thanksgiving for beggars

Can you hear what’s been said?
Can you see now that everything’s grace after all?
If there’s one thing I know in this life: we are beggars all.
Beggars by Thrice

To me, Thanksgiving is the best holiday. Christmas and Easter commemorate more important events – the most important events of all – but they have been almost completely secularized and commercialized in this culture. Celebrating them in honest and faithful ways can be difficult. Thanksgiving is, perhaps, in this sense, the “purest” holy-day. It is simple and the idea behind it is beautiful: a day set aside expressly for purpose of counting one’s blessings and expressing gratitude (to God) for life and the good things in it.

In the Christian understanding of the universe, life, breath, and everything exist only because God continues to will it so. Jesus is, now, upholding all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3). We, as creatures, create and sustain nothing. Whatever we have, we have received. The truth of our humble state is total and absolute dependence on the creation and sustenance of God – whether we acknowledge this or not. “We are beggars all.”

A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. John 3:27

Christians understand this, and it is for expressly this reason that they understand sin as being so heinous. The more one has received, the more wicked one’s ingratitude and wastefulness becomes.

We are prone to live out of a deeply felt sense of entitlement, not gratitude – and none more so than my generation of American young people. We grew up, practically speaking, wealthier than any other generation that has ever lived, with an almost incredible level of affluence and ease of living that has been handed to us by the sweat of our grandparents and parents. We are more educated and more childish than every generation preceding us. We feel fervently entitled to happiness. Ridiculously so.

Gratitude is the opposite of entitlement. Gratitude looks at the gifts of God in awe and humility and praise. Entitlement feels constantly deprived and resents every perceived lack, meanwhile ignoring the grace in every undeserved gift. Which one do you live by more often?

Thanksgiving for the Christian is truly sweet. We are privileged in that we know exactly who it is we are thanking (how does an atheist celebrate this holiday?). We personally know the Father of lights from whom every good and perfect gift comes (James 1:17). We alone can say, “Thank you, Father – Abba – Papa – Daddy.”

The privilege of our relationship with God and our status in his eyes, mediated by the death and resurrection of Jesus, which removes our sin as far as east is from west and brings us as close to the Father as the Son is to him, is of course the greatest grace of all. It is absurd that entitlement-minded sinners can call a holy God “Daddy.” Yet, it is so, because Jesus suffered the cross and tore the curtain in two. The thing for us to do, therefore, is pray, write songs and poems, make spontaneous art, lift our voices, and thank God.

G. K. Chesterton wrote of St. Francis that Francis saw the world upside down. Heavy palaces and cathedrals, usually thought of as being more firmly rooted on the earth and more permanent than anything else, are instead most in danger of falling off completely, precisely because of their weight. The mere fact that God continues to hold the thread by which our world dangles moved Francis to a profound sense of gratitude and dependence which lasted his entire life.

Thanksgiving really is a way of life,  a way to see the world. It is a habit of prayer. To always pray “with thanksgiving,” following Paul’s commands in Philippians 4:6 and Colossians 4:2, changes how you process life. It reverses entitlement and transforms it into grateful humility, which is in every way a more joyful place to be. To stay thankful when loss threatens saves the soul from total despair because to stay thankful is to remain steadily at rest in the immeasurable grace of God. And – thankfully – thanksgiving keeps you on speaking terms with God, no matter what.

Jesus told his disciples, “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8 NIV). The logical successor of gratitude is generosity, since whatever you have, you too have received as a gift. Beggars become givers in God’s kingdom.

To close I’ll share with you all I poem I love that repeatedly stirs me to gratitude towards God, even in the face of humanity’s violence and destruction.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877, discovered here.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

It Would Be Nice, It Would Be Nothing

Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body. Hebrews 13:3 (KJV)
It would be nice to live as if you don’t exist.
My brain dislikes your constant presence
– watching, waiting, staring with your big eyes –
I have never been alone since the first time I met you
and you stared at me, unembarrassed, while I
shifted my weight and flitted my gaze
between you and the wall behind you.

