Expressing Gratitude

This month every year in the United States, people are encouraged to pause in order to express thanks for blessings which have occurred in their lives over the year. A specific day has been set aside to do exactly this. The roots of Thanksgiving Day are found in the story of English settlers experiencing their first harvest in the new world.

Prayers of thanks and special thanksgiving ceremonies are common among almost all religions after harvests and at other times.The Thanksgiving holiday’s history in North America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation. It also has aspects of a harvest festival, even though the harvest in New England occurs well before the late-November date on which the modern Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated.

Pilgrims and Puritans who emigrated from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England. The modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is traced to a well-recorded 1619 event in Virginia and a sparsely documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. The 1619 arrival of 38 English settlers at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia, concluded with a religious celebration as dictated by the group’s charter from the London Company, which specifically required “that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned … in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest, which the Pilgrims celebrated with native Americans, who helped them pass the last winter by giving them food in the time of scarcity.

Wikipedia

Thinking about the upcoming celebration of Thanksgiving once again in three weeks prompted me to consider what it means to be thankful and show gratitude. To be a bit more specific, I have been thinking about gratitude in the light of my faith. Especially since the above words found in Wikipedia make mention of prayers and ceremonies among almost all religions.

There exist a variety of ways to express gratitude. Most often we think of using words to express gratitude. This may be as simple as saying, thank you, or may be longer by expressing exactly what prompts us to be thankful and how our life has been impacted. At other times, actions we take may be an expression of our gratitude.

So how do we go about expressing gratitude to God?

As a Christian, I believe that all I have and all that I am are gifts from God. God has chosen to bestow material items, means to purchase material items, talents I use, and knowledge which I have obtained upon me. God gives to me even the breath which I take and the food which sustains me. Nothing in my life exists except through the giving of it to me by God. So how do I express gratitude for my very life and everything within it?

Scripture contains suggestions which might be helpful:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Micha 6:8

Then the King will say to those on his right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

Matthew 25:34-40

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

John 4:11

Many other passages can be found which prompt us to give thanks to God. I lift these passages up to you because they talk not about words, or even worship, but about attitude and action. God warns the people that they can do all forms of worship and abide by the sacrificial laws which existed for ancient Israel but that without the correct actions and attitude, their expressions are hollow. (See Isaiah 1:10-18) This warning leads me to think that the best way to express gratitude to God is through our actions and attitude. I think God finds this most pleasing.

So as you pause this month to consider those aspects of your life which generate gratitude in your heart towards God, I encourage you not to just express your gratitude in words but more importantly in actions and attitude.

Bigger Than Me

Is that really all there is? How many times in your life have you been disappointed by a site, an experience, or a person? Maybe you had prepared in your mind something large, or even grandiose, only to come to the point when you encounter what you had built up in your mind and walked away disappointed. Each one of us has had at least one experience in this arena. I think it is because we each have a desire to encounter something bigger than ourselves.

In life there truly are experiences which are bigger than I am as an individual. A few summers ago, I was able to pay a short visit to the Grand Canyon for the first time. Standing on the rim of the canyon, I was amazed at how expansive and deep it truly is. There have been times when I have been at a gathering of peers or fellow believers and been awed by the reality that this group of like-minded individuals is so much larger than me as one.

The concept of something bigger than me has led me to consider the reality of God. I am drawn back to my statement at the end of the first paragraph here, I think we are wired to seek out something bigger than oneself as an individual. This desire for me stems from the acceptance of my limitations. I am limited to a specific time, place, set of thoughts, set of experiences, gifts, and talents. My resources and experiences are limited. I need something in my life which transcends my own personal limitations. God is exactly the reality which transcends.

The limits of human existence and ability are not limits within which God exists. God is not confined to a specific time or place. The thoughts of God go beyond my understanding. The prophet Isaiah delivers this message: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8). There exists no end to God’s abilities and power. In short, God is much bigger than me.

This is important because it gives me comfort. When I feel I am not able to control, fix, or overcome aspects of my life, I know that there is something bigger than me which is able to regain balance. Those occasions when I feel alone and small, I am reminded that something bigger than me surrounds me and supports me. During times when I feel that I am uncertain about the future or sense that I am lost on my path, something bigger than me assures me of tomorrow and shines a light on the path.

Everyone craves to find that which is bigger than the individual. I have found it and the name is God.

