What Mama Taught Me About Giving Thanks…

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God never meant for children to receive underwear for Christmas.  The Wise Men did not bring Jesus underwear as one of their gifts.  Christmas is for toys and joys.  Underwear falls into neither category.

Yet every year of childhood, one of my aunts seemed designated to give me underwear.  One year it might be Aunt Mildred; another year, Aunt Lola.  At least those years were better than Aunt Bill’s year; she would give hand me downs from her son Bob (and yes, I have an Aunt Bill.  Her name is Billie Jean.  It’s a Southern thing).  I never knew if this was orchestrated by my mother or not.

There was less money those days.  Mama knew I needed underwear more than toys.  I already knew enough Bible to know Adam and Eve didn’t wear underwear.  I told Mama I didn’t need any either, but she told me they sinned and God made them wear underwear.  Then she informed me I had sinned also, so I needed to wear underwear, too (“Let him who is without sin among you not wear underwear?”).

One Christmas, my underwear frustration reached its peak.  I think it was Aunt Iris’s turn to buy me underwear.  I opened the package and saw six pairs of white Fruit of the Looms.  In disgust, I threw down the box and exclaimed, “I hate getting underwear for Christmas!”

The crowded room of aunts, uncles, and cousins went quiet.  In a low lethal voice, my mother approached.  Hissing through clenched teeth, she told me to go outside with her.

My previous experience taught me going outside would be detrimental to my backside, since last year’s Christmas gift was not padded in that particular area.  I shook my head “no” whereupon my mother seized my ear, twisted it and lead me through the living room and the kitchen and onto the back porch. Parents were more direct then.

Once the door closed, my mother began to instruct me on the finer points of etiquette.  She told me Aunt Iris didn’t have to give me a present, underwear was something I needed, and it was kind of Aunt Iris to spend her hard-earned money on me.  Then to drive the lesson home, she applied her hand to my bottom and sent me back into the living room to tell Aunt Iris “Thank you.”

My face was flushed red as the entire family watched me approach Aunt Iris, head lowered, ready to mumble my “thank you.”  Before I could stammer out any words, Aunt Iris said in her no-nonsense voice, “Look me in the eye, son, when you talk to me.”  Apparently, she was in on me learning this lesson as well.

I lifted my head, looked at her steely eyes, and said, “Thank you Aunt Iris for the underwear.”  Then, she smiled, and said, “You are welcome.”  I thought I saw her throw a conspiratorial wink at my mother, but I’m not certain.

Mama and Aunt Iris taught me one of my most important life lessons that Christmas:  Give thanks to the giver, not thanks for the gift.

This Thanksgiving families will gather and express thanks for food, blessings, and each other.  That’s fine.  Just remember, it’s not about the gifts.  It is about who gave them to you.

Remember to look God in the eye and say, “Thank you.”  Still your soul long enough and you might hear, “You are welcome.”

Maybe you’ll catch God winking.

When Jesus Gave Thanks…

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It’s strange to think about Jesus giving thanks.  After all, Christians believe he was the God in flesh.  It seems odd for him to thank his Heavenly Father for anything.  But Jesus did give thanks.

When he fed the five thousand, he gave thanks for the five loaves and two fish.  I wonder why?  I know I would have been filled with anxiety: “Father, don’t fail me now!”  Jesus had such a sense of himself and his power that he approached the challenge with gratitude.

Would my approach to challenges change if approached them with gratitude instead of anxiety?  What if I started each day by giving thanks for what I have been given, instead of focusing on what I lack?

One of the oddest times Jesus gave thanks is recorded in Matthew 11: “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” Before this, Jesus spoke about cities that wouldn’t listen to his message.  I think he is giving thanks to God that even though smart people can make things so complicated they are hard to understand, the good news that God loves you can be understood by any child.

What if I stopped worrying so much about what I don’t understand about God and savored what I do understand about God?  How would my life change if I spent time focusing on the amazing reality that God loves me?  What if God’s love was the basis for trying to understand everything else about him?

After they rolled away the stone from Lazarus’s tomb, and before Jesus told Lazarus to come out, he prayed a prayer of thanks: “Father, I thank you for having heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”  Jesus thanks his Father for listening, which is a little like me thanking you for breathing.  Listening is is what our Heavenly Father does.  Jesus then offers the odd phrase that he’s praying this prayer of thanks so people believe.  Jesus knew people needed to understand the source of the miracle about to happen.

Do I tell God “thank you” enough for being who he is?  God could have been cruel, deceitful, and heartless.  God is not.  An old song said, “Not because of what you’ve done, but because of who you are…”  Maybe Thanksgiving is a time when I can speak my thanks out loud so others can believe.

