1 Thessalonians 5:12-18 – Give Thanks

Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (NIV)

A lot of problems would resolve themselves if gratitude was a default way of life. Giving thanks in all circumstances creates peace; causes encouragement to flow freely; warns those who are busybodies; builds patience; and spreads goodness.

It can be easy to give thanks when things go our way.  It is quite another matter when circumstances are difficult, and our expectations are not realized.  The Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica was written to people caught between a rock and a hard place.  In fact, it was so hard that the believers focused completely on the return of the Lord. 

When times are tough, Christ’s second coming comes forth from the recesses of our minds and straightaway to the forefront of our thinking.  Gratitude is typically not a first response to trouble and hardship. Instead, we may look to escape. We long for Christ’s return as a way out of trouble.

Although we know we should be thankful, we often are not.  Envy and resentment are the twin enemies continually looking to subvert our gratitude. In our frustration of missed expectations and unwanted situations, ingratitude can easily slip into our spirits.

A life of unhappiness awaits those who are resentful of what they do not possess. Those who envy shall never be satisfied because they are always dreaming about how much better life would be without their troubles.

No matter how good we have it, someone else has it better.  To envy is to be overly future-oriented, like the Thessalonians, always thinking about how the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. And it squelches gratitude. For example, according to a study by the Templeton Foundation, gratitude has all but gone missing from the workplace.  Their research found that only 39% of people are grateful for their current employment; 74% of employees have rarely or never expressed gratitude to their bosses; and, 60% have rarely or never expressed gratitude to anyone of their fellow employees.  Workplace dissatisfaction is nearly a guarantee apart from gratitude.

If we want to live happy contented lives, then we will observe the biblical exhortation to give thanks in any kind of circumstance.  It can be a challenge to give thanks during hard times.  Yet, that might be the most important time to do it.

In her book, The Hiding Place, the late Corrie ten Boom tells about an incident that taught her the principle of giving thanks in all things. It was during World War II. Corrie and her sister, Betsy, had been harboring Jewish people in their home, so they were arrested and imprisoned at a concentration camp.  The barracks was extremely crowded and infested with fleas.

One morning they read in their tattered Bible the reminder to give thanks in all things.  Betsy said, “Corrie, we’ve got to give thanks for this barracks and even for these fleas.”  Corrie replied, “No way am I going to thank God for fleas.” But Betsy was persistent and persuasive, and they did thank God even for the fleas.  During the months that followed, they found that their barracks was left relatively free, and they could do Bible study, talk openly, and even pray in the barracks. It was their only place of refuge. Several months later they learned that the reason the guards never entered their barracks was because of those blasted fleas.

Sometimes we neither understand what God is doing nor perceive that the Lord is up to anything.  You may feel as if you are sitting still right now, yet, planet Earth is spinning around its axis at a speed of 1,000 miles per hour.  We are also hurtling through space at an average velocity of 67,108 miles per hour. Even on a day when you feel like you did not get much done, remember you traveled 1,599,793 miles through space!

That is amazing, yet we do not feel it. So, it is off our spiritual radars.  When was the last time you thanked God for keeping us in orbit? I am guessing you likely never prayed, “Lord, I wasn’t sure we’d make the full rotation today, but you did it again!” Yet, we are to learn to thank God in every circumstance, both big and small.  If we can trust God to keep our feet on the ground with a big thing like gravity, then we can have faith in any and every situation we experience.

Here are three simple ways of being intentional about gratitude

Pray with prayers of thanksgiving. 

I am a believer in using biblical prayers for ourselves rather than just saying what is always on our minds and hearts – because we might never get around to gratitude. But Scripture does. The Apostle Paul typically began every discussion with gratitude. For example, when beginning his letter to the problem filled church at Philippi, he said: 

I thank my God every time I remember you.  In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus….  And this is my prayer:  that your love may abound more and more in knowledge of depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:3-4, 9-11, NIV).

Write your thanksgiving.

Cards, letters, emails, social media messages, and whatever other ways are available, use them to express thanksgiving to God and others. Again, Paul ended his letter to the Philippians just as he began it, with gratitude:

It was good of you to share in my troubles.  Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need” (Philippians 4:14-16, NIV).

Keep a gratitude journal.

Identifying and writing down at least three things you are thankful for everyday has healing power. Any common fool can bellyache about how bad things are and play armchair Deity about how to fix all the world’s ills.  However, it takes a wise person to find gratitude and choose to give thanks for all the good things God has done and is doing, being careful to give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will in Christ Jesus.

Almighty God, we give you humble thanks for all your goodness and kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. Above all, we are grateful for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for grace and the hope of glory. Give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days. We pray with thanksgiving through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Don Moen – Give Thanks | Live Worship Sessions

Romans 2:1-11 – Against Condemning Others

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So, when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. (NIV)

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, merely upheld the teaching of his Lord Jesus, who said:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2, NRSV)

Although most people would affirm that showing favoritism is a bad thing, in practice we have a difficult time avoiding it – especially in an election season, like the one in the United States. Political mudslinging is (unfortunately) a time-honored American tradition. And so is religious judgmentalism.

