Head in the Heavens, Feet on the Ground

There is a hamster wheel aspect of life, where we find ourselves running faster and faster and yet, accomplishing less and less. It would seem that many of us today have drank the cultural cool-aid that says more and bigger and better is what we should always be expecting. While many Christians voices would have us worried about the erosion of our society’s morals, sometimes fearing a massive demonic conspiracy, as I examine my own tendency to work until I drop, I believe most of this phenomenon is more of an inside job. Things are going wrongly in the world, not because “good people do nothing” but because they have decided to try to do a million things at once. It used to be, that as we greeted one another asking “How have you been?” the standard response once was “good,” now it seems to be “busy!” It’s almost like we pride ourselves on phrenetic energy and exhaustion, and the more we push and push against the grindstone, the less we accomplish. And what we do accomplish is measured more by tasks and deadlines than it is by meaning, purpose, or passion. And when it comes to things of eternal significance especially, many of us who are painfully honest, know we are doing some good with God, but also, begin to wonder how much more He could do with our first fruits rather than our leftovers.

And the hamster wheel never stops, bringing its slough of hoops and hurdles, pressures and deadlines. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, we may find ourselves awash in the meaninglessness of the poison we have prescribed ourselves, which many still believe is a medicine that will eventually bring us happiness. In the face of these ultra-modern problems, how is a Christ follower to live? Does God have a timely word that speaks to our condition? I believe He does, and that the solution is quite radical. It bids us “come and die” to the inner control freak pulled around by the strings of fear. God’s answer is “stop.” We are to take the yoke of Jesus upon ourselves, where we soak in his presence and experience our burdens becoming light. How do we make room in our lives for Jesus? How do we get off the hamster wheel, and rest in him?

I think the answer is sabbath, a literal weekly day of rest. I know what some of you are probably thinking, Jesus challenged the Pharisees on how they practiced the sabbath, he confronted their legalism, and their hard heartedness. And surely that is true, but there was nothing wrong with keeping the sabbath. He challenged the how, not the what. I believe he would maybe be just as confrontational had he come in our day—not of our legalism of keeping the sabbath, but the poor motives and fears we often use to talk ourselves OUT of keeping a regular sabbath. God commanded in the Old Testament a weekly day of rest, along with many feasts and fasts, cycles of celebration and remembrance. And there is something about God’s people needing to be commanded to stop, something convicting about the old way of trusting God for seven days’ providence while living within the limits of six days of work. The ordinary of old now seems quite radical! God’s plan of old, was to never let us on the hamster wheel.

To me, there is a certain romance in pursuing regular sabbath with God almost as a form of revolution. I struggle with working myself to death just like anyone else, maybe worse than some. But in wiser moments, I value the truth found sometimes in sitting on the porch with God, reading my bible, or slipping into silent prayer in the sanctuary. There will always be more to do than will ever be done, and apart from Him you and I wither. There is an ancient wisdom crying out from the Old Testament, and in that Friend’s view of stewardship and simplicity, where we may be called here or there to say a costly no, to say a holy yes. As Thomas Kelly put it, “saying no can be just as faithful as saying yes.”

We probably all know the famous story of Jesus calming the storm, where he was sleeping in the bow of the boat and the panicking disciples woke him, and Jesus rebuked the storm (Mark 4:35-41). When it comes to sabbath, I believe we are sometimes just as ruled by our fears, and just as blinded to the presence of Jesus, as they were in that boat. But he rebuked not only the storm that day, he also rebuked his disciples for their lack of faith. Obviously, the story illuminates that Jesus was the messiah, answering the question “who is this man who rebukes the wind and waves?” But perhaps one lesson we could infer is that a faithful disciple may have done something different, perhaps even just crawling into the bow with Jesus and joining him in that nap, trusting that God’s plan will not be thwarted because we stop for a moment and rest in him. Probably most of our worst fears never happen, as I get a little older I am starting to think that perhaps what we should fear a little more is that hamster wheel.

