The Power of Practicing Thanksgiving

My wife Diann told me she had just completed 1,000 days of finding reasons to be thankful, a different reason for each day. Doing the math she figured it took her about three years. The idea was suggested by Ann Voskamp in her book, One Thousand Gifts.

Voskamp’s book is subtitled: A Dare to Live Fully. It’s a good subtitle! We live more fully when we regularly practice thanksgiving. Giving thanks often doesn’t come naturally or easily. That’s why, I suspect, Ann Voskamp says it’s a dare to do so. Are we willing to take the dare every day to be thankful?

Thanksgiving Day is such a wonderful holiday in the United States because it’s an annual reminder to practice thanksgiving. Hopefully, the day after Thanksgiving we’ll still find reasons to give thanks, and the next day, and the day after that, until next Thanksgiving Day.

Practicing thanksgiving (and it does take practice) gives us the power to live fully. And what kind of power does it give us to live full lives?

Thanksgiving gives us the power to love God more. How can we feel close to God if we’re ungrateful toward Him? It’s not that He needs our gratitude to feel valued; God is self-sufficient in all ways. It’s we who have the need to be grateful toward Him for who He is to us and what He does for us.

Thanksgiving gives us the power to love others well. When we express gratitude toward others they feel better about themselves and better about our relationship with them. When we make the effort to be grateful toward others we have greater affection for them. All the way around, expressing gratitude toward others builds and deepens relationships.

Finally, thanksgiving gives us the power to be positive, hopeful, and faith-filled when circumstances are such that we could easily be the opposite. It helps us see the silver lining in the dark cloud, that the glass is half full instead of half empty!

Yes, there’s power in counting our blessings and giving thanks. The first verse of an old hymn, Count Your Blessings, written in 1897, goes like this:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Practice the power of thanksgiving! There are plenty of reasons to give thanks to God and to others. Let’s start adding them up; let’s just do the math!

“I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds”  Psalm 9:1

Grandma, Surgeon of Stuffed Friends

My wife, Diann, fixing a stuffed friend of a grandchild’s.

My wife has sewn all of her life. She often uses a sewing machine but sometimes just needle and thread. Her talent has found new expression since becoming a grandmother.

The grandchildren have many stuffed friends including monkeys, teddy bears, dolls, and more. Like the famous story of the “Velveteen Rabbit” who became worn and tattered by being loved so much, the grandchildren’s stuffed friends sometimes need mending. From the wear and tear of daily life they come apart at the seams, allowing their innards of stuffing to burst forth. Sometimes they lose a button eye, an arm or leg, or even a tail.

The grandchildren come, stuffed friend in hand, to grandma, the surgeon of stuffed friends. Usually the surgery is too delicate a procedure to use the sewing machine; hand stitching is required. Stuffed animal on her lap or on the kitchen table that doubles as a surgery table, grandma takes off her glasses to get a better look (this is the way some grandmas’ eyes work). Choosing thread that matches the stuffed friend’s body color, she threads the needle (another task done minus the glasses). With needle and suture she goes to work.

In no time at all the stuffed friend, mended and fully recovered, is handed back to the grandchild. The child immediately checks out the previously injured area, sees that it’s been healed, says, “Thanks, Grandma,” and joyfully bounds off with the restored stuffed friend. Grandma, too, feels joy, for being the surgeon of healing for the much loved friends of her grandchildren.

People too, you and me, become frayed and worn, coming apart at the seams, so to speak. Sometimes we get the stuffing knocked out of us, so to speak again. Even in the process of loving and being loved we sustain damage, for our loving is imperfect.

Fortunately, there’s someone to whom we can go to get help to put us back together again. He’s known as the Great Physician, Jesus. His Heavenly Father (and ours too) is also a physician who heals; He doesn’t go by the title in the Bible, but His actions prove it.

The Lord doesn’t always heal the way we’d like, human doctors don’t always either, often using painful shots, medicines with negative side effects, and surgery. Still, we believe our doctors have our best interests at heart. Certainly our Great Physician does!