When Jesus interrupted the Passover to introduce a new covenant meal, he gave thanks for the bread and the cup.  He did this knowing full well what waited for him the next day.  Why did he give thanks for the symbols of his own body being broken and his own blood being poured out?  Could it be that Jesus so trusted his Heavenly Father’s plan, he could be grateful in the face of pain?  Could it be that Jesus was able to give thanks because he knew whatever he faced, His Heavenly Father would on the other side of the pain?

What if I became like Jesus?  What if when faced with a crisis, I gave thanks that God would be there before the crisis, during the crisis, and after the crisis?

Jesus paused to give thanks to His Heavenly Father.  If it was important enough for him to do, shouldn’t it be important enough for me to do, too?

I Can’t Imagine…

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I can’t imagine, but I need to.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like at First Baptist Sutherland Springs, Texas last Sunday.  People gathered to worship and hear a visiting preacher while their pastor was out of town.  Songs were sung.  The Word was being proclaimed.  Then Devin Kelley came into the sanctuary firing his weapons.

What if I had been in the room?  Maybe I would have been the guest preacher, the most inviting target.  Would I have shouted for everyone to get down?  Would I have rushed the gunman to protect others? Would I have stared in shock, never believing this could happen?

What if I had been seated beside my wife and children?  Would I try to cover them with my body?  What if they were hit by a bullet?  Would I try to hold them and tell them I love them? Would I try to stop the bleeding?  How would I feel if while shots rained around me, I watched the light of life go out of their eyes?

What if I was Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of the church?  Imagine getting the call.  “Frank, I don’t know how to tell you this, but a crazy gunman shot up the church today.  We’ve got more than twenty dead.  And Frank, your daughter Annabelle, fourteen, she’s one of the dead.”  How does a man cope?  How does he eat or sleep?  Shock may be God’s blessing.

If I was Frank Pomeroy, I imagine I would be overwhelmed.  Literally every house in town needs pastoral care.  A hospital full of wounded people need a pastor.  There are twenty funerals to do.  There is my own grief for my daughter.  I would have to do ministry and grieve in the glare of national news coverage.  What do you say at each funeral?

I can’t imagine what it will be like for this church in the years to come.  Sutherland Springs is added to a list no community wants to be on: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Charleston, and Las Vegas.  After the satellite trucks have packed up and moved on to the next tragedy, this church will still be grieving.  They are experiencing the ultimate test of faith, the test of Job: Will I still seek God though I have lost everything?  Or will I curse God and let my faith die?

I can’t imagine what the first Sunday back in the building will be like.  Like closing the barn door after the horse is gone, I’m sure there will be plenty of protection.  But to be in the room where so many died, where evil was so manifest – I can’t imagine.

I can’t imagine.  God can.

God has to live with this sort of thing every day.  Because he is near to the broken hearted, whether they are in Texas or Pakistan, God sees this, enters it, and gives hope, strength, and comfort.  I can’t imagine the horror that God deals with every day.

Why doesn’t God put a stop to it?  C.S. Lewis said, “Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having…  If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will -that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings- then we may take it it is worth paying.”

To truly follow Jesus means we need to imagine what God feels when tragedy happens.  Imagine how God feels when a shooter enters his church.  Imagine how his heart hurts when he sees bullets go through the bodies of his children.

Now imagine how much God must love us to send his Son to have nails driven through his body, so all this evil could be forgiven.

I can’t imagine, but I need to.

Five Keystones of Generosity…

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The law of the fist: Open hands receive; closed fists don’t.  This basic faith principle works whether you believe in God or not.  If you live with a closed attitude, you cannot receive love.  If you live with an open attitude, you can receive friendship.  Building an open-handed life requires generosity as a regular practice.  Our problem is defining generosity, and then practicing it.

The scripture teaches that generosity is defined by percentage, not amount.  It’s an old preacher riddle:  When is $40 more than $100?  In the offering plate.  If an administrative assistant is paid $400 per pay period and puts in $40, that is more than if her boss, who is paid $2,000 per pay period, puts in $100.  If you are honest with yourself, you will take a minute and come up with a percentage that represents generosity for you.

Generosity is like the keystone of an arch.  When practiced, it holds your financial life in place.  How do you put generosity into practice?  Put these five keystones into practice:

  1. Give to God first.  This is where many people struggle.  First, they pay their bills, then they set aside money for groceries and Wal-Mart.  Then, if anything is left, they give a little bit to God.  Too often, there is nothing left!

 

Jesus said, “Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness.”  Apply this to your financial life.  God comes before the bank.  What this requires, of course, is that you organize your finances.  This is not something Americans are good at.  God wants you to organize your finances not just so you can give, but so you live within your means.  Giving to God first creates a healthy soul that is generous.

 

  1. Give what you have. Whenever giving is discussed in church, people get nervous.  Is the expectation for me to give to God and have nothing left for myself?  That was the expectation of the ancient gods.  They demanded sacrifice and didn’t care if you went hungry.  That is not the Christian understanding of God.

