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.

The Second-Hand Truth of the Gospel of Whomever

I had lunch with friend on Friday, and he said something that really stuck with me. Josh is a writer himself, so it’s no surprise he’s good with a turn of the phrase, but this one little gem has kept me spinning since we talked.

“Too many Christians,” he said, “live on second-hand truth.”

I knew immediately what he meant.

For many Christians, their knowledge of God, their relationship with Christ, their intimacy with the Holy Spirit, is only as deep as their pastor’s. Because many Christians never go beyond what they hear and see on Sunday.

So they quote what they hear from the pulpit. They allow the pulpit to direct their passions, their anger, even their love. And while having a pastor to help us understand the Scriptures is Scriptural itself, there is no substitute for living out the Word of God in our daily lives.

But many Christians don’t do that. Because we’ve been trained to accept second-hand truth as enough.

The problem with second-hand truth is its lifelessness. It’s flat. It falls apart when life happens. Your pastor says homosexuality is bad, and homosexuals are ruining the country, and then you actually meet someone who is gay and they don’t fit the narrative. In fact, you like that gay person, and your instinct is to get to know them, not shun them.

But the second-hand truth kicks in: you can’t associate with gay people and be a follower of Jesus.

True, the Bible says that Christians shouldn’t associate with the sexually immoral–which includes homosexuals, adulterers, divorcees, and folks who have sex before marriage–but only if the sexually immoral have identified themselves as Christians. And more often than not, the sexually immoral clause is part of a list of other behaviors like drunkenness, greed, gluttony, and overcharging people for coffee. And again, these lists are intended to call out wrongful behaviors of people who identify themselves as Christians.

In other words, the only people Christians should be shunning are Christians who claim to be Christians but don’t live like Christ.

But many preachers/pastors don’t frame the argument that way, and since folks are content to accept second-hand truth as Gospel, we end up with idiots protesting the funerals of fallen soldiers or marching to “protect” the rights of white people.

It’s tempting for me, as a former pastor, to place the blame on preachers. It would be easy to make the preachers out as the source of the problem, but the truth is they are merely the symptom. Bad theology in the pulpit isn’t the issue.

The real issue is Christians who don’t have a relationship with Christ.

You have to read your Bible for yourself.

You have to ask hard questions about what you read.

You need to seek out more than one opinion on things.

You bear the responsibility to take your doubts, misgivings, uncertainties before God in prayer.


The power of the Gospel to save is found in the truth of Christ, who he is, what he has done, and how he changes people. When you live by second-hand truth, you are not sharing the Gospel of Christ with the world; you are sharing with the world the Gospel of Whomever.

There is no power in the Gospel of Whomever.

None. Whatsoever.

Read your bible. Ask questions. Pray. Write down things you think about. Talk about what you read, think and feel with other people. This is Christianity. This is the community, the body, of Christ.

When you begin to do that, you begin to see the power of the Truth at work, first-hand, in the world around you.

And you’ll wonder how you ever settled for the second-hand variety.

What’s a Christian to Do?

Not too long ago, my friend and fellow Christian Kris Parker posted on one of my random Facebook posts that I should write something on the thirteenth chapter of the book of Romans. I believe I said something snarky in response, but the thought has lingered in the back of my mind the way leftover Chinese take-out lingers in the back of your fridge. I’ve considered taking Kris up on the challenge, but could never think of an appropriate way to do so.

Until today.

Over on my local Patch, one of the more active articles is one regarding prayer at the UGA commencement. Essentially, a contingent of students has written in protest of the traditional prayer at UGA’s commencement ceremonies, saying that it violates the separation of church and state clause in the First Amendment. What has made the story newsworthy is that the contingent wrote not only to the UGA administration, but to the website of famed New Atheist Richard Dawkins’. Naturally, an article such as that generates a lot of discussion, and I couldn’t help but venture into the fray. It led to some interesting thoughts.

I won’t rehash all of the comments here, but suffice it to say that I found myself in agreement with Grant Mackay (one of the Patch’s outspoken non-religious readers): the simplest solution is for the University to simply hold a standard commencement service, with no prayer or other religious invocations. Just let the folks get their diplomas with no fuss or muss. And if some of the campus organizations – be they religious in nature or not – want to have some sort of ancillary celebration that allows for their particular beliefs or worldviews to be expressed, then so be it.

Now, I am writing this in full knowledge that there will be people who take issue with that position. Tyranny of the minority view. The continued de-Christianization of the nation. One more blow against religious freedom. I understand those points of view and can appreciate them.

But here’s where Romans 13 comes in. And I quote:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but for the sake of conscience.

And just out of respect for some of Grant’s more passionate rumblings, let me add the next couple of verses:

For because of this you pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Now, keep in mind, the Apostle Paul is writing this advice to Christians living in Rome at the height of the Empire. Most historians put the date of writing at A.D. 57, so the infamous Nero is in power; yet, historically it was a time of relative peace for the church, not quite at the beginnings of what would become widespread persecution of Christians.

So, in a time of relative peace, beneath a government that was content to allow the Christian faith to go on its merry way, Paul’s counsel to the Roman believers was to submit to the government. And he connected that submission with submission to God the Father.

Yeah, take a minute and re-read that: submitting to the government is submitting to God.

Makes this coming Sunday a day of worship in a whole new way, don’t it?

Now, lest you think I’m misreading this passage (and depending upon your hermeneutic, I might be), let me take you to the book of 1 Peter, chapter two, verses 13-17:

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether is be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Now Peter was writing from Rome in A.D. 64, either immediately before or just shortly after the death of the Apostle Paul. The emperor, Nero, has moved from being tolerant of the Christian faith to actively persecuting Christians and using them as political scapegoats within the Empire. It is a vastly different culture for the Christians Peter is writing to, and yet his message strongly echoes that of Paul.

Submission to the government is submission to God.

So let me bring it back to the article I mentioned at the beginning: as Grant and others have pointed out, there exists in the Constitution a clause that, while open for interpretive movement, expressly prohibits the government from either instituting a state-mandated religion or instituting a ban on the individual freedom to worship. In our current political and cultural climate, the reading on that clause is different from where it was 50 years ago; we currently live in a post-Christian society, which means that the values and mores employed back in the day aren’t the values and mores employed today. You can debate the goodness or badness of that reality, but you can’t debate the reality itself. We live in a nation that wants its religion and its government separated.

So then, in today’s climate, a government run institution shouldn’t have an invocation as part of its ceremony. Period.

And we, as Christians, as people who say we live by the imperatives of Holy Scripture, should be at peace with that. Doesn’t mean we have to consider it a wise or good decision, but we should, at minimum, submit to that decision (if such a decision is made) because of our love for God.

I’m sure there will be some debate on this. We have a long-standing cultural history that says if you don’t like the government, you have the right to change it – either through your vote or your violence (cf. 1776). And that history is so ingrained in us as citizens that we automatically want to fight any time the government makes a decision that we find disagreeable, be we religious or not.

But those of us who follow Christ have been instructed in the Word to submit as an act of reverence and worship to the God who is in control of this world. Those who don’t believe as we are free to do whatever their worldview compels them.

And there’s the rub: when we rail against the government, and castigate those in power, or act out in defiance of those who make decisions that go against our deeply cherished beliefs, we are violating our deeply cherished beliefs ourselves.

We have to decide whether or not we’re Christians first, Americans second or whether it’s the other way around. If Christ comes first, then we as a Christian community have some serious thinking to do.

Now feel free to tell me I’m an idiot. The comments are yours.