The Bridge

One of my mom’s favorite songs was a Simon & Garfunkel song, Bridge Over Troubled Water. Here are the lyrics from that song if you do not recall it or have never heard it:

When you’re weary, feeling small

When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all (all)

I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough

And friends just can’t be found

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will lay me down

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will lay me down

When you’re down and out

When you’re on the street

When evening falls so hard

I will comfort you (ooo)

I’ll take your part, oh, when darkness comes

And pain is all around

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will lay me down

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will lay me down

Sail on silver girl

Sail on by

Your time has come to shine

All your dreams are on their way

See how they shine

Oh, if you need a friend

I’m sailing right behind

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will ease your mind

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will ease your mind

Source: LyricFind

Songwriter: Paul Simon

Bridge over Troubled Water lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

This song was originally written to convey the support of one lover or friend to another. However, I have come to see it also as a song in which I envision God singing these words to me, and all God’s children.

Life is definitely not easy. Throughout life, we face times when there are very troubled waters which we are trying to navigate. Jesus made it abundantly clear that during the stormy times in our lives, God does not abandon us and encourages us to not worry:

As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”

Luke 8:23-25

I find so much comfort in the words expressed in this song. I think this is exactly what my mom experienced when she heard these words sung as well. The comfort becomes even greater to me when I think of God singing these words rather than a friend or lover. God is always faithful and trustworthy so as much as a friend or lover might try very hard to live out these words, I know that God always does.

The next time you hear this song, I encourage you to listen to it with the idea of God singing these to you. God’s love truly does create that bridge over troubled water.

No Mistakes

A person’s junior high school years can be some of the most difficult years in their young life. The ages of twelve through fourteen are the time in your life when you are trying to figure out a lot about yourself. Add to this the reality that you are physically experiencing many changes and a whole new set of hormones are flooding your body. At this point in my life I had an amazing English teacher, Miss Becky Schmelling. One of my greatest memories of Miss Schmelling was that she had a poster hanging on the wall of her classroom by the door. It was a cartoon image of a boy surrounded by old cans, books, and a variety of other items which appeared like they might be junk. The caption in big, bold letters said, “I am okay because God does not make junk.” I read that caption every single day I was in her classroom since I was feeling like junk trying to maneuver through my early adolescent years.

When I became an adult, I ran across a quote which carried the theme of Miss Schmelling’s poster a little farther. I honestly cannot tell you the originator of this quote or even where I first read the quote. If you do a Google search, you will find these words, or similar words, echoed all over the internet. The quote is this — “I am okay because God does not make mistakes.” I do not think I am the only one who needs to hear these words, and hear them often. There are many in our world who feel like maybe God made some mistakes, or a big one, when God created them. There is no one who can honestly say that they feel everything about them is perfect.

According to figures released by the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2017 (the most recent set of data) there were 47,173 deaths listed as suicide among all ages in the United States. This made suicide the tenth leading cause of death in the United States that year. If you look at the age groups of 10 to 34, there were 14, 717 suicide deaths which makes it the second leading cause of death in those age groups only behind unintentional accidents. What these startling and sad statistics tell me is that there are a lot of people who feel their life is a mistake, and they have no hope. These statistics do not share the number of individuals who attempted suicide that year but the attempt did not result in death.

I share all this with you to impress upon you two important points. The first is that each of you need to remember that God does not make mistakes. There is not one of you who is a mistake. God created you with a purpose and exactly the correct combinations of physical, mental, spiritual, and creative traits. You are unique, there is not now or ever any duplicate of you. You fit into all God’s creation in a way which no other being could ever fit. Your role in this world is very special. God loves you exactly the way you are right now.

The second point is that each of you must share this truth with others. Whether you have a poster hanging for others to see, or you share the message in words and actions, you must communicate to others that they are not a mistake because God does not make mistakes. By sharing this message, you may have an impact that you will never be aware of but an impact nonetheless. This may be the message that prevents someone from choosing to attempt suicide. Sharing of this may also be just the words that gives a person renewed purpose, meaning, or a sense of value. When you communicate this message, you demonstrate the love of God which went into the original creation of a person.

Let me tell you this one more time, you are okay because God does not make mistakes!

Need Patience

I struggle with being patient most of the time. If I decide to buy an item, I do my research, I spend some time going back and forth, I work through the financial aspects, and then I head to the store to make the purchase. Once I have gone through these steps, I expect to walk out of the store with the item I have chosen. If for some reason I do not have the opportunity to get the product or I have to wait for some reason, then I become extremely frustrated. My patience does not hold out well for me at this point.

