WHAT I JUST LEARNED ABOUT ADVENT

I’ve been celebrating Advent for over 40 years as a pastor and learned something new about it this year. As surprised as I was to realize I had not known about this other aspect of the emphasis, it makes perfect sense.

The title of a new book being advertised earlier in the fall got my attention: ADVENT: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Written by Fleming Rutledge, I was curious about a book dealing with both Jesus’ birth (his first coming) and Jesus’ future coming (what is called his second coming). I ordered the book in the middle of November and have been working my way through it.

What was new to me is that Advent is a season of focusing on both Jesus’s birth and his future coming. Rutledge affirms “Advent is preeminently the season of the second coming” (p. 52). She notes that during advent “The movement is from the second coming to the first coming.” (p. 60). I had never heard that before. She notes in the first part of Advent Christians are focusing on and looking forward to Jesus’ second coming. The second part of Advent is the celebration of his first coming so many years ago.

In my experience (and in most churches) Advent begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas. But Fletcher notes “the Advent season actually begins before the first Sunday of Advent. It’s a seven week season” (p. 172). Later she reports “The season was not intended to be the run-up to Christmas in the sense that we think of today. It was designed to be the season that looked forward, not to the birth of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, but to the second coming of Christ” (p. 180). That part of the advent theme is that “He (Jesus) will come again to set all things right” (p. 177).

Soon after I started reading Rutledge’s book I read an online article from Christianity Today that reinforced what I had been reading. Courtney Ellis blends the focus of both comings by noting that Advent is about “the sacred hope that Christ has come and will come again.”

A third source I just began reading on Monday is N.T. Wright’s Advent for Everyone. The first sentence in the introduction to this daily devotional asserts “If people know anything about Advent, they know it’s the time when we prepare for Christmas.” I think he’s right (no play on his name intended!) and that is what I have always thought. On the next page he writes about the new aspect of Advent I have just learned about: “. . . that brings us to the other side of Advent: because this season isn’t just about getting ready for Jesus to be born. It’s about getting ready for Jesus to come back” (p. xii).

I have no idea if the practice of focusing on both Jesus’ first coming as well as his future coming during Advent is new to you like it is to me, but I like it. I’m not lobbying to extend Advent to seven weeks as I think four is adequate, but I agree with the observation Courtney Ellis makes when she asks, “Why not overlap the two—the celebration and anticipation—and commemorate the birth of Christ while waiting his return?”

While some Christians seem to focus too much on the second coming, a lot of us may not give it enough attention. This year in my own celebration I’m reminding myself that Jesus did indeed come as God promised, and that he will come again.

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ON GRATITUDE – A SHORTER VERSION

Gratitude is often trotted out around Thanksgiving as a seasonal interest, and then put away for another year.

The spiritual discipline of gratitude is intentionally chosen, deliberately trained, and exercised in all circumstances. The spiritual discipline of gratitude is practiced not just because it feels good, but because it’s the right thing to do.

The practice of gratitude results in a number of very practical, tangible benefits to body and mind. In fact, few things have been more repeatedly and empirically vetted than the connection between gratitude and overall happiness and well-being.

Becoming more grateful does not involve a denial of the reality of life’s hard edges and sharp sorrows. Through the lens of gratitude, you come to better recognize the good, to see the many gifts, benefits, and mercies that are present in your life that might otherwise remain hidden and ignored.

Gratitude is arguably the foundation of good character. Conversely, ingratitude is the root of all vice. When you are grateful for what you have, you spend less time comparing yourself to others, and less time making poor, fruitless decisions based on those comparisons.

Recognizing that the good in one’s life comes at least partially from outside the self develops a vital sense of humility. Gratitude turns our gaze outward instead of inward, helping us recognize realities outside ourselves. We recognize that we are not completely self-sufficient and independent. Gratitude allows us to appreciate and affirm the worth and value of the people, structures, and supernatural powers around us rather than taking them for granted.

