Friday, November 5, 2010

Think Thanks

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God… If anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4.8,10)


It’s tempting to visualize Christianity’s formative years the way movies like The Robe (1953) and Ben-Hur (1959) did—as a time when well-mannered, clean-cut idealists were singled out for persecution by a corrupt totalitarian regime. But those pictures were less concerned with Church history than post-WWII mores. (It’s no surprise that audiences easily equated imperialism with fascism or Anglo-American matinee idols like Robert Taylor, Richard Burton, and Charlton Heston played the films’ Jewish and Roman heroes.) A better reflection of the Early Church exists in today’s small-to-midsized churches, where working-class people make up the majority and Christianity’s vast diversity is less evident. Thus, when reading Paul’s letters, a few facts about the churches that receive them are very useful. Beside the Roman and Corinthian epistles’ erudite readers, he (and later disciples signing letters in his name) writes to congregations with fairly limited views and means. Colossians addresses believers in a once-prosperous town fallen on hard times—a place much like today’s dying Rust Belt cities—adding a poignant touch to Paul’s concern about their vulnerability to false teachers. The Ephesian church, based in the second-largest city of its day, compares with urban churches dealing with the same issue: maintaining unity among believers with varying backgrounds and needs.

Based on historical information and the text, there’s little doubt the Philippians are the most homogenous, best-loved congregation Paul writes to—though their lack of diversity and his unabashed admiration aren’t linked. Philippi is a mining town yet to boom. Like those in Appalachia, Wales, and other mineral-rich areas, its miners are industrious but impoverished. Next to none of the gold underfoot falls into their pockets; survival above and below ground demands hard digging. Working for foreign management—in this case, the Romans—generates deep resentment and fear of outsiders that results in clannish insularity. Yet once a foreigner proves him/herself, as Paul does by saving the local jailer from ruin after an earthquake frees his prisoners (Acts 16), the Philippians’ loyalty knows no bounds. Despite poverty and powerlessness, they found Europe’s first church and win Paul’s heart by generously supporting him and many others who spread the Gospel—often to people far better heeled and positioned than they.

Amazing Faith and Fortitude

Keeping these details in mind while reading Philippians brings the letter to life. We envision a faith community that more closely resembles those currently dotting West Virginia’s back roads than Hollywood’s glossed-up first-century Christians. We see care-creased faces, patched clothing, young widows surrounded by children, and men who look twice their age after sacrificing health and happiness to the mines. But our look also reveals people of amazing faith and fortitude whose charity flows freely beyond their walls. Seeing the Philippians in this way heightens our ability to hear and appreciate Paul’s concern for them.

He knows these people, distinguishing this epistle with a sense he pictures faces and recalls names as he writes. “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,” he says. (Philippians 1.3-5) Being under house arrest in Rome, not resolving doctrinal disputes, prompts his letter. “Don’t worry,” he assures them. “I’ll be fine.” He goes on to magnify the Philippians’ strengths, encouraging them to continue in humility and harmony. Still, he keeps circling back, insisting they mustn’t worry about what may happen to him—even though their experience with Roman injustice gives them every reason to fear. We swell with admiration for these wonderful souls, as every time Paul tells them he’s okay we’re reminded even in their hardships, they find it in themselves to care about him. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he urges as he brings his letter to a close. (4.4) “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (v6) If you do this, Paul says, “The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (v7)

A Four-Step Process

Don’t worry? Be thankful for problems that seize our minds and require God’s attention? Then, while waiting for answers, rely on His incomprehensible peace for emotional and psychological safety? That’s a lot to ask—maybe too much, especially for poor, hardworking people without political clout and public support to improve their situation or Paul’s. If we were Philippians, living on very little, laboring for less than we deserve, and faced with possibly losing our leader, what would we think? Paul anticipates this reaction. He immediately follows it with guidelines on how (not what) to think. In verse 8, he counsels his beloved friends to focus their thoughts on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable, adding, “If anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

It’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of learning to think thanks. It’s a crucial skill every believer should have on call at all times. Displacing personal anxieties to worry about others is a generous gesture. But worry is still worry and its harms are the same whether its motives are selfish or selfless. Paul’s letter to the Philippians teaches us to defeat anxiety before bringing problems to God by training our minds to mine gold from worry’s darkness. When we think thanks, we discard lies for the truth, disgrace for nobility, wrong for right, filth for purity, ugliness for beauty, and shame for honor. Digging out excellence and praise demands great concentration and stamina. It’s hard work. Yet each nugget we retrieve increases our capacity to detect grace and goodness buried in hardship. We come to God with confidence He’ll extract the wealth and wisdom we fail to find in our hardships. Thankfulness He’s there shields us with inexplicable peace. It’s a four-step process: Think thanks. Don’t worry. Give thanks. Find peace.