Recently, I was reading a passage from Habakkuk. In this passage, the prophet complains against God because he feels that God is not listening. He has made request after request for life changes but the changes are not coming. He is losing his patience with God. The prophet is speaking for the nation of Israel but I could relate to the complaints on a personal level. Like my shopping routine, if I take a request to God, I have the expectation that the request will be fulfilled in the time frame of my choosing.

Following Habbukuk’s complaints, God responds. In God’s response, God reminds the people that relief will come but it will be according the correct timing. The people are told that they are to await this right time. God tells them that the source of their agony has not escaped notice. If the people will wait and remain faithful, the relief will arrive.

The words recorded in Habakkuk often convict me. I am reminded that I need to have patience. The message of God’s faithfulness and listening to my requests comes through these words clearly. I need to remember to wait on the Lord and I will not be disappointed.

This is not a new message to me. While I can understand the message and I believe the words to be true, putting them into practice in my life is not easy in any way. As I stated at the start of this post, I struggle with patience most of the time. I am convinced that this will be a lifetime struggle for me. Reading this passage often will be a valuable reminder to me. Being reminded that God’s time is much better than my time will assist me in my efforts to be patient.

How do you do with waiting on the Lord? What do you use as reminders of God’s faithfulness?  

Making Plans

Personally, I am a planner. I have calendars and to-do lists. Daily routines are important in my life. I feel more secure when I have a plan and then a backup plan to handle situations if my first plan gets disrupted. There have been many conversations between God and myself about plans. I often request that God helps me to follow through on my plans. The man who I married is also a planner who used to plan activities out months in advance and in great detail. Planning is a key part of my life.

I had a close friend who used to remind people that they can go ahead and put together a timeline but not to be surprised if God decides to chuckle and rearrange those plans. He was specifically talking about a process which was used to find a new pastor for a congregation. However, I think his words of wisdom apply to much more than that specific life event.

Over the years I have been placed in positions where planning was important but more important was being able to adapt at a moments notice. Having spent time working with youth required me to plan but know that at any time the Holy Spirit (or sometimes human intervention) could show up and quickly alter the plans. I have learned that making room for the Holy Spirit is more important than having a well-thought-out plan and sticking to it no more what.

God has told us in the words of Jeremiah:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord

Jeremiah 29:11-14a

An important observation to make here is that the plans are not spelled out or in detail. We are just given the assurance that God has a plan which will benefit us in the most important ways.

I strongly believe that God desires us to plan. We are reminded of the importance of planning and being prepared in the story which Jesus told of the ten virgins:

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’

“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’

“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

Matthew 25:1-13

For me, the key regarding planning is to realize that while planning is important and must be done, the Holy Spirit may lead us in a much different direction. Every time that I have allowed my plans to be altered by the guidance of the Spirit, I have discovered that the end result is much better than anything I could have imagined in my planning.

Go ahead and plan. Then listen for God’s chuckle and the feel of the Spirit showing you a change or a whole new plan.

Punishment Free

One of the misconceptions that I encounter when in conversation with people about God is that God is all about punishing humans. This is an idea which has stemmed from interpretations of Scripture passages and been perpetuated by some churches. Various passages from the Bible, especially from the Old Testament, are lifted up as proof that God desires to punish those who do not follow God’s instructions or even those who God does not like for some reason. I would argue that these passages are often misunderstood and usually taken out of context. I find much more language regarding God’s love for all humanity in the Bible than I do any words which may support the image of a punishing God.

First, let me talk a bit about what I view as misinterpretation of Scripture. One problematic trait which I see too often when someone is trying to claim that the Bible is presenting some negative image of God is that the individual is often attempting to use the words literally. Why this is a problem is something which I have blogged about previously in Word by Word on April 19, 2019. Let me lift up a few key points from that post. One must remember that the Bible which we hold in our hands in the United States today is part of a line of translations which date back to the original writings in Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic. We actually have none of those original writings today. Translation requires a level of interpretation since words from ancient languages many times have no modern day equal. Next, we have the fact that the whole of the Bible was originally communicated in an oral, not a written manner. This required the listener to hear what was being said and communicate that to others effectively which opens these stories up to minor alterations. Also, the fact that cultural understandings are not at all the same today as they were then so is important to place whatever we read/hear into the cultural context of the original speakers and listeners. All these realities cause us to use caution when interpreting and applying stories from the Bible into our everyday life. I would argue that the only way we are able to effectively do so is to seek the main point of what we read and avoid any attempt at literal interpretation.