Some of the most emotionally laden vitriol comes from folks who are so heavily entrenched in their religious convictions that they believe any deviation from their way of belief is worthy of scathing criticism.

People, however, do not change because someone criticizes or judges them. They experience transformation through basic divine and human kindness. As a hospital chaplain in a behavioral health unit, I affirm this to be true. Many patients have been told repeatedly by family or friends to stop doing something, get with it, move on, wake up, etc. – all with the condescending edge of judgment. Yet, when someone takes notice, is curious about them, offers helpful encouragement and a listening ear without trying to fix, souls become open to receiving the healing grace of love and truth.

God shows no partiality, and neither should we. God is right, just, and fair in all dealings with everyone. The Lord judges according to divine standards of righteousness and mercy, no matter one’s race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, or social standing. And it is all laced with the love and compassion of Christ.

Christians are not exempt or given a pass on being judgmental. Our own unhealthy practices, bad habits, and angry outbursts will be treated just like any non-Christian by God. In a time when decrying the moral condition of our world is nearly a spectator sport, the New Testament lesson for today reminds us that we must first be concerned for the condition of our own hearts before we can point the finger at another.

We all equally stand in need of God’s grace in Jesus.  There is a symbiotic relationship between our actions and the state of our hearts.  A soft and tender heart toward God leads to obedience; disobedience hardens the heart and leads to God’s wrath, no matter the individual.

So, it will help if we all faithfully engage in daily spiritual practices which keep our hearts attentive and alert to God’s will and way.  No matter how busy we are, or how we feel, to forego or ignore the Word of God and prayer on a regular basis will slowly calcify our hearts and render them unable to respond rightly to grace.  Instead, we can drink deeply of the gospel throughout every day so that we may experience peace.

Judgmentalism, favoritism, and cronyism all begin to melt away when we pick up the tools of empathy, compassion, understanding, and acceptance – using them to forge connections and supportive encouragement. It takes little to no practice to bludgeon someone with condemning criticism. However, it takes repeated practice to speak and act with grace, mercy, and peace, especially when we are stressed and/or anxious about our surrounding circumstances.

Instead of judgment, observe and be curious. Seek more information. Expand the gap between observation and conclusion. The ability to have an awareness of one’s own emotions, to be mindful of self and surroundings, and to do it all with neither criticism nor judgment is perhaps the highest form of intelligence and spirituality.

It is kindness which leads others to repentance, not condemnation. Grace has the final word, not judgment. So, let us be blessed through a gentle spirit which spreads the goodness of God throughout the world.

O God, thank you for the gift of prayer and the grace of your Word.  May it seep deep down into my heart so that I am compassionate and kind, just like Jesus.  Amen.

1 Corinthians 14:20-25 – Becoming Spiritually Mature

To be perfectly frank, I’m getting exasperated with your infantile thinking. How long before you grow up and use your head—your adult head? It’s all right to have a childlike unfamiliarity with evil; a simple no is all that’s needed there. But there’s far more to saying yes to something. Only mature and well-exercised intelligence can save you from falling into gullibility. It’s written in Scripture that God said,

In strange tongues
    and from the mouths of strangers
I will preach to this people,
    but they’ll neither listen nor believe.

So where does it get you, all this speaking in tongues no one understands? It doesn’t help believers, and it only gives unbelievers something to gawk at. Plain truth-speaking, on the other hand, goes straight to the heart of believers and doesn’t get in the way of unbelievers. If you come together as a congregation and some unbelieving outsiders walk in on you as you’re all praying in tongues, unintelligible to each other and to them, won’t they assume you’ve taken leave of your senses and get out of there as fast as they can? But if some unbelieving outsiders walk in on a service where people are speaking out God’s truth, the plain words will bring them up against the truth and probe their hearts. Before you know it, they’re going to be on their faces before God, recognizing that God is among you. (MSG)

Throughout the history of Christianity there have been faithful saints committed to the cause of Christ, and there also has been professing believers who are inconsistent and irresponsible in their observance of faith. In other words, the church always has been a mix of spiritually mature and immature people.

The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Church at Corinth precisely because there was a large chunk of people who were just flat out childish. He wanted them to grow up. We anticipate babies are going to cry, poop, sleep, and have others caring for their basic needs. When adults act like babies, it is unacceptable and, well, offensive. We expect better. We need them to pull their weight and be responsible.