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Some Musings on Prayer

Prayer is such a natural thing, but that doesn’t mean it is not without its difficulties. My practice of prayer has generally been in the realm of what Richard Foster refers to as “simple prayer.” I did not spend much time trying to find just the right words, I would often simply ask God for things such as help to be faithful, or simply thanking God for many blessings in my life. Since I have begun serving as a pastor, my experience with prayer has changed dramatically. For one thing, I pray for someone out loud nearly every day, whether over the phone or in person. For another, there is great expectation to do more “public” prayers; for instance during worship, city council meetings, convocations, and award banquets. I have since felt a greater burden to find the “right” words and this has actually pushed me further into my Quaker roots of silent prayer, perhaps as a sort of retreat. It has been liberating to just let the concept of words go in my personal prayer with God, simply because I am asked to pray vocally so much more often than before. It is wonderful in prayer to simply seek out God’s presence.

Biblically, prayer takes many forms and has a richness of imagery to draw from: anything from the psalmists’ call to “be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10), to laborious intercession (Deut. 9), to Jacob “wrestling” with God (Gen. 32:22-31), to Jesus’ priestly prayer (John 17) and the Lord’s prayer (Mt. 6:9-13). I would think any faithful and reflective reading of Scripture would call us to examine our prayers in light of the prayers already found in the biblical witness, and that somehow the boldness of these prayers should somehow rub off on us. As much as we struggle with various paradoxes in prayer such as the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom as it relates to prayer, or suffering, or simply our own limited understanding of the divine plan at work around us, it would seem that the model presented to us in the prayers of the Bible does not seem to share our western philosophical struggles with how prayer “works”, and that should give us a great deal of relief in my opinion. It would seem that children pray without feeling like they have to know everything about it before they can get started! Why do some of us struggle so much?

For me, I see a great model for the paradox of divine sovereignty/human freedom in my experience with my young children in my roles as parent. The old cliché of God having three answers to prayer: “yes, no, or I have something better in mind” takes on new meanings and fullness. For instance my daughters often have wonderful ideas that they are not quite ready for; or at times there passion, excitement, exuberance—or sheer nagging—can push me into new and wonderful directions as my own will, and there’s, tease out a slightly different present. Despite God being all knowing and “the parent” in our relationship, this far from means my point of view/plans/prayer requests fall on deaf ears, or aren’t worth the effort, simply because God already knows what I will pray for even before I ask. Anyone who thinks this can borrow my children for a day and see how different that day becomes! You can probably guess what you will be asked in advance, maybe even see it coming a mile away. The difference is whether it looks like snuggling and watching some show about pink unicorns or whatever, the relationship shapes the adventure a lot more than the reverse.

Like a parent, God limits Himself for the sake of our growth; to help us make good decisions and learn from our mistakes when we stumble and fall. God knowing the future or outcome of our prayers, in my understanding, does not necessitate that prayer does not matter. As the Bible says, the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (Jas 5:16). It would be unbiblical then to fall into the trap of believing that prayer does not influence God. Our prayer matters, because God desires it to be so. I will never forget  waiting for my child’s first words, longing for that, hoping to hear Da-da and knowing that this alone would be message enough.

As one sees in the biblical record of successful intercessions (Ex. 17:9-12; Num. 11:1-2), I believe God can actually change God’s plans in response to human prayers. Not that prayer manipulates God, but that it can truly be “powerful and effective,” not merely because we have aligned our will with God’s, but because God might actually decide to align God’s will with ours. Granted, God can and often does choose not to answer our prayers as we would like, but I truly believe some things can and will change as a direct response to prayer, i.e. we often do not have because we have not asked the One who is powerful and the Giver of all good things (Jas. 4:2-3).

Catherin Bondi sees prayer as an act of love and I can’t help but heartily agree. While I acknowledge the possibility of loveless prayers of lament or even anger at God, as Foster puts it, our love for God pushes us in the direction of interceding for others we also love. He writes, “If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is in our power to give them, and this will lead us to prayer.” I believe to love someone would necessarily draw us to prayer for them, and have even experienced—in the case of seeking forgiveness—that through continual prayer for someone I can be drawn to love them. I appreciated Bondi’s assertion that intercessory prayer has a connecting, rather than disconnecting effect toward those God has put in our lives. I have felt deep unforgiveness eventually leave me after praying for those who had wronged me. I like to think that a part of Jesus’ teaching on loving God and loving your neighbor (Mt. 22:39) is that you cannot separate the two; how you love your neighbor reflects how you love God and vice versa. Prayer ultimately leads us closer to both if we are being led into prayer rather than trying too tightly control it and hinder God’s sway in us.

