How to Be Thankful

I struggle with being thankful, which sucks because, as a Christian, thankfulness is supposed to be a crucial piece of my life. I am grateful for the good things in my life — Rachel, Ella, Jon, an awesome job, great friends, a fantastic church — but thankfulness extends beyond just what we enjoy. It also extends to those things we’d prefer to avoid.

Tough times. Sadness. Personal demons. An unjust world.

The easy answer is to simply not be thankful for the stuff that hurts; to just chalk it up to cosmic injustice, or the cold heart of a distant deity, or the blind pitiless indifference of a mechanistic universe. In fact, rather than being thankful, it’s easier to take the position of anger and indignation that such things exist.

Problem is, that kind of anger overwhelms you. It consumes your soul. Before long, it consumes your world.

We feel this on a regular basis. Our collective position these days is outrage followed by self-preservation followed by blame someone else followed by people deciding to move to Idaho and live out the end times in a shack with a nifty beard.

My Facebook feed alternates between “Praise Jesus and pass the turkey!” and “The world is going TO HELL IN AN F-16 LOADED WITH NU-CU-LAR WEAPONS!!!”

But in the middle of this is Jesus. He’s been kicking my butt lately. You know, in a kind way. I’m reading through the Gospels again because I want to understand how he lived above the fray. And the truth is, he didn’t live above it. He lived in the thick of it, right in the middle where the ugly stuff happens. And his anger, while real and impressive, was reserved for only those things he found offensive to his deepest sensibilities.

Otherwise, Jesus took life as it came and kept things cool.

I read this the other day, and it gave me pause:

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.”

Contentedness, I think, is the heart of thanksgiving. You have to appreciate what you have in order to be thankful for it. I’m not a content person; I have dreams I want to chase, things I want to do, and so I spend a lot of time looking ahead at what could be while being disappointed that it isn’t realized right now. I also have things that I want out of my life — character flaws, insecurities, fears and the like. I spend as much time focusing on those (if not more).

Yet here’s Jesus, telling me to be content with who I am.

That’s hard.

I would wager that nothing Jesus taught is as hard for the modern American Christian than being content with who he or she is. In fact, I’m not even going to generalize this; I’m going to just be straight up honest: as an American Christian, this is one of my greatest struggles. I’ve grown up believing I had a manifest destiny to be more, to be better. I find it difficult to simply be me, whether I’m at home alone or in a room full of strangers. Who I am has always been less of the focus than what I do or how I perform.

And therein lies the restlessness, the discontent.

To be thankful, I must be content. To be content, I must trust in the intrinsic value I have, not because of what I do, but because of who I am. And, as a Christian, to whom I belong.

To be thankful, I must find rest in the truth that God loves me and walks with me, both towards my dreams and away from the things I need to leave behind. I must be content that God is at work in my life and, in his mercy, finds that to be enough.

For that, I am honestly, truly thankful.

Play With Me, Daddy

photo (22)“Play with me, daddy.”

I must hear that a couple hundred times a day. Sometimes, I’m ready to play, and it’s tickle fights, wrestling matches, Avengers figures, cars and trucks until we can’t stand it any longer. Other times, I’m not so ready to play, and I try to beg off. If you’re a parent, I’m sure you can relate.

But lately, I’ve noticed something. When Jon says “Play with me”, he’s using the word play in an entire different way. In fact, it may be an entirely different word.

I hear play and I think interaction, me and him using our imaginations to create scenarios and worlds where the toys we use and the time we share transport us together into another place. But it’s a separate togetherness: we each act independently within the game, each one doing what we imagine our characters should do. I think play, and it’s really all about collective yet distinct imaginative effort. Me and him as two.

When Jon says play, it’s less about imagination or collaborative effort. It’s more about him doing what he wants to do while I sit in the same room with him. Sometimes he’ll hand me a truck and tell me where to drive it. Other times he forgets I’m even there. The only thing he really needs is for me to remain physically present; my mind can be a thousand miles away as long as he can still use my arms as bridges and my belly as a mountain. I am another toy for him to use.

It’s ugly, but sometimes I get frustrated by this kind of play. My son has some cool toys, and the idea of just running the same four trucks over my stomach for an hour and a half makes me feel a little…I dunno, bored maybe? I want to line up action figures and trucks and Lego castles and create our own fantastic battles and worlds. I understand on a deeper level what play can really be, and I want to explore that deeper level.

My son, who’s only four, doesn’t get that yet. So he’s content to play at his level, happy to have a few small toys and a daddy who will simply sit with him for as long as he needs. He doesn’t know what he’s missing because he hasn’t learned there’s anything to miss. Developmentally, he’s right on schedule and I have to stop and remind myself that, as his father, I have to work with him where he’s at and gently expand his world a little bit at a time.

I bring all this up because it’s sort of where I’m at with God right now. For a long time, I’ve been content to play at my level, which is to do what I want to do while having the security of His presence. But God’s been gently expanding my world; He’s calling me out into places of much deeper meaning and discovery, not because I’m special, but because He has something He wants to show me. I still want to play with a couple of trucks.

He wants to help me build worlds.

Like my son, I’ve been content to just do my thing. But also like my son, I’ve learned to put my hand into my daddy’s and let Him lead me into something else. It requires trust and faith that He won’t lead me into situations where I’ll be hurt; it requires me loving Him enough to surrender to something that stretches me, pushes the envelope of what I think I can do. And when I find I’m at my limit, He lovingly picks me up into His arms and lets me rest, reassuring me that we’ve done enough for the day.

Sometimes, I worry about what other people might think of what He’s teaching me. But He doesn’t. And I trust Him.

