Thursday, December 31, 2009

What's on your plate for 2010? What's on God's?

It’s time . . . This time of year, that statement usually precedes well intentioned resolutions. It’s time to lose some weight – eat less, exercise more. It’s time to increase the bank account – spend less, save more. It’s time to grow closer to the family – less hours at the office, more at home. Inevitably, for those of us who are Christians, we also often focus on our faith. It’s time, we say, to finally read the Bible through. It’s time, to start spending more time in prayer. It’s time to do all those things we know we’re supposed to but tend to push to the edges of our schedules until they get squeezed out altogether.

Now, the desire to take inventory over one’s life, to make changes, to improve is not a bad desire. We’re just so bad at doing it. Part of the problem in self-improvement is the fact that it’s so consumed with the self. We hear advice all the time that we have to look into ourselves, we have to follow our hearts, we have to believe in oneself. All nice sentiments, I guess, but each bit of advice asks us to do something like pick up the chair you’re sitting in. Impossible. It comes as a surprise to many to realize that Jesus never said “Believe in yourself” – he said, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (John 7:38). Jesus never commanded us to find ourselves – his instructions were, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). Jesus never told us to follow our hearts – his invitation was, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of people” (Matthew 4:19).

Throughout the scripture, the paradoxical truth is that self-improvement comes through self-denial. The abundant life comes from abandoning one’s life to God. You can see then why so many of our efforts to get a little more of God each January fail – we want just a little bit of God – but God doesn’t come that way. Trying to squeeze a little bit of God into your day is like trying to capture a little bit of Niagara Falls in a teacup. The absurdity of our efforts to get just a little bit of God in our lives is made plane by author Wilbur Rees. Almost four decades ago, he wrote a tongue-in-cheek prayer that would be funny if it didn’t his so close to home. Many of you’ve probably heard it before, but it’s worth retelling.

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don't want enough of him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

C. S. Lewis addressed this tendency in us to want only enough of God to make us moral. He said that people are always asking him “Will [Christianity] help me? Will I be a better person if I become a Christian?” He admits that he hates the question because it misses the point. It reduces Christianity and worse yet, reduces God to a self-help technique that we can possess. But God cannot be possessed. He’s not a technique. He’s either the creator and master of the universe or he isn’t – if he is, far from being “wholly absorbed with our own blessed ‘moral development’” we ought to be devoting our entire energies towards serving our maker. He concludes, “Mere morality is not the end of life. You were made for something quite different from that…"

What were we made for? We were made for Christ - To know him and to be in relationship with him, to praise him and give him glory. Therefore, our goal shouldn’t be “Can I fit a little of God into my life this year?” but rather, “Can I get my life into God?” Notice Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” Jesus is the center of the universe, not me and not you. We create a little bit of the confusion when we only frame our discussions of salvation in terms of asking Jesus to come and live inside our heart. While that’s a fine way of talking about what happens in belief – The Bible often talks about Christ in us. But it’s certainly not the only way or even the main way the Scriptures talk about salvation. Salvation is not so much about getting a little of Jesus into me, but rather getting all of me into Jesus. The question, then, is not, “How can I squeeze God onto my plate in 2010, but what is on God’s plate for 2010 and how do I become a part of it?”

4 Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this:
6 He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun (Psalm 37:4-6).

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Get the thank you notes ready

What do you think you’ll be getting for Christmas year? Do you already know? Have you already received it? Did you say thank you? Life is full of gifts. It goes to reason that life should then be full of thanks. But sometimes its easy to think what we receive isn’t a gift, but something we’re owed. We’ve worked hard this year, we tell ourselves, so we deserve this. We’ve been good and now it’s time to reward ourselves. That’s fine to a point. However, my guess is that the numbers of things in this life we deserve are far fewer than we imagine. Our lives abound in unmerited gifts.

A friend posted a G. K. Chesterton quote on his Facebook page this morning that made me smile: "When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?" I don’t know that I’ve ever called what are on my feet stockings, but I get the point. Chesterton said in another place, “The great saint may be said to mix all his thoughts with thanks. All goods look better when they look like gifts.”

Oh to have hearts of humility and eyes of gratefulness! Life would indeed look so much better. Let’s start today. What are some of the unmerited gifts in your life for which you would like to give thanks?

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you – 1 Thessalonians 5:18

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Buyer's remorse

Have you ever heard the term buyer’s remorse? Ever experienced it? I know I have (basically every piece of exercise equipment I've ever bought). Buyer’s remorse is that feeling of regret that often crops up after some major or not so major purchase. These feelings can show up for all sorts of reasons, but usually appear when the credit card bill hits sometime in January. At that point you realize that you got carried away and your purchase of a 60 inch TV doesn’t make that much sense for your apartment where the biggest room is only ten feet wide. Or perhaps by that point, your new car already has a scratch on it. Your new shirt is already stained. Your new computer is already outdated. Your Tiger Woods hat doesn't communicate the same thing that it did when you bought it.