Research has found that gratitude has a huge effect on improving relationships. When you realize what you’ve been given, you’re motivated to give back: the more you recognize what others have done for you, the more you want to do for them; the more you appreciate the world, the more you want to make it better. Cultivating and then expressing gratitude thus starts a web of virtue; it spreads goodness like a very positive contagion that can literally transform families, workplaces, communities, and the world at large.

One obstacle to greater gratitude is simple busyness and distraction. Another obstacle to gratitude is an ingrained penchant for noticing the negative over the positive. A third obstacle is envy. It’s hard to be happy with what you have, when it seems like other people have better things.

Humans are interdependent; sometimes we give and sometimes we receive.

Once you start practicing the spiritual discipline of gratitude, you come to see that while you can expect things of people with whom you enter into a relationship or exchange, you’re never wholly entitled to the material and emotional goods they produce. Once you realize life doesn’t owe you anything, everything in it becomes a gift.

Anyone can intentionally cultivate gratitude as a spiritual discipline. While becoming more grateful takes significant intentional effort at first, over time it will become easier; what begins as consciously chosen behavior will eventually become an ingrained attitude — your default response to the world.

Outwardly acknowledging the gifts we receive checks our pride, humbles our souls, and forges a link that will expand beyond ourselves to become an ever-widening chain of service and virtue.

Even though those two words are so easy to say, most people don’t express them often enough. We forget that life doesn’t ultimately owe us anything, that nothing is guaranteed, that we’re not wholly entitled to the good things we get. We forget that everything is a gift. But it is. So say thank you to everyone, for just about everything. If it isn’t already, start making a simple “thank you” a frequent, fundamental part of your daily language.

Let’s trot gratitude out again this Thanksgiving, but let’s not then put it away for another year but keep expressing it.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving and I thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a comment below and/or share this post on Facebook or other social media.

photo credit: mimitalks, married, under grace <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/7380141@N04/11060278644″>How Can We Say Thanks to God? in an artsy video with a beautiful song (view in HD)</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

CULTIVATING AND EXPRESSING GRATITUDE

As we come to Thanksgiving this week I want to pass on some edited selections from a lengthy article about gratitude I have had for a couple of years. I would like to give credit for these challenging observations, but I have no record of the source. I encourage you to take the time to read and savor what follows as you think about the discipline of gratitude this year. This is a longer post than usual; for a quicker read just note the parts in bold.

Gratitude is often trotted out around Thanksgiving as a seasonal interest, and then put away for another year.

While basic gratitude is passively evoked by external events, the spiritual discipline of gratitude is intentionally chosen, deliberately trained, and exercised in all circumstances. It is not dependent on changing conditions, but on mindset.

The spiritual discipline of gratitude is practiced not just because it feels good, but because it’s the right thing to do — not just for one’s own good, but for the good of one’s family, community, and society. The discipline of gratitude is in fact not a feeling at all, but a moral virtue.

The practice of gratitude results in a number of very practical, tangible benefits to body and mind. Research has shown that practicing gratitude boosts the immune system, bolsters resilience to stress, lowers depression, increases feelings of energy, determination, and strength, and even helps you sleep better at night. In fact, few things have been more repeatedly and empirically vetted than the connection between gratitude and overall happiness and well-being.

Becoming more grateful does not involve a denial of the reality of life’s hard edges and sharp sorrows. Rather, while gratitude recognizes the dark corners of existence which readily attract our attention, it also notices all the Beauty, Joy, Goodness, and Truth that is typically overlooked. In this, gratitude in fact opens one’s eyes to a more expansive view of reality.

It’s like putting on a pair of long-needed glasses for the first time: “Oh, wow, here’s what I’ve been missing.” Through the lens of gratitude, you come to better recognize the good, to see the many gifts, benefits, and mercies that are present in your life that might otherwise remain hidden and ignored.

Gratitude is arguably the foundation of good character, or as Cicero puts it, gratitude is the “parent” of all the other virtues. Conversely, ingratitude is the root of all vice; St. Ignatius called ingratitude the “most abominable of sins” as it is “the cause, the beginning and origin of all sins and misfortunes.”

