What Are You Thankful For?

thankful

Giving thanks and showing gratitude to God is an act of worship. This is why we read in Psalm 106:1, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

But it is not just for the material goods or obvious blessings that we are to be thankful for. In fact, the Apostle Paul, writing to a fledgling church in Philippi while he is imprisoned, urges believers toward gratitude in the face of worry. He writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).

Even more strongly, in another letter, Paul calls Christians to give thanks as part of fulfilling the will of God: “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

This year may be a tough one for us to practice gratitude, but there is always something somewhere to be thankful for, even in the most difficult of circumstances. So, as part of your worship this Thanksgiving holiday, what are some things you thankful for?

The Divine Dance and Christian Unity

This past weekend in my message at Eastbrook, I mentioned that we have to learn to live in the dance of the Triune God if we want to walk in unity as believers. Let me explain. One of the great theological descriptions of the Trinity is the Greek word perichoresis, which conveys the sense of both differentiation and interpenetration of the three persons of the One God. Perichoresis means that the Triune God sits together and shares one with another without losing their differentiation nor shedding their utter unity.

In his book, The Reason for God, Tim Keller describes this aspect of God as follows:

Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love.

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 224.

The created universe is a dance with the inner life of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—written through every incandescent atom and far-flung galaxy. Human beings were made to live within the divine dance from the moment of their creation. However, we lost the dance in the refusal to serve God and participate in his community through sin since the time of Adam and Eve.

As we reach out to God by faith through the complete work of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we dwell in God and God dwells in us. We are brought back into the dance of God through God’s gracious, forgiving, restoring, and reconciling work in us.

The people of God, in a sense, live by entering into the dance of the Triune God. We are in God and God is in us through faith in Jesus Christ. It is this divine dance that brings unity to us individually and as a community, not our efforts or our abilities. Certainly, as in all good dancing, there must be a partner who leads and a partner who follows. When that relationships exists well, the dance is beautiful but when the follower resists the leader, the dance ends in chaos. The Triune God leads us in the divine dance, and true unity arrives as we yield to His divine life in us.

Stoking the Fire of Our Passion for God

There are times when we falter in our pursuit of God. The wind and rain of life’s pressure comes against us to put out the fire of our passion for the Lord.

Jesus’ parable of the seed and the soils is fitting for times like that. In that parable Jesus describes how we receive God’s word into our life similarly to how different soil types receive seeds. Different types of soil bring about varying types of fruitfulness. As with certain soils that choke out growth, the stress, fear, and confusion of daily life may crowd out the possibility of fruitfulness for God’s kingdom in our lives.  We decrease in passion for Him and, as a result, we lose our fruitfulness in Him.

Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). The Apostle was urging this young church to continually stoke the fires of their passion for God.Read More »

Patience and Personal Discipleship

Good things come to those who wait, I’ve been told, but, honestly, I have a really hard time with that.

Let me give you three situations many of us face. Number one: music tries to calm me down as I anxiously wait behind unending lines of traffic, hoping I arrive reasonably on-time to my next appointment. Number two: I carefully choose which check-out line at the store I will head to with my items. I evaluate whether it might make the most sense to go for self-check-out and skip dealing with people altogether. Number three: I head to the DMV, knowing that the actual business I have there does not necessarily need to take more than a few moments but anticipating the reality that I will wait agonizingly long to simply get this taken care of.

“Good things come to those who wait,” but wouldn’t we all prefer to have good things come precisely when we want them? I know that we have heard patience is a virtue, but deep down we all want instant gratification. Now, more than ever, the possibility of instant gratification is within reach as technology married with enterprise has brought us the possibility of getting what we want immediately while never leaving the comfort of our homes. Don’t misunderstand me, I am as prone to enjoy Netflix and Amazon Prime as the next person, but our culture of instant gratification is doing something to us that is not nearly all helpful. The eight-second attention span[1] and inability to delay gratification are making us more anxious and impatient,[2] affecting more than our pace of life and consumption of goods. Now we say, “good things come to those who wait…but let my waiting be short (e.g., eight seconds for information, sixty seconds for music and movie downloads, and twenty-four hours for my online shopping)!”

This anxious impatience is eroding our spiritual lives as well. Spiritual transformation only comes via “a long obedience in the right direction.”[3] Paul the Apostle describes our growth as Christians as a process of growth and maturing, moving from spiritual infancy to nature adulthood, “so that the body of Christ may be built up…and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13). We understand this physically, expecting babies to grow to toddlers and on to teenagers before becoming adults. Yet, somehow, we forget that this same process of growth applies to the spiritual life of discipleship. It is not something that comes quickly, but must go through a similar process of growth and maturing over time. Spiritual growth does not happen overnight, let alone in sixty seconds, but must happen over a lifetime.

There is no more valuable, nor more difficult, character trait necessary in the Christian life in this regard than patience.  The Scripture shows both that patience is invaluable in our own lives (Proverbs 19:11; Ecclesiastes 7:8; James 5:7) and in our relationships with others (Colossians 3:12; 2 Timothy 3:10). Our discipleship, as a matter of fact, is a growth in which God shows forth His patience with us from start to finish (Romans 2:4; 1 Timothy 1:16). If we want to grow with God, following Jesus as our Leader and Savior, then we must commit to the patient journey of discipleship over the long haul.

Within the Bible, one of the clearest pictures of this is seen in the Psalms of Ascent. This little collection of psalms was utilized for prayer and worship on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Groups of believers would journey together, caring for one another and building one another up, as they prepared to meet with God and His people in worship. The pilgrimage journey of the Psalms of Ascent provides us with a soundtrack for the patient journey of discipleship. We need songs in our mouths and hearts, we need others to journey with, and we need lives that move steadily closer to God. 

