Friday, March 18, 2011

Weight of the World

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5.4)

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. (Galatians 6.2-3)


We’ve witnessed an astonishing range of conflict and grief in our lifetimes: wars, famines, genocide, natural disasters, depressions—you name it, we’ve seen it. Yet I don’t recall anything like what we’ve felt this past week, when sorrow overtakes us before looking at the news. Helpless is the headline. In the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami—devastation unlike any we’ve ever seen—we sit on pins and needles, dreading meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. With the death toll already expected to top 14,000, we’re grateful for time to guard against further loss of life. Yet, God forbid, should a Chernobyl-like event turn the region into a “Dead Zone,” the outcome will prove nonetheless tragic by keeping those who’ve lost relatives, friends, homes, and businesses from ever being fully restored. We agonize with parents who may never recover their children’s remains, or children who may never lay their parents to rest.

If there’s a bright side to Japan’s travails, it’s found in the global response effort. Though we feel helpless, we’re doing what we can. Meanwhile, holocaust looms in Libya and we don’t know what to do. For weeks, we’ve wrung our hands, trying to come up with something to derail its head-on collision with a madman. One would think unseating Gaddafi to be quick work. Yet history teaches defeating tyranny is an arduous, expensive process. This crisis finds defenders of freedom tapped out. So we talk about no-fly zones and sanctions, all the while dreading the moment when Gaddafi unleashes his wrath on entire cities and regions.

The Japanese tragedy and Libyan threat, complemented by ongoing violence in Bahrain, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, crush us with the world’s weight. For reasons we can’t explain, objectivity and distance intensify our grief. Remove from daily realities in these places causes us to feel helpless. Yet similar frustrations haunt us when the horrors are closer to home. Since September, our church has tracked Chicago youths felled to gun violence. The number reached 50 last Sunday. Fifty futures ruined. Fifty families shattered. Fifty communities robbed. Surely blossoms of grace spring up in these wildernesses. We know they do, as we’ve found them in our own tragedies and losses. Since they make lousy news copy, however, we’re shielded from them—whether across the oceans or down the street. Thus every setback and cruelty increases the weight of the world. Every day’s news compounds our grief. We mourn our helplessness as much as our losses.

The Disciple’s Burden

Grief on the scale we’re experiencing engenders emotions like those expressed in Psalm 6.2-3: “Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am faint; heal me, LORD, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, LORD, how long?” We just want it to stop. Yet, in Matthew 24, Jesus tells us as long as the world survives, we will be plagued by disasters: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” Though we resist admitting our finest efforts and smartest innovations can never eliminate tragedy, we must come to terms with the fact that human slaughter and natural disasters are permanent fixtures in earthly life. And because of this, we’re wise to outgrow questioning why these horrors occur, so we can ask a more pertinent question: what is our duty in the wake of tragedy—be it epic or intimate in size and nature?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer sets forth an illuminating take on this. In his quest to define discipleship’s traits, he locates many in The Beatitudes, each of which, he says, “deepens the breach between the disciples and the people. The disciples’ call becomes more and more visible. Those who mourn are those who are prepared to renounce and live without everything the world calls happiness and peace. They are those who cannot be brought into accord with the world, who cannot conform to the world. They mourn over the world, its guilt, its fate, and its happiness… They bear what is laid upon them and what happens to them in discipleship for the sake of Jesus Christ.” (40-Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p36)

This radically alters how we view The Beatitudes and many other texts we typically read with detached objectivity. When Jesus says, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted,” He isn’t speaking of a vaguely identified group of mourners. He’s instructing us to grieve. The weight of the world—its sorrow, helplessness, and despair—is the disciple’s burden. We bear it for the sake of Jesus Christ, Who bore it in human form as our Surrogate and Sacrifice and bears it still as our Savior and Intercessor. When Bonhoeffer says we “cannot conform to the world,” we’re reminded we don’t cope with grief as others do. While they crave closure and strive to move on, we seek comfort because we don’t move on. As long as human suffering exists, we suffer by choice.

In This Way

Paul expands on this in Galatians 6.2: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Our grief is real because burdens we carry for others are real. What we feel surpasses empathy and sorrow. It’s the agony of undue weight we assume in obedience to Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. We care, not because it’s the “right thing” to do. (Though it is that.) We care because it’s what we do. And we do it without hope of praise for our moral character and strength. Nor do we carry others’ burdens only as long as “something can be done.” These are the sorts of attitudes Paul refers to by saying, “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.” (v3) We are disciples—more than friends, less than saviors. We don’t “feel sorry” for people; we bear their sorrow. We don’t “rescue” them; we help them. So we grieve today. We will grieve tomorrow and as long as we live. We seek no closure, only comfort that comes as we carry each other’s burdens. In this way, we fulfill Christ’s law.

