter has to surpass. He would much rather you simply focus on some imagined good consequence that you become convinced will result from taking the action he is tempting you to take.

For example, there are many sins we are tempted to give into that would result in the people who know of us having a lower opinion of us. In short, if we do these things, and people find out (as so often happens), then our reputation will be ruined. But we often don’t think about such negative consequences when we are in the throes of being tempted. As we imagine the positive consequences that we believe, in the moment, will result from taking this or that action, it’s easy to gloss over or never even consider the possibility that there could be real negative consequences to the considered action.

Live in the Tension

I was reading Matthew 25, and was struck by how unkind and non-generous Jesus sounds here. The foolish bridesmaids get left outside of the feast. The servant who took no risks and played it safe gets thrown into outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. The goats get sent into eternal fire with the devil and his angels. This isn't Jesus Meek and Mild. This is serious talk of real judgment.

So how are we supposed to resolve the Prince of Peace with eternal judgment and punishment? To be honest, at the moment I'm not sure. But I don't buy the idea that says we can pick and choose what we want to strip from scripture, just so it smooths out our own ruffled feathers and pet explanations

With situations like this, I want to enter into the mystery offered here. I want to believe that there is some way of understanding reality that satisfies the powerful love, grace, and mercy of Jesus and, at the same time, also includes the pictures of an ultimate end, a final judgment. But instead of conveniently ignoring one side or the other of the mystery to get to the solution via shortcuts, I want to live in that tension that usually arises with such scenarios. In my opinion, we only find the truth when we can get past our discomfort and live in the tensions that arise instead of looking for "cheap" and convenient ways of resolving the tension.

Honor and Dignity

Do you care about dignity? Would you ever allow yourself to be dignified?

What role does honor play in your life? Do you ever make a priority of being honorable?

I feel like when I grew up in the 70's, I witnessed the end of generations for whom honor and dignity and duty might have meant something. There seemed to broadly be social pressure to live honorably, to be upright, honest, and hard-working, among the older people I knew growing up.

But the culture at large pushed away from all that, in favor of spontaneous expression and greater opportunity to say, wear, and do anything that anyone felt like.

I want to steer my children, and influence culture in my small corner of the world, toward honor and dignity. I hope I can someday be known as a man both honorable and dignified. I hope I don't let down anyone who already sees me that way.

The Importance of Why

If people don't have a real understanding of the deeper reasons why they should do something, they will push back against anyone who says they should do it. For a couple of examples, take traditional marriage and paying taxes.  There are many people who believe that one or the other (or in some cases both) is a waste of time.

Some may believe that traditional marriage is based solely on patriarchalism and oppressive ideas about some people being worth more than others. The good things that they think marriage is supposed to bring are more easily and justly obtained through other arrangements and agreements. They are happy to see declining rates of participation in marriage among society as a whole.

Some believe that taxes are a way for established interests to steal money that rightfully belongs to individuals. They believe that money paid to the government is completely or largely wasted. They certainly see no moral obligation to paying taxes, or at least to paying all their taxes. They would be thrilled to see their taxes go down and down and down.

But in both cases, participation in these social institutions would be greatly helped by the participants or potential participants understanding the best arguments, the most powerful classic and contemporary reasons, why we should give them our participation, respect, and even defense. In their (or our) ignorance of these reasons, we may do damage to such institutions as these, and thereby to the vulnerable people that social institutions are (at their best) designed to protect.

"Building Bridges"

Anyone involved with national politics these days who says they want to build bridges with the other side is probably lying. Conventional wisdom these days says they can't build support for their own purposes by painting the most accurate possible picture of the opposition. Public figures today build their support by demeaning, dehumanizing, and demonizing their opponents. Assuming our age continues to get more polarized, no politician will be rewarded with donations or votes by painting the enemy in any light but the most unflattering one. I'm sure it's possible to go too far in dehumanizing one's opponents, with the consequence that one's supporters or potential supporters will turn away. But the threshold for that kind of thing has changed dramatically from decades past. With significantly lowered standards of decency and dignity, national politicians sadly seem to have little to lose by going really negative on their opponents. 

Autonomy and the Poor

The glorification of autonomy disfavors the vulnerable, the poor, those without social, financial, or other resources to survive the negative consequences of their and others' mistakes.  The bonds of community are meant to help the weak and vulnerable ride out the storms of a fallen world. But if we build and support a society where autonomy is continually celebrated, the "least of these" will be expected to make it on their own when, in many cases, they just can't.