Paul taught us two important principles: Take care of your family; and give what you have, not what you don’t have.

You may need to adjust your lifestyle to be generous.  Your lifestyle probably needs adjustment, anyway.  You need transportation, not a car that makes a statement.  Your children do not need to get more for Christmas than the neighbors.  In fact, the most valuable lesson you can teach them is to not play the comparison game.  The real question is not “Does God expect me to do without?” but “How do I need to live so I can be generous?”

 

  1. Give a percentage. You live on a percentage of your income.  I read the average American family lives on 113% of their income (ah, the wonders of credit cards).  No wonder so many of us struggle.  I think 10% of your income is a beginning point of generosity.

 

The best financial advice I can give you is found in the Bible and in every financial planning guide:  Create Margin.  Spend less than you make.  A financial health formula: Give 10%, save 10%, and live on 80%.

Could it be that God wants you to give and save so you can have margin in your financial life?

  1. Give regularly. Regular giving means you pay attention to your financial life.  As a couple and a family, you have the hard discussions.  If you are a believer, regular giving means you acknowledge regularly that God owns it all.  Regular giving means regular acknowledgement of God’s blessings in your life.

 

  1. Give to Jesus’s body. If you aren’t a follower of Jesus, I think it’s still a good idea to give.  But if you are a follower of Jesus, give to your local church.  Give so God’s work can be done.  It takes resources to provide tools for ministry: buildings, bulletins, and Bibles.  It takes resources to fund vocational ministers, who lead, teach and equip.

 

I understand the impulse to want to direct our generosity.  We want to have a direct connection to those blessed by our giving.  But I believe giving 10% of our income to Jesus’s body is a form of submission.  It is a tangible way we say, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

 

What would happen if these five keystones of generosity governed your financial life?  You would be a better money manager, your soul would be healthier, and the world would change.

Small price to pay.

For You, Not From You…

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I grew up in churches that assumed if you really followed Jesus, you would be miserable.  Therefore, the more miserable you were, the closer you were to Jesus.  Our pastors told us that it was better to be miserable at church on Sunday night than to be at home watching the “Wonderful World of Disney.”  It was better to be miserable missing your prom than to be at your prom and be in danger of the fires of hell.

We never could understand Pentecostals.  They seemed to enjoy church too much.  We knew church was a burden to be endured so we could show how much we loved Jesus.  As Baptists, we knew Methodists and Presbyterians could not be true followers of Jesus because they did not have Sunday night church.  They were at home watching the “Wonderful World of Disney.”  We were falling asleep to listening to a warmed over Sunday night sermon.

Our heroes were missionaries, who really suffered for Jesus in far-away places.  When the missionaries came to speak at our church, they always let us know what they had given up so they could serve God.  Valda Long was nurse from our hometown who had gone to serve in Nigeria.  When she came home on furlough and spoke in our church, we thanked God she went and we didn’t.

Though I knew at an early age I was called to be a pastor, I feared being called as a missionary.  I didn’t want to go far away from home.  I kept hoping I would not hear “the call.”  Then, during finals week at college, I laid down for a nap (after pulling an all-nighter).  Unknown to me, some jokers rigged a mic to their stereo system and began to blare a message through the dorm: “This is God. I want you to be a missionary.  I want you to go to the jungle and live without indoor plumbing.  I want you to marry an ugly woman to be your missionary wife and have ugly missionary kids.”  Awakened by this message, a ball of fear formed in my stomach.  I guessed God was calling me to a life of misery for him.  Only when I heard the guys laughing did I realize it was a joke.  I was relieved.

The danger of thinking God wants you to be miserable is you can make life harder than it needs to be.  You feel guilt for any pleasure you enjoy.  You start to avoid God, fearing another message of misery is on its way.  You resent others who seem to have faith and enjoy life.  You want them to be as miserable as you are.  When offerings are taken, you are not a cheerful giver, but a miserable one.  You feel like all God wants is something from you.

The whole idea that God wants you to be miserable is wrong.  Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, and that you might have it in abundance!”  He also said, “I spoke all these things to you so my joy might be in you and your joy might be full up to the brim.”

I love the way Andy Stanley captures this: “God wants something for you, not something from you.”

Isn’t this the whole reason Jesus came?  God wants you to be forgiven.  God wants you to be set free.  God wants you to live in his power and his blessing.

This means when God asks you for something, he wants something for you, not from you.  When God asks you to give money to his work, he wants you to be set free from greed.  When God asks you to serve, he wants you to find your purpose.  When God asks you to tell your story to someone, he wants you to discover the joy of encouraging someone.

It’s time to shed miserable thinking.  God wants something for you, not something from you.  Whenever you hear his invitation, give, serve, and share with enthusiasm, because God will provide something better for you.