We grieve not for our neighbors, but as one of them, fulfilling Christ’s command to love them as ourselves.

Postscript: “He Ain’t Heavy”

This recording has become so pervasive in pop culture it teeters on cliché—until we listen to it with fresh ears, as disciples who bear the world’s burdens because that’s what we do. Take four minutes to reacquaint yourself with The Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Poor and Needy

But as for me, I am poor and needy; may the Lord think of me. You are my help and my deliverer; you are my God, do not delay. (Psalm 40.17)


City life constantly exposes one to extremes. Walt and I are blessed to live in a fairly upscale neighborhood on the Chicago lakefront. Yet one block from us stands the largest of many transient hotels in our vicinity that, together, house hundreds of people impoverished by mental illness, substance abuse, and other tragedies. They too are members of our community. We meet on the street, recognize each other by sight, and some of us even know one another by name. Take Dee-Dee, for instance, a short, sturdy woman who’s no doubt much younger than she looks. When not in the throes of a schizophrenic episode requiring hospitalization, she holds court, seated cross-legged in front of a small grocery wedged between a theater and Starbuck’s. When she spies me walking her way Dee-Dee calls, “You got my five, Tim?” If I’ve got five dollars in cash, it’s hers, no questions asked. If it’s less, she asks by how much and says, “Catch me later.” I can be gone for hours. But the moment I round the corner, Dee-Dee reminds me of my outstanding balance—to the penny. “I keep you honest,” she’ll say, occasionally adding something like, “A lot of people don’t like to be honest. But I see ‘em.”

In ways she might not understand, Dee-Dee does help with my honesty, though not as something to feel proud or comfortable about. Her face and words always come before me when I think how the first disciples instantly, almost impulsively, walk away from their families, homes, and jobs at Jesus’s call. There are no lengthy negotiations. Jesus doesn’t outline His plan or indicate what it will require of them. He doesn’t offer them anything remotely comparable to incentives that would get our immediate attention—no fame, fortune, or insider perks we’d expect as members of a rising celebrity’s entourage. In Matthew 4’s account of Peter and Andrew’s calling, for instance, Jesus spots them fishing. “Come, follow me and I will send you out to fish for people” is all He says, whereupon we read, “At once they left their nets and followed him.” (v20) The three of them walk farther down the shoreline, where James and John and their father are mending their nets. Without recording the exchange, Matthew writes, “Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” (v22)

Nets and Networks

These men aren’t rich by any measure. They’re rough-hewn, working-class, self-sufficient types whose incomes rise and fall on the weather’s kindness and lake’s generosity. That encourages us to imagine it’s easy for them to drop everything and follow Jesus—particularly when we compare them to the rich young man who reneges when he learns discipleship will cost all that he owns, or the eager candidate who doesn’t make the cut after he asks to say farewell to his family before joining Jesus. Yet even if our conclusions about the disciples are accurate and they haven’t much to lose, we still have no good answer for what they hope to gain. They’re savvy to the itinerant preacher gig; the country crawls with bands trailing behind self-proclaimed prophets, healers, and activists. Still, they forsake nets and networks—livelihoods and family and social circles—for street life. They volunteer to live like Dee-Dee, except what they sign up for makes matters ten times worse than hers. It ties them to a controversial Rabbi Who will alienate all but a few of the rich and powerful. They’ll not just be public nuisances; they’ll begin as pariahs and end as associates of a wanted Criminal.

Honestly? If Jesus came to my door and said, “Follow Me,” I can’t conceive abandoning everything I cherish—Walt, our home, family, friends (including you), church, and cats—our dreams—my work, computer, books, this blog, and the precious mementoes gathered through the years—for a life of poverty and need. And on the chance I did walk away with no more than the clothes on my back, how long would I last before I tiptoed back home, ready to face the fall-out for my impetuosity? I’d probably make it through the early phase, when excitement was at its peak. But honestly? Once the tide turned, I’m not sure I’d hang around. This troubles me. If you’ve thought about it, I’m sure it troubles you, too. Yet there’s a piece missing from the scenario—the most vital one, in fact. The call of Christ is like no other. It speaks to the depths of our beings and our inherent longing for God. When Jesus calls us to discipleship, what we hear resonates so powerfully our thoughts shift from what we stand to lose by accepting His invitation to what we’ll never find if we don’t.

