Why Billy Graham Matters

In the early 1900’s new ideas began to take root from Germany. Instead of starting with the Bible as the source of authority and working out to change lives and culture, we should begin with the authority of the Enlightenment – reason, scientific method, and literary criticism – and mold the Bible to its conclusions. The result of this movement is called modernism or liberal theology where one was free to rearrange any doctrine from the virgin birth to the resurrection to the writings of Paul according to this presumably higher criticism of truth.

In response to this movement Bible believers financed and distributed to churches a volume of books called The Fundamentals enumerating historical Christian beliefs in an attempt to push back this new onslaught. The Bible was God’s revelation and therefore its truths and teaching should prevail. Those behind this way of thinking about the Bible was called Fundamentalists.

During those days of debate, both sides of the schism, Liberals and Fundamentalists, were mainline churches. Neither took on the emotional baggage these words may produce today. Liberals pushed towards an intellectual honesty that produced a Jesus so neutered that he really wasn’t much of a savior. Fundamentalist held fast towards the most literal interpretations possible.

This came to a stand off in the Scopes evolution challenge by the ACLU. The Fundamentalist held to a literal seven twenty-four-hour day (now called Young Earth) Creation position (not essential for even Conservative Christianity but it is the most literal reading of Genesis 1). In the end, they won the trial but lost the cultural imagination.

H. L. Menchen was an anti-religious, cynical reporter who was given an opportunity of a lifetime to cover the trials. He believed that Fundamentalism belonged to the ignorant masses who were too stupid to see their own folly. His harsh and biting sarcastic report was syndicated throughout the nation and the stereotypes stuck. Fundamentalists were ignorant, backwoods, and intolerant.

Growing at that time was a Dispensational theology that taught among other things that the world was going to get worse before the day of Christ’s return was ushered in. Following this impulse, Fundamentalists moved out of culture and became a separatists movement. The liberals could have the worldly educational institutes, entertainment, and politics. The Fundamentalists will have their camp meetings and Bible prophecy studies hearkening the day of the Lord.

After World War II, a new movement began to develop. Men and women felt a calling to take a softer (albeit Bible believing) form of Fundamentalism that was called Evangelicalism, into the public square. Billy Graham was a prominent face of this movement.

Unlike liberalism, he didn’t preach a gospel that started with cultural sensibilities and attempted to work it into the Bible. Rather, like the Fundamentalists, he preached a message that started with the Bible and proclaimed it to change lives and culture. The singular difference with his ministry is that he wasn’t doing it in a separatist church or a backwoods camp meeting. He was doing it in stadiums and arenas and before world leaders. Though it would be an exaggeration to say he did this single-handedly, he was a significant instrument of taking Bible believing Christianity out of the backwoods and making it acceptable and even attractive in culture again. He could have easily had the slogan “Make Bible Believing Christianity Great Again.”

Since that time, many responded to gospel presentations, a Jesus movement sprung up among the hippies, Campus Crusade for Christ and the Navigators engaged college students, Christian publishing and music hit the charts, and many mega-churches have been built. Those in this movement today span denominations. politics, and nationalities but are held together by fundamental beliefs such as the authority of the Bible, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the necessity of Christ’s atonement for salvation. Many on this side of the isle have people like Billy Graham to thank for making this gospel accessible to the culture at large.

Both liberal theology and fundamentalism/evangelical has gotten more diverse, complicated, and nuanced. The question of where authority begins – cultural sensibilities or the Bible – remain the crux of the division to this very day. This division will probably always be with us, at least in our lifetime. Nevertheless, it was men like Billy Graham who helped level the playing field.

The Christmas Tree Tradition

By Wuhazet – Henryk Żychowski (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Back when we were in the One True Church we had two rules.  The first rule was that no one in the church owned a television .  The second was that we didn’t celebrate Christmas.

The great thing about being in an oppressively legalistic church is that you become very creative.  You get to draw upon your sanctified imagination to maintain a front of over-comer holiness on the one hand and nuanced sensitivity that works around the system to get what you want on the other.

When my wife and I were engaged, Brother Serious reached out to us to go to a local coffee shop where they could share with us their experience and wisdom to help us in our forthcoming marriage.  We met them on a Monday night.  Brother Serious sat me next to him on his side of the table.  Our wives sat on the other side.  I looked up and saw that Brother Serious had sat me and him directly in front of a television set playing Monday Night football.  I don’t think I actually learned (or even heard) anything about marriage but my wife did develop into a rather skilled wide receiver.