The presence of gratitude counteracts the negative vices — envy, resentment, and greed — that its absence begets. When you are grateful for what you have, you spend less time comparing yourself to others, and less time making poor, fruitless decisions based on those comparisons.

Recognizing that the good in one’s life comes at least partially from outside the self develops a vital sense of humility, as well as the motivation to reciprocate these gifts and return goodness for goodness by practicing the positive virtues.

Gratitude turns our gaze outward instead of inward, helping us recognize realities outside ourselves. We recognize that we are not completely self-sufficient and independent and instead exist in a web of interconnected relationships. We recognize the help (human and divine) that’s gotten us to where we are today, and the help we continue to rely on to sustain our lives. In this, gratitude allows us to appreciate and affirm the worth and value of the people, structures, and supernatural powers around us rather than taking them for granted.

Unsurprisingly then, research has found that gratitude has a huge effect on improving relationships. Studies show that grateful people experience greater feelings of connection and closeness with others and with God, and are more compassionate, forgiving, generous, and supportive than the ungrateful.

As already stated, when you realize what you’ve been given, you’re motivated to give back: the more you recognize what others have done for you, the more you want to do for them; the more you appreciate the world, the more you want to make it better. But the virtuous effect of gratitude ripples out further still.

Research shows that when you thank someone for what they’ve done for you, they not only are more likely to help you again, they are more likely to help other people, period. Cultivating and then expressing gratitude thus starts a web of virtue; it spreads goodness like a very positive contagion that can literally transform families, workplaces, communities, and the world at large.

Given the very real benefits and positive effects of practicing gratitude both generally and as a spiritual discipline, why do we so often struggle to develop and express this virtue? There are obstacles to getting in a gratitude-driven mindset.

One obstacle to greater gratitude is simple busyness and distraction. We may feel a sense of thankfulness for someone or something, but it quickly evaporates as our phone pings, our kid cries, or another thought simply intrudes on the moment.

Another obstacle to gratitude is an ingrained penchant for noticing the negative over the positive.

A third obstacle is envy. It’s hard to be happy with what you have, when it seems like other people have better things. Envy destroys gratitude, and it’s harder than ever to avoid when everyone can show off the highlight reel of their lives on social media.

While these obstacles can be significant stumbling blocks to the discipline of gratitude, if this virtue is predicated on humility, then the very biggest barrier to its practice should be obvious: pride.

Such pride is rooted in the inability to admit dependency on anything or anyone. The truth is, we all rely on others to meet our physical and emotional needs. Humans are interdependent; sometimes we give and sometimes we receive.

Of the different “flavors” the pride that blocks gratitude takes, a sense of entitlement is undeniably the most significant. This sense of entitlement says: “Whatever I’ve got, I’ve earned. I deserve this. I had it coming.”

While we assuredly should take a healthy satisfaction in the things we have largely earned on our own, we should also recognize that the very possibility of achieving those things at all was foundationally premised on a whole lot of factors outside ourselves and our control.

So much of what we have was placed in our laps by sheer dint of happening to be born in a certain time and place. So much of what we have is due to simple luck and serendipity. We didn’t, couldn’t, do anything to deserve it.

Certainly, one is under no obligation to say thank you for acts and services that fall below what would normally be expected. But even when an expectation is fulfilled in a basic in a basic, average way – even when it does not go above and beyond, we ought to still feel gratitude for the act, and in fact, experience it as a gift.

Once you start practicing the spiritual discipline of gratitude, you come to see that while you can expect things of people with whom you enter into a relationship or exchange, you’re never wholly entitled to the material and emotional goods they produce. Once you realize life doesn’t owe you anything, everything in it becomes a gift.

That there are many obstacles pitted against practicing gratitude is the bad news. The good news, fortunately, is that despite these barriers, anyone can intentionally cultivate gratitude as a spiritual discipline. By regularly training your gratitude “muscle” you can make gratitude a matter of steady discipline rather than fluctuating mood and changing circumstances.

While becoming more grateful takes significant intentional effort at first, over time it will become easier; what begins as consciously chosen behavior will eventually become an ingrained attitude — your default response to the world.