Walking Away

Although Psalm 40 doesn’t meet the criteria of Messianic prophecy, in a sense it qualifies by voicing tensions endemic to Christian discipleship. Penned by David, the most famous, talented, and richest man of his time, it begins with a dismal picture of being bogged down. When the offer his soul aches for arrives and Gods lifts him from muck that paralyzes him, his life dramatically changes, for better and worse. He has a new song and revolutionary insights about God’s grace that cause all hell to break loose. Yet despite uncertainty and duress, David answers God’s call, letting all he possesses go, if need be. Unless one is alert to the poem’s discipleship dynamic, its final verse reads like a downer: “But as for me, I am poor and needy; may the Lord think of me. You are my help and my deliverer; you are my God, do not delay.” (v17) If we’re sensitive to what’s really going on, however, we sense triumph in David’s declaration.

David isn’t literally poor and needy. He’s Israel’s greatest king. Yet all he’s achieved and the wealth he’s amassed hinder him from securing his faith in his Creator. Without abdicating his throne or quitting his palace, David walks away from all it represents. Seeing himself unencumbered by status and riches enables him to embrace obedience and sacrifice that answer God’s call.

“Follow Me”—a call unlike any other that opens paths unlike any we’ll ever explore. Some respond like the fishermen. They drop their nets, sever all ties, and adopt monastic lives of poverty and isolation. But most of us respond like David. We shed pride, materialism, and false security that bog us down to follow Jesus freely. We walk away without leaving. Either way, what we stand to lose by answering Christ’s call is miniscule compared to what we’ll never find if we don’t.

We see ourselves as poor and needy to be free of anything that hinders us from following Christ.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Free from Tomorrow

Seek first [God’s] kingdom and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6.33-34)

The Discipline of Discipleship

If you’ve followed the Lenten posts here—maybe even tracked them in tandem with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 40-Day Journey, the volume mapping our wilderness course—by now, you’ve got the gist of where it’s taking us. As the editor, Ron Klug, explains, “In Bonhoeffer you will find a bracing, challenging, totally unsentimental invitation to discipleship that makes a difference. The British essayist G.K. Chesterton once wrote: ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.’ Bonhoeffer invites us to give it a try.” (p10; emphasis added) Lent is, above all else, a sacred summons to reinvigorate the discipline of following Christ. That’s what discipleship means: disciplined obedience to Jesus’s teaching. Without question, what we learn from Him leads to unexpected realizations, revelations, and personal epiphanies. Yet we arrive at transformative moments by hewing to a carefully plotted, not-always exciting, and rarely easy path. If we follow Jesus expecting magic and miracles at every turn, we’re bound for disappointment. If we dash into Lent’s desert looking to be wowed, we’re prime candidates for frustration and fatigue.

The discipline of discipleship has one objective: nurturing faith. Our belief makes impossibilities possible. In the Gospels, Jesus routinely punctuates healings by acknowledging the faith of those who are cured. In Matthew 21.21, He tells us, “If you have faith and don’t doubt, you can move mountains.” In Mark 9, a father brings his troubled boy to Jesus and says, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “’If you can’?” Jesus asks incredulously. “Everything is possible to one who believes.” The father pleads, “Help me overcome my unbelief!” The boy’s mind is freed.

By design, discipleship helps us overcome unbelief. It’s the work that begets wonders, the toolkit that dismantles doubt. Thus it’s most appropriate that we follow Jesus into the desert by revisiting disciplines that build faith. After all, per Matthew’s chronology, The Sermon on the Mount—Jesus’s discipleship manifesto—soon follows His wilderness experience, suggesting faith He acquires in the desert directly contributes to the clarity and power of His message.

Precautions and Priorities

With the Sermon fresh in memory from readings prior to Lent, we understand why Bonhoeffer cites it frequently. Nowhere in Scripture do we find a more comprehensive manual of discipleship’s principles and practices. Jesus methodically lays out His topics step-by-step. After stating the concept, He issues precautions and sets priorities by teaching us what not to do, what to do instead, and what to do next. In today’s text—which we recently discussed, but deserves a second look—after telling us not to panic about our material welfare, He says, “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6.33) Setting aside mundane concerns like food and clothing—i.e., anxieties that plague non-believers—creates room to do God’s work and honor God’s purpose. It’s one of many counterintuitive disciplines that identify us as Christ’s followers. In addition to that, it stages opportunities to practice faith.