In a similar vein, it is important to remember what was occurring at the time a story was created and/or interpreted into writing. This historical context influences how a concept is communicated. In the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, there are often times a passage is stated during times of war, destruction, and disease. These human factors will influence how a message is communicated and what types of imagery are used.

The next issue which arises is one which I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Scripture must be taken as a whole. What I mean is that we need to identify the major theme of all Scripture before we attempt to interpret a specific portion of Scripture. Earlier I mentioned that I have discovered more passages about God’s love for all creation and humanity than I find passages which talk about God’s wrath and punishments. The major theme of Scripture is that God loves us even when we cannot find a reason to love ourselves. This love is manifested in what God does to and for each one of us. Jesus provides the greatest demonstration of this love which is why he is referred to as the greatest revelation of God. Any passages written about God’s wrath and punishment should be understood in this light. There clearly are times that punishment is used in human life to redirect individuals. These should be moments where the redirection is provided out of love and a desire for the well-being of a person. Unfortunately, humans do not always have this as the motivation but God always does.

By combining all these factors, a person can see the pitfalls of coming to conclusions about God and the behaviors of God. We receive only a minuscule glimpse into the full nature of God. I believe that this is one of the truths Paul tries to communicate in 1 Corinthians 13:12, ” For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” I caution people that making the assumption that we can predict the actions of God, the motives of God, or the thoughts of God based on words in the Bible is a dangerous assumption that can lead to error in thought.

I share these words to support my conclusion that God is NOT a God of punishments. I experience God as a God of complete love. God avoids punishments in all ways possible. God does redirect. I also claim that humans are actually much more inclined to punish ourselves or one another than God ever does. In fact, we may even think that we deserve to be punished for failing God in some way.  Though even if we are inclined to think in such a way, God shows up and gives us grace and full forgiveness. God tells us that we are not deserving of punishment but instead of the greatest love possible.

Trust is Tricky

Trust is one of those qualities which is difficult to obtain and easy to lose. When we are younger, we learn to trust almost any adult. We come to trust our parents because they are the ones who provide for all our needs. They shelter us and make sure we have the food and clothing which sustains and protects us. Our parents teach us how to avoid danger and to keep ourselves safe. This transfers to other adults in our lives such as teachers, police officers, and pastors. During these younger years, trust is easier to give.

As time progresses though, the ease of trusting another reduces. The main reason for this is the number of times our trust is broken. Our experiences cause us to realize that everyone is not trustworthy. Once we begin to lose trust in others, we require more and more proof from a person that the person deserves our trust. In addition to it being more difficult for us to trust, when someone has done something which hurts us or places us in a bad situation, we are very quick to lose feelings of trust in that individual and others.

In Scripture we see phrases such as “trust in the Lord” (Psalm 4:5, Psalm 37:3, Psalm 115:11, Proverbs 3:5, Isaiah 26:4). A large number of us approach those words with some level of skepticism. After all, if trusting in individuals who are visibly present in our lives is difficult, how can we ever trust in a spirit who we cannot see or touch? We are called to place our lives in the control of someone whose voice we have not heard audibly. When life becomes difficult, we are told to rely upon this God whose face we have never seen. As we make plans for our future, guidance from God is supposed to lead us.

There have been numerous people who have talked with me about the difficulty of trusting in God. I remind them that trust is tricky. Our experiences have led us to be very limited when it comes to trust. As I mentioned before, the pain from broken trust causes us to be very hesitant to extend trust. We decide that if we are going to make it through life, we can only trust in ourselves. All this brings us to the natural place of struggling with the concept of trusting God.

Yet, the other bit of advice which I share with these people is that from my experience, and the recorded experiences found in the Bible, God is not like our fellow humans when it comes to trust. God has never broken God’s promises to humanity. God has never committed to do something but been unable to do it. God has never led anyone down a destructive path. God has never caused pain in someone’s life. God has never broken trust with anyone. The evidence of experiences which causes us to distrust humans is not present in our relationship with God.