Agape,

James


A Call for Deepening our Christian Community 

Self reliance is a wonderful thing, however God calls us as his body to grow beyond merely what we can do on our own. A good friend once put it something like, “If I can do it all myself, that means I am not doing enough. God wants more for the church than what I can do by myself. If I am doing it all myself I am not raising up leaders or making disciples.” To be the community God intended requires us to practice forgiveness and grace, take loving risks—and really—it requires truly a covenant, where we are truly committed to God and each other in service and sacrifice. The ties that bind us together in Christ, must become far stronger than those forces that would tear us apart.

Fear of legalism or abuse is very real, as many a personal experience of those who have left church behind could testify to… but I wonder at times how much greater the impact the church as a whole could have as salt and light to our society if we could reclaim a more “corporate” model of faith. We were never created to be alone, to feel isolated or to feel alienated. We were created to share love, and that seems to take more than one actor to be a lived reality. Love is a verb, an action word. Love, by its very nature, seems to require expression. It is a gift that cannot be kept under a basket, but must be shared.

Proverbs 27:6 says “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” And sometimes sharing love requires someone to love us enough to risk offering guidance and correction, not from a “holier than thou” place of judgment, but from a place of humility and love and freedom. I have recently had a few people show me this kind of love and for me, as awkward as it can be, it is also very freeing. It offers a place for the rubber to meet the road in my spiritual journey. It helps me to realize I have not “arrived” and still have a lot of room to grow along the path of Christ-likeness I am walking, but it also helps me see that I am not walking alone, that others care enough about my growth to invest time in me.

Somehow by God’s design, the human eye has a blind spot our brains tune out, right at the very center. We tune out that blind spot so well because we have two eyes, and many of us have long forgotten our blind spots exists and can’t even make themselves see it again. Community puts us in that place where inevitably we have to confront our blindness. It puts us in a place where we see the limits of ourselves and recognize that we need each other, that with more “eyes”—more spiritual gifts and talents—we better become the body of Christ come alive, and better become alert to the needs of our world. We each have our perspectives, our piece of the puzzle that is our part of God’s tapestry-like story of the redemption of the world. In the spiritual community the voiceless is voiced, the blindness finds its sight, as we find our place in the body and we discover our calling and where we thrive in service to the kingdom of God.

I know I am not perfect. I know I make mistakes. I know I need God’s grace. I know at times I need to stop and ask for forgiveness or offer it to others. And I know I am not alone in this reality that others are struggling in their own ways. And also, that they are finding victory in their own ways. I want to encourage you, as we enter this spring season, to think about the role community plays in your life, and the role you play in your church community. We all have our issues, our unique obstacles to overcome. We all have our unique mix of strengths, weaknesses… passions and drudgery. But to be the body of Christ, we need to learn to trust and rely on one another… we need to learn to work together as a team, and hold our pieces of the puzzle loosely in the face of God’s will being revealed to us.

Walking together means walking in vulnerability, humility, and ultimately freedom. But we can’t forget we make the path by walking together. In our holy nudgings toward discomfort and growth, we also gain a greater sense of God’s peace and a better understanding of ourselves. If I have learned anything as a disciple of Jesus it is that ignoring hard truths is a path leading only toward destruction and death, not the new life that God offers us.  But I have also learned that Jesus IS present and active in community—in his body—and that where all our blind spots converse honestly, God not only gives grace; He gives freedom. “Those the Son sets free are free indeed,” but we each make the decision of how free we will let ourselves become. Often our fear of vulnerability robs us of the blessings God wants to give us. It robs us of the body, functioning fully as a body. It robs us of perhaps our best way of seeking the future; by doing it together.

Agape,

James


Save Us!

In our journey with God there is a “now and not yet” quality to it. We have a foretaste of our salvation, but we do not yet have it in its fullness. We have the story of Jesus’ first coming, but there is still a lot of mystery about the time He comes again.

Psalm 80 hearkens back to the frustration of those who waited for the arrival of Jesus, who cried out to God, begging Him to send His Messiah in the midst of sorrow, anger, and suffering.

17 Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,

the son of man you have raised up for yourself.

18 Then we will not turn away from you;

revive us, and we will call on your name.

19 Restore us, Lord God Almighty;

make your face shine on us,

that we may be saved.