Having enough food and adequate clothing is important. But it’s not essential, because faith erases all doubt God provides everything we need. Entrusting God with our physical needs frees us to focus on what God needs from us. Belief is the linchpin in our reciprocal arrangement. When we make God’s concerns and desires our daily priority, God sees to our daily concerns and desires. Now, suppose we struck a similar deal with another human. We’d have every cause to worry, as we’d have no guarantee the other party can or will consistently honor his/her pledge. By faith, however, we know God will never fall short. Day in and day out, what we need for that day comes without fail.

“Therefore,” Jesus says in verse 34, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” If He were a contemporary discussing our anxiety about the future, He’d put it like this: “What are you so stressed out about? You’re letting worries about tomorrow ruin your day! Hasn’t God always taken care of you? Why should tomorrow be different? Every day starts with no idea how it will end. Every day brings problems. Yet has one of them ever passed but what God didn’t provide? You’re all worked up over nothing. When tomorrow comes, do what you’re supposed to do and God will take care of you. For now, focus on today.” To which we’d hang our heads and say, “You’re so right.”

Faith for Now

Many of us obsess over the past, in many cases, reasonably so. Traumas and hardships we endure cast long, indelible shadows over our lives. No fewer of us obsess about the future—some to escape painful pasts, others to reach brightest dreams. Yet traveling with eyes glued to the rearview mirror or fixed on glittering horizons undermines our ability to navigate the now. That requires faith, because faith is our only means of knowing what to do and how to go in the absence of clearly marked signs and confirmed direction. “We walk by faith, not by sight,” we’re told in 2 Corinthians 5.7. Walk—present tense. Obsessions with the past require no faith, as what we’ve experienced is fully known. And while one might argue obsessions about the future inspire faith, the nature of said “faith” raises suspicions about its usefulness. At best, we harbor hope for tomorrow, since we can’t predict its blessings and challenges. Anything beyond hope finds us wishing, which feels nice, but offers no help for today.

Jesus instructs us to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first so we’ll find faith for now. Discipleship trains us to surrender the past and overcome concerns about the future. Only then will we be where God wants us: in the moment, that ephemeral place we speak of so often, yet seldom inhabit. God needs us today—and provides for today’s needs—because we have work to do and a purpose to fulfill today, both of which demand faith. That’s why living free from tomorrow is every bit as crucial as leaving yesterday behind.

Now is what matters. Now is when we need faith. That's why we live free from tomorrow, trusting God to provide what we need now.

Postscript: “I Know Who Holds Tomorrow”

I love this old country gospel tune, beautifully performed by Alison Krauss and The Cox Family. Faith that God holds tomorrow frees us to believe we can accomplish what God asks of us today.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Discipleship Economy

Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole word, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? (Luke 9.24-25)

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6.21)

Living This Lesson

A nasty head cold over the weekend sapped my drive to do little more than doze in front of the TV. (Efforts to pull together a Sunday post went nowhere, for which I apologize.) I did manage to reply to comments here and engage in a heated Facebook discussion sparked by a comment I posted last Friday about the current union controversies. As expected, conservative friends pounced on my remark about “free-wheeling ‘governance.’” They talked dollars, I talked lives, and in the end we agreed we didn't know what the best solution might be. On Sunday evening, Walt and I watched Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s outstanding documentary about the global economy’s 2008 collapse. Its depiction of incestuous relationships between government, regulators, investment banks, and thought leaders dumbfounded us. The only response I could muster came from Luke 9.25: “What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?” (KJV)

So soon after a lost weekend peppered with money talk, I opened the 40-Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer to find the Facebook chat and film prepped me for today’s topic. “Goods are given to us to be used, but not to be stored away,” he writes. “The heart clings to collected treasure. Stored-up possessions get between me and God. Where my treasure is, there is my trust, my security, my comfort, my God.” The text we’re asked to contemplate in light of these thoughts is Matthew 6.31-32—Jesus’s teaching to trust God’s daily provision based on provision we see in wildlife, recently discussed in Back to Nature. Bonhoeffer also reminds us of manna that spoiled when stored, the subject of Our Daily Bread, posted here in the wake of the 2008 meltdown. As I pondered all of this, I thought, “We’ve been living this lesson for nearly three years. And while I see little evidence the world has learned it, have we, as believers, taken it to heart?”