Because He loves me.

A Sock Monkey, Anxiety and An Answered Prayer

Today was one of those days – the kind where the weight of the world settles in on your shoulders and makes you realize just how fragile you really are. I woke up from a horrible dream (I can’t begin to describe it, but suffice it to say it involved a man in Sock Monkey pajamas sitting next to me in bed and asking me questions I couldn’t answer) and immediately felt the day slip beyond my control. My entire ride to work was overshadowed by my anxiety over this one particular issue.

But then I get to my office and there’s a voicemail waiting for me, one left at 3:30 AM. “Pastor Brooks, this is the girl you prayed for at the church awhile back. I just wanted to call and let you know that everything worked out okay for me after you prayed. My parents are still getting divorced, but everything is better this way, and I’m much happier. Thanks for praying for me. It helped. I know I told you I would call you and tell you what happened, and I’m sorry it took me so long. But anyway, thanks.”

That’s it. My brain reels. For the life of me, I can’t figure out who the heck this girl is. I wonder if she somehow got a wrong number, but what are the odds that she would dial my direct office line and call me Pastor Brooks? I’d obviously met her somewhere in the past. But where? And why did she call in the middle of the night the exact same night I was having trouble sleeping?

Then I remembered: a few months ago, Rachel and I were getting our wills done at Rehoboth Baptist Church (don’t ask). I was running late, and Rachel called and told me about this girl who was at the church and in need of prayer, but there wasn’t a staff person available at the time. So Rachel asked me to pray with the girl when I arrived. I spent 10 minutes with the young woman, and most of it was spent listening as she sobbed about her parents fighting, her struggling to pay for her schooling at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts School, her desperate need to know that someone cared. That God cared.

So I prayed with her. And then I handed her my business card from RZIM and told her to call me and let me know what God did.

Last night, as I struggled she called me. This morning, when I needed it, she reminded me of what God wanted me to remember. Not two minutes later a co-worker came and spoke to me and confirmed me as well. Then this afternoon, another co-worker affirmed me.

Basically, God spent the day telling me, “I got this. It’s all good.”

Sometimes, despite our cynical inclinations to disbelieve in the happy-ever-afters in this life, things really do work out. Today was one of those days.

Leaving a Legacy

I’m just going to start this little blog post and then send it out into cyberspace, knowing that I’ll have to come back and rewrite or add or possibly even turn it into a book. Who knows?

But I just got done reading the blog of one of my former students, Abbie Reynolds (yes, I know I just pushed her blog the other week; can I help it if she’s good?), and specifically this post, and I have to say: it just tickled the crap out of me.

I didn’t raise Abbie. Was only intimately involved in her and her family’s life for a period of five or so years (though we have kept in touch, proof of which is the 5,000,000 reference letters I’ve written and still write for this chick). But in reading that blog post I felt an overwhelming sense that I had somehow contributed something worthwhile to her life. I can say that because she refers to me in the post (“Grammar Nazi” – which, honestly, should be more like “Punctuation Nazi”). And, because she reads my blog and maybe learned a little somethin’-somethin’ from moi. But that’s beside the point.

The point is, I have spent hours pouring into the lives of other people, most of whom were students between the terrible ages of 12 and 18, many of whom, I am proud to say, I still keep in touch with. When my life ends, and the accomplishments I’ve racked up are counted, the few things that will mean the most to me will be the legacy I leave my wife, my kids, and my students. I pray that I can be the kind of man that leaves people better for having met me, the kind of man that sees that part of humanity that God called “very good” when He was done creating it. I pray that I can invest into the lives of other people and enjoy watching that investment pay off, not in any direct way (I don’t particularly care to be mentioned by name in award acceptance speeches, especially after seeing “In & Out” with Kevin Kline), but in the fact that the folks I’ve invested in go on to lead meaningful lives.

I know that people make choices, and that there are going to be times when someone elects to do other than what I (or their parents or friends or family) would hope; but I still believe, at the end of the day, that a generation of mature, insightful, thoughtful individuals might be the best legacy that I could ever leave.

What do you think? What makes a lasting legacy?

They Just Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To…

…and that’s a cryin’ shame. I just watched “12 Angry Men” for the sixth or seventh time in the past two months, and I still come away with a sense of just how freaking good that movie really is.

It truly stands the test of time.

There are some parts that are dated – a reflection of the changing social mores of an increasingly evolving America – but on the whole the tensions, the prejudices, the capacity for quiet strength expressed with dignity to change hardened or cynical hearts still holds true in our contemporary society.

We just don’t always see it. Or hear about it.

Or, honestly, appreciate it.

We’ve turned the person with moral conviction into a satirical lump that deserves our best shots, and I’m not talking about atheism vs. Christianity; I’m talking about people holding to an honest-to-God ethical conviction despite the prevailing pressures or blatant self-interest of themselves or others being turned into the target for our aggregated contempt.

Old-fashioned. Patristic. Parochial. Anachronistic. Whatever you want to call it, you dismiss it at your peril. We desperately need women and men who hold to a serious ethical code, men and women who won’t sell out their fellow man at the first opportunity to cut a corner or make a buck. And if you don’t believe that statement, well try and enjoy a fishing expedition in the Gulf region right now, or have a chat with someone who’s nest egg got scrambled by the fellows who cheated and lied their way to multi-million dollar retirements and golden parachutes.

Honor. Morality. Ethics. Class.

Foreign words to my generation and the ones behind us, but words we need to resurrect if we hope for any bright future for our nation. If we fail in this, we might as well carve out the tombstone for the American dream:

“Rest in Pieces.”