Gratitude

The core of the Young Life ministry, of which I have been a part going on 47 years, is the volunteer leaders that invest in the lives of teenagers. I am privileged to help train younger staff that lead the volunteer troops. Several years ago, while in a discussion during a training time, we deliberated the make-up of the best leaders. We decided that what separated best leaders from average leaders was this: they get “it.” As the discussion progressed, we attempted to quantify and define “it.” This is where we landed:

“If someone gets “it,” no definition is necessary; for those who don’t, no definition will suffice.”

In the context of practical theology, I suspect this is a truism that crosses all aspects of faith understanding. I suspect it was central to Jesus’ repetitive quote from Isaiah 6 addressing the Israelites – people that kept on listening, without perceiving; that keep on looking, without understanding. I think this describes our journeys of faith as we try to figure out this phenomenon of following Jesus. We wrestle with an aspect of faith for a time – reading, researching, discussing – seemingly to no avail. Then, all of a sudden, something happens and it makes sense. We get it. We cannot explain it yet – we just know we get it now and we see everything through a new lens…

We hear two distinctly different responses during this pandemic – gratitude or censure/blame. Gratitude* is a core virtue of the Christian life. It’s one of those things I didn’t get for years, but became clear in the middle of a personal crisis. I finally got it, though I couldn’t have explained it to anyone for a time. But I knew it was a life-changer.

From the New Oxford American Dictionary, gratitude describes the quality of being thankful and readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. During these days, grateful people are coming out of the woodwork to serve others, even the ungrateful. Grateful people get it. They don’t need to work at showing gratitude, its second nature.

One of the best books I’ve ever read was Brennan Manning’s Ruthless Trust (a book I HIGHLY recommend). In Ruthless Trust, Manning described how he might determine if someone truly trusts God:

“Let’s say I interviewed ten people and asked them each the same question – “Do you trust God?” – and each answered “Yes, I trust God,” but nine out of ten actually did not trust him. How would I find out which was telling the truth? I would videotape each of the ten lives for a month and then, after watching the videos, pass judgment using this criterion: The person with an abiding spirit of gratitude is the one who trusts God.” my emphasis)

During his message on Sunday, April 26, Bjorn Dixon of the WHY Church (Elk River, MN) made an interesting and telling statement: “What you thought about God before the pandemic is how you will relate to God in a pandemic.” If gratitude was core to my trust in God before the pandemic, then gratitude is the natural response during the pandemic. For those of us struggling to be grateful right now, here’s the very good news: God uses interruptions and crises to transform us, to help us get “it” (whatever “it” we might be in need of “getting”). I have observed people “get” the virtue of gratitude these last few weeks. Others will get it before this is over. If you aren’t there yet, there’s hope.

“God is the creator, redeemer, and consummator of all that is. Human beings live in a relation of inescapable dependence on God to which gratitude is the appropriate response.” (Miroslav Volf, “Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in the Christian Life”, my emphasis).

* Interestingly, the Greek word used in the New Testament and translated as gratitude is eucharistía, the same word from which Eucharist is derived. (See Colossians 2:6-7, 1 Timothy 4:4-5, Hebrews 12:28 as examples of gratitude used in the New Testament.)

Zoe

Let’s talk about Zoe. Not Zoe from Sesame Street, not Zoey of Pokémon fame, not Zooey Deschanel (New Girl), and not Zoe, Rudolph’s love interest in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie. Let’s discuss the Greek word zoe that the writer of the Gospel of John deemed important enough to use over 30 times. It’s fair to conclude that, to him, zoe had deep theological significance in describing Jesus and his vocation.

Ask a number of people Jesus’ purpose for coming to earth and we will get a number of different responses. However most will intimate something about clearing the path so we can go to heaven when we die. Though that is certainly an outcome, Jesus offered far more than simply going to heaven, which John captured well, with zoe at the core. Along with ushering in God’s kingdom, Jesus purposed to offer people zoe…

Many of us are familiar with the passage in which Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, ESV) or, as stated in the New Living Translation, “My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” There it is. Jesus’ purpose for coming was to provide an abundant, rich and satisfying life. The Greek word translated as “life” is zoe.

Zoe is rich with meaning: absolute fullness of life that belongs to (and comes from) God, life that is real and genuine, life that is active and vigorous. Here are a few examples of the 30 some cases where John used zoe to describe what Jesus was offering…

  • John 1:4 – In him was life (zoe), and that life (zoe) was the light of all mankind.
  • John 3:16 – Whoever believes in Him will have eternal life (zoe)
  • John 5:24 – Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life (zoe) and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life (zoe).
  • John 5:39-40 – You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life (zoe). These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life (zoe).
  • John 10:10 – The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life (zoe), and have it to the full (or abundantly).
  • John 17:3 – Now this is eternal life (zoe): that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

I think it’s fairly clear Jesus purposed that we might have life now, not far into the future when we die and go to heaven. Zoe describes a blessed life that is portioned even in this world to those who put their trust in Jesus and then is consummated after death. Noticed that Jesus did not say “I have come that you will have life someday in the future” (i.e, in heaven). How unappealing if he enticed us with something we can’t possess until after death.