Some years later after the children were born, we left the the One True Church though the rules to some degree went with us.  Our Sunday school class discovered that we had never had a Christmas tree and thus no ornaments so one evening they put together their used Christmas decorations and showed up unexpected to our house caroling.  At last we could be like other families, form traditions, and even give our kids personalized ornaments for them to cherish.  One of our boy’s personal ornaments is a sparkling Christmas tree that says, “Merry Christmas, Jennifer.”

Some years later, we moved across country to the mountains where Christmas trees are grown.  We had still not gotten a Christmas tree of our own but we were miles away from the judgmental looks of the One True church.  And we had a house that was large enough to accommodate.   It was time for a rites of passage.

Everything was closed down on that Christmas Eve in our small town.  We pulled into a deserted Christmas tree lot where all the trees had been sold.  Over by the dumpsters were some discards.  We looked up the street and down.  We then flung open the hatchback, threw a discarded tree in, slammed the trunk and sped home.  We pulled into the garage, closed the door, drew the blinds, put up “Merry Christmas, Jennifer”.

And we did us a Christmas tree.

Now that the kids are grown, we stopped doing Christmas trees.   We figured that the annual ritual of decorating the house would be less work if we eliminated that one item.  Further, being the materialists we are, we succeeded in covering every square inch of our once spacious house.

But there is a tradition that stayed.  Each year, we put up an apple crate filled with hay.  On Christmas morn, anatomically correct Baby Joey appears in the crate wrapped in a blanket to represent Jesus.  Because this is the profound truth of the season.  Not a philosophy.  Not a moral code.  Not a religion.  Not a political system.

But a Person who stepped into time and space on that day two thousand years ago.  And the One faithful believers believe will one day return in the same physical and tangible way.

 

 

Preparing For Thanksgiving

It is a bit backwards to designate one day a year as a day of thanksgiving. After all, gratitude is the state of being we should strive for as much as we possibly can. I jokingly mused that we should instead designate an annual day of discontentment. This would be our yearly reminder of how miserable we are when we choose this route. It would segue nightly to Black Friday where we could stumble about in shame seeking to repair the hurt we caused to ourselves and others.

The lure to unhealthy discontentment is a strong one. Recently I took my perfectly good devotional time which had been working fine and decided I was unhappy. I wanted more and better. In following my heart, I took on too much for the sparse time I have in the morning and began to resent my other morning responsibilities. This prepared me for gloomy breakfasts of resentment and reactiveness.

After coming to my senses, I went back to my policy of “less is more” or at least enjoy what I have. I went back to my shorter Bible readings and prayer but this time with gratitude for what I had as well as gratitude for the other things – cleaning the kitchen, making the coffee, caring for the animals, exercise, and conversation with wife.

Instead of remaining in awe of God’s great deliverance, Israel grumbled, “How shall we eat and drink?” Instead of appreciating the manna, they cried, “Is this all?” When the quail arrived, their ungrateful response was, “Well, it is about time!”

Or going back further, Adam and Even was given every gift of sight, sound, vocation, and meaningful purpose. Yet they were rather quick to be swayed by the serpent’s observation, “But, you can’t have this one.”

Or back even further, Lucifer was given the exalted position of unsurpassed beauty and stewardship yet there was that which he didn’t have that he wanted even more.

Thankfully, we don’t have to go there, do we? Gratitude and thanksgiving is a choice that can be made at any time and likely many times a day. When we get off track, we can immediately realize the error and turn the wagon back on the path.

 

Thoughts after Thirty-One Years

By Litho Printers (wedding rings) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I have a friend who broke up his second marriage because he wasn’t satisfied. Within a month, he found someone new through his social circles. He was in love and they began living together. After two years, he gave up on this girlfriend because she wasn’t going to change.

Within a month, he found another woman on a dating site and was living with her. Once again, he was in love. At about two years, he would speak openly of their differences and their conflicts. But this time, he was determined to make it work.

My friend’s relational career was educational to me. In a purely humanistic way, it made some sense – and in some ways was even attractive – to do what it takes to find that person of perfect compatibility.

The rebuttal to this line of thinking is that my friend really isn’t any better off. He hadn’t transcended the basic problem of two divergent personalities coming together and trying to make a go of it. He thought that if he would find the right person, the problem would go away. But it never does.