It would be nice to live as if pain could not be felt.
All human creatures could sleep the night
without waking up, short-breathed, palms imprinted
from fingernails pressing harder, harder.
My palms dislike your presence in my dreams.
I could dream of weddings and beaches all night
without your eyes arriving to spoil my fun.

It would be nice to live as if death is a joke.
“Grandpa played a trick on you! He’s only gone to
France. Silly, did you think it all was real?”
I could forget the dead-line of my life
and yours and his and hers and just unwind
and say, “We’ve got all kinds of time.”
But I’m a Friday and my Monday’s coming soon.

It would be nice to live without this Spirit in me.
Just me, myself, and I: we could be happy
with nothing but our status quo. Yet,
I’m told I’ve died with violence to the world
– to it I am a corpse that’s five years gone.
I am alive to Someone I have yet to meet
named “Suffering Slave” and “Lamb That’s Been Slain.”

It would be nice to live as if this were not so,
as if these were not His names.
Perhaps then I could forget your big eyes, too.
I could be alone for once, for once,
without Him at my shoulder and you at my feet:
all alone, with nothing but niceness to think of.
It would be nice. It would be nothing.

the greatest struggle

In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. Hebrews 12:4
What is your greatest struggle? To put it another away: against what do you exert the greatest part of your efforts and emotions trying to beat down and jettison out of your life?
To most of us most of the time the answer is: unhappiness. The thing we struggle against with the greatest part of our energy is our own unhappiness. The flip side of this is that happiness is the thing we struggle most to attain. Christians often express this by saying we are prone to “worship” happiness.

You may not see anything wrong with this. We want to be happy and we try to avoid being unhappy – what is unnatural or wrong about that? In fact, you may wonder, what could be more natural?

And yet Christ calls us to something different. In the Gospels, Jesus often told his followers to practice lifestyles of self-denial and self-sacrifice, naming servant-hood and martyrdom as his highest ideals. He called them to give up themselves for his sake. To put it bluntly, he demanded that they give up happiness for holiness.

Holiness is an unwelcome word to many people. It tends to conjure up images of obnoxiously religious people who think they deserve life’s gold medal because of their self-discipline; or, worse, infuriating hypocrites who harshly demand certain behaviors from others while failing to live up to their own sermonizing. Holiness means neither of these things, and Jesus hated these imitations of holiness even more than we do.

Holiness, simply defined, means to be consecrated and set apart for God. Lived out, it means submitting one’s will to the will of God: learning to love what God loves, hate what God hates, and measure all things in this world by his Word. It looks like purity of heart, mind, soul, and body; humility and the reverential fear of God; mercy, patience, and love toward all people; perpetual prayer and communion with God. Holiness is Jesus’ upward call for the people who love him.

“When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

With holiness as the greatest goal of our lives, offenses against it are the greatest calamities – rather than offenses against our happiness. The sin in my own heart is my new archenemy, not the inconveniences, or even the evils, of this world that disturb my life.  Evil from without is an enemy, and it can be a terrible one, indeed; but evil from within is a greater enemy still.

Jesus shines a new light on our suffering. With holiness as the chief goal and sin as the chief enemy, a person begins to understand – albeit just barely – what the apostles meant when they wrote of rejoicing at the chance to suffer more for Christ.

Then [after being beaten and threatened] [the apostles] left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. Acts 5:41

Now I [Paul] rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church… Colossians 1:24

Now, we are not slaves to the insatiable demands of God’s law, his perfect standard of moral and spiritual conduct. “We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6). Nor are we slaves to condemning consciences. “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). We are – really, truly, more than the world can ever understand – free.

We must understand, though, that the great part of our spiritual liberation, received only from God, is that utter self-absorption is no longer our only option. We are wonderfully free to no longer think about ourselves 24-7, and perpetually obsess about our own happiness. Holiness comes from turning out and looking up:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. 2 Corinthians 3:18

There is a dirty little secret the world neglects to tell us. If your greatest struggle is against unhappiness – if happiness is your highest goal – you will lose. You cannot get happiness by aiming at it.

