Thankfulness and Gratitude

During my high school Young Life Campaigner (Bible study) group’s Zoom call Monday night, we had the obligatory conversation about thankfulness, given that this is Thanksgiving week here in America.

In the United States, the Thanksgiving holiday is a bit of a myth which came to the fore during the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln, to foster unity, declared it as a national holiday. I am aware that other countries have also set aside annual days to be thankful. Days set aside for thanksgiving are centuries-old, though feasting is a newer phenomenon. In centuries past, days of thanksgiving involved fasting, prayer and supplication* to God. It reminds us of the Apostle Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Philippians…

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, ESV).

During our Zoom call on Monday night, I asked if there was a difference between thankfulness and gratitude. In our initial responses we thought the words basically meant the same and were interchangeable. Those who know me well will not be surprised to know that I sent them to their devices to look up the definition of the two terms. We discovered something pretty interesting…

Thankfulness is an adjective and Gratitude is a noun.

To my English teacher friends, the significance of this distinction isn’t missed. The rest of us may need to dig a bit deeper. Being thankful is about being pleased and relieved, an adjective that describes how we feel. Gratitude, on the other hand is the quality of being thankful coupled with a readiness to show appreciation and return kindness. Gratitude is about our character.

With my Campaigner guys, we developed an analogy that helped us make sense of the distinction between thankfulness and gratitude: I get the results of a difficult math test and my grade is better than anticipated, for which I am thankful! Gratitude, on the other hand, would be displayed when I connect with my teacher to show appreciation for the extra help she gave me. Thankfulness is more inward; Gratitude is outward. Thankfulness is more of a spontaneous response; gratitude, as with all charter-building, takes time, effort and intentionality, to which my wife, Barb, alluded in a Face Book post this week:

A couple years ago I decided to focus on the word gratitude. At first I just put copies of the word “gratitude” in places I would see throughout the day. After awhile the word became part of my daily thoughts. I would encourage anyone who desires to see life through a better lens to try this, I feel like it changed me for the better.

Have a Blessed Thanksgiving!

* Supplication is not a word we use much these days. It basically means asking, even begging, for something with earnest and humility.

In God We Trust

I learned a great lesson about trust in grade school, maybe second grade. Elementary, junior high and senior high schools were all contained in the same building, so all ages rode buses together. The school was open campus, meaning kids could leave school and walk home for lunch. Junior and senior high kids could walk downtown if they so desired. Times have changed!

One of the go-to establishments downtown was the local soda fountain / confectionery, Tiernan’s. To a grade schooler, Tiernan’s was one of those magical places full of color and intrigue. As a farm kid, my downtown experiences were pretty much limited to the essentials, like hardware and grocery stores. Tiernan’s would have to wait until I was in junior high.

Mike, one of the junior high kids that rode the same bus as me, frequented Tiernan’s regularly and graciously offered to buy candy for us younger kids. We would give our nickles, dimes, and quarters to Mike on the bus in the morning; he would buy gumballs, jawbreakers, and rope cherry licorice commensurate to the coinage we provided. On the afternoon bus he distributed the booty. I was in heaven, cherishing the little red and white striped, unmistakable Tiernan’s candy bag. I displayed it proudly on the bus, but hid the bag at home, where I cherished it in private until…

…my parents discovered my off-limits antics – off-limits because I was supposed to be saving my gopher-trapping bounty money for something more substantial, like a bike. I was in trouble because I had traded instant gratification for delayed gratification. Digging deeper into my antics, they helped me realize I had been taken, that I was only getting about half the candy that I should have. Mike’s “finder’s fee” was about 50%. Lesson learned.

I remember coming away from that experience wondering how one, especially a kid, could know who to trust and who is untrustworthy. I’ve been thinking a lot about trust the past several months. And wondering a lot…

I wonder how much of the pervasive division and animosity we are presently experiencing in America is connected to trust (or lack thereof).

We don’t trust science. We don’t trust the media. We don’t trust leaders. Leaders don’t trust each other. We don’t trust them (whoever our them happens to be). I have to wonder if all our distrust leaves us untrustworthy as well, perpetuating the division and animosity. Maybe that’s why it feels like we are spiraling out-of-control.