The Antidote to Fear

We’re not fond of discussing money and possessions. If we’ve accumulated an abundance of wealth, we’re concerned about appearing selfish and insecure. If we’re in need, we’re ashamed of not having succeeded. Either way, discomfort about finances is rooted in undue credence we give to the human economy’s metrics of success and security. We accept the market’s rules, methods, and measures without questioning its principles, which are blatantly founded on fear unique to us. Knowledge and logic—drawn from awareness of our mortality—compel us to offset uncertainty with trust in material goods, about as insane a notion as we’ll ever devise.

Do other creatures plan for old age? Do they amass fortunes for their offspring? At best, they stockpile food to sustain them through scarce times. When the seasons change, however, they leave their overstock for fresh pastures. They’re unencumbered by worry and ownership. They instinctively live day-to-day at the will and mercy of God. Yet we—who know God and cognitively recognize God holds our lives in hand—hang onto every shred we can collect, socking away “nest eggs,” saving for “rainy days,” and relying on “insurance” and “securities” and “real estate.” Surely by now we realize entrusting our future to possessions is a dubious pursuit. Not only must we admit what we own can vanish through none of our doing, we also must confess the value we place on wealth is illusory. The antidote to fear of want isn’t financial stability. If it were, we’d stop when we had enough to safeguard against its terrors. But we don’t stop, because fear of losing what we’ve got urges us to get more. The only antidote to a fear-based economy is trusting God to care for us in every circumstance. That’s why we participate in the human economy without relying on it. Instead, we invest our faith in the discipleship economy.

Losing is Saving

“Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole word, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” Jesus says in Luke 9.24-25. In every way, the discipleship economy contradicts humanity’s fear-based economy by endorsing sacrifice, not security. It assesses wealth by what’s given, not gained. It measures success by the richness of heart, not portfolio. The discipleship economy’s fundamental law holds that losing is saving and saving is losing. Its standard of currency isn’t material. It functions exclusively on intangible exchanges and investments—sacrificial love, tolerance, kindness, grace, mercy, and so on. Its key objective has nothing to do with sustaining the physical body, which is futile, given its mortality and vulnerability to random harms. The discipleship economy’s sole intent is nurturing and maintaining spiritual growth. In realms where its principles are applied, there are no “haves” and “have-nots.” Everyone gives and everyone gains. No one is at risk of gaining so much that he/she loses or forfeits his/herself, because what is gained is passed on. Security for all is assured.

In Matthew 6.20-21, Jesus says, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And in case we’re not getting the point, He adds in verse 24: “You cannot serve both God and money.” We are called to make a choice. Do we permit the fear-based economy to dictate our worldview and shape our behavior? Or do we place our trust in the discipleship economy that’s immune to material loss and trades in intangible riches? Fearful hearts that store up material treasures are wedges between God and us. During Lent, with its talk about what we “give up,” perhaps we should consider giving all of it up—all the trust we bank in things that, in the end, will not cure our fears, and all the fears that urge us to trust anything other than our Creator. As we’ve witnessed with alarming vividness, the human economy steals the souls of its adherents. The discipleship economy pays eternal rewards that protect and prosper our souls.

The human economy puts its trust in the coin. The discipleship economy puts its trust in God. One is driven by fear; the other counteracts it.

Postscript: “Nothing Between”

Bonhoeffer’s comment about stored up treasure coming between God and us brought this old hymn to mind. Apparently it’s fallen from favor, as the youtube selection was pretty slim. As you listen to its lyrics, you’ll no doubt see why…

Monday, March 14, 2011

Big Little Things

You will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation. And in that day you will say, “Give thanks to the LORD, call on His name. Make known His deeds among the peoples; make them remember that His name is exalted.” (Isaiah 12.3-4)

What the Desert Does

Gratefully, I’ve never been stranded in the wild. Yet reading survivor accounts and seeing movies based on them always impress me with how rapidly little things one takes for granted become monumental blessings that inspire unfettered gratitude. In 127 Hours, Aron Ralston—the hiker who severed his right arm after a boulder pinned it to a canyon wall—dives face-first into a foul puddle to quench his desperate thirst following the ordeal. The water’s taste and purity are inconsequential. It’s a life-saving gift for which he’s forever thankful, no different than the bottled water he gulps down when passing hikers eventually come to his aid.