This patient journey of discipleship, and the place that patience begins to have in our lives, is often seen as a key to seeing change in the life of others (Proverbs 25:15; 2 Timothy 4:2). In a culture of anxious impatience where many have misplaced hopes of relief, a patient, peaceful community of people living daily life with God speaks louder than all sorts of religious activity.

Maybe now is a time to disconnect from the impatient pulse of a technologized angst in order to reconnect with the patient journey of discipleship with God. Our very lives, both in word and in deed, may become a living witness to an eternal God who is unhurried in His life and purposes.


[1] Timothy Egan, “The Eight-Second Attention Span,” New York Times, January 22, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/opinion/the-eight-second-attention-span.html.

[2] Emma Taubenfeld, “The Culture of Impatience and Instant Gratificaiton,” Study Breaks, March 23, 2017, https://studybreaks.com/2017/03/23/instant-gratification/.

[3] With a nod to both Eugene Peterson and Friedrich Nietszche.

[This post originally appeared as part of the Gospel in Life blog.]

Running the Race: Spiritual Practices for Persevering

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Yesterday our staff at Eastbrook Church took a day away on retreat in order to grow with God and one another. We do this every year around this time, and our speakers, Paul and Lisa Sinclair, helped us engage with Hebrews 12:1-3.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

They talked about the the discipline required to persevere, including throwing off hindrances and encumbrances in our lives.

One of the classic ways to do that is to engage with spiritual practices – or spiritual disciplines – in our lives. Just like someone learning a language, trade, or skill must step forward with tangible means to progressively develop that ability, the same is true in our life with God. In his masterful work The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard introduces us to such spiritual practices by categorizing them into two groups: disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement. While clearly not exhaustive, he lists them in this way.

Disciplines of Abstinence

  • solitude
  • silence
  • fasting
  • frugality
  • chastity
  • secrecy
  • sacrifice

Disciplines of Engagement

  • study
  • worship
  • celebration
  • service
  • prayer
  • fellowship
  • confession
  • submission

Disciplines of Abstinence are those in which, as you might expect, we abstain from certain things, namely, “the satisfaction of what we generally regard as normal and legitimate desires” (159). St. Peter is thinking of these sorts of activities when he writes: “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Disciplines of abstinence are helpful in that they help us bring our normal human desires into right order, when often they grow inordinately important in our lives.

Disciplines of Engagement are the healthy counterbalance to and partner of the disciplines of abstinence. When we take something out of our lives, we must put something new and healthy in its place. We must not only stop doing some things, but choose to do the right sorts of things in their place. We abstain from our wrong engagements, and then move forward with new disciplines so that our souls are properly engaged with God.

Take a moment and consider whether you have ever experienced these sort of spiritual practices in your life. How have they helped you? How have you struggled with them?

 

Two Basic Disciplines of Abstinence
Let’s take a more in-depth look at two basic disciplines of abstinence that I believe are of vital importance in our life with God.

Solitude
Solitude is our intentional choice to step away from interaction with others, whether in person or in other forms of communication. Solitude is abstaining from companionship. Jesus did this throughout his life, as the gospels attest. We read about his practice most pointedly in Luke 4-5, where, after a jam-packed days of ministry to others, he draws away.

At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place (4:42).
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayer (5:16).

In The Spirit of the Disciplines Dallas Willard says: “Of all the disciplines of abstinence, solitude is generally the most fundamental in the beginning of the spiritual life, and it must be returned to again and again as that life develops” (161).

Solitude is a place to explore our isolation from others, to cling to Christ, and to be strengthened for His service.

Silence
As you might expect, silence is the discipline whereby we step away from sound. In a culture that is sound-saturated, from iPods to noisy traffic, it is important for us to set aside time apart from the external clutter of sounds.

It is amazing how infrequently we experience quiet. Even the places and times that we describe as quiet, we are often saturated with ambient noise.

This discipline clearly connects with the discipline of solitude. We choose to not only be alone, but to be alone without speaking and in a place of quiet.

Silence is a place where we return to God for our reassurance and approval.

What is your experience of solitude and silence as means for connecting more deeply with God?

 

Two Basic Disciplines of Engagement
Along with the disciplines of engagement, I believer there are two disciplines of engagement, study and worship, which are foundational to developing our deeper life with God.

Study
In study, we are chiefly engaging with the Word of God. This goes hand in hand with solitude. As we draw away from others in solitude, we draw near to God through the study of the Scriptures. We feast on the riches of God revealed there and are strengthened.

David Watson captures this well:

If we feed our souls regularly on God’s word, several times each day, we should become robust spiritually just as we feed on ordinary food several times each day, and become robust physically. Nothing is more important than hearing and obeying the word of God.

Although study has the whiff of academic scholarly pursuit, it really isn’t like that. That said, it does involve much time and effort. It entails giving time and effort to meditation on key Scripture passages and reading the Bible as a whole. But the time spent there should keep us firmly rooted in the everyday realities of life with God.

As Calvin Miller says:

Mystics without study are only spiritual romantics who want relationship without effort.

Worship
“In worship we engage ourselves with, dwell upon, and express the greatness, beauty, and goodness of God through thought and the use of words, rituals, and symbols” (D. Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, 177).

It is worth worshiping God because He only is worthy of worship. And we do so by fixing ourselves within His goodness and greatness.

Take a Scripture passage like Isaiah 6:3:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory”

As we speak the words, we consider their meaning and speak them back through our own mouths in worship to God.

Worship is the place where we kneel down in humility before a great and good God, recognizing Him for who He is and gaining proper perspective on our lives.

What is your experience of study and worship, whether alone or in community, as means for connecting more deeply with God?