I also wonder how a general distrust of others affects our faith in God. Biblically, faith and trust are closely linked. Can I truly trust God while showing animosity toward the pinnacle of his creation – another human being? I wonder how we are able to heed Jesus’ mandate to “love God and love neighbor,” while holding deep-seated distrust of others. I wonder what Jesus would have to say to us these days. I wonder how all this makes God feel. In God we trust? I wonder.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him… (Proverbs 3:5-6, NIV)

First Century Social Distancing

If asked “What is your favorite Jesus story?” how might you respond? Since Jesus is the visible expression of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), what narrative about Jesus best displays the character of God for you?

Our small group is working its way through the Gospel of Luke. This past week we were in chapter five where I was quickly reminded of one of my all-time favorite stories – Jesus’ healing of a leper.

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. (Luke 5:12-13)

Biblical and other historical accounts attest to a prevalence of leprosy in first century Palestine. Today, we have a better understanding of the disease than they did 2000 years ago. Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) is a chronic infectious disease caused by a slow-growing bacteria that gravitates to the peripheral nerves and the cooler parts of the body. The skin, being one of the coolest regions of the body, is affected first and most significantly by leprosy. Thus, in ancient Palestine, leprosy was often referred to as a skin disease.

When the 2 million or so Israelites camped in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt, protection from infections was paramount. Pretty much what we are experiencing in the our present day pandemic. For the protection of the entire society, God gave pretty strict mandates to keep the community safe:

As for the person who has the leprous infection, his clothes shall be torn and the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mouth and call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; he shall live outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46)

As the people camped in the wilderness together, social distancing was necessary as long as the person was infected. Fast forward a couple thousand years and the social distancing had turned into social ostracism. Jesus’ later encounter with a group of lepers indicate that they knew their place in public as they “stood at a distance” from him. The societal requirement for lepers was to stand 50 paces (about 125 feet) from healthy people.

So when the man in the Luke story approached Jesus, he broke through the social boundaries that had been established for him. He knew Jesus could make him clean again, making a way for him to reenter society. Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean. What he likely didn’t know was how Jesus might respond. Rebuke was certainly a possibility. He was unclean and Jesus was a rabbi. In their culture, rabbis preferred to stay far away from the unclean. And legally, the man was required to maintain 50 paces from Jesus.

But he took the risk and approached Jesus. He broke both law and social custom on the chance that Jesus might heal him. Jesus’ response was two-fold. First, and I think foremost, he touched the man. Jesus touched him! How long had it been since the man had been touched by a healthy person? (Something we can certainly understand this during a pandemic!) And yet, Jesus made it a point to touch the man first, neglecting to comment on the man’s impropriety. Then he said “I am willing, Be clean!

In this story we experience what Eugene Peterson often referred to as “the great reversal” in The Message paraphrase of the New Testament (cf. Matt. 19:28, Mark 10:19, Luke 13:28). Jesus turned everyone’s expectations upside down – the man, his disciples, and the onlookers. Jim Edwards, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, suggested that a reverse contagion had taken place: rather than Jesus being polluted by the leper, the leper is cleansed by Jesus.

The radical, compassionate Jesus trumped tradition in favor of care of the outsider, of touching the untouchable. This is what makes Jesus worth following. And this is what makes our following worthwhile.

(A postscript: Rereading this post, it occurred to me that some may take this story as a reason not to adhere to local mask mandates during the pandemic. That would be missing the intent of Jesus’ actions and missing the character of Jesus. As previously discussed, we dare not let our presumptive religious and political ideologies inform our understanding of who Jesus is (see What the Right and Left Have in Common). We must always allow Jesus to inform our ideologies. Another reversal.)

What the Right and Left have in Common

Election seasons can be pretty frustrating. I was once part of a conversation involving people from opposite ends of the political spectrum.  “Part of the conversation” meant I mostly remained quiet and listened, wondering what and if anything I had to offer.  Then someone, noticing my silence, asked me what I thought.  I responded that we might want to consider what God thought.  Their follow-up question: “And what do you think God thinks?” I struggle during election seasons primarily because far too many of us are not willing to consider what God may think.

We tend to invoke Jesus’ name in support of our particular political ideologies but not necessarily inviting Him into the process of developing them.  I watched a friend over the past several years become a serious follower of Jesus – giving Him permission to speak into his life, to grow his understanding of grace, to mess with and shape his ideologies.