You can, however, get joy by aiming at God. And when sin is your enemy, when your greatest struggle is against the unholiness inside you, you can triumph o’er your foe with “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). The battle is brutal. The watch is long. The struggle continues. But the victory is glorious.

the valley of vision

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness,
thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow,
thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty,
thy glory in my valley.
-From The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions edited by Arthur Bennett
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Isaiah 40:4
And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there, like the vision that I saw in the valley. Ezekiel 8:4

six days is the longest you can go

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. Genesis 2:1-3
I know of a young Orthodox Jewish couple, formerly Christians, who cited this accusation against Christianity as one of the reasons they converted to Judaism: “Why do Christians say they believe in the ten commandments, but functionally only keep nine of them? Why do Christians act as if it is acceptable to disregard the fourth commandment by desecrating the Sabbath?”

The fourth commandment is this:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11
Although I believe the couple’s conversion to Judaism was a lamentable step backward, I see their point. Many modern Christians treat the observance of the Sabbath as a Mosaic law that the New Covenant annuls, in the same category as not eating pork. This attitude, combined with our general cultural engorgement on entertainment, our addiction to busy-ness, and our discomfort with silence and stillness, means that for most of us the fourth commandment amounts to nothing more than an hour of church in the morning, if that.

We forget that God created the Sabbath in the beginning, before the entrance of sin or the giving of the law. He instituted the pattern of the seventh day’s specialness from the start; even Adam and Eve in Eden knew about it. We forget its origin, and we also forget its loveliness. The Sabbath is a truly beautiful thing, and it is precious to God. We neglect it to our own loss and shame.

The Sabbath compels us to remember God. God pointed this out in Exodus 31, telling Moses,

You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, “Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.” Exodus 31:13
The Sabbath is a sign and a reminder of the fact that God is the Sanctifier, the One who makes his people holy. The Israelites were designated a holy people because of their special connection to the one holy God. In the same way, Christians are “sanctified by faith in [Jesus]” (Acts 26:18), made holy by their connection to the holiness of Christ. It is “in the sanctification of the Spirit” (1 Peter 1:2), in the Holy Spirit’s action in the hearts of Christians to increasingly conform them to the example of Christ, that believers witness and experience God as Sanctifier in living color.

The Sabbath exists as a weekly signpost to the fact that God is; that he is holy; that he relates to mankind; that he mercifully sanctifies his people; that he alone deserves all glory, praise, and thanks. With the Sabbath in your life, six days is the longest you can go without being forcefully reminded of God and of his action in your life and in you.

Christians typically regard Sunday, rather than Saturday, as the Sabbath day because Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday (a practice originating at the beginning of the church). Thus, the Sabbath exists as a year-round celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. With the Sabbath in your life, six days is the longest you can go without being forced to consider the objective fact of Jesus’ divinity, the New Covenant identity which defines you, and the resurrected world to which you are headed.

For if Joshua had given [the Israelites] rest, God would have not spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Hebrews 4:8-10

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Romans 4:4-8

To enter a relationship with God through faith in Jesus is to enter rest. Jesus does not save us through our works – and faith is not a work, either. He saves us through faith, the best definition of which may well be: to lay your weary soul down in the blood-stained hands of the crucified Son of God, and rest. Rest from working and striving after the wind. Such is the faith which God counts as righteousness.

In one sense, the entire Christian life is work: pursuing greater holiness, greater knowledge of God, greater love, greater spiritual stature. In another sense, all of it is rest: receiving the Father’s love, receiving Jesus, receiving the Holy Spirit, accepting grace through faith.

“Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.” The whole Jewish pattern of living revolved around the Sabbath, the holy day of rest which they understood as belonging in a special way to God. In the same way, with the Sabbath in your life, six days is longest you can go without being forced to rest from your useless striving and working for God’s love. It’s the longest you can go without being forced to savor the free forgiveness of the cross.

The Sabbath designates the rest of faith. It also foreshadows the rest of heaven, that blessed ceasing from labor and suffering which awaits those declared righteous through faith. To many of us who live sedentary, comfortable lives, the idea of heaven as rest may seem almost anti-climactic. To the rest of humanity, there is hardly a sweeter thought in the world.

If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the LORD’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
then you will find your joy in the LORD,
and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.
The mouth of the LORD has spoken. Isaiah 58:13-14