The last few years I have seen my social media celebrating 30 days of Thankfulness throughout the month of Novemeber. I have not seen a single instance of that this year. This year, I have seen it filled with vioence, rioting, name calling, sarcasm, and, on the more positive side, pleas for peace.
Looking back, it has not just been this month either. 2016 has been filled with unrest. In many cases, it seems like we have traded our gratitude for fear. Now that we come to one of the biggest holiday seasons of the year, we find ourselves with too little to celebrate.
Does that sound too naïve? Is it wiser to push aside gratitude to make more room for fear and anger? Do we enjoy freedom more when we use it to push others down? I don't think so. I think we should look back to the beginnings of this holiday and remember that it was two separate groups of people that banned together in peace and cooperation (Here I'm thinking of the generosity of the Native Americans to the Pilgrim colonists). Or perhaps we can remember that it was created as a national holiday following the Civil War, when our nation had been torn apart by incredible violence and strife. I imagine that first national holiday was hard to swallow for many people.
I wish I had good answers for the people of our nation and the chaos we have endured throughout this entire year. I don't understand how thousands can gather to celebrate a baseball team one week and storm the streets in anger and hatred the next. But this much I do know: we will lose our community if we give up our gratitude. Our nation will not split in two - it will simply shatter until it is everyone for themselves. Gratitude is the true food of family and the crux of community and when we lose it, we lose everything.
So this holiday season, what are you grateful for?
“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.”
Psalms 118:1 NLT
Yesterday I made a mistake.
I have been taking Chinese lessons for about a year now, from 3 different teachers, and am progressing painfully slow. It took me 6 months to be able to distinguish between all the Chinese consonants. It took almost another 4 months to be able to hear the tones they use in every word. I'm not a linguist.
But I try. In rehearsing last week's lesson, I tried to get creative and create my own sentence instead of just repeating the phrase in front of me. I tried to say, "I have brothers.", but due to a slight mispronunciation I instead said, "I have God." My teacher had a perplexed look on her face and told me that was not the correct way to say that phrase, that I should say "I believe in God", not "I have God."
I explained I was trying to say "brothers" and not "God" and we had a good laugh. This mistake has stuck with me though. There is a difference between belief and possession. I have brothers. I have sisters. I have a wife. I believe in them as well, but saying I believe in brothers does not mean that I have one myself. I think this is more than just a problem in Chinese linguistics. It is a perspective on what it means to be a human being, what it means to be God, and the kinds of relationships possible between the two.
The Bible itself tells us that we have to do more than believe in God.
So believing in God does necessarily make you good or put you in right standing with God.
The idea of "having" God seems to be a bit of a stretch as well. If God truly is the Creator of everything, certainly he can "have" us as his possessions, but how could we possibly "have" him as well. It all comes down to semantics. In some cases, possession signifies a subject-object relationship, as in. "I have a car.". However, you can also say, "I have a president." while someone else can claim, "I have a king.". This is a change in semantics that does not assume that the president or king does not have a free will of their own, nor does it assume that because you have them, that you are somehow superior to them. Those people are more than their titles.
This is probably best expressed by the fact that most cultures (perhaps all cultures) consider it appropriate for children to refer to their parents by their functional title, not by their actual or chosen names. It doesn't matter how old the parents or children are, it is always more honorable to be called "Mom" than it is to be called "Linda" or "Jessica" by your children. Similarly, if anyone is asked if they "have" a mother, anyone would say yes without feeling like they were somehow objectifying that important person in their life.
God wants to be in a relationship with us, just like that… like a heavenly parent. He wants to have us, and he wants us to have him. I'm reminded of the traditional wedding vows - "…to have and to hold, from this day forth, til death do us part.". We understand what it is to have a relationship, Sometimes we just get a little shy of applying that same reasoning to a God who is so much greater than us.
We are approaching Advent, a time when we celebrate the grace and goodness of God, who could have stayed back and objectified us, but instead chose to come near to us all in Jesus Christ and lets us all know that he wants to have us and his own people as he offers himself to us as well.
Do you have God?
I've got a prayer list. It's actually part of an app on my phone called Faithlife - an app marketed as a Christian version of Facebook. I'm not sure it has succeeded in that, but it has a daily checklist of prayer requests that I have been using for the last 5 months or so. Functionally, it is no different from carrying a small notebook around in my pocket, but for me, it seems to work.
Life has become more complicated in 2016. I took on some new leadership roles within my local ecumenical community and across Kentucky and my work is now more influential and more influenced by national and denominational politics (both good and bad) as well as a much wider community. Most days I go to bed having no clue what I am supposed to be doing or if any of the dozen ideas I've had are the right things to do. I'm constantly trying to find the place where ideas that work meet the values that are faithful to God. I don't always succeed in that.
So I have a prayer list. I list all the people that are in my care - whether they know it or not - and I pray for them each day. The list grows because it is not just prayers offered for those who are sick or in trouble. I pray for those I pastor and those I work alongside. I pray for those that God brings into my life that need to know him. I pray for friends and family. If you are reading this, there's a good chance that you are on my prayer list.
Praying does not calm me down. Some days it feels like a chore. Other days, I'm praying through my list while I'm actually doing other chores. I am not a super prayer warrior and do not have a specific time, place, or ritual to praying through this list. My only criteria is consistency (doing it each day) and surrender. I don't pray for specific outcomes. I just lift those people and situations (mostly people) up to God and leave them in His care.
The affect of this very basic prayer practice has been incredible. Consistent prayer has opened my eyes to the work and power of God in the lives of those around me. I have less answers to offer and more opportunities to see God work out impossible situations. My ideas still matter, but I find that I hold them loosely and allow God to sift and shape them before my eyes.
Does this sound like just "going with the flow"? It does not feel like it. It actually feels like steady work as I battle myself and my schedule each day to be sure I am taking this time to pray. That is my part of the work. I then let God do His part of the work in solving these problems and stirring up new life in those that need to be moved by His Spirit. I apply prayer - the ultimate solvent to the situations in my life, and as I consistently pray, and God consistently works, I begin to see solutions forming before my eyes.
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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