In America, we celebrate the holiday of thanksgiving once a year. We eat turkey, we watch football, we take time off. We dub this regimented indulgence, "Thanksgiving." We trace the tradition of yearly Thanksgivings specifically to our first fathers and mothers who came across on the Mayflower, but also through the presidency of Abraham Lincoln who instantiated the holiday of Thanksgiving. Well and good.
Of course, how the practices of Thanksgiving actually relate to the command of God to be disciplined in giving thanks (Psalm 147:7) is something of a conundrum. We engage in the practice, but think little about the tacit formation.
What does it mean to practice thanksgiving? Are our yearly practices of Thanksgiving actually congruent with the Scriptures' command on us to give thanks?
To practice thanksgiving requires at least two steps.
1 - It is to acknowledge that everything that we have is from one another. This requires a pain-staking humility. To truly give thanks, we must come to an end of ourselves. We must look to something we have which we could not have attained for ourselves. Thanksgiving is the discipline where the gifted gratefully reflects on the gift the giver gave him which he could not have given himself. In other words, it requires us to say, "This came from someone else. It is gratuitous." The theoretical reason food is associated with with gift giving is an acknowledgement that that sustenance comes from another. We indulge in a whole array of foods and fill ourselves, and after we wake up from our food coma, we recognize that we could not have achieved that on our own. This is why we pray with thanksgiving at the beginning of every meal. It is to recognize that this comes from somewhere else, not ourselves. We recognize all that God has given us, all that God has showered on us and lavished on us. We recognize it is totally undeserved. It is not something we did to deserve it. This is the step that most people feel comfortable with.
2 - It is to reflect on what this implies about the character of the giver. If the giver gave the gifted such a gift, what does that imply about the giver? This is the step we don't care for. We don't take this step of thanksgiving first, because it requires work, and second, because the results can be somewhat disconcerting. For example, if I have much on my table, it is easy to give thanks. How generous this implies my God is! How wonderfully this compels me to think of him! But when all that is in my cornucopia are crumbs of stale bread or scraps of singed meat, what does this imply about God? That he has a purpose in my pain? I don't want to think about that. It is easy to give thanksgiving on Thanksgiving, or even on Christmas. We can be thankful even then. But in January, when the sky is glum, the ground is wet, and the table is empty? Can we be thankful even then. Can we believe that God would use even those seasons in our lives, where we are lean and hungry, trembling and tired? The discipline of Thanksgiving teaches us to be so.
This might be a difficult practice to wrap our minds around. Yet it is essential. Because, Thanksgiving teaches us how to come to our Savior. When we come to him, all our Thanksgiving emotions point every direction (Rev 7:12). Because when we see him crucified, shamed, emaciated, skinny, ugly, ghoulish, bloody, broken, bruised hanging on the cross, what does this imply about God? Can we give thanks, even for this? Yes, we can admit, we could not provide a sacrifice on our own, the gift for the gifted is not of himself. But can we admit that this is the God who does indeed provide? A sacrifice for our sake. A broken body for ours. A man estranged in our place? Indeed it is He. But we also see a lamb, standing as though it were slain. Not only has he been killed, he has also been enlivened. Not only has he been crucified, he has been resurrected. Not only was he lowered into the ground, he is risen. When we give thanks for this, the greatest of gifts, we recognize that this too, this is our God. The God who provides. The God whose gift is not only death, but also life. Not only darkness, but also light.
This thanksgiving, whether with plenty or little, with full or empty plates, give thanks to this God. The God who gave one to die for you, and gave one to life for you. The God who gave the lamb who is standing though he has been slain. Come to an end of yourself, and there you will begin to come to Him.
"Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling."
This Fall, I have been developing a love for the persecuted church, especially after reading through Nik Ripken's The Insanity of God (which I would highly commend). We don't particularly like to talk about the persecuted church because our culture is a culture where comfort is king. But the persecuted church is the north star for Christian thought; it is ever before us, anchoring our heavenly citizenship to this earthly place. It reminds us that we are not home yet, and there is much work to be done. To know about, to think of, and to pray for the persecuted church is a necessary Christian discipline. When sit under the persecuted church, we are tapping into the Great Tradition, that torrential river of the thundering faith of the Church from all times and all places. The Persecuted Church teaches us, and disciples us in the way of Christ. Here are some of the things I've learned from the Persecuted Church.
- Pastor Matt LaMaster -
He stood up, waving his hands. Those hands, calloused with the workman’s trade, were once instruments of kidnappings, beatings, and torture. Now they did little to shield him from the same blows directed at him. A strange reversal had happened, and now the man faced the same mob he once led. He opened his mouth to speak.