This can be very helpful, to remember that, like our doctors, like grandma who is ready and willing to “heal” the stuffed friend, God wants to bring healing and wholeness to us. It may be sooner or later, in a different way than we thought, or not until our transition to heaven. Our Lord is a wonderful physician who really cares and has the best of bedside manners!

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

Doing the Right Thing

Photo by Andy T on Unsplash

It’s fun watching animals perform tricks. At the zoo amphitheater a bird trainer signals his feathered friends to fly from the back, over the audience, and up to the stage. Dolphins perform their tricks in a large tank at an aquarium facility. Dogs, too, are great at doing tricks.

As different as these talented creatures are, they all have something in common; each is given a treat by their master after performing a trick. They get immediate reward for doing the right thing, instant gratification. Not always so with us!

Those of us who are serious about God, loving Him, and seeking to follow His will for us, don’t often get an immediate reward for doing the right thing. Sometimes we do what’s right and it turns out all wrong. At the very least it doesn’t turn out the way we thought it would.

We try to do what’s honest and right, but someone who does what’s dishonest and wrong comes out ahead. We take the time and effort to help out someone, and they don’t appreciate it, or worse yet, misunderstand and get angry! We pray for something good to happen, but it doesn’t happen. We try to do everything the way we think it should be done, and we don’t see the results we expected.

Sometimes the results come much later than we would like. Dr. William Leslie went to the Congo in Africa in 1912 to be a missionary. After 17 years he came back home, discouraged and defeated, feeling he had done little good over all those years of spreading the Gospel. In 2010 a group visited the isolated area and found a number of thriving churches. Upon investigation, they discovered that they were the result of Dr. Leslie’s work over 80 years earlier!

Dr. Leslie’s life is a testimony to the truth that we’re to be obedient and leave the results up to God. Results are largely out of our control. Other people can respond or react the way they want; we can’t control them. Circumstances, too, are not under our control. Add to this the sovereign will of God that is most certainly beyond our control. There’s one thing, however, that we can control and that is deciding to do the right thing, carrying out God’s will for us, being obedient to Him.

Oftentimes in the Bible God asked people to obey Him, but it didn’t always get positive results. Many a Bible character ended up being misunderstood, ostracized, beaten, or even killed for doing what God called them to do. Jesus’ crucifixion is the ultimate example.

God doesn’t call us to be successful but obedient. If we do our best and do what we think God wants of us, that is success!

God speaking to Ezekiel the prophet about prophesying to God’s people, “You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen…” Ezekiel 2:7

Obedience Is More Important Than Results

In a Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown complains to Linus that every day his lunch is the same, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “Who makes your lunch?” Linus asks. Charlie Brown replies, “I do.”

In large measure we make our own lunch. We have more of a choice than we often think we have as to what’s in our paper bag!

Phyllis Hurwitz studied piano and violin and attended the School of American Ballet. She said, “I had great parents. I broke my leg and they gave me a book on ventriloquism. It was just so natural to me.” She became a ventriloquist, and using the name Shari Lewis, spent a lifetime entertaining children, of whom I was one, with her puppets Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse, and Hush Puppy. No one likes a broken leg, but Shari’s broken leg helped her to take a step in a whole new direction, and millions of people are glad she did!

It’s tempting to complain about the way things are; it takes less effort than deciding to do something about changing things to the way they could be. We can also move from complaining to blaming, blaming someone else for our predicament. Okay, some things can’t be changed, including what someone else has done to us, but we can change our attitude about those things we can’t change!

We have a God-given ability to make choices. We’re not like a bump-n-go toy that mindlessly changes direction when it hits up against something. We can plot a course!

Oswald J. Smith wanted to be a missionary but was considered too frail for such a life. His response? “If I can’t go myself, I will send someone else.” He did! He founded The People’s Church of Toronto, Canada, a large church that has been known world-wide for giving an extraordinary amount of their budget to missions around the world. Rev. Smith himself made 21 world tours promoting evangelism and world missions.