As a result, I heard this friend say a few years ago that he was really struggling with how he should vote in light of becoming a thoughtful Christ-follower.  In the past he may not have asked that question but simply voted his “party line.”  What a novel idea – to ask Jesus how we might vote as opposed to telling him how we want to vote and assuming he agrees with us.  Or not include him at all.

The conversation reminded me of an article I read in the old, now defunct, youth ministry magazine, The Wittenburg Door.  The article was an interview with the late Brennan Manning, author of many wonderful books, including The Ragamuffin Gospel, Abba’s Child and Ruthless Trust.

What I remember about the interview was an interesting musing by Manning as he wondered when the liberals and conservatives might figure out that they are all in the same camp and are really in agreement.  Manning suggested that what unites these opposite ideologies is the proposition that Jesus is impractical in the real world. Manning:

“The bottom line is that conservatives and liberals are united, the left wing embraces the right, Pilate and Herod becomes friends, and the one proposition that unites them is that Jesus is impractical.”

People tried to press Jesus into their civic political agendas and he would not allow it.  In their mind, Jesus did not seize the opportunity to change the course of history.  Jesus was political for sure – just not the way people wanted.  He made it very clear that Caesar was not in charge.  Nor was the high priest.  The people’s attempts to draw Jesus into political debates on their terms fell short.  He quickly reminded them, through his discourses, that they were pretty clueless about the grand scheme of things.

Likewise, our attempts to draw Jesus into our political agendas fall short. He’s on a different playing field.  He is King of kings (king over all who think they are or should be kings) and Lord of lords (Lord over all who think they are lord over others).  Because the resurrected Jesus humbled himself as a servant, even to the point of a criminal’s death, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Philippians 2:9-11).

In free countries, we take elections very serious, as we should. But we must remember that it is God who is sovereign!  He is sovereign over kings and dictators, over presidents and prime ministers, over liberals and conservatives and, yes, over nations.  We take our privilege of voting very serious, but it pales in comparison to the privilege of knowing and following the King of kings.

Barak (but not Obama)

About 25 years ago, my job moved from Red Wing, MN, to Memphis, TN. I moved from a small factory office building to the massive corporate offices. I moved 800 miles from a private office to a world of cubicles. Privacy didn’t exist. Early in my cooperate cubicle experience, I sneezed and was greeted by a dozen or so “Bless Yous,” which caught me by surprise. Apparently part of the Memphis culture was to communicate a blessing on anyone and everyone that sneezed.

In the last post, we talked about the song The Blessing, based on the Priestly Blessing found in Numbers 6. I have always been intrigued by the word bless as it appears in scripture (~500 times), wondering what the word meant to the ancient readers and hearers. It is used in a number of different ways, which was always a bit confusing to me. God blesses us as we bless him (especially as seen in the Psalms). It always sounded to me like a mutual admiration society…

Suspecting the word means far more than mutual admiration, I started to look at occurrences of bless in scripture, particularly in the Old Testament. Some significant instances from the beginnings of Genesis:

  • God blessed Adam and Eve
  • God blessed the Sabbath
  • God blessed Noah after the flood in a similar fashion as he blessed Adam and Eve
  • Noah, in turn said, “Blessed be the Lord”
  • In the calling of Abram, God said he would bless Abram so he and his descendants would, in turn, be a blessing to others (a significant departure from God being the sole ‘blesser’)

This is interesting, but on the surface it still smacks of mutual admiration. So, being a dabbler in Hebrew, I decided to see what I could discover about this word bless. The basic Hebrew word for bless is barak. Barack is the word for ‘knee’ and implies kneeling. That makes some sense. One approaches royalty on bended knee out of reverence and respect. In Philippians 2, we read that “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” – bended knee. So we bless God with great reverence, literally and figuratively, on bended knee. A Psalmic example:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name!
 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits… (Ps. 103)

So, blessing God makes sense but what of God blessing us? What immediately comes to my mind is Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet. In John 13 we read:

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist…and began to wash his disciples feet.”

This is a great visual. Jesus, knowing full well who he was as God incarnate, showed the full extent of his love and began to wash his disciples feet, presumably on his knees. Picture that for a bit. The God of the universe, the Lord of lords, the King of kings in human form on his knees, serving his creation!