When we first fall in love, God curses husband and wife with chemicals that make us think that we are completely one in thought, motive, and desire. Somewhere along the line (and especially after financial testing or children hit the scene) the hormones recede and reality breaks through our well-crafted romantic fantasy. We discover that we are not as alike as we thought. The art of a successful marriage is whether or not we successfully forge compatibility amidst these differences. Some put off this problem focusing on externals and children until one day they find themselves lonely together in an empty house.

A counselor told me years ago that they can help any marriage until one of the party turns to contempt and despises the other. What I have learned as a basic point of Christian spirituality is that sin is committed long before the act in what false narrative the heart chooses to embrace and cultivate.

I can take my spouse’s faults, her perceived weaknesses, her alleged inflexibility, and objectify them out to be the guiding narrative of who she is. Tie this to my emotional hurts, and now I have a resentment that is difficult to overcome.

However, when I loosen my tenacious grip, seek to work on my character defects, and commit to be present and engaged with my companion and bride, these resentments recede and intimacy is created. When I work on me, my wife’s faults disappear. Imagine that!

My heroes in marriage are Tevye and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. Their marriage was arranged so they didn’t follow their heart of look for the best compatible fit. They lived in a culture where they depended on each other so forming destructive resentments was not an option. They had to find a way to transcend their differences, be faithful, and do it for a very long time. Though not the makings of a love conquers all romantic movie, their love was more substantial, earthy, and real than the fluttering hearts that we may have naïvely thought would hold us together.

A Jewish teacher taught me that the reason God gave Adam a woman is to give him someone who is somewhat like him in one respect but very different in another. They had to learn to rise above their differences and love the “other”. Marrying someone who is a clone of myself is narcissistic and forges nothing towards the true nature of love. Love is only proven when there are differences between personalities. Love is deepened when it is committed to and cultivated for a very long time.

Epiphany at Waffle House

By Michael Rivera (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Some years ago, I was walking around a lake in despair.  There were some compulsive things in my life that I couldn’t control.

For some time, I held hope that through prayer, reading, and resolve, I would be able to overcome the downward pull to make my way to perfection.  Yet I would find myself tripping over the same thing over and over again.

This walk around the lake was different.  When I had stumbled in the past, I always felt I had the tools to rebuild.  I would read more spiritual books.  I would study Romans 6.  I would take vacations to do nothing but pray and meditate.  Yet walking around this lake, it was the first time that I had the sense and realization that I would not be able to get beyond this on my own.  It was my taste of powerlessness.

I got in my car and went to dinner, stopping at a Waffle House.  I don’t know if he got there first or I but I sat down next to a black man and we got to talking.  He had been in the church of the science fiction writer out in Los Angeles and apparently made his way up the ranks.  Somehow (I forget the details), he made his way out and encountered the announcement of Jesus Christ and his life was changed.

I told him of my troubles being general not to give away personal information or open my heart to shame.

I don’t remember all what was said but I do remember very distinctly him looking straight at me, speaking softly with a radiant face, and saying, “Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.”

It wasn’t a detailed action plan or a manual on right living or motivation for better discipline.  Rather it was an existential experience–triggering an awareness of this One greater than myself who would one day restore me to sanity.  Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.

He left as I finished my dinner.  On a whim, I looked out to see him get into his car but I never saw him.  I tried to call him some time later but never found him.

Over time,  I stumbled upon a group who understood my struggles.  A brother over time helped me see where I got off course and how I could day by day, moment by moment stay in good spiritual condition.  I came to embrace the powerlessness I felt against the lure of my worst nature and trust a God who can use people in my life to enact genuine spiritual change.

The thing that devastated me as I walked around the lake so many years ago is no longer a concern.  Far from a sinless perfectionism, I find that there are many things I cannot control and over which I have no power.  Yet in those times, I see the shining face of the man at the waffle house saying gently, “Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.”

The Problem of Being Faithful

When I was in the One True Church, I lived in a Brother’s House.  This was where a bunch of us Christian guys lived together with a family so

By James N. McCord. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

that we could be made into godly men.  We did this by attending lots and lots of meetings and doing lots and lots of stewardships.

Stewardships are basically chores except stewardships sounds much more Biblical – especially if you read the King James Bible.  We had a notebook of index cards called standards.  Each standard gave instructions on how to do the stewardships.  Further, one of the brothers was appointed head-steward so he had the extra responsibility of checking our stewardships to see if they rose up to the standard.