We can adopt a victim mentality or make the choice to find victory in it. Whatever less than ideal situation we find ourselves in, God knew we would be exactly where we are, and He has a plan. That can, and should, change our attitude about whatever challenge, problem, or setback we face. We have the God-given gift of choice; we pack our own lunch!

“Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you.  Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.” Psalm 143:8

Life After Sailing into the Sunset

In the closing scene of a good number of movies the hero sails off into the sunset with the beautiful woman he’s rescued. When the credits of the movie start to scroll I wonder what happens to them next? Do they get married? I hope so. A week into the marriage do they have to decide how to distribute the domestic duties, for instance, who buys the groceries, who does the laundry, and who cleans the bathroom?

Novels, TV shows, and movies have to have endings. However, life’s not a novel, a TV show, or a movie. Life goes on and on, day after day, week after week, year after year, until we die. There’s not the “and they lived happily ever after” ending to life as there is in fairy tales.

Life is so daily, and that increases the temptation to fantasize about an imaginary world where there’s constant excitement, adventure, romance, passion, epic battles that are won, and happy endings. Add to this daily routine the challenges of far from ideal events intruding on many of those days, and we can become even more discontented with the daily grind. What are we to do?

Jesus teaches us in His Lord’s Prayer to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” He’s not talking about just food but the essential things we need to get through each day. We can embrace each day, one day at a time, when we seek to walk with God each day, one day at a time, even when the days are difficult. Stephanie Whitson wrote on her facebook page of the influence of missionary/writer Elizabeth Elliot on her life. “When I was facing widowhood, the simplicity of her “Do the next thing” got me through many a dark day.”

Yes, so many of our days are routine, often with a significant measure of difficulty to make them extra challenging. But so much of our lives are made up of these kinds of days that if we don’t embrace them, seeking to discover God’s presence and working in them, we’re going to miss most of what this God-given life can offer!

One time Jesus healed a man along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus and His disciples were getting back into their boat the healed man asked to go with them. No wonder! He now thought the world of Jesus and wanted to be with Him. And it wasn’t going to be easy living down his reputation in his home town area of having been a wild and crazy man. But Jesus told him to stay and live out his life where he was. He did and he brought great honor to Jesus.

Living out each of our days where God has called us can be good. It’s the best way for us to write our own story!

“As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, ‘Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and how he has had mercy on you.'” Mark 5:18-19

Small Object, Big Shadow

Actual beetle I saw, and photographed.

I saw a beetle crawling across my path. The sun was just up, to the beetle’s back, casting a long shadow in front of him, about two of the beetle’s body lengths. He was a good sized beetle as beetles go, but still a small object; I could have inadvertently stepped on him. We think of shadows being cast by big objects like clouds, trees, and buildings, but comparatively speaking, here was a big shadow being cast by a bug.

You can’t have a shadow without light. Light also happens to be a very important metaphor in the Bible. God is described as brilliant light. Jesus called Himself the light of the world and invited His listeners to walk in His light. We, too, are invited to draw near to the light of God, walk in His light, and in the light of His Word.

Back to the little object of a beetle casting a shadow bigger than himself. It’s all because of the angle of light in which he basks.

Shadows, of course, have no substance, no weight, no texture, and are one dimensional. They come and go and shift location with the movement of the light that casts them. Yet they can be helpful. Then we give them another name, shade, a good place to stand when it’s hot and sunny.

Here’s the life-principle I’m finding in all of this. No matter how small, insignificant, or unimportant we sometimes feel, when we draw near to God, the light of His presence means we cast a larger shadow of influence than we ever thought possible. We’re not big and important in and of ourselves, but the light of His presence makes us so!

Life is tough; all people in one way or another find themselves in a hot, dry, and thirsty land. Some of these folks are within our sphere of influence. When we walk close to God it’s as if His light casts a large portion of shade from us that can provide rest, comfort, and renewal for them. When we are blessed by God’s presence we can then be a blessing to others!

“Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, Lord.” Psalm 89:15

Slow U-Turn

Actual slug I photographed

I saw a slug on the sidewalk. He had slowly, ever so slowly, started his trek across the concrete divide between green grass and green grass. Why did the slug cross the sidewalk? Okay, I digress; I’ll file that question away under “C” for chicken and the question as to why it crossed the road.

This slug decided, for whatever reason, midway across the sidewalk, to go back from whence he came. I pulled out my smart phone, got down on my knees and elbows on the sidewalk and took a picture of the slug making his U-turn.

If anybody had been walking by they’d wonder about an old guy on his knees and elbows taking a picture of a slug. But I had my reason. The slug’s body language certainly communicated he was making a U-turn, his slimy body being pretty much in the shape of the letter U. Of course his turning around was slow like everything else a slug does, and that is what got me to thinking. It got me to thinking that the slug is not the only one who’s slow at making U-turns!

U-turns are part of any authentic spiritual journey. Following God often involves a turning from the direction we are going or want to go and yielding to God’s different direction for us. The word the Bible uses for such a personal U-turn is the word repent. Jesus is recorded in the Gospel of Luke of having spoken of repentance a dozen times, so it’s not a concept we should take lightly.

The word “repent” strikes most of us as a negative word, but it’s not; it’s really a very positive concept! I recall discovering on a trip that I was going the wrong way on the interstate. Yes, I was frustrated. However, I knew the only proper recourse was to get off at the next exit and turn around. It took some time to get to that next exit and make the U-turn, but I had to do it and I did. The frustration of going the wrong way finally dissipated as I continued putting on miles in the right direction. Making a U-turn when we’re going the wrong way and repenting when we’re headed the wrong direction: both eventually lead us to a better place.

Changing direction from what we want and moving in the direction of what God wants is rarely instantaneous. Bad habits don’t often break quickly or easily, nor do addictions usually give up their hold without a fight. We’ll need to constantly count on God’s help, be open to the help of others, and determine to keep turning. I’m glad I came upon the slug on the sidewalk making his slow U-turn, because he got me to thinking about this.

“Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” Acts 3:19

Beyond a “Selfie” Mindset

A selfie we took while visiting several national parks out west

Visiting several national parks a few years ago, including the Grand Canyon, I took lots of pictures. Others were doing the same. What I noticed was that a great many people were getting in the way of their own pictures! They were taking “selfies” as they’ve come to be called. The idea is that you find a beautiful scene, turn your back to the scene, stretch out your hand that holds your camera, focus the camera on yourself with a bit of the background visible behind you and take the picture.

Yes, my wife and I also took a few pictures with ourselves in the scene. You want a few record shots giving proof that you were there.

But these days selfies seem to be the norm rather than the exception. For most of my life I’ve been a serious photographer and never really thought about photo bombing my own pictures. In fact, I don’t recall people getting in the way of their own picture taking until recently. This made me curious. When did the idea of the selfie come about? Quick research revealed that the word “selfie” was designated the word of the year by the Oxford Dictionaries in 2013. In 2014 Time Magazine named the selfie stick one of the top inventions of the year. So it turns out the selfie is a recent development.

What does that say about us? What does it say about us when we want to be the main subject in a photo of the Grand Canyon?

Actually, I’m not surprised by the popularity of the selfie. Having been a life-long student of the Bible, a pastor for 40 years, and attempting to see myself honestly, I know that it’s part of our sinful human nature to be self-centered.

Even though you and I may not take many selfies, that doesn’t mean we don’t put the focus on ourselves. Want proof? When we view a group photo of which we’re a part, who’s the first person we look for in the photo? No, we may not shoot many selfies, but whatever circumstances frame our day we tend to put our self front and center in the picture.