(Psalm 80:17-19)

This is a Psalm of lament crying out Yeshua, crying out for God to intervene now, to save us. Yeshua is Jesus’ name in Hebrew. In light of what we know now about God’s salvation, it seems so fitting that Yeshua is both the giver and the gift we are waiting for. This Psalm repeating “save us” over and over again was whispering Jesus’ name in mysterious ways the human author could hardly have imagined. It is a cry from the heart for God to break back into our stories, to rescue us from the inescapable trap of the sin of the world.

The Psalmist cries RESTORE us! Knowing you are in need of restoration is to know that you are missing something without Jesus in your life. It is that longing to be complete, to find the peace we are searching for. To find God filling that “God-shaped hole” in our lives, or as Augustine put it, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.” May we find ourselves recognizing this Easter season that plastic eggs and grass—even spending time with our families— as wonderful as these things as are, are never be enough to satisfy our yearning for something more in our relationship with God. So often the peripheral things can eclipse the focus on Jesus’ resurrection. May we find the answer to our deepest desires in remembering that the empty cross and empty tomb point us to our coming of our savior, knowing that the best is truly yet to come as we stand before God face to face.

Another cry of the psalmist is REVIVE us! A part of us is asleep without Jesus; purposeless, and adrift. Even if all the pieces are there, sometimes we need that spark from God to fan our hearts aflame once again. When someone is passed out drunk to the point that they might as well be in a coma, there is an expression for that I often heard on the construction site. We call a person in that state “three sheets to the wind.” It means they are so out of it that they don’t even notice they have lost some things that matter. For some of us, three sheets to the wind might describe our spiritual walk. We are unaware of how God is moving in us and around us.

We had this big window in a house I lived in, and birds would not see the glass and try to fly through the house. We would hear this big THUNK now and then, and know that a bird had hit the window. There was a big fat cat outside just waiting to hear that noise. Sometimes the bird would break its neck and die instantly, but we noticed that if we went outside and rubbed the bird’s feet it would sometimes be revived the bird and it would fly away to safety.

Jesus picks us up like that. He wakes up the sleeping parts of our souls and gives us new purpose, and new direction. Sometimes our salvation isn’t from a life like mine with a propensity for self destruction, it is a salvation from wasting our lives. From sleepwalking onward…just going through the motions of a mediocre life. It is salvation from a ‘low-stakes spirituality’ where ultimately we never put ourselves in a position to trust God, where we mistakenly think it is all up to us.

God’s story of salvation for the world is the story of an all-out rescue mission. We can see the gospel hinted at in the first verses of this song:

Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,

you who lead Joseph like a flock.

You who sit enthroned between the cherubim,

shine forth 2 before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.

Awaken your might;

come and save us.

This is a prayer for the great Shepherd of Israel, to come out from the holy of holies and get His hands dirty. To enter into the brokenness of the world and make it right. To come like the mighty right hand of God’s justice and lift us out of desperate struggle we find ourselves in. This psalm is a prayer that reached far beyond the imagination of the Psalmist. It pointed us to Yeshua, to salvation embodied in Jesus Christ. It pointed us to God’s great story of redemption that was nothing less than the God “enthroned between the cherubin” awakened in a human body and coming to save us in the flesh. This prayer was answered, but not without a lot of hoping and waiting for the fullness of God’s plan to be revealed.

Hopefully this Easter season and approaching Pentecost, we can recognize our need for God, our longing for God to save us in one form or another. The psalmist references the story of Joseph in the Genesis. He says, “you who lead Joseph like a flock” All throughout the Old Testament story of Joseph he has some pretty big setbacks along the way. He gets thrown in a hole, threatened with death, sold into slavery, thrown in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet God is behind the scenes pulling the strings, putting Joseph into a position of power he never would have imagined for himself.

Near the end of his life, Joseph is reconciled with his brothers who sold him into slavery. He has this moment of revelation where he realizes that God’s hand was behind it the whole time, that all of this was orchestrated by God to save his family from famine… He says to his brothers, what you intended for evil, God intended for good. What a wonderful foreshadowing of the Easter story!

Having God as our shepherd does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. It doesn’t mean we will never lament, or shake our fist at God. But it does mean that in the end we will see God’s purposes in it. We will see how God used even the lowest points in our lives for His glory. Salvation isn’t just about having arrived. Sometimes it means slowly moving in the right direction, but moving with God rather than against Him.

The Psalmist also points to the future glory of Jesus. He writes:

“Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,

the son of man you have raised up for yourself.