Buyer’s remorse leaves you wondering why you liked this purchase so much in the first place or why you didn’t wait for the after Christmas sales. You’d think past experiences of buyer’s remorse would slow our spending down, but you’d be wrong. We seem to not only have buyer’s regret but buyer’s amnesia. We somehow convince ourselves that we’ll be wiser this year – that we’ll pick out better gifts, gifts that last, gifts that satisfy.

Several years ago, my father-in-law pointed out that while he’d experienced plenty of buyer’s remorse in his life, he’d never experienced giver’s remorse. That is, he’d never given a gift to a ministry or a mission or just a person in need and then later wished he had that money back. His words struck me then as truthful and have proven truthful ever since. I’m a slow learner, so I’ve continued to make purchases that I’ve later regretted. But without fail, every time I’ve stretched myself to give generously to my church, a good cause, or a neighbor in need, I’ve found joy not regret.

My guess is we’re going to continue to buy things for our own families. That’s ok. Giving my kids or my wife a gift is a form of generosity. But how might we find more joy and less regret this Christmas season? Perhaps by figuring out how to buy ourselves less and to give others more.

Here are some of my favorite places to give:
  1. Our church – give to the Christmas Offering. All gifts go to benefit the ministry of Water for All, a ministry of Southland Baptist Church led by Terry and Kathy Waller. With permanent ministries in Bolivia and Ethiopia, their ministry of digging water wells for the world’s poor also takes their team around the world. Your gift this Christmas will go a long way in helping place a cup of cold water in the hands of the least of these of our world. Our goal is $20,000.

  2. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Store – Browse the online catalog, pick a gift, send a check. An easy way to give a gift to the least of these. If you can’t get this to work online, we have catalogs in the office.

  3. The World Vision Catalog - Browse the online catalog, pick a gift (they have goats, chickens, you name it), send a check or pay online. Another easy way to give a gift to the least of these.

  4. The Preemptive Love Coalition – Started by a friend from seminary, this ministry in Iraq funds heart surgeries for Kurdish children.

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me – Matthew 25:40.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Longing for more

Recently, I sat down in a local coffee shop in the hopes of getting some sermon work done. Alas, there was another person in the place intent on bringing the rest of us along on his own personal quest for the perfect gift. In his thick New England accent, he loudly perused the gift table next to where I was sitting. Carefully he picked up each potential gift and then extolled its many benefits to no one in particular. After what seemed like half an hour (but was probably closer to five minutes), he settled upon some Christmas mugs – on sale no less – for $3.99. He checked with one of the sales clerks, “$3.99? Really? These are great. I have some white ones like them but these Christmas ones are spectacular. They’ll look great with my Christmas dishes. . . .” And on and on and on.

Then an interesting thing happened. When Mr. Boston finally made his purchase and left the store, I breathed deeply and turned my attention back to my work. I expected others to do the same. But they didn’t. Instead, several other patrons left their tables and came over to look at those Christmas mugs. There wasn’t any shoving or pushing, but there was certainly some angling for position. Within minutes every last one of those previously ignored mugs had been sold! I laughed in slight amazement. I wondered to myself if Mr. Boston had been planted by the store to push those mugs.

Plant or not, he exposed something of human nature that day. Most of us live with a realization that there is more to life than we’re currently experiencing. We live with a fear that we’re missing out on something that other people have found. We rush to fill up that empty place with all sorts of things – something as silly as Christmas mugs – or as the recent fall of one of my favorite golfers reveals – something as tragic as a relationship with someone other than one’s spouse. But all these pursuits prove to be in vain. Next Christmas, next year, next time our significant other lets us down, without having learned a thing, we’ll be making the exact same searches for new gifts or new people that will momentarily tickle our souls.

But what if we’re taking the wrong approach altogether? What if the longing in our hearts wasn’t something to be fixed at all? What if the uneasiness that there’s something more to this life might instead be a gift from God himself? What if that longing is a gift that’s meant to keep us from settling for cheap imitations of the Kingdom of God? What if, instead of deadening our longings with the narcotic of instant gratification, we are meant to nurture those desires into holy anticipation? The practice of Advent is meant to lead us in just that direction. If we'll take time to embrace the empty places in our lives this season, if we'll resist the urge to fill them up with the first thing we find, we might be able to replace the fleeting desires for cheap ceramics and illicit affairs with a deeper longing for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. Oh Lord, teach us to long for deeper things.

I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me – Micah 7:7.