If our stewardships didn’t meet the standard, we got consequences.  The purpose of consequences was to encourage us to take the time to do the stewardships perfectly in the first place by giving us even less time because we had to do our consequences in addition to our stewardships and all of the meetings.

Brother Faithful rarely got consequences.  He always seemed to joyfully uphold the standards.  He was up at five in the morning doing his Bible reading and prayer before we all stumbled out for house devotions.  He made sure we didn’t miss a speck when cleaning the bathroom sink and to finish it off by shining it up with a paper towel.  He made us sing while doing the dishes after dinner.

I, on the other hand, did get consequences.  In one case, my consequence was to work with another offending brother in taking hand-written recipes and typing them onto index cards.

To entertain ourselves, we wondered how creative we could be in our descriptions.  For example, instead of typing one teaspoon of salt, we put down one teaspoon NaCl which is the chemical symbol for sodium chloride better known as salt.  I was toying with the idea of putting in as a fake last step to the chef salad recipe to place all the ingredients in the blender and puree for ten minutes but the other offending brother reminded me such an act could result in doing consequences until Jesus returned.

One evening when the brothers returned from work, Brother Faithful was already in the kitchen making dinner.  He had a medium sized pot full of ice that he was heating up.

“What are you doing, brother?”  asked one of the brothers.

Brother Faithful showed us the recipe card and the place where the standard called for two cups of thawed ice.

We stifled a laugh, held our composure and went on our way.

I wonder if Brother Faithful ever pulled the recipe calling for three cups of condensed steam.

 

 

 

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men?

Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-1800’s, many in the church thought the world was getting better and better.  Society would improve and wrongs would be overcome through social action.  This transformation of society would bring in a new millennium that would usher in the return and reign of Christ.

The Civil War changed that.  Whatever hope people had for the gradual improvement of society and the bringing forth of a new age through social action was dashed at this display of the hardened conflict of ideals manifested in the vast carnage of man’s inhumanity to man.

Henry Longfellow was not as much caught up in the theology of the moment.  For the poet Longfellow, this was personal.  His wife of eighteen years died tragically in a fire.  Then his son Charles, without discussion or permission, left to join the Union army.   On Christmas Day in 1863, Henry Longfellow, torn between a cynical lashing out and a helpless need for comfort penned these word:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Lashing out in hurt and anger is part of the human experience.  I don’t always get what I want and my version of life does not always prevail.  For Longfellow, the war raged on;  his son was badly injured.

Nevertheless, the poem ends with Longfellow’s willingness to unclench his fist.  He was willing to listen to a voice that was not his own head and  to humbly acknowledge  Someone bigger and a narrative more transcendent.

In Search of the One True Santa Claus

Santa Claus in Chicago Douglas Rahden [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

As Christmas approached, my mom would take me to the month-end sales to try on clothes and visit the various Santa Clauses.  I don’t know what age it was when I moved from the innocent child in the sailor suit to a perceptive thinker and analyst of Saint Nick.

I reasoned that there could only be one true Santa Claus.  Yet I saw a plethora of Santa Clauses on our shopping circuit.  There was at least one in every department store.  Other Santa Clauses were outside ringing bells.  They were on television and in parades.  They were everywhere.

I asked Santa (at least one of them) while sitting on his knee chatting about my needs and wants, why there were so many Santa Clauses.  His reply: “I’m the real Santa Claus.  Those others are my helpers.”

My mom was a depression-era trained bargain hunter, so we hit up several stores looking for sales in the holiday season.  This gave me the opportunity to hook up with several Santa Clauses.  I asked each one the same question and they would all give the same answer – I’m the real one; the others are my helpers.

I wasn’t a math major yet but I knew that only one could be telling the truth.  The

By Florida Memory (Child Looking at Santa on the Beach) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

others were liars.  How do I find the one true Santa?

The bell ringers were definitely helpers, perhaps working their way up the ranks to human interaction.  To analyze the sitting Santa Clauses fielding the multitudinous requests of expectant and earnest children that fueled the North Pole order fulfillment, behavior QC, and supply chain management, I needed a sharper technique to determine the wheat from the tares.

I found that after I communicated my gift list and Santa embarked upon his morality soliloquy about being nice and helpful and all that, I could study his beard.  If I figured out how it stuck on, then he was another fake.  One used lip tape.  The other used some sort of string netting I wasn’t supposed to see that tied behind his neck.  As I marched back to my mother who was declining the photo package, I would proudly inform her, “He wasn’t the real one.”