Being thankful begins with thinking thanks—disciplining our thoughts to mine gold from worry’s darkness.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

All Good

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4.4-5)

Fear of Blessings

I’m not a regular primetime TV viewer. When I turn on the television, I’m looking for diversion—something to draw my thoughts into a hermetically sealed, neatly programmed world, where mysteries get solved, justice is served, and foibles are funny. Then, about 15 minutes in, the local station runs its 30-second newscast promo. Between the top story and weather, there’s always a scare-your-pants-off squib about an item or habit that, according to “experts,” may lead to disaster: “Your dishwasher is a deathtrap!” “Scientists find a disturbing link between stewed carrots and autism!” “Research reveals showering before dawn reduces lifespan!” The newsbreak’s sponsor is often a prescription drug that couches promises of wellness in a slew of possible side effects nobody would voluntarily suffer. (My favorite: anti-anxiety drugs that list potential nightmares and suicidal urges among its secondary complications.) Many times, I turn off the TV and flee back to my study—stopping, of course, to wash my hands, as new data say the remote control is the filthiest, most germ-ridden object in the house.

For most of us, the constant barrage of warnings amounts to no more than a nuisance. The media’s obsession with hyping dangers, however, constitutes a danger of its own by fomenting a culture of suspicion. If mundane objects and activities can wreak such harm and damage, why trust one another? Worse still, why believe goodness exists at all? There is in many of us a fear of blessings—an inchoate expectation that good things can’t last and may very well lead to greater pain and sorrow. We pray for happy relationships. When we’re blessed with them, suspicions they’re too good to be true provoke us to subvert them. We ask for increase. When it comes, we’re terrified of losing it; we refuse to share what we’re given and the flow of blessings dries up. We long for more faith. When tests arrive to build our confidence, we submit to doubt and cynicism. These self-defeating behaviors are sparked by greeting goodness tentatively, cautiously, even fearfully. Thus, thanksgiving is vital when blessings appear, not only because we should be grateful for God’s goodness, but also because it counteracts fears that arise from mistrusting what we’ve received.

Excessive Freedom

With the Bible and Church largely associated with “Do’s and Don’ts,” it shocks many to learn first-century suspicions of Christianity centered on its excessive freedom. Its Founder—a self-taught, provincial miracle worker—preached freedom and even professed God anointed Him “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Luke 4.18) After He died (or flew away, depending on who told the story), freedom became His disciples’ hue and cry. Their leader, a fisherman named Simon Peter, and chief theologian, a radicalized Pharisee known as Paul, constantly touted freedom from discriminatory barriers like race, class, and gender, as well as freedom from religious taboos. As they told it, Jesus liberated humanity from sacrificial ritual by opening direct access to God through faith. They flipped the equation common to all traditions of their day—which revolved around rigorously scripted rites to win divine favor—by teaching God’s love and mercy are gifts, not rewards. We freely receive them by believing, not doing, they said. And because they’re given unconditionally, codes and restrictions attached to ritual-oriented, performance-based systems were now obsolete.

Those clinging to time-honored beliefs shrugged off such ideas as nonsense. A New Order? A groundbreaking revelation? Please. Ironically, the struggle to embrace Christ’s freedom resided in the Church. The concept was so alien to them, many first-century Christians feared it. It seemed too easy, too good, too impossible. So they did what we often do when God’s goodness enters our lives. Instead of accepting it thankfully, they fueled suspicions of freedom by reverting to old behaviors. Everywhere the Apostles turned, outdated doctrines popped up forbidding everything from mixed marriages to unrestricted diets. It’s no stretch to say the Early Church’s biggest challenge involved grasping what freedom is, with gratitude for it a close second. In 1 Timothy 4.4-5, Paul explains the fallacy of excessive freedom, saying selectively applied liberty is simply reduced restriction. “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer,” he writes. Everything. It’s all good.

Holy Gifts

Fear of freedom—indeed, fear of blessings in general—plagues the Church and millions of believers to this day. The debates and controversies sound more like opinions of outsiders who’ve never experienced the all-encompassing extent of God’s love and acceptance. It’s as though the mere idea is so marvelous it can’t be trusted. So we fix that with conditional amendments. Faith takes a back seat to archaic rituals and performance criteria. “Free to all” gets reframed as “Free to anyone, provided he/she does this or doesn’t do that.” The problem runs deeper than surface contradiction of Christ’s teaching and apostolic doctrine. It wrongfully transfers our responsibility for freedom to those who seek it. “Nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,” Paul stresses.

It’s our duty to welcome strangers, embrace idiosyncrasies, and respect differences as blessings we freely accept with thanksgiving. Gratitude for what we may not agree with or understand illuminates genuine love for one another. “Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble,” 1 John 2.10 reads. What we find disagreeable between us becomes irrelevant, because we’re thankful for freedom to love one another as equals, all of us handmade by God, cherishing everything He created as good. His Word and prayer consecrate our bond. We are holy gifts to one another, blessings of goodness too precious to ruin with obsolete suspicions and fears. As we enter a new Thanksgiving season, perhaps we should start with gratitude for freedom to embrace who and what we don’t agree with or understand. God made everything. It’s all good.