What kind of God do we serve that serves us? What royalty, when approached by a subject on bended knee, would in turn kneel before that subject? And then wash their feet? I remember watching a movie in which a young king left his throne to comfort a young subject (female, of course). He was quickly reprimanded by the elders for his impropriety – it was a scandalous act! I suspect to Jesus’ disciples, his washing of their feet was scandalous. It certainly was to Peter who anxiously tried to refuse Jesus’ gesture.

This is something worthy of our pondering. What does it mean that the God of the universe would want to bless us so scandalously? Does it make you anxious or give you peace? As you ponder…

The Lord bless you
    and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
    and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
    and give you peace.

A Pandemic Hymn (or Anthem?)

As I grew up, I found many of the hymns we sang at the Methodist Church to be onerous, at least for a kid. It seemed like most of the classic hymns were comprised of 5-6 stanzas and we sang all of them (except if the preacher was long-winded, then we only sang the first and last verses of the closing hymn – “music” to a middle schooler’s ears).

Did you know that states have a “State Hymn?” Minnesota’s hymn is Hail! Minnesota. I remember the first time I heard the U of M Marching Band sing Hail! Minnesota a capella at their indoor concert in Northrup Auditorium some 50+ years ago. I got the chills. (They apparently continue the tradition – Listen here.)

The definition of a hymn: a religious song or poem of praise to God or a god; a formal song sung during Christian worship, typically by the whole congregation. Its origin? It comes from old English, via Latin from Greek humnos “ode or song in praise of a god or hero.” New Testament writers spoke of the use of hymns in corporate worship. Example: Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts, Colossians 3:16. (By the way, my appreciation for the classic Christian hymns has improved significantly since my middle school days!)

A synonym for hymn is anthem. An anthem, by definition, is a rousing or uplifting song identified with a particular group, body or cause (i.e., a choral composition based on a biblical passage, for singing by a choir in a church service). At the Methodist church, the choir sang an anthem each week, which I enjoyed much more than the hymns. Sometimes they gave me chills.

Early in March as COVID-19 was descending upon us, reshaping the world as we knew it, an anthem for the pandemic was birthed. It was written in late February as a collaborative effort by Cody Carnes and Kari Jobe (husband and wife) with Elevation Church’s worship team. They collectively sang and led the song at an Elevation Church worship service on March 1st. It was an instant hit and likely you’ve heard it – The Blessing. If you haven’t heard it, you must. If you have, I encourage you to listen again (as I am doing as I write this).

My first hearing of The Blessing wasn’t the Elevation Church debut. The first rendition I heard was a virtual YouTube video put together by Christians from 65+ United Kingdom Churches specifically as a blessing over the UK. It gave me the chills! I’m sure it gave me “the chills” because it was the first time I had heard the song. But, more importantly, it was an obvious labor of love to the nation. It seemed so selfless and genuine – something us Americans could maybe learn from the Brits!

Most importantly, The Blessing came directly from scripture (remembering that the definition of an anthem is a choral composition based on a scripture passage). That scripture passage? The well-known blessing we often hear at as a benediction to worship servicesfrom Numbers 6, known as the Priestly Blessing. The Lord told Moses, to tell Aaron and his sons (the priests), This is how you are to bless the Israelites:

The Lord bless you
    and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
    and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
    and give you peace.

If you find yourself feeling a bit whelmed as we enter into month 7 of disruption, I would encourage you to ponder the significance of the words of this blessing. Listen to either of the renditions as you ponder these words that come directly from God. Hopefully it will give you peace. Or the chills. Or maybe both!

North(ish)

I was asked to write a blog post this week for the Zoë Website. The topic is the concept of Northish which has been a driving force in the development of the Zoë platform. So, I thought I’d share it here. (Full disclosure: my friend Pete Paulson gets credit for coining the term Northish – it came out of a conversation we had several years ago.) The Zoë blog posting…

As an adult that has worked with high school and college-aged young people for several decades, I have to wonder if we haven’t done them a disservice as they think about their futures.  I have witnessed a lot of angst as they try to figure out what direction to head or as they struggle searching for their niche in the world.  We really see the prevalence of angst in recent years, given the steadily increasing costs of post-secondary education.