Paul addressed the Corinthian’s lack of unity, paucity of wisdom, too much worldliness, inattention to each other, abuse of freedom, and impropriety in worship. To correct this, he pointed them squarely toward love, the one permanent attribute that binds all things together. (1 Corinthians 13)

So, when it came to worshiping together, the church needed a more mature way of handling their meetings. The last thing they needed was worship which made no sense to most people. “I would rather speak five intelligible words that makes sense than ten thousand words in a language other people don’t know,” Paul said. (1 Corinthians 14:19, CEV)

Ministry is to be done guided by love and concern for another’s well-being. Spiritual gifts are not given for one’s own benefit but are provided for the encouragement and edification of others. The exercise of speaking plain truth with exorbitant love to each other does this; and it influences outsiders looking on from the margins. Sensitivity to the needs of those foreign to the church was a premium concern for Paul.

However, there is more to the outsider than simply observing what Christians are doing – the other will speak into the life of the believer. This, of course, ought to surprise no one. After all, God can speak through whomever or whatever, including people from all kinds of ethnic groups (Acts 2:1-12) and even a donkey (Numbers 22:28).

The New Testament lesson for today concerns respecting persons both within the church and outside. For fellow believers, we are to continually speak and act in ways which build up the entire Body of Christ. And, for those who are alien to the church, we are to pay attention to them and have a healthy repartee with them which acknowledges their inherent worth as fellow persons created in the image of God.

Churches and faith communities tend to be full of “insiders.” If they fail to listen to the “outsiders” then ultimately a similar situation to the Corinthian Church will occur. No one group of people have all the answers, so we all need to take a posture of humility and listening with genuine attention and loving focus. This honors the other and demonstrates basic kindness and respect.

Christian maturity is realized when spiritual growth is sustained over time and produces the fruit of wisdom and love. Wherever you find a group of folks who listen well, are attentive to those on the outside, and have an orientation to serving others in a spirit of love and grace, there you will find the Holy Spirit energizing and empowering people toward good deeds on behalf of both church and world.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Philippians 3:13-4:1 – Follow My Example

Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

Join in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! (NIV)

Many years ago, while driving through an intersection, a car turned in front of me and caused me to slam my brakes. After getting on my way (and proud of myself for not saying a word) my daughter, who was five years old at the time, leaned forward from the back seat and asked me, “Dad, is that guy an idiot?” 

Kids often imitate their parents in everything, whether good or bad. This is no less true for adults. When it comes to Christianity, faith is passed on not just from individuals reading their bibles in seclusion; it is handed down from person to person. Christians learn from leaders and respected persons how faith is lived out and practiced – and this comes primarily through imitating what they see. 

Therefore, it is good for us to ask the question: “Who do I imitate?” because we mimic and pass on things we learn from others. So, it is imperative we learn from people who demonstrate the values and ideals we aspire to possess ourselves. In the people we listen to either virtually or in person, as well as the authors we read, we are to walk according to the example of virtue, sacrifice, and commitment.

We must imitate those Christian leaders who have a proven character in persevering in faith in the face of pain and suffering and have done it with great humility. This does not necessarily mean we emulate those who eruditely speak the Word of God, have superior gifts and abilities, and enjoy success in ministry. It does mean, however, we ought to imitate, and have as mentors, those persons who imitate Christ. We can leave behind those who are self-promoting peacocks and pursue admiration and praise. 

We are to mimic those who have proved themselves in hardship. A Christian leader who has not undergone fiery trials and been purged of sinful pride are more easily seduced by their own importance. However, leaders who have seen their share of hard circumstances, pain, and suffering, and have come through it loving God and serving others out of grace and humility, are leaders worth imitating. They will likely serve well as good models of faith and ministry.

It is also good to consider the kind of example we ourselves are displaying for others. In all our words and behaviors, whether we recognize it or not, we are modeling what is genuinely important to us. And sometimes what we do not say, or choose not to do, says as much or more about our character, beliefs, and ethics.

It takes a lot of confidence in our way of life to say to another, like the Apostle Paul did, “follow my example.” If we have learned with humility and curiosity the words and ways of Jesus, and lovingly put them into practice, then we can be emboldened to mentor others in the faith and demonstrate for them what laboring for justice, righteousness, holiness, and godliness looks like in this fallen world.

More than ever we need a cadre of solidly committed folks who have been mentored well in the ways of grace to serve as a beacon of light in the darkness of this world’s besetting sins of structural racism, hedonistic consumerism, discriminatory ageism, oppressive patriarchalism, biased hierarchism, disparity classism, religious anarchism, and a hundred other “isms” which keep people from flourishing in this life as God intended.

It is vital we learn from and emulate others who have a proven track record of promoting the common good of all persons. And it is equally important we become part of the ranks of those who are good examples of citizens in God’s benevolent and ethical kingdom.

Almighty God, may I stand firm in faith through all the challenges and travails of this life. Enable me to incorporate the love of Christ in my life to such a degree that it proves to be an example of grace and peace. Give me a heart willing to sacrifice and serve the common good of all. Give me a broader and deeper understanding of the lessons I need to discover from others wiser than myself. Allow me to learn all I must from this painful, yet blissful life, through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.