Thanksgiving opens our eyes to God’s goodness and removes our fears of what we don’t agree with or understand.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Wait for It

For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. (Habakkuk 2.3)

Letting the Teller Tell the Tale

Much to my chagrin, as I get older, I find myself responding to certain “younger” traits very similarly to how my parents reacted to mine. Being a bit of a language nut, I’m not overly fond of new slang and euphemisms. They just sound silly and shallow to me. “BFF,” for example, “best friend forever”—that’s a big deal in my estimation, and not something to be dashed off with an acronym or blithely tossed around. On the other hand, there are many new phrases and conventions I find delightful, including one that today’s reading from Habakkuk brings to mind.

I’m often fortunate to hang around articulate, witty younger people who really know how to pull off anecdotes. When stories start flying around, the listeners sense where they're headed and jump in to beat the tellers to the punch. A confident, master storyteller will keep them at bay by saying, “Wait for it!” Everyone settles down to hear the end of the tale. The teller’s insistence implies more than “Let me finish.” It promises the conclusion will be bigger and better than expected. With the flip of a switch, the listeners shut down impatience to prove how clever they are in eager anticipation to find out where the story leads. Once the punch is delivered, a chorus of “I thought you were going to say” and “See, I didn’t get that part” follows. Letting the teller tell the tale is always worth it.

The Oracle

We know less about Habakkuk than any named biblical author. He confides no personal information and his historical allusions are too broad to date his writing accurately. The free-verse style suggests he may belong to a caste of Temple prophets who frame their messages in musical settings. The vocational tone in his chapter 2 opening—“I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” (v1)—and the third chapter’s oblique music cues back this up. Indeed, the book’s very first verse, “The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received,” reads more like a memo than urgently needed prophecy. The book’s subdued format and its author’s modesty are misleading, however. Habakkuk and Israel are greatly distressed. Change is in the air and it doesn’t look good.

The oracle addresses Habakkuk’s exasperation in chapter 1. He complains of feeling abandoned at time when his country’s stalled and anger is on the rise. “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?” he beseeches God. “Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.” (v3) He says, “the law is paralyzed” and “the wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.” (v4) God provides no consolation. In fact, it’s worse than the prophet or his nation suspects. Setbacks due to internal conflicts have weakened Israel. And this time, God’s displeasure with the world is so intense it provokes Him to side against His people. “What I’m about to do is so unlike Me you wouldn’t believe it if anyone else told you,” He says, explaining in 6: “I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own.”

Even hearing it first-hand, Habakkuk can’t believe his ears. “You hate evil,” he reminds God. “How can You favor it? Why sanction actions that will destroy Your work and people?” He reaches out for hope and gets slapped down with inevitability. He’s so disheartened his decision to “stand my watch and station myself at the ramparts” admits he wants no part of this news. God understands the reluctance. He returns with the same message, but He raises Habakkuk’s perspective to gain a more holistic view of what He’s doing. Before doling out details, He stresses a bigger, better story’s unfolding here: “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” (2.3) If we stripped away the biblical varnish to recast verse 3 in current vernacular, it would read, “Don’t get ahead of Me, Habakkuk. It’s going to take a while to play this out. Just remember I’m telling this story. Wait for it.

Reliving Habakkuk’s Time

Once Habakkuk sets aside his Doomsday clock and takes a deep breath, he learns God’s dual purpose in favoring Babylon. On the home front, divisiveness caused by perversion of justice, political strife, and haughty self-regard has to be remedied. Since Israel refuses to end its internal wars, God intends to unite it against an enemy that will subject the entire nation to injustice, impotence, and humiliation. Meanwhile, He sides with Babylon to teach it (and, by example, the world) He will not tolerate any nation’s violence and greed. “You have plotted the ruin of many peoples,” God charges, “shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.” (v10) He ends by declaring: you’re in My house and you will behave! “But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” (v20)

Here in the US, we’re in the closing hours of the most malicious midterm elections any American can recall. Civil war rages in Iraq. France is a cauldron of discontent. Israel and its neighbors teeter on disaster. Terror threats plague the planet. Crimes against humanity occur around the clock. Cities are battlefields. Hatred and prejudice rend the Body of Christ. Social justice stalls in courts. Financial setbacks and intolerance disintegrate families. Human rights and welfare are lost ideals. Violence and greed rule the day. We plead with God to do something, never pausing to consider He’s already at work.

We’ve brought suffering on ourselves. Though it’s not what we want, refusal to self-correct makes it necessary. We’re reliving Habakkuk’s time. We can benefit from his experience. As Jon Stewart put it at yesterday’s Rally to Restore Sanity, “These aren’t end times. They’re hard times.” When God works, things end up bigger and better than before. Because this is His house, He’ll do what’s needed to see we behave. In our weariness and despondency, let’s not get ahead of God. Let’s let the Teller tell the tale. “The revelation awaits,” He says. It “will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.”

But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.

(Clockwise from upper left: a US midterm ad; a car bombing in Iraq; French strikers; an Israeli-Palestinian face-off; a Ugandan evangelical campaign for antigay laws; a street shooting in Monterrey, Mexico; Sudanese children; US Christians espousing hate; a Canadian poster for homeless teens.)