My theory was that the real Santa was the one at the fire station.  This Santa Claus was upscale.  He always gave the children a chocolate covered marshmallow Santa figure, not those small peppermint candy canes that required work, sucking, and get stuck in your teeth.  Everyone knows that chocolate trumps hard candy every time.

Further,  he was not tied to a store trying to lure you in to buy perfume and neck ties and a photo package.  At the fire station, they had a lawn full of lights and decorations.  It just felt different and more sincere than the department store Santa crammed behind the Sears insurance booth.

It was like magic as I waited in line among the lights to see the fire station Santa.  I walked by the reindeer, the giant gum drops, and the helping elves.   I went forward and sat on Santa’s knee.

“Hello, David,” he said, “How are you?”

I was flabbergasted and astounded!  “How did you know my name?”  I asked.

“Because,” he said, “I’m Santa Claus.  I know everything.”

Wow!  I was in astonishment as pondered out into the distance.  As I adjusted my gaze, I saw my mother pointing to her shoulder.  I looked down to my shoulder and saw the forgotten paper name tag that said  “David”.

That’s was when I jumped up on his knee, pulled his beard, stared into his beady brown eyes and yelled, “You lying son of a . . .”

OK, I really didn’t do that.  I told him my toy list as they snapped my photo.  I took my chocolate marshmallow Santa and walked with mom to the car.  I felt a little silly that I had forgotten about the name tag.

Some time later, my mom told me there was no Santa – that he was just a story.  My brother came to me later and asked,  “So, they hold you, huh?”

“Yeah,” I replied feeling as if I was supposed to be more devastated than I was.  But I wasn’t sad or disappointed. I had this gig figured out long before and it was really about time that we all agreed to drop the narrative.  It had been a nice way to choose toys but there never seemed to be a correlation between behavior and the quality of gifts that were always labeled “From Santa” in my mom’s handwriting.

No longer would I have to be put to bed for an hour on Christmas eve so they could let Santa in through the front door (a slight modification to the story since we didn’t have a fireplace) only to be allowed back out to a room full of relatives getting tipsy on egg nog while we opened our Christmas eve presents.

I’m not sure if forming an early belief in Santa Claus only to have it dismantled made me better or worse.   But it was fun while it lasted.

Why Am I Not Enjoying the Christmas Season?

By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands ([36/365] Christmas bokeh) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands ([36/365] Christmas bokeh) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My holiday season is filled with fun activities – a parade, concerts, dinners, and a carol sing, for example –  and I really want to enjoy them.  Yet it all feels like burdensome work and another item on the tyrannical task list.  Will our house be ready?  Will the bills be paid?  What gift will I find for this person or that?   And we need that final edit and photo for the family newsletter!

Charlie Brown’s angst of Christmas losing its meaning is old news.  After all, we live in a culture where, if anything, Christmas means too much – there is no end to Christmas specials helping us understand the multitudinous  pitches of “the true meaning of Christmas.”

Nevertheless, that isn’t where the problem lay.  Blaming culture is a cop out.   If I am disturbed, says an annoying quote from recovery circles, the problem is with me.

Current  Advent readings draw me back to what is true and substantive.   Unlike our Western propensity to see this dispensation solely as sparkle season, the Advent readings actually pull us to  a place of sparseness looking ahead with expectation but examining our hearts to question:  Is everything right?

Case in point is this morning’s reading highlighting John the Baptist in the deserted wilderness:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” says John as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Contemplative Christian spirituality is often seen in terms of attachments.  We are surrounded in culture with the prolific voices that are not God clamoring for our attention.  When these driving voices begin to take hold of our hearts enlarging beyond degree our attention on the trivial and the narrow, they become attachments.  When these attachments become strong bonds, they are called addictions.

Here are the major attachments so says some very smart Christians:

  • Wealth – My need to be secure.
  • Honor – My need to be well thought of.
  • Power – My need to be in control.
  • Pleasure – My need to feel good.

None of these things are necessarily bad in and of itself – we all by necessity experience all of these to some degree.  The problem comes when they become so enmeshed in my heart that I am completely given to the distraction and tangential and have completely lost sight of my call to love God with all my hearts, soul and strength and to love my neighbor as myself.

