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Growing in thankfulness

Wednesday January 21 2015

Growing in thankfulness

Just over twenty years ago my husband and I began a habit that has changed the way we pray individually, with each other and in groups. At that turning-point moment, we decided to try to begin every prayer time with a few prayers of thankfulness.

At that time, Dave and I usually prayed together before bedtime a couple of times each week, and we had begun to notice that our prayers seemed repetitive, boring, and often desperate. It was a stressful time. Dave was deeply unhappy at his work. Our kids had entered adolescence, and we were baffled and frustrated by their increasingly challenging behavior. I had finished a seminary degree and was a candidate for ordination as a Presbyterian minister, but I basically still didn’t have a clear idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Dave and I began our thankfulness experiment. Some nights all we could manage was to thank God that we had food on the table and that the four of us were healthy.

A year went by, then another year. Our prayers of thankfulness blossomed even though my husband’s work situation became worse, our teenagers baffled us more than ever, and I experienced no resolution of my job questions. We were amazed by how many things we could notice for which we wanted to thank God: friends, extended family, our neighborhood, bursting flowers in the spring, colorful leaves in the fall, a comfortable home. Answers to prayer.

The specifics of daily life became more visible to us as manifestations of God’s care. We had always been thankful for food on the table each day, but now many more aspects of our life seemed to flow from the hands of a gracious and generous God.

We became more aware of what we had been missing in all those years of prayer times that were packed with our needs and wants. We simply hadn’t noticed God’s good gifts to us. Looking back, we felt a bit ashamed of the “give me this, give me that” orientation of our prayers before we began our experiment.

I began to pray more thankfulness prayers as a part of my own personal prayers. And I began to experience frustration when I prayed with others. I was an elder in my congregation, so I attended session meetings every month and one or two committee meetings in between. At our church, all committee meetings ended with a time of conversational prayer, and I began to notice how quickly the committee members dived into making requests of God.

I found myself thinking, This is the maker of the universe we are addressing! The giver of every good gift in our lives! And we have the audacity to come into the presence of this generous and gracious God without acknowledging our gratitude and our dependence? We launch right into a list of requests. What kind of brats behave like this? I got angry so many times in meetings that I finally began to take initiative. When the leader of the meeting would say, “Let’s spend some time in prayer,” I would immediately chime in, “Could we please begin with some prayers of thankfulness?” It became clear to me that in committees and other groups, we were able to see God’s hand in our midst more clearly when we regularly set aside time to notice God’s gifts and blessings.

Prayers of thankfulness enable us to see what God has been doing and where God has been working. Prayers of thankfulness help us to notice the specifics of God’s work and the patterns of God’s goodness in our lives and the lives of others. Prayers of thankfulness make us stop and look. We are missing so much of God’s work in the world because we don’t notice and because we don’t express our thanks.

Lent, which begins February 18 this year, is a great time to try new spiritual practices, and a new pattern of thankfulness prayers might be a lovely thing to try this year. To think about options for Lent, you might enjoy an article I wrote on “small” spiritual practices. The article has lots of practical ideas: Small Habits, Big Benefits.

(If you’d like to receive an email whenever I put a new post on this blog, please sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices.)

Money, generosity and transformation into Christ’s image

Friday January 16 2015

Money, generosity and transformation into Christ’s image

Money was my father’s joy in life. He loved earning it, and he especially loved investing it and managing it. My bedtime stories in elementary school involved tales of how compound interest works and why it is so wonderful. Dinner conversation in my teen years involved lessons about the Fed and how its actions impact inflation. When I took economics 101 in college, I was bored out of my mind. Doesn’t everybody know this stuff, I wondered. Don’t their fathers teach them?

As you can imagine, my father’s teaching about money impacted me profoundly. In my teen years, I was very, very careful with money, tracking every penny I earned, spent and saved. After I became a Christian at 19, I learned that financial generosity is a part of Christian living. I learned that Jesus said we cannot serve God and money. I felt that my world view was being subjected to an earthquake.

I can vividly remember the first time I put a ten dollar bill into an offering basket. I was 20 or 21. The offering was being taken at a student conference, and it would go for student missionary work overseas. As I put the money in the basket, I felt as if my heart was being torn out of my chest.  

At 22 I got my first full time job. I felt led by God to tithe, to give away 10% of what earned before taxes. I had a very small salary, so 10% wasn’t a very big sum of money (a good thing), but it felt like I was breaking everything I learned from my father about money (a painful thing). Two years later, I got married. My husband and I made the same decision about tithing.

We have tended to give 5% of our income to our local church and the other 5% to friends who missionaries and to microloans through Opportunity International. For a period of time in the early 2000s, we had a much higher income than we had ever had before, so we gave away more than 10%.