Let me be clear, this does not make trusting God any easier. Often I have to be reminded by others that I can place my trust in God. Truly the only way in which I can even begin to trust God is by having faith. I have to first believe in what I cannot see. This belief becomes the bridge which allows me to trust God. When life does not go the direction which I would like, I easily struggle with trusting God, especially if I had communicated with God why I wanted something to happen in a specific way. But I am reminded that trusting God means accepting that God may know a better path for me to walk then the one I had chosen.

Trust is tricky. Trusting humans is even trickier. Having trust in God requires faith. Yet, God has never let me down, so I will trust in the Lord.

A Savior

One of the challenges which I see in the church, especially among leaders, is confusion over who is the savior. The problem is not that these leaders, and some members, struggle to come up with a description of Jesus Christ. Many of them do a great job of telling the life story of Jesus, talking about his earthly ministry, and giving a theological explanation regarding his death and resurrection. The issue is that in their zeal for fulfilling the Great Commandment, they begin to think that they are responsible for ensuring the salvation of others. This could not be farther from the truth.

Jesus came with a purpose, some may even say a call. Jesus’ purpose was to destroy all the barriers between humanity and God. God’s desire is that all may experience the fullness of God’s love in a lasting relationship with God. The difficulty in the achievement of this is humans have chosen often to take paths which lead them away from God. These paths make us vulnerable to committing unloving actions and to experience the impact of those actions taken by others. They also can give us a distorted understanding of love. Jesus’ ministry was focused on correcting this distortion and showing how these paths lead us away from God.

Jesus broke down social barriers which humanity created amongst themselves. Jesus presented a definition of love that was unconditional and with a focus toward others and not self. He reminded everyone what it meant to be in relationship with God. Actions which he took supported his words and showed us how we are to demonstrate God’s love to one another. All this culminated in his loving action taken on a cross where he gave his life to remove any remaining barriers we might have between us and God.

That final action by Jesus which led to his death and resurrection is sufficient for all people. Through this action, Jesus saved us from the paths we take which lead us away from the love of God. Jesus does not need us to recreate or to add to this action. Instead, Jesus told us to go out into the world and to tell all the people of his breaking of all barriers. More importantly, Jesus desires us to demonstrate this work in our own actions and words.

There is not one of us who is the Savior. That position has been filled by Jesus Christ. We do not have it within our abilities to break down the ultimate barrier between God and humanity. What we do have is the ability to introduce the Savior to others by our lives. Our expressing of the love of God and attributing that love for the choices we make in life will open doors for individuals to first experience and then begin to understand what God’s love is truly about.

YOU ARE NOT THE SAVIOR! Instead, spend your time introducing the Savior to others through your life and the sharing of God’s love.

The Unexpected

I have become a fan of the reality show Big Brother over the past few years. Not really sure how I began watching it. I may have decided to watch it when my youngest son started and would talk about it. This show is one that most people either love or hate. This is also one of a limited number of reality television shows that I ever care to watch. I share this information because the motto on Big Brother is, “expect the unexpected.” A variety of twists and turns take place throughout the show and little changes to the rules as the show progresses seem to happen each season.

The motto from Big Brother seems to be very appropriate to me when I think about the Lord. Over the years, I have come to realize that God operates more often in the realm of the unexpected than in the predictable. Pleasant surprises are frequent in the life the Lord creates. Occasionally I am alert enough to fully experience these unexpected blessings as they happen. As a rule, I become aware of them only when I look back upon my life.

My life has been filled with God’s unexpected blessings. Sometimes these blessings are brought when a new person enters my life. At times these blessings occur when I choose to get out of my comfort zone. Still, other times they arrive through reading another person’s writing, or hearing a new song, or watching a movie. As unexpected as the Lord can be, the mode in which God gives blessings can vary in multiple degrees.

I like that God chooses to do the unexpected. This has taken me places in life that I would not have ventured on my own. Moving at the end of last year was one of those exact situations. After living most of my life in the same geographical area, I really never thought I would live anywhere else. However, my husband received an exciting job offer to start a brand-new program at a university, and so we were off on a brand-new adventure. Since moving, I have had one unexpected surprise after another. My life has been filled with new experiences. I discovered a love for writing which I had never explored. Some amazing people have entered into my life. A whole new perspective has unfolded before me.

Let me issue a warning to all of you. When you think you have the Lord figured out and you are sure you know what blessings the Lord has planned for you… expect the unexpected.