The American holiday season exacerbates the problem of attachments for me.  The extra expenses draws me to be preoccupied with money and making sure everything is budgeted correctly (Wealth).   In social gatherings, I want people to listen to me and think highly of my input (Honor).   I have a large task list of items that need to be done and I want the ability to move people to action or out of my way so I can accomplish my goals (Power).  In my weariness, I want these events to help me feel better, give me a thrill and help my tired soul feel human (Pleasure).

When these attachments don’t deliver the promised satisfaction, I find myself in a daze wondering when the whole, damn holiday season will be over with.

This is why John’s voice from the desert is such a clarifying voice:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”   When did Advent stop becoming the quiet anticipation for the coming King who sets all things right?  When did Advent suddenly become all about me and my responsibilities?

Bishop Robert Barron says, “Repentance means stop thinking about life as my project.  Start thinking that my life is not about me.  My life belongs to God and serves God’s purposes.  

“All my diversions and attachments are subservient to the idea that my life is all about me; my life is a project of self-satisfaction.”

In the quiet desert morning where John’s exhortations are taken to heart, I look up with a new hope,  I hear the distant promise, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light”.  Advent tells me it is not about me.  Advent tells me there is forward-looking hope that transcends the clutter and the chatter.

Bishop Robert Barron’s full sermon may be found here.

 

Why Gratitude Is a Matter of Life and Death

By Djembayz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Djembayz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I get easily put off by the topic of thanksgiving and gratitude.  I’ve sat through too many Thanksgiving services where parents toddle up their highly precocious and well-behaved kids to the microphone to say something like, “I’m thankful for my family, my fish named Bob, and that Jesus is in my heart,” to a gushing congregation.  

Very nice and precious and all that.  But some of us just aren’t that simplistic.   We live in the real, grown-up world.  We pay bills.  We absorb hurts.  We endure conflict. We fight depression and disappointment.  Life isn’t a cutesy precious moments figurine.

Nevertheless, in spite of the quick-fix hashtag Christianity of balloons and banners where God is like a pithy statement and a warm puppy dog, gratitude isn’t a tool only for the simplistic and childish.  It is a matter of life and death.  

I’ve felt for years that this word of Paul was the pivot upon which all humanity teetered one way or the other:

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:21).

As a people and as individuals, we can either honor God as God (a truth that may be suppressed but never honestly denied) and set our hearts consistently towards appropriate appreciation of all that we are and have.  Or we can turn away and say “no” in a very real, consistent and direct manner.  It is this latter refusal-over-time that leads mankind to the foolish and darkened heart and the sort of degenerative behavior that Paul lists in the verses that followed.  These behaviors were what Paul thought in his day to be the worst expressions of the outworking of sin.

The cause and effect is important here.  It isn’t as if we can change or legislate deplorable behavior and outward expression in order to turn a nation’s heart to love God.  Rather it is the other way around.  If my heart departs upstream, I will find myself a thousand miles from home downstream and wonder where along the way I turned into a beast.

This is why I say gratitude is a matter of life and death.

Here’s how it works.  If I stop being thankful for a significant period of time and begin to become isolated from myself and others allowing resentment to creep into my heart, I begin to move towards self-pity because, after all, no one understands me.  

From self-pity, I go to entitlement and begin to use the dangerous phrase, “I deserve.”  From there, fantasy sets in to convince myself that it is my choice and right to get what I deserve.  From there, it is a short trip to contempt where I begin to use the nihilistic “whatever” or the harsher “screw it!” as I look in disdain at the less-than people around me.

Once at contempt, what is there to restrain me from any suggestion the devil has to offer?  The unthinkable becomes justifiable on my way to the hell of isolation, shame, and despair.

The fatal path is this:  resentment → self-pity → entitlement → contempt → destructive and hurtful behavior → isolation, shame, and despair

So what knocks us off this degenerative path?  What breaks the spell?  What is the antidote?  

In short, I think, it is gratitude.  I can set aside resentment because God has given me everything I need.  I find self-pity a worthless waste of time because I am richly endowed and find greater joy in being available for others.  I’m not entitled, deserving any more than what I have.  I appreciate, enjoy and utilize what I have.   And what right do I have to show contempt towards a fellow human created in the image of God?

Being older and having experience does not mean that I have mastered this.  It means I learned through trial and much error to recognize sooner the warning signs of when I am getting off track.  I have found the further I get down the degenerative path, the harder it is to resist temptation.  The trick is acknowledging God and intentionally practicing gratitude to get off the path as soon as I can.  Battling sin is always more successful the farther I am up the way.