I have learned that many New Testament scholars and theologians do not believe that the Bible instructs Christian to tithe. Perhaps not. But the regular and consistent giving away of a set percentage of my income has shaped me. I still enjoy managing money, just like my father taught me. But I see clearly that generosity with money (and with time and possessions as well) reflects the generous heart of God revealed in Jesus. I’m so grateful that the selfish and self-absorbed girl who once struggled to put $10 into an offering basket has been transformed into a woman who enjoys acts of generosity, at least some of the time.

Part of the reason why we can’t serve God and money is that focusing on money too much removes generosity from our hearts, and generosity is close to the heart of God. “For you know the generous act* of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9, NRSV). When we serve or worship money, we are not allowing ourselves to be transformed into the image of Christ the Generous One. Tithing, more than any other thing I have done, has shaped me into a person who has moments of reflecting Christ’s generosity.

In addition, as my friend Steve Simon told me one time, God tells us to give because it builds our trust in God as our provider and because it keeps us from being enslaved to the god of More. I believe tithing sets up a structure that shapes us into people who trust God to provide and who resist the power of the god of More. At any time, a structure can become an end in itself and a source of pride and arrogance, and I’m sure in some cases tithing gets warped that way. However, if we tithe with the goal of growing in reflecting God’s generosity, increasing in trusting God and resisting the powers that tell us more is better, over the long haul this spiritual practice can be a significant source of transformation into the image of Jesus Christ. That’s what it’s been in my life.

Tithing is a spiritual practice or a spiritual discipline, and Lent, which begins February 18, is a great time to think about trying new spiritual practices. I encourage you to think about experimenting with a new spiritual discipline during Lent this year. You might enjoy an article I wrote entitled “I’m excited about spiritual disciplines.”

(If you’d like to receive an email whenever I put a new post on this blog, please sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices.)

Journey with Jesus to the cross during Lent

Tuesday January 6 2015

Journey with Jesus to the cross during Lent

In April of last year, I got an email from the editor of Presbyterians Today, a lovely magazine published by the Presbyterian Church USA. The editor asked me if I would be interested in writing their devotional for Lent 2015. He gave me a sample of the 2014 devotional, based on one of the gospels, and told me each entry needed to have a scripture to read, one verse from that scripture, then 125 words of reflection on the scripture, which would include a brief prayer.

As I pondered his email, I realized several things. If I did it, I would want to focus on the Psalms. I would want to include a couple of reflection questions in my 125 words for each entry. And I would want to entitle it “Draw Near,” based on Hebrews 4:15, 16: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

I got back to the editor, and he agreed that my plan would work. I set aside the month of June to work on the devotional, and in April and May I tried to make some decisions about which psalms I would use. Lent, including Easter Sunday, is 47 days, and there are 150 psalms. How would I choose?

First I wanted to include the psalms that Jesus quoted from. I pored over a study Bible, and found numerous places where Jesus quotes from the Psalms. One example is Jesus on the cross saying “I am thirsty” (John 19:28), which is a reference to Psalm 69:21, a psalm that appears three times in the gospels.

I also wanted to include psalms that relate to the Lenten story. For example, when the crowds welcome Jesus on Palm Sunday (John 12:12-15), they shout, “Blessed in the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” a direct quotation from Psalm 118:26.

I conferred with my colleague who teaches New Testament, and he found me a list showing all connections between the Psalms and the Gospels. Some of them were totally unexpected. Psalm 41:9 is not directly quoted in the Gospel story, but it is evoked by Judas’s betrayal: “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.”

After listing all the psalms that were connected in some way with the Gospel story, I still didn’t have 47 psalms. I was delighted I got to choose among the psalms that have helped me draw near to God to come up with enough entries.

June was a wonderful month. I felt like I was wallowing luxuriously in the psalms. It was fun to try to come up with one central thought about each psalm that would help the reader connect with Jesus’ journey to the cross. And it was also fun to think up reflection questions.

Later, at the encouragement of the editor, I grouped the psalms into themes for each week of Lent:

  • drawing near by acknowledging our need for God
  • drawing near in thankfulness
  • drawing near because the whole earth belongs to God
  • drawing near by being honest before God
  • drawing near by dwelling in God
  • drawing near by walking with Jesus to the cross

My husband Dave’s lovely paintings illustrate the devotional, so it is beautiful to look at as well as (hopefully) helpful in drawing near to God during Lent.

Lent begins on February 18, and it’s not too early to think abut what you might want to do this year to journey with Jesus to the cross. Whatever you do this Lent to set apart those weeks from the rest of the year, may it be a rich time for you.