Gratitude ultimately depends not on circumstances you can’t control, but on the perspective and attitude you decide to take; you can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can always choose how to respond. Outwardly acknowledging the gifts we receive checks our pride, humbles our souls, and forges a link that will expand beyond ourselves to become an ever-widening chain of service and virtue.

Even though those two words are so easy to say, most people don’t express them often enough. We get in that mode where we don’t feel like we should be grateful for people just doing what’s expected of them – just doing their job. We forget that life doesn’t ultimately owe us anything, that nothing is guaranteed, that we’re not wholly entitled to the good things we get. We forget that everything is a gift. But it is.

So say thank you to everyone, for just about everything. Not just when someone went above and beyond, but when someone simply did what they were “supposed” to – heaven knows that even when something “should” happen a certain way it often doesn’t! Be grateful to anyone who holds up even the basic end of the bargain, who doesn’t follow the path of least resistance.

If it isn’t already, start making a simple “thank you” a frequent, fundamental part of your daily language. Thank your wife, cashier, doctor, pharmacist, car mechanic, mailman, waiter — everyone who makes an effort on your behalf.

Let’s trot gratitude out again this Thanksgiving, but let’s not then put away for another year.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving and I thank you for reading.

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THEOLOGY FROM AN ELVIS SONG?

I was surprised this week to hear some solid Bible teaching on the radio from an unexpected source. Tired of listening to the news, I hit the button on my XM radio for Elvis Radio. The first song and only song I listened to got my attention.

While Elvis did sing some religious songs, except for How Great Thou Art, those were not the ones that made him famous. This song is not religious, but one line in it certainly reminded me of something we might agree sounds biblical.

I Can Help was written by Billy Swan and recorded by Elvis in 1975. As the title suggests, the lyrics declare that the singer can help the one to whom he is singing. Among other things, the song declares that “if you’ve got a problem” or “if you need a hand, I can assure you this – I can help.” Who wouldn’t appreciate such an offer?

As much as I like the confident offer made, and while offering to help someone in need is biblical, that isn’t what got my attention about the song. Multiple times in the lyrics the singer tells his listener “It would sure do me good to do you good, Let me help.”

There are a couple of ways to interpret the phrase “It would sure do me good to do you good.” One way to look at it is to see it as a selfish or manipulative statement. That certainly isn’t biblical and that is not how I take it. Whether it is what Billy Swan had in mind or not, I take the phrase at face value. I have been teaching and encouraging the same thing for the past 47 years as a pastor.

The obvious biblical teaching of the phrase is that it is good for us to serve others. Another way I have made the point in the church is by noting that we are blessed by our service rendered to others. We don’t help others in order to be blessed, but we are grateful to be blessed through our service.

The other point I have tried to make is that we should accept it when others can and want to help and serve us. By doing so we are not only blessed by their service, but they are also blessed by the good they do for us. When our pride prevents us from letting people who want to help us do so we rob them of an opportunity to be blessed by blessing us.

Here’s another way to say it: it would sure do good for both of us if you would allow me to do you good. In my life I have been blessed both by being helped and by helping.

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I WANT TO BE LIKE THAT!

The closing paragraphs of an online Christianity Today article this week left me unsettled as we go to the polls to vote next week. The first three pages of the four page article were somewhat interesting, but when author Daniel Block turned on page 4 to “Moses’ Charter for Kingship in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, I starting thinking about our political leaders and candidates.

Block suggested from Moses’ instructions that “rulers [politicians] were to function as servants of their people.” “Moses,” he noted, “focused on the personal character of the king.” Not only that, “they were not to use their position of authority in self-interest.” As most of us would expect, Moses expected the leaders to believe in God and walk in his ways.

Looking at the broader record of the Old Testament and leaders, Block reminds us “God has never demanded moral perfection of those he thrusts into leadership roles.” Commenting specifically on the judges (leaders before there were kings), he notes “most were not models of political leadership upon which to lavish praise as much as an honest look at deeply flawed men [sic] whom God used in spite of themselves.”