For everything we know from his writings, Saul of Tarsus’ life remains dim. What is best preserved for us is the beloved doctor Luke’s commentary on his life between his conversion and his first imprisonment in Rome. Much of the rest of his life is obscured, although there are clues.
Saul, we know, was from the port city of Tarsus, a hub of Mediterranean activity, being the gateway to Galatia and other regions in Asia Minor. He grew up in a home with some semblance of religious tradition, after all they still knew their tribal roots, a rarity for Jews in that day. And yet, despite this, Saul’s parents raised their son to know Greek. They were wealthy enough to buy Roman citizenship, a prized status in the eyes of the migrants in the Roman empire. It was their sign that they had “made” it. To say the least, this Benjamite clan had settled with the way things were being done by Rome with complete satisfaction. They were likely Hellenistic Jews, moderate and nominal.
Somewhere along the way, young Saul radicalized. Perhaps it was on a pilgrimage to the holy city. Did he run away from home? Maybe it was on a visit to relatives in Jerusalem. The details are obscured, after all, Paul counted everything before his conversion as rubbish (Phil 3:8). The Saul we know was a likely dedicated religious scholar throughout his twenties, training under the influential post of Gamaliel. Perhaps Saul was his protege. No longer a Hellenist, Saul had made the dip into pure Judaism. He adorned himself in the law, becoming blameless. The funny thing about beliefs, though, is that they matter. They really matter.
This is why when a rabbi with the outlandish message that he himself had come to reveal God, that he in fact was God, the very Word by which the world had been brought forth, a fire was lit under establishment’s feet. This fire, which was running amok (even in Samaria!) had to be stamped out. For this quest, they needed a zealous young Jew, who better than the up-and-coming Saul?
We have gotten too familiar with the text to realize the enormity of Saul’s actions, and his brash rebellion. Saul approved of the mob that killed Stephen, he sanctioned the action with the authority of the religious establishment, holding the coats above the ground, to keep the mob clean from the dust of the beaten path (Acts, 7:58, 8:1). Saul gladly overstepped the legal restraints the Romans had placed upon Jews. Saul ravaged the church (8:2). We seem to forget that he went from door to door, kidnapping women, children, and men who had called upon Jesus Christ. This was not a legal procedure. This was a man who wanted to force the kingdom of God. He wanted to set up the heavenly abode, and he was willing to slaughter whoever stood in his way to do it. He was embroiled in sectarianism. He was zealous for his religious identity. Saul’s quest to Damascus was to kidnap Christians. Are we really to imagine the authorities of his day would have been pleased with his actions? There was a shred of formality to it, in the same way Al-Queda has affiliates, or ISIS has a ruling council. Let us not believe this to be a benign violence, this was the equivalent of terrorism.
This is the extent to which Saul felt threatened. For the message of grace threatens the self-righteous. And the reaction of the self is violent. Saul’s life, his convictions, everything he was, had been dedicated to becoming blameless under the law. So zealous was he for this law-serving lifestyle, he would willingly put his life at risk to prove it right. If anyone had come to know the righteousness the law gives, it would have been him.
And then a funny thing happened. God saved him. Jesus Christ met him on the way to Damascus. Lights flashed, sound boomed, and everything went dark. The judgment of the Almighty had been pronounced on this self-styled Pharisee, and despite all his law-keeping, he was found wanting.
From that moment, Saul became Paul. The persecutor became the persecuted. The carrier of death became the herald of life. The Jewish zealot became the apostle to the Gentiles. The self-righteous became justified. The one who was so cold and darkened was in an awful instant united to the Lord Jesus Christ. The one born wealthy took up a blue collar trade to support himself so that he might gospelize the nations.
Now as he stood before this very mob decades later, with his hands motioning, he explained to them what had happened. That day on the Damascus Road, Saul, perhaps with a tremor in his voice, asked Jesus Christ what he must do. Paul wanted to earn forgiveness from Christ, to do penance. The Lord sent him to a pious believer named Ananias who restored to him his sight, and ordered him to be baptized (Acts 22:6-15). Notice the pattern, the Lord first restored his sight and then gave him instructions to be baptized. There was nothing to really do. He had asked the Lord what he might do, and he had found this to be the secret of the Christian life; there really is nothing to do, just someone to know. There is nothing to earn, only someone to receive. Of course there are good works which we have been transformed for (Eph 2:10), but these in themselves are diving deeper and deeper into the one who has created us, and they call us back to him, they are the fruits of our union, not a way we purchase salvation.
Saul had grown accustomed to earning a right standing before God, and now it was proffered in the scarred hands of the object of his hate. And in grasping those broken, mangled, bloody hands, he found himself healed. After all his strivings he found rest.