That’s what the desert does. It reminds us there are no little things in life. Every gift God gives is big. Every blessing merits gratitude. Nothing we have can ever be discounted as automatically given. From the infinitesimal effort required to open our eyes each morning to our last conscious breath as we slip into slumber, our days are overrun with goodness we should take note of and be thankful for. Sure, we recognize this. But we get busy, preoccupied, and often gratitude for “little things” gets supplanted by equally worthy thankfulness for “big things”—specific answers to prayer, for example, or unexpected instances of God’s mercy and protection. Meanwhile, big little things continue to happen. Daily blessings continue to flow. And we continue to count on them. Not until we enter a desert where they’re not assured—yet where they’re most vital—do realize how miraculous they truly are. That’s what the desert does. And that’s one of the main reasons we’re called into the desert, where absence of distractions and heightened awareness alerts us to how lavishly we’re blessed.

What the Desert Teaches

But there’s a deeper lesson the desert teaches. Many things we’d dismiss as unfit or inconvenient in greener surroundings turn into precious gifts. Muddy puddles we’d walk around without a second thought become founts of survival. Strangers we’d ignore on a city street become saviors to whom we’re indebted for life. Boulders that inexplicably trap us and threaten us with certain death occasion discovery of strength and determination unlike any we’ve known. The desert validates the cliché “Nothing is what it seems” by proving how often what we presume to be troublesome, negligible, and hopeless can be God’s means of providing us healthier, richer, and freer life. Israel learns this lesson in Isaiah.

If we were to gauge Israel’s relationship with God by the first few chapters of Isaiah, we’d surmise God’s pretty much had it with them. They’ve exchanged faith and trust for religion and pride. They’ve tumbled into the pits of ingratitude, giving no thought to how faithfully God sustains and blesses them. Instead of honoring God’s commands to vigilantly care for widows, orphans, and strangers, they try to buy God’s favor with elaborate rituals and fasts. God wants none of it, and pleas to mend their ways voiced by the prophet go unattended. Instead of banishing Israel to the desert, God brings the desert to Israel. Its enemies lay siege to their cities and blessings they took for granted instantly dry up.

So, yes, God's had it with Israel. But God’s not done with them. The desert that descends on them is sent to teach them to see blessings in struggle and misfortune. In the end, they will be grateful—not only for big little things they undervalued, but also for the experience they underwent to renew their gratitude. Isaiah 12.1 proclaims, “Then you will say on that day, ‘I will give thanks to You, O LORD. For although You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, and you comfort me.” What we learn in the desert doesn’t die when we leave it. Its lessons are meant to change how we value the greener world once we return to it. I’m sure if we asked Aron Ralston, he’d confirm every sip of water he’s taken since his ordeal tastes indescribably sweeter and more refreshing than any he had before it. “You will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation,” Isaiah says. “And in that day you will say, ‘Give thanks to the LORD, call on His name. Make known His deeds among the peoples; make them remember that His name is exalted.’” (v3-4) The heightened gratitude we take from the desert inspires us to rekindle our gratitude for a God Whose name is exalted. In our thankfulness for little things we renew our appreciation for the bigness of our God.

The Desert Around Us

As we traverse Lent's desert of self-denial, we become increasingly aware we also live in a desert of its own kind. The desert around us is one of rampant selfishness, competition, and ignorance that foster a culture hostile to gratitude for big little things. When others hear us express thanks for the “givens”—waking up each morning, the activity of our limbs, food to eat, shelter overhead, and so on—they minimize our gratitude as naïve and overstated. We cannot allow their narrow perspective to infect our vision, however. Nothing we’ve received, from the least to the greatest, comes by our merit. Everything we possess and experience, from the worst to best, is a gift from God. For that reason alone, God is worthy of praise and thanks.

A life of gratitude and praise for big little things engenders attitudes and habits that earn God’s trust in us for greater gratitude and praise. In Luke 12.48, Jesus says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” When we practice gratitude for big little things, we open the door to bigger, more unusual blessings because we can be trusted to thank God for all we receive.

The most powerful moment in 127 Hours comes when Ralston—thinking he’s recording a video to be found with his corpse—says, “This rock has been waiting for me my entire life—its entire life, ever since it was a bit of meteorite a million, billion years ago in space. It’s been waiting to come here. Right, right here. I’ve been moving towards it my entire life. The minute I was born, every breath that I’ve taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the earth’s surface.” Destiny finds us in the desert. It changes us forever, teaching us nothing is by chance, nothing is what it seems, and everything is God’s gift. May thankfulness mark our journey and open our eyes to the majesty existent in all of the big little things we receive.

The desert teaches us to be grateful for things we’d overlook in a greener world.

Postscript: “For All You’ve Done”

I’m smitten by this simple song that encompasses a life lived in gratitude for everything, big and small. “For All You’ve Done,” by Don Moen.