Jesus purposed that we would experience life (zoe) now, on earth as in heaven. Revisiting John 5:24, above: Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life (zoe). Quite often Jesus used the term Very truly, (in some translations, verily, verily). In each case he was effectively saying to his listeners to lean in, you don’t want to miss this! Notice he said has eternal zoe. Has. Present tense. Jesus made it very clear that the full and rich life is available now, today, in the midst of normal, everyday life (and pandemics, by the way).

How do we access this zoe? Jesus was quite clear – by believing in the one true God who sent him. Believe. The Greek word for believe is pisteuō. The best way to describe pisteuō is “rely on, trust in, and adhere to,” words that imply following. When we chose to follow Jesus, we have zoe. It’s not something we strive to obtain. Someone once emailed me the story of a friend that had searched for years looking for this ‘abundant life’ only to discover she already possessed it – in Jesus!  In Jesus we already have life (zoe) – complete, full, abundant, real, genuine, active, and purposeful life NOW – which is what we all want isn’t it?

Let me briefly tell you about another Zoë. Several of us have been working on a web-based app to help our young people better prepare for a life of meaning, of purpose. We call the tool Zoë. Though not faith-based, Zoë was designed with the care and concern for young people we feel Jesus would demonstrate. Zoë GOES LIVE TODAY, April 22. Launching in the middle of a pandemic? Yes! Especially important during the uncertainty in our world right now, we want to help teens and students to find their purpose in life! Check it out. We would love to hear your thoughts.

Hope

Hope is a word we use all the time, yet its meaning is a bit elusive as is hope itself. I was recently thinking back of things I have hoped for over the years. There were the simple hopes, like Christmas coming sooner. The first Christmas hope I remember that came to fruition was a Tonka Firetruck (which I still have). As I reached adolescence, my hopes moved beyond firetrucks. I had hoped to be nominated to the Air Force Academy (which did happen) and to be selected (which didn’t happen).

Moving into my 20s, I hoped (beyond hopes) that I might be privileged with a beautiful wife (which certainly happened). As we raised a family, my hopes turned more external, more God-influenced. I hoped that our kids would grow into adulthood as Christ-followers (which has happened). With prayer at the center, that hope was accompanied by doing the hard work necessary to not screw it up. The wishful thinking of our younger years doesn’t serve us well in adulthood nor as Christ-followers, leaving us to wonder, “What is hope, anyway?”

The dictionary definition of hope suggests wishful thinking, a desire for something good to happen. While Biblical hope certainly includes a desire for something good to happen, it is much more than that. We discover that a variety of Hebrew words are often translated into the single English word “hope.” An aggregation of the various Hebrew words provides us with a description of hope that includes, “to trust in, wait for, look for, or desire something or someone; or to expect something beneficial in the future.”

Notice that Biblical hope implies trust. And the focus of that trust is Yahweh, the Lord God – on who his is and what he has done. We western Christians struggle to trust and hope in God simply for who he is. We tend to focus of our hope and trust on what he can do for us (here we think of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). In Scripture, on the other hand, we see hope and trust focused on God himself…

  • Psalm 25:2-3 (NIV) – I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me.  No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame… The Hebrew word here implies not only hope and trust but also security.
  • Psalm 33:22 (a mix of ESV & AMP) – Let your steadfast love [hesed], O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope [placed our confidence] in you. Notice that trust (confidence) is placed on God and his character, his covenant love for his people.
  • Jeremiah 14:22 (AMP) – Are there any among the idols of the nations who can send rain?  Or can the heavens [of their own will] give showers?  Is it not You, O Lord our God?  Therefore we will wait and hope [confidently] in You, for You are the one who has made all these things [the heavens and the rain]. Again, the bracketed confidence implies trust.

Biblical hope also holds an element of waiting, which we see in the Amplified translation of Jeremiah 14:22, above. One of our go-to passages that speaks of waiting is Isaiah 40:31they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. The word ‘wait’ could easily be translated as hope. Read the passage with hope inserted: they who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. It comes to life!

The origin of the Hebrew term in the Isaiah passage suggests a twisting, stretching, and tension during the time of waiting and hoping. Ah, we do not want to hear that! We want hope to be positive, not twisting, stretching, or causing tension. We want a quick sprint that leads to soaring like eagles. We aren’t interested in a marathon. It doesn’t fit our western Christian thinking or culture.