18 Then we will not turn away from you;”

This future son of man who sits at the right hand of the Father is Jesus, the one who saves that would be lifted up before a watching world. He would come under the power and authority of God himself and save His people once and for all. He would bring a salvation we would not turn away from… He would come and do for us what we could not do for ourselves. This is the big story of redemption. It is the story of God stepping into human history to save a people crying out for restoration.

It is sometimes easy to lose our focus in the holiday seasons—and this is just as true for pastors—to drift away from what matters. To misplace our hope in hopeless things, yet God, like a Shepherd, nudges us back into the right direction. He restores and revives us. He challenges us to become fully alive and fully recreated in God’s image.

As we wait for our fulfillment of the promises of Easter, do still we look for the Lord’s face to shine on us? Where are we still restless because we are not resting in Him? As we find ourselves celebrating and waiting, it is always worth asking ourselves if the focus of our waiting is on the hurry and hassles of minor things, or the richness of the promises we have in Jesus and His resurrection.

Agape,

James


Glorifying God in the Midst of Conflict

When we think about peace, unfortunately, what comes to mind is the opposite of war rather than the rich imagery of human wellbeing and harmony that is the Hebrew understanding of shalom. And yet, before we could ever begin to approach the implications of a biblical model of peace when it comes to something like war, perhaps we followers of Jesus might take a deeper look at what tools God has given us to address conflict among ourselves. Many of the leaders of College Avenue have recently done a study through Ken Sande’s book, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, and I can say our group has had a truly transformational experience as we wrestled together with what God’s word has to teach us about repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Sande’s interest in biblical conflict resolution draws from a wealth of experience serving as a Christian lawyer, who at many points found himself  sincerely desiring God’s best for many of his Christian brothers and sisters who thought civil court was their last hope.

Ken’s presentation style is personal, practical, and unflinchingly faithful. Ultimately, he and some others founded Peacemaker Ministries to better serve and assist God’s people to work through conflict in a way that gives glory to God and strengthens the credibility of our Christian witness. Our hope as the IAYM Board of Christian Social Concerns, is to challenge our Yearly Meeting churches to consider making their way through this 8 week study. To do this, what is needed is a pair of facilitators with the time and passion, and a book and study guide for everyone in the class. While some might not choose to purchase them, there are also wonderful video resources designed to augment the study with teachings by Ken, and many illustrative short skits or “parables” that go with each lesson that truly bring these principles to heart. While not required, these video resources are recommended, and could perhaps be a shared resource among our various quarterly meetings. Peacemaker Ministries also has youth and family books and resources you may be interested in taking a look at, to make God’s best for us accessible to all.    

We know that not every IAYM church has a Peace and Social Concerns Committee, and some that do aren’t very active, but if your church has a pair of co-leaders who are passionate about being peacemakers, you would be well on your way to facilitating a study on your own, as we did. But if your church is close enough to drive to College Avenue, and you are willing to make the trip, we are planning on starting two fresh courses: one on mondays at 6:00pm (beginning Feb 26th) that will be taught by Mike Fogle and Bill Blake, and a second wednesdays at 6:30pm  (beginning February 28th) taught by Mike and Deb Moyer. The second will even have soup a half hour prior! We also have two additional pairs of co-leaders lined up to offer additional courses this year, with one potentially being in the summer. We at College Avenue invite those who would to join us, with the hope to empower you with practical tools and inspire a passion for interpersonal peacemaking and biblical conflict resolution. We as Christians have such a foundation to draw on when it comes to living by God’s principles. Often, it is putting God’s best into practice where we struggle. Our hope as a committee, and my hope as a pastor, is to equip Christ’s church for faithful service and witness in the world. This study is not political, and not primarily about addressing the violence of our broken world. What it is, however, is a starting place to come together and earnestly seek God’s will when it comes to the things that so often divide us. And from that common frame of reference in God’s word, learn to walk together toward maturity to the glory of God. Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers. Let us seek that blessing together in 2018!

Agape,

James Tower

Book https://www.amazon.com/Peacemaker-Biblical-Resolving-Personal-Conflict/dp/0801064856/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1515651190&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=The+Peacemaker%3A+A+Biblical+Guide+to+Resolving+Personal+Conflict+DVD

 

Kit with DVD’s  http://peacemaker.christianbook.com/peacemaking-church-small-group-study-kit/pd/444488?event=CPOF        


Come and Save Us

God’s story of salvation for the world is the story of an all out rescue mission. We can see the gospel hinted at the beginning of Psalm 80:

Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,

you who lead Joseph like a flock.