Ironically, and this I also know from a life-long study of the Bible, from pastoring, and from personal experience, life is most fulfilling when we keep the focus off ourselves and on God and the people He’s put around us. Tim Keller gives good advice on this subject, “I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness.” (The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness)

Let’s get out of our own way! Picture life as something other than a selfie!

“Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Philippians 2:4

The Right Tool

My new lopper tool

I had a lot of branches to trim, including palm fronds from a couple of small palm trees. I’d tried using a saw, but it was a lot of work. “I need the right tool,” I told my wife, Diann. She’s a good wife, never arguing with me as to whether or not I really need a certain tool when I say I do. Working in my favor is that I do try to be conservative in the tool acquisition department. After all, when you buy a tool you’re buying yourself some work!

I headed to my favorite big box store and found what I needed. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t know it was called a lopper. I guess that’s because you can lop off large branches with it. It’s similar in function to hand-held pruning shears, except it is much bigger and has two long handles you grasp and push together so you have lots of leverage and can slice through a thick branch.

Wow! Did it work! I showed my wife the pile of branches on the ground I had lopped off in a short period of time. I told her, “I just needed the right tool.” I said this to reinforce the concept, so the next time I have to bring up the subject she’ll be accommodating.

It’s true, of course, I am not making this up just to get more tools; the right tool makes all the difference. Tools are designed for certain tasks, and that’s why they make those tasks easier and more efficient.

Use a substitute tool, a tool not designed for the task at hand, and you run into trouble. In fact, when I do so I sometimes run into trouble with my wife. Case in point, I’ve learned NOT to grab a table knife when what I need is a screwdriver.

One of the great truths of how God works with us in life is that we’re to be like a tool in His hands. Because He’s God and always smart and wise, He’s designed each of us to be exactly the type of tool He wants to use specifically in the set of life’s circumstances in which we find ourselves.

This means, of course, that we can’t do everything we want to do, can’t do everything others can do, and can’t be an expert and talented at everything. Each of us is uniquely made and has a unique calling from God.

The key is to believe we’re made by God for the purposes for which He’s called us, for the set of life’s circumstances we’re having to face. Then we’re to yield to Him, to let Him get His hands on us so He can use us for His good and His glory. It’s the way to finding the greatest peace, fulfillment, and satisfaction in life!

“Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.” 2 Timothy 2:21 (ESV)

A Theology from Cut Hair

Barber pole in front of a barber shop in Mexico

My hair turned gray quite a few years ago. Genetics has blessed me with a full head of it. I’ve heard it said that God only created so many perfect heads among men, and the rest He covered with hair. This idea is nowhere to be found in the Bible; some hair-impaired guy probably made this up!

I get about half of my hair cuts in Mexico, where we live part of the time to be near our daughter and her family. My cut hair, gray as it is, stands in stark contrast to the majority of black hair on the Mexican barber’s floor.

Over the past months I’ve washed, combed, and sprayed that hair numerous times, the hair that ended up on the barber’s floor. Previously, the cut hair was a growing part of my appearance for months, but I unceremoniously walk out of the barber shop, leaving that hairy part of me behind for good and move on with my day.

Eventually our entire bodies go the way of the hair on our heads. Nothing of our bodies lasts forever. As a pastor I’ve led hundreds of graveside services where tearful goodbyes are said to a loved one as we commit the person’s body to the earth.

I don’t want to get morbid here, just the opposite. I believe God wants us to keep a hopeful perspective on these fleshly bodies we temporarily inhabit while here on earth.

One of the points I’ve made at all the funeral and memorial services I’ve conducted is that God’s plan for our existence isn’t to be limited to the years we spend on earth in these physical bodies. His Good News, the Gospel, is that we can live forever with Him. For the person who wishes to spend forever with God and accepts God’s free offer to do so, the death of the physical body isn’t the end.

Here’s how I look at it. When I finish my haircut I walk out of the barber shop, leave the clippings behind and go on to what’s next for me. When I die I’ll leave behind this body and go on to what’s next for me!

“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”  2 Corinthians 5:1