At the bottom of it all, you and I are not so separate from this disparate man or the thousands other like him. You and I all search for meaning and purpose in our own pithy systems. Let each of us reckon that our strivings are as Paul's. You and I are an extremist in the same way. Perhaps our systems are less externally vitriolic and more polite, in a Victorian kind of way. But, make no mistake, when our self is threatened it lashes back just as violently. Like Christ, everything before Christ is nonetheless rubbish. Will you see Paul's hands waving in the wind? Will you grasp Christ who beckons you to himself?
Blaise Pascal says it well in his famous Pensèes, “It is good to be tired and wearied by the vain search after the true good, that we may stretch out our arms to the Redeemer.”
May this be so for you and I.
- Pastor Matt LaMaster -
In the epic film Inception, a complex relationship between Ariadne (Ellen Page) and Cob (Leonardo DiCaprio) unfolds. Throughout, Ariadne tries to unlock Cob’s past, but throughout the film Cob draws a line and bids Ariadne, “Come no further.” What is this palpable boundary? In a word, shame. In seminary, I took a class on missions which called me to really investigate the sense of shame in child prostitutes. What is shame? These are some of my thoughts.
As those happily agnostic to shame’s more subversive influence, we, Westerners, struggle to define it, and to often ignore its presence.
But we should be careful about ignoring shame, for it is a universal fact. Though some of you will deny it, there is a deep and profound shame in each of us, the sense that all is not right. That downward look of children at having done wrong, that overwhelming need you have to defend yourself, that pain when someone stabs you in the back, these are all instances of shame. Ignoring shame is like ignoring cancer, you can deny its reality, but it will eat you away.
Shame is a flexible. Your shame touches your marriage, your children, your job, your parents, your church. Shame is subtle. You do not ever need to actively think, "I feel so ashamed" to feel shame. Shame is deceptive. We can notice our shame, but think, "It's no big deal." Yet if we would leave it alone, it would dismantle our souls.
Escaping shame is a long journey. Do not expect to be rid of it soon. It is a long, cold, winding and precipitous trail. Escaping seems to be impossible, as it will suck the life into its frigid vacuum.
The story of our first parents is instructive. Upon unbelieving God’s word and eating the forbidden fruit, our progenitors were illuminated to their nakedness (Gen 3:7). Thus, we see shame is at least semi-conscious: eyes are opened; attention is garnished. The first humans are instantly aware that evil is present and that they have entered in. This moment of realization begets shame. Notice, someone does not have to think, "I am ashamed" to feel shame, but merely to feel, "I am not right." Insecurity, hurt, pain, guilt, all shame.
Scripture tells of more: Judah himself enters in when his daughter-in-law Tamar reveals his unrighteousness with an incestuous verdict (Gen 38). While Judah enters in, shame overtakes the daughter of David, Tamar. Tamar sees the shame approaching like a storm on the horizon, and weeps when it has done its damage (2 Sam 13:1-19). Shame comes from both wrong we've done, and wrongs done to us.
Shame realizes all is not right, neither out there nor in here.
Shame is a spiritual “eye-sore.” It is nakedness. Nothing is dignified about it. It is embarrassment and humiliation. Shame needs to covered; it needs to be hidden. Adam and Eve sought to forget it through the use of fig leaves (Gen 3:7). We have become manufacturers of such things. The episode of Tamar embarrasses David’s whole family, but each finds a different “fig leaf.” Amnon banishes his sister, hiding her from her presence behind locked doors (2 Sam 13:18). Tamar hides herself in her brother’s house (13:20). David rages, but through inaction internalizes his anger (13:21). Absalom surges with revenge (13:29). Variegated taxonomies they may be, but they are fig leaves nonetheless. Shame is the desire to disappear.
We have our own fig leaves. We vigorously deny wrong doing. We avoid people attached to painful memories. We focus our mind on the nostalgic. We select that which is worth remembering, and discard the rest. We get angry when it is implied we have done wrong. How dare someone brings to mind our shame?
However, there is a hope.
God hates shame more than we, and goes to great extent to give us a permanent cover. Just as God provided a covering for Adam and Eve (Gen 3:21), he does so for the shame of the world. Christ so despises shame, that he embodied it and put it to death (Heb 12:2). Christ is the Father’s covering for us, laid on by the Holy Spirit. Fixing ourselves on him, we are covered. Rather than the dysfunction of the cosmos, we share in the honor of the Son of God. This is the hope that we need, the way out of shame, the escape from pain.
“Truly God is our glory and the lifter of our heads (Psalm 3:3).”*
*Diane Langberg, Suffering and the Heart of God, 137.
Southern Heights Christian Church
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