You who sit enthroned between the cherubim,

shine forth  before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.

Awaken your might; come and save us.

This is a prayer for the great Shepherd of Israel, to come out from the holy of holies and get His hands dirty. To enter into the brokenness of the world and make it right. To come like the mighty right hand of God’s justice and lift us out of desperate struggle we find ourselves in. This psalm is a prayer that reached far beyond the imagination of  the Psalmist. It pointed us to Yeshua, a name shared by Jesus with Joshua, and which means means “rescuer” or “deliverer” and ultimately to the salvation embodied in Jesus Christ. It pointed us to God’s great story of redemption that was nothing less than the God “enthroned between the cherubim” awakened in a human body and coming to save us in the flesh. This prayer was answered, but not without a lot of hoping and waiting for the fullness of God’s plan to be revealed.

This advent, an advent celebrated by a world in turmoil, may our circumstances do us the kindness of helping us recognize our need for God, our longing for God to save us in one form or another. The psalmist references the story of Joseph in the Genesis. He says “you who lead Joseph like a flock” All throughout the Old Testament story of Joseph he has some pretty big setbacks along the way. He gets thrown in a hole, threatened with death, sold into slavery, thrown in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet  God is behind the scenes pulling the strings, putting Joseph into a position of power he never would have imagined for himself.

Near the end of his life, Joseph is reconciled with his brothers who sold him into slavery. He has this moment of revelation where he realizes that God’s hand was behind it the whole time, that all of this was orchestrated by God to save his family from famine… He says to his brothers, what you intended for evil, God intended for good.

Having God as our shepherd does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. It doesn’t mean we will never lament, or shake our fist at God. But it does mean that in the end we will see God’s purposes in it. We will see how God used even the lowest points in our lives for His glory. Salvation isn’t just  about having arrived. Sometimes it means slowly moving in the right direction, but moving with God rather than against Him. The Psalmist also points to the future glory of Jesus. He writes:

“Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,

the son of man you have raised up for yourself.

Then we will not turn away from you;”

This future son of man who sits at the right hand of the Father is Jesus, the one who saves that would be lifted up before a watching world. He would come under the power and authority of God Himself and save His people once and for all. He would bring a salvation we would not turn away from… He would come and  do for us what we could not do for ourselves. This is the big story of Christmas. The gospel is not only about the resurrection, it is about the incarnation. It is the story of God stepping into human history to save a people crying out for redemption.

It is easy for us to lose our focus, to drift away from what matters. To misplace our hope in hopeless things, yet God, like a shepherd, nudges us back into the right direction. He restores and revives us. He challenges us to become fully alive and fully recreated in God’s image. But He will not give if we don’t ask, He will not open the door if we are unwilling to knock. If we pretend we have no need for a savior, how can we expect to be ready for the rescue? As Augustine puts it, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.”

As we wait for God’s fulfillment this Advent, do still we look for the Lord’s face to shine on us? Where are you still restless because you are not resting in Him? Part of our preparation for God’s ultimate arrival is to acknowledge our need, and not in a way where we throw up our hands in despair…but where we turn again to the Shepherd of our souls and once again say, “Come Lord Jesus. Come and save us.”

Agape,

James

PS Merry Christmas in advance from all the Tower family!

 

 


Some Thinking on Thankfulness

While not a very religious holiday, Thanksgiving is still my favorite one to celebrate. This has to do with my love of gathering loved ones around a table in fellowship. It truly is the great American love-feast, and often comes the closest many of us ever experience in our culture to the table fellowship of the early church (or for that matter the holy feasts of the Old Testament). There is something holy in the love that our green bean casseroles were made with. There something holy (and wholesome) about dedicating a day to spend together with family thanking God for His providence.

Thanksgiving seems to break through our individualistic culture and provide a sorely needed excuse for togetherness. In our fragmented and disconnected world, there is something that food and fellowship around a table provide, that I believe, is sorely needed. It gives us an opportunity to invite in that weird uncle or aunt or neighbor who sees the world so differently than we do, and to love them where they are (not as we want them to be). As Quakers, we believe that everyone is imbued with the image of God; that all people have value. At Thanksgiving, many of us put that commitment to love our neighbor to the test! We need this grace to us more than most of us are willing to admit.