But life has changed, hasn’t it? We are actually living out Isaiah 40:31. We may be in a marathon without an established finish line. We are experiencing twisting, stretching, and tension from all sides. And we wait in hope. Our ability to navigate these days is fully dependent on that which we place our hope as we wait. Are we hoping and waiting for this to get over, for improved circumstances? Or do we settle in for a marathon, placing our hope, trust, and confidence in the one true God as we wait?

Likely we waffle between the two and thus a cause of much tension. God is well aware of our waffling and wants to hold us, not scold us! I recall Jesus not scolding the father of a son desperately in need of healing: “The father of the boy cried out [with a desperate, piercing cry], saying, ‘I do believe [trust]; help [me overcome] my unbelief [lack of trust].'” (Mark 9:24) God, we believe! Help us in our unbelief!

We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit! (Romans 5:3-5, The Message)

On the same night in which He was betrayed…

“On the same night in which he was betrayed,” or some form thereof, are familiar words to Christians the world over. They are the beginning of the words of institution of the Eucharist – the Lord’s Supper or Communion. The wording comes from the Apostle Paul, found in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 as he describes what took place during Jesus’s last Passover supper with his beloved Twelve. As we focus on that last meal, we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that a lot more happened on the same night in which he was betrayed.

I have mentioned previously that Jesus showed us how to live. In a similar fashion, on the same night in which he was betrayed, Jesus also showed us how to live the Lord’s Prayer…

This year I have been traveling through Lent using Walter Wangerin’s Reliving the Passion, an amazing ‘crawl into the story’ treatise of the passion week as recorded in the Gospel of Mark. I have used it off and on over the past 20 years, experiencing new thoughts and emotions each year of its use. This year I saw, for the first time, the way in which Jesus lived out the Lord’s Prayer as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane on the same night in which he was betrayed.

Wangerin reminds his readers that Jesus often taught the same thing twice – first with words and then reinforced with actions and deeds.* On the same night in which he was betrayed, as we watch Jesus praying alone in the garden, we have a glimpse of the Lord’s Prayer actually lived out. With a deep and desperate desire, Jesus pleads with his Father, his Abba, to be saved (rescued) and to be spared of what he knew was coming. He was living out, in raw honesty, the sixth petition of the Prayer…

Lead us not into temptation – Save us from this time of trial.

Jesus pleads not once, not twice, but three times, “Remove this cup from me,” embodying the plea of the seventh petition of the Prayer…

Deliver us (me!) from evil, from the evil one.

As Jesus pleads with his Father, he displays a posture and attitude of faithful and complete obedience saying, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus is living out before our eyes the third petition, “which prepares us properly for any answer God may give to all [our] other petitions” (Wangerin)…

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Wangerin continues: “Implicit, hereafter, in his entering into ‘the hour’ of trial after all is his personal conviction that ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.’ Jesus, now more than ever in his ministry, is the living embodiment of the second petition, Thy kingdom come. Right now, his acceptance of the Father’s will is the coming of that kingdom here!”

Thy kingdom come.

Jesus begins both prayers addressing God as Father, with the garden prayer showing a deep intimacy – Abba, Father. It’s the expression a child has when her father comes home from work – Daddy!

Today is Maundy Thursday, the same day in which he was betrayed. During a worldwide pandemic, we struggle for words to articulate our deep, raw and desperate feelings. May the Lord’s Prayer be of comfort – especially in light of Jesus’ deep, raw and desperate prayers in the garden. Maybe during this time we, too, are learning to live the Prayer. That would be a good thing!

Walter Wangerin’s Paraphrase

* A great experience would the comparison of Jesus’ own deeds and actions with his Sermon on the Mount exhortations.

Fore-Edge Paintings

Ever heard of fore-edge painting? I hadn’t until I stumbled onto the Alcuin Scholarly and Rare Books store when I was in Scottsdale, AZ, in February. My friend Bruce and I spent three hours browsing through some really old books, including an 1885 Huckleberry Finn ($15,000) and a Greek New Testament printed in 1533, the same year Martin Luther published A Mighty Fortress is Our God. In addition, there were several 18th and 19th century books with fore-edge paintings. A fore-edge painting is a scene painted on the edges of the pages of a book. When the pages are fanned, a painting appears (check out this 30 second YouTube video).

My grandma created her own version of fore-edge painting. About 25 years ago, when she was approaching 100 years of age and living in a nursing home, I picked up her thick, large-print Bible. The edges were white except for a dirty-looking thin band around the middle of her Bible. It looked like someone had marked her Bible with a grey Sharpie. When I fanned the pages, I discovered the band coincided with location of the Book of Psalms, evidence that’s where she spent a majority of her time reading – an indicator of her confidence in God in the waning years of her life. We are living in a time when we could use some confidence in the midst of uncertainty.