I wonder if the angst comes from the culture we live in, especially in our western culture.  We are results-driven people.  We tend to focus on outcomes and miss the value of the journey and learning along the way toward realizing those outcomes.  Our young emerging adults especially feel this.  Since the adults around them live with outcome-based definitions of success, it gets transferred onto our young people (unintentionally or maybe intentionally).  We talk about winning, scoring well on tests, “getting it right,” etc., looking for “due-North.” 

Emerging adults learn well from us – wanting to “get it right.”  Thus the angst!

In more recent years, I’ve been talking with young people about a perspective that I like to call “Northish.”  What is Northish, you might ask?  Well, it’s not “due north,” that’s for sure.  Northish is more about setting a general direction.  Northish is more like asking the question, “Do I want to go to Canada or to Mexico?”  If I want to go to Canada, I wouldn’t get on a freeway heading south.  I would take roads that generally head toward Canada – NorthishNorthish isn’t about “getting it right.”  It’s about getting the general direction figured out.  The concept of Northish starts one on a journey that leads toward self-discovery.  The journey is as important as (I would argue more important than) the outcome.  Northish is freeing, giving one the freedom to adjust and tweak along the way.

We would do our emerging adults a great service if we help them toward discovering their Northish; if we help them learn the general direction they might want to head; if we help them find a sense of purpose.  Enter Zoë!  What I like about Zoë is that it’s a platform that helps people find their Northish.  Zoë reinforces a message that it is all about the user’s journey toward finding their purpose in the world.  It helps the user discover who they are and what they value, pointing them toward a life of purpose and meaning.  Purpose isn’t a destination; it’s a direction.  Northish!   

The above posting is obviously about young emerging adults. But aren’t we all still emerging – especially when related to our faith? Studies show that only one in three adults know their purpose, can describe their Northish. Pay close attention to what Jesus said and did. I would argue that he encouraged people to find Northish. In a world that often focuses on “getting it right,” may God help you find your Northish.

Jesus – “I have come that they might have life (zoe) and have it to the full.”

(John 10:10)

Scripture for a Pandemic

Over the years, God seems to provide us followers with scripture passages that carry us through various seasons of life – anchors we can cling to. For my 18th birthday, toward the end of my senior year in high school, I was given a little Hallmark book entitled Consider the Lilies: Great Inspirational Verses From the Bible. It actually served as my bible for the next year or so (sad as that seems today). It pointed me to a few scriptures that served as anchors through my first couple years after high school. The scripture that resonated the most with me can be found in Matthew 6, part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Especially helpful were verses 25-34…

25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?

28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (NKJV)

Looking for a go-to scripture on which to focus as you figure out how to navigate a pandemic such as this? You might want to think about this passage from Jesus’ teaching to his first century followers. He was preparing them to live in a pandemic of sorts. He was preparing them to be kingdom people in a time of uncertainly – a season laced with anxiety, hardship, and persecution. He was telling them clearly that God is bigger than anxieties, hardships, and persecution. And he’s bigger than pandemics, I suspect.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet they thrive during a pandemic. Lord, help us to not simply survive this pandemic, but maybe even thrive a bit. Help us to surthrive, as my friend Mick would say.

If I keep on doing what always done…

There’s an old saying that goes like this: If I keep on doing what I’ve always done, I keep on getting what I’ve always gotten.  Albert Einstein is attributed to having said something similar, coming at it from a different angle: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

This is great advise and not necessarily rocket science (no disrespect to Mr. Einstein).  Then how come behavioral change is so doggone difficult, especially when sin rears its ugly head?  How often have we been determined to change our behavior, to change what we do so we could realize a different outcome?  And the outcome?  So often the same old results.

The Apostle Paul spoke to this in Romans 7:18-19…I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Paul reminds us that this is the frustration we live with while we are in the process of being transformed into the likeness of Jesus.  Paul also reminds us of God’s grace and deliverance: Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Vs. 24-25)

Paul never suggested that we concede to living this life of frustration.  Nor did Jesus. Jesus said he came that we may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10). The answer, however, isn’t to simply change what we do. It doesn’t seem to get us there. Consider the following trustworthy saying:

If I keep on thinking what I’ve always thought,
then I’ll keep on perceiving what I’ve always perceived.
If I keep on perceiving what I’ve always perceived,
then I’ll keep on seeing what I’ve always seen.
If I keep on seeing what I’ve always seen,
then I’ll keep on doing what I’ve always done.
If I keep on doing what I’ve always done,
then I’ll keep on getting what I’ve always gotten.