As an Osky transplant, I am blessed with a newcomer’s perspective. I see the many things about this community that are amazing. For me, it has been kind of like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting, in a very good way. I think as a community we have a lot of things to be thankful to God for, and that joining together in worship to celebrate God’s rich bounty is something that is worthwhile. While there may be theological differences and a variety of ways people experience God in worship in this community, I bet one thing we could all agree on is God’s goodness to us. This one brute fact should inspire us to live out our love modeling Christ’s example. If God truly loves us–US–warts and all…that should fill us with excitement.

In my Quaker values class I teach regularly about simplicity, something I like to define for a largely secular audience as “saying no to some things in order to say yes to the right things.” I regularly do an exercise where I have the students physically stand in the left, middle, or right side of the classroom to show their response (agree, unsure, or disagree) to an intentionally vague statement. This really gets people talking because they have already made a statement in their walking. For the week on simplicity I pose the statement “having lots of money will automatically make a person grateful, happy, and enjoy a meaningful life.” I am always surprised with how this exercise reveals. Some, see money as giving a person the freedom to pursue a life of meaning unhindered. Others, resonate with money’s power to magnify good or problematic areas of a person’s life. They acknowledge statistics about high levels of suicide among lotto winners, and recognize that in many ways, massive wealth could undermine the things in life they value the most.

This is a crucial step in the class’ journey of exploring the intersection between simplicity and gratitude, something few of us wrestle with openly. To get the class moving in this direction, I read a quote from Robert Fryling’s book The Leadership Ellipse that asks such an important question:

“…Gratitude is the involuntary response of the heart to all aspects of life and ultimately to God. It is not based primarily on circumstance. Some of the most grateful people in the world are the poorest, while many that are rich often are characterized by their lack of gratitude as they seek to acquire more money or fame. If this is the case, what then makes us grateful, or how can we be more grateful people?”

I think how we answer that question powerfully shapes the direction of our lives.

It is easy for many of us to always focus on what we have not attained, to be driven (consciously or not) by our fears or pride, or other people’s expectations. Few of us ever stop and be grateful.

One girl, who warned me on the first day of class that she struggled immensely in all of her attempts at religion classes, ended the course having a spiritual awakening and getting involved in a local church. As she presented her journey of exploring simplicity, she found such freedom that as a part of her relationship with God, she had someone to be grateful TO for her many blessings and the beauty of creation. This, among many other extravagant luxuries, are easily taken for granted by us Christians. But at the end of the day–each day–so much of how we see the world is shaped by where our focus lies. We daily have a choice of what we choose to focus on–the blessings we haven’t yet received, or the ones we have. We can allow gratitude to fill our hearts…or jealousy. The only one who chooses this, is you or me.

How DO we become more grateful people? I think grateful people focus less on the negative aspects of their current circumstances, and more on their many blessings. It is easy to fall into the same trap as the nightly news which is basically to focus only on the terrible or controversial things that happen in the world, and to do so until we find ourselves ever torn between reeling in fear and addicted to outrage. There is a story of three couples–freshly moved to town–who encounter an old man on a bench. In separate encounters, he asks each of them, “What was it like where you came from?” One couple said everyone was always gossipping and backbiting, another that people were always looking down their nose at others as they kept up with the Jones’, and the last said that there were many wonderful people with friendships that had deepened over dozens of years. The man on the bench responded to each couple with the exact same answer, “You are going to find a lot of that here too.”

As Christians we are going to find a lot of what we are “looking for” as well. We may see slights or grace, good or evil, the fallenness of people or the faithfulness of God. Whatever we want to see more of we will find. But we seem to need extra grace to do as Paul exhorts in Phil 4:8,

“whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Scott Mcknight once said “Tables build societies.” How might Thanksgiving be an opportunity to see God’s value in all people? How might some food, fellowship, or even board games around a table be an opportunity to share God’s love? That table of old where Jesus sat with his rag-tag disciples transcended the differences between a radical zealot and his nemesis a tax collector. It brought together rough and tumble fishermen, and even had room for a traitor like Judas. There is something about Thanksgiving that connects us to the table Jesus shared long ago, and reminds us of the Great Wedding Supper of the Lamb to come. I believe it is there to find for us, if we are willing to let God give us the eyes to see it.


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