For the past 25 or so years, I have been in the habit of reading a psalm a week. There are 150 psalms in the Bible, so simple math tells me I have read the Book of Psalms 8-9 times over that span (markups and highlights as clear evidence). As I’ve continued in the Psalms, they have provided a wonderful glimpse of who God is and who we are in relation to him. The Psalms are full of praise and lament, gratitude and sorrow. The psalmists wrote songs that expressed their raw feelings and thoughts as they navigated life that often felt pandemic-like.

One of my favorite scripture readings during this disrupted time in our lives is Psalm 121. Psalms 120 through 134 are known as Songs of Ascent. These are songs the people of Israel sang as they traveled together on foot up into Jerusalem to celebrate the various festivals, like the Passover. That means Jesus would have sang these same songs as he journeyed to Jerusalem with his family, friends, and early followers. It means that he likely sang some of these songs as he headed to Jerusalem on what we just celebrated – Palm Sunday. Psalm 121 (ESV)…

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
    he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time forth and forevermore.

I think it would be fair to say this song refers to God as our keeper. The Hebrew term for keeper requires a number of English words to do it justice. It suggests God as a guardian who looks after us and takes responsibility for us. It implies that as he watches over us he is very aware of the things that give us reason to lament. It speaks of God as our protector and defender; as preserver. Bottom line: God has our back. He has our best interests in mind. He is worthy of our praise. And of our lament. As our keeper, he certainly wants to hear both. Of this we can be confident. I suspect my grandma knew God as her keeper.

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (Jude 24-25)

The “New Normal”

Earlier this week, I was in a conversation with a young man with whom I have a mentoring relationship. As we discussed how COVID-19 has impacted (disrupted) our lives, including our ministries, we wondered aloud if things would ever get back to normal. Or would we find ourselves transitioning into what we commonly hear these days as the “new normal.” As we conversed, he said, “I wonder what normal actually means?”

So, as I’m wont to do, I looked up “normal” in the New Oxford Dictionary that resides on my laptop. This is what I found: “a town in central Illinois, home to Illinois State University.” That didn’t help. Searching further, I found the definition of the noun, normal – “the usual, average, or typical state or condition.” As I read the definition aloud to my friend, we both responded, almost in unison, “Why would we settle for normal? Why would we settle for the usual? For just average or typical?” There must be more to life than “typical.” I think Jesus calls us to more than typical…

Jesus constantly pushed back against the normal of his day. Have you ever noticed how often Jesus said, “You have heard it said …, but I say you…?” Many such statements were contained in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here are a few examples:

  • “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’ (the old normal). But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ (the old normal). But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’ (the old normal). But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ (the old normal). But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44)

Jesus was communicating to his hearers that with the arrival of the kingdom of God through his person, everything was now different – new creation! The old had gone and the new had arrived. The Apostle Paul reiterated this to the early Christ-followers (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). Please note that in the above passages, Jesus was not suggesting a new ethic, a new way to act. If that’s all we hear, then we have settled for a typical and usual approach to the Christian faith whose focus is behavior modification. Jesus did NOT suggest we ACT differently. His desire for us is to LIVE differently – as people who have stepped into God’s kingdom.

Jesus’ Sermon was not about how to live, but rather what life looks like in God’s kingdom, his realm, his rule. Quite frankly, Jesus was describing what life would look like if God were in charge. God broke into history through Jesus, ushering in the kingdom. God was taking charge. This was Jesus’ main message, that the kingdom was at hand (had arrived), to which he called people to repent (change their mind and direction) and believe this incredibly good news, or gospel (see Mark 1:14-15, Amplified Bible). Thus the words in the Lord’s Prayer – “Thy kingdom come.”

So what does this have to do with “new normal” thinking? I think this: We live in a time of inbetweeness. The kingdom that Jesus ushered in has been advancing and will continue to advance, coming to fruition upon his return. In the meantime, as Christ-followers, we figure out how to live with one foot in the kingdom of this world and one foot in the kingdom of God. I suspect Christian maturity is learning how to live in the world as a kingdom of God person (notice I said “learning how to live,” not how to act).

History and experience tells us that such maturity (which I think most really desire) is difficult to realize when life is “usual, average, or typical” – normal. It’s during times of disruption that we get to rethink what we want our life to be like, and that’s a very good thing. During this pandemic, we have no idea what the new normal will look like in the kingdom of this world. But we do have an idea what the new normal will look like in the kingdom of God. It will look like Jesus. I pick new!