(If you’d like to receive email notices every time I post an entry on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Jesus’ presence in pain

Wednesday December 31 2014

Jesus’ presence in pain

In December three years ago, on a sunny afternoon, I got out my bicycle for a ride. As I pushed off with my left foot, I felt something snap or pop in my left knee. I rode a couple hundred yards slowly, checking to see if I needed to stop riding.

Yes, I definitely needed to stop.

I got home, put ice on my knee and elevated it. I’m not able to take most painkillers, so ice has become my friend. At first my whole knee hurt, but as I iced it off and on the rest of the afternoon and evening, the pain became localized in the back, so I focused the ice there.

That night as I tried to sleep, my knee felt like it would explode. It was a pain so absorbing it dominated all my thoughts. I finally slept a little. The next morning it was clear that the pain was localized in the back of my knee, right where the hamstring muscles attach to the knee. I talked with a doctor friend who said I was doing the right thing by continuing to ice it and waiting to see if I needed further medical attention.

Each day my knee got a little bit better, but I noticed a few days later how tired I was. Some of the fatigue came from not sleeping as well as usual, and some of it came from coping with the pain all day long.

Two weeks later, it was 90% well. I had spent much of those two weeks pondering how little empathy I’ve had for people with chronic pain. Pain is absorbing and exhausting. It limits a person’s view to the immediate, as if life is telescoped and truncated. Pain limits the ability to love others, and the big picture of what God is doing in the world feels far away and clouded. The pain determines so many aspects of daily life. Can I do that action without making the pain worse? What do I need to do to compensate as I make a particular movement?

This present moment of pain is all that matters.

We’re right in the middle of the holiday season when the whole world appears to be festive. We’re winding down from Christmas, putting our presents away or starting to use them, and wondering if we should go to any post-Christmas sales. We’re looking ahead to New Year’s Eve and the start of 2015. In these days when everyone appears to be focused on activities and shopping and gaiety, I invite you to think about the people you know who experience chronic pain or who are experiencing some specific form of pain right now. I invite you to pray for them, asking that God would meet them in their suffering.

Christmas appears to be a happy holiday, focused on the joyous birth of a baby. However, this baby was born into humble circumstances. As a man, he suffered as he made his journey to a painful death. Because of Jesus, anyone who suffers can have companionship in suffering and redemption of the pain. Sometimes, through the power of Holy Spirit, we receive healing for our pain and suffering. Other times, Jesus’ companionship and redemption don’t make the pain go away, but Jesus’ presence can make a huge difference because we know we are not alone as we suffer and that something good can come from it.

I know a hurt knee, painful for a couple of weeks, is a ridiculously small form of suffering. But it got me thinking, and I’m now praying for people in pain in a whole new way. And that’s just one form of redemption that I experienced because I hurt my knee.

(If you’d like to receive email notices every time I post an entry on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices.)

Upside Down Christmas

Monday December 22 2014

Upside Down Christmas

The other day I posted some words focused on what I’ve learned about the incarnation from celebrating seven Advent/Christmas seasons in New Zealand. A few days before that, Dave came home from a doctor’s appointment bearing a Christmas newsletter from the doctor’s office. In it were the words to a New Zealand Christmas carol by Shirley Murray, one of New Zealand’s most prolific contemporary hymn writers. The words do such a great job capturing the flavor of Christmas in the southern hemisphere. When I was looking around online to be sure I had the right words to the hymn, I found a lot of mentions of the hymn in connection with Australia, and clearly the words fit pretty well for that setting. But I want you to know this carol originated here in New Zealand! And I recently received a message on Facebook from a man in Argentina who liked my recent post and wrote, "Someday it would be great to compile a blog/book of church calendar reflections/meditations from a Southern Hem perspective." Yes, indeed. Those of us in the Southern Hemisphere have to think about new (and exciting) connections between the physical world around us, and the incarnation of Jesus, who came to bring life to all people in all places.

Carol our Christmas, an upside-down Christmas:
snow is not falling and trees are not bare.
Carol the summer, and welcome the Christ Child,
warm in our sunshine and sweetness of air.

Sing of the gold and the green and the sparkle,
water and river and lure of the beach.
Sing in the happiness of open spaces,
sing a nativity summer can reach!

Shepherds and musterers* move over hillside,
finding, not angels, but sheep to be shorn;
Wise ones make journeys, whatever the season,
searching for signs of the truth to be born.

Rightside-up Christmas belongs to the universe,
made in the moment a woman gives birth;
Hope is the Jesus gift, love is the offering,
everywhere, anywhere, here on the earth.

(*musterers are ranch hands who round up livestock. The photo is my lovely husband, Dave, in Dunedin's Botanic Garden in December. If you'd like to receive email updates when I post on this blog, go to "subscribe" in the right hand column.)

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