I became aware with this saying half a life-time ago in a Fuller Seminary class.  It changed my life!  I was under the assumption that if I simply changed my behavior – what I was doing – then all might be well.  But all wasn’t well and I knew it.  And, just like Paul, trying simply to change what I did left me frustrated.

This saying reminds us that change in behavior comes from a change, first in our thinking, not just addressing the behavior.  Granted, we can change our habits for a while, but if our thinking and perceiving is the same, we will revert back.

Jesus reminded the Pharisees (with strong language) of the danger of trying to address the behavior without changing our thinker/perceiver: What miserable frauds you are, you scribes and Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, while the inside is full of greed and self-indulgence.* Can’t you see, Pharisee? First wash the inside of a cup, and then you can clean the outside. (Matt. 23:25-26)

Jesus continued his critique of the Pharisees by calling them whitewashed tombs.  (I don’t think I would ever want to hear Jesus call me a whitewashed tomb!) 

We do want to change don’t we?  (I’m assuming a response in the affirmative, but I could be wrong). But change doesn’t happen by merely changing what we do.  This is probably what Paul was addressing when he suggested we are transformed by the renewing of our mind – our chooser/thinker/perceiver (Rom 12:2). Change comes from the inside. Change comes with the transformation of how we think and why think the way we do. The good news: God does the heavy lifting. Our job is to show up. But show up we must!

* The Kingdom New Testament translation suggests “moral flabbiness” in place of self-indulgence.

Smoking Pot in the Old Testament

In the previous post (Dot-to-Dot) we discussed a theme woven throughout scripture: “I will be your God and you will be my people” stated in some manner, shape, or form. This was God’s covenant promise to the people he called (Abraham and his decedents) to to be a blessing to the world and participate in his project of “putting creation back to rights” (NT Wright).

One of the most obscure, unknown stories in the Old Testament is probably one of the most significant stories.  In Genesis 15, Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) asked God a question we all ask from time to time: “How do I know what you are saying is true?” So the LORD (Yahweh) said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”  Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.

Wait!  Abram cut the animals in two and arranged them in two rows?  God didn’t tell him to do that!!  Why did he?   Because in Abram’s world 4000 or so years ago, this was how contracts were signed.  The parties would each bring and split animals in two, arrange them in rows, putting the birds together in a single pile at the head of the two rows.

The two parties would then each take a smoking pot or torch of some sort and simultaneously light their respective rows of animal parts on fire.  They would meet at the end of the rows and together light the pile of birds afire.  Basically they were saying, “If I should break this covenant, may I be drawn and quartered and burnt in a similar fashion.”  They took their contracts pretty serious!

Abram apparently knew that God was about to sign a promise or covenant with him.  What he didn’t know was how the signing would take place. As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.  Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain…” and then went on to describe the future and His commitment to Abram and his descendants.  When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking fire pot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.  On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram.

GOD SIGNED BOTH SIDES OF THE AGREEMENT WHILE ABRAM SLEPT!  That’s a covenant, Yahweh style.  God did/does it all.  All Abram did was show up.  God did the rest. It was all about God and not so much about Abram. God was serious when he said, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” He is the promise-maker. 

And he is also the promise-keeper. Fast forward a couple thousand years and we witness God as promise-keeper, this time through Jesus. God’s first promise was to Adam and Eve.  He promised them everything (including the tree of life) but their desire to become like God cost them their life.  They chose death over life. God honored their choice and death reigned – ultimately resulting in His own son’s death.  With Jesus’ resurrection, death was defeated and the original promise was again on the table. Humanity didn’t hold up its end of the promise, but God held up his end of the covenant and fulfilled our part! “I will be your God and you will be my people.”

In Jesus, we see the smoking pot all over again. Jesus did it all. We just show up. It’s that simple. Imagine our world if we remembered to just show up and give him permission to hold up his end of the deal! It’s really all about God, not so much about us.  “For God is at work within you, helping you want to obey him, and then helping you do what he wants.” (Philippians 2:13, TLB)