Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Mathematics of Thankfulness

Dear Friends and Family,

I trust that many of you in the US (and abroad) were able to celebrate Thanksgiving this past week with family and friends. Close friends of ours who are non-US citizens, but have lived in the states, told us recently that Thanksgiving was their "favorite adopted holiday" because of its focus on an attitude of thankfulness and on family. It is without a doubt my favorite holiday of the year for those reasons as well as for the crisp autumn days that accompany it here in central Indiana.

Reflecting on my own battle with cancer this past year, and also through discussions with others, I wanted to share a brief reflection on how we can be thankful even in the midst of difficult times. I will attempt to express these principles of thankfulness in mathematical terms, since mathematics often describes the relationship of one variable to another. I believe that an attitude of thankfulness has much more to do with our relationships - to God, to others, to our possessions - than it does with our particular circumstances. Here goes. . .

1. f (God) = man

An attitude of thankfulness begins with an understanding that man is created by God, or that we are a function of God, as in the basic expression, f(x) = mx + b. Our existence is derived from Him, and humankind is created by Him as an overflow of his love, not based on something lacking in His Being. "Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." Genesis 2:7

The Psalmist provides another intimate and detailed glimpse into our relationship with the Creator God:

"For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth." Psalm 139:13-15.

In difficult times, remembering that we have been lovingly created by a personal God who knows us well will become the foundation of our thankful attitudes. To state the obvious, "thankfulness" requires a person or object to whom thanks is due, and that should first and foremost be the Lord God.

2. self "<" others

The second key to thankfulness in difficult times is to take our eyes off of ourselves and place them onto others. As in the simple inequality expressed above, one way to do this is to place ourselves below others. This attitude runs counter to the dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest dogma espoused in the market economy or through the evolutionary struggle taught in our classrooms.

In one of the most beautiful expressions of humility and servanthood in all of scripture, the Apostle Paul describes how we should imitate Jesus Christ's example in Philippians 2:3-11:

"Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

3. Wants = Current x State

Someone once said that the key to contentment is to want what you have. How much of our time is wasted chasing after things that will not satisfy our deepest needs? If we are honest with ourselves, especially here in America, we have deep predisposition for the gods of "more" and "next". We are bombarded with daily messages that tell us happiness is somehow bound up in getting more or moving on to what is next. Simply not true.

Many people in this country and around the world are going through difficult economic circumstances as a result of the recent financial crisis and persistent joblessness. Others are suffering from chronic, incurable or even terminal diseases that are shaking them to their core. While we cannot deny the difficulty of these circumstances, we do not have to allow them to rule our lives and steal away a heart of thankfulness.

Again, the Apostle Paul provides insight as one who suffered greatly during his life:

". . . for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound, in any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need . I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Philippians 4:11-13

I must admit, it is far easier to have an ungrateful heart issuing from a view that we are on our own and that this existence is all there is, so get as much as you can for yourself and pay no attention to what happens to others in the process.

Let's make a choice to do a 180 degree turn from that attitude and remember that we have been made by a loving Creator, and redeemed by his Son to a life that can put others first and also find contentment and thankfulness in all of life's circumstances.

In Christ alone,


Saturday, November 14, 2009

"The Weight of Glory"

Dear Friends and Family,

It was recently suggested to me by a friend that I read a sermon by C.S. Lewis called the "Weight of Glory". (Google it by name and you will find a PDF version you can download.)

Some of you have probably read the article before, and many have likely heard quotes from it like this one:

". . . it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

In his sermon, Lewis explores more deeply this notion of our longings and how they connect to what God truly has in store for us "in Christ". He dispels the misconception that we, as Christians, should not desire reward from the Lord just because it seems, at first glance, to be mercenary or self-serving. In its truest sense, our deepest desire is to be noticed and approved by our Creator - the knower and lover of our souls. I really like Lewis' description of "being noticed by our Lord"; it reminds me of the gospel story we read our children in Sunday school about the little man named Zacchaeus climbing up in the tree to see Jesus. He was noticed by our Lord and called down and asked to dine with the Savior. (Luke 19:2) If we are honest, much our misguided earthly pursuits bely an underlying desire to be noticed and approved by our Lord just like this little man.

I have spoken with many friends recently about a deep motivation we should all have to hear "well done, good and faithful servant" from our Lord himself. (Matthew 25:23) I believe that the most important arc of our lives should lead us to that point, providing us a proper perspective on all the time-bound moments in between. We must remember that we will stand in Christ's presence only because his grace has smiled upon us through his inestimable sacrifice on our behalf, but we must also know that what we do with our lives in this realm really does matter to him.

Lewis also speaks of glory not only as being approved by ("being famous with") the Lord, but he also speaks of the notion that glory connotes light or luminescence. He captures our desires this way: "We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words,- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it." It seems clear to me that this desire for union with light and beauty is being fulfilled by our union with Christ through his indwelling Spirit and the hope that we will one day be like him in our glorified bodies.

All this talk of longing, approval, beauty and light causes Lewis to consider a practical application that is worth appropriating in our lives today and each day.

"It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight , or burden of my neighbour's glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only a nightmare."

We should pray then not only to hear "well done, good and faithful servant" for ourselves, but encourage and help others to lives their lives toward that same end, seeing and loving them today with a view from that Great Day before our Lord Jesus.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:1,2)

In Christ alone,