As important as all these points are, Block’s summary seems most important to me: “the Israelite king’s primary function was to be a model citizen, so that people could look to him and declare, ‘I want to be like that person!’”

I certainly don’t think we can expect those we vote for to be perfect, but I do think we have every right to have high expectations of them. I believe they should be servants of the people and that they should not use their positions for self-interest. I think they should be good examples for us.  I wish they would people we think highly of as well as people we wish we could be like.

Unfortunately, and sadly, I have not seen a lot of these qualities in very many of our political candidates and leaders recently in either party. Have you?

I think we all should vote. I also think we should follow the instruction of I Timothy 2:1-3, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  This is good, and pleases God our Savior.”

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THEN WHY READ IT?

One of the reasons I like to read articles and books by good Christian writers is because they teach, challenge, warn, convict, encourage, and affirm me.

The last few days I have been reading a book by Timothy Keller entitled The Prodigal Prophet. If you are somewhat familiar with the Bible, and think about that title, you will eventually correctly guess that it is about Jonah.

What sparked my attention today was Keller’s observation that Jonah was “misusing the Bible” when he refers to God’s revelation to Moses’ that God is “compassionate and gracious” (Exodus 34:6). That was apparently one of the reasons Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. But Jonah did not continue and refer to what Exodus 34:7 says about God. Keller notes Jonah “reads the Bible selectively, ignoring” parts of it (p. 106).  I don’t think Jonah was the first or last to do that, do you?

On the next page Keller writes about Christians reading the Bible today and really got my attention by suggesting “if we feel more righteous as we read the Bible, we are misreading it; we are missing its central message. We are reading and using the Bible rightly only when it humbles us, critiques us, and encourages us with God’s love and grace despite our flaws” (p. 107).

In all honesty I must say I very rarely feel more righteous after reading the Bible. Do you? (Please note I did intimate that every once and awhile I do feel more righteous.)

But what about Keller’s suggestion that we’re correctly reading the Bible only when it humbles us and critiques us. Who wants to be critiqued and humbled? I certainly don’t. As I suggest in the title of this post, if we’re reading the Bible to be humbled and critiqued, then why read it? I can think of two reasons.

One is that most of us need to be humbled and critiqued. I know I do. And who better to do that than the Holy Spirit through the reading of God’s Word? The prerequisite, of course, is that in coming to the Bible we have to be open to and willing to accept God’s humbling and critiquing of us.

The other reason we should read the Bible is the rest of what Keller says: reading the Bible “encourages us with God’s love and grace despite our flaws.” Who doesn’t want to be encouraged by God’s love and grace? And don’t overlook Keller’s added truth that God does this even with our shortcomings and failures.

Because of my “job” as a pastor, I have had much opportunity to read and study the Bible the last 46 years. Even though I am still reading it in order to teach others, these days I find myself getting a lot more out of it for myself. Perhaps you would like to join me in praying that as we read his word God will continue to humble us, critique us, and encourage us with his love and grace even with our flaws. Need a suggestion where to start? How about Jonah?

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ME, YOU, AND EVERYONE ELSE

I don’t think I’ve ever used the word narcissism, but I’ve heard it used and have had a sense of what it means. In a book I’m reading (entitled Honest Worship) author Manuel Luz talks about “cultural narcissism” and “narcissism in our worship.”

My understanding of narcissism was enhanced and expanded by Luz’s reference to a book entitled The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America written by Drew Pinsky and S. Mark Young. Luz relays what Pinsky and Young note are “the seven traits classically associated with clinical narcissism” – authority, entitlement, exhibitionism, exploitativeness, self-sufficiency, superiority, and vanity.

Just reading that list of traits gives us insight into both the book by Pinsky and Young How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America as well Luz’s observation about “narcissism in our worship.” Simply stated, narcissism is about focusing on oneself and putting self first before anyone else. I’ve tried to capture the idea with the title of this post giving the narcissistic priority: me, you, and everyone else.

I don’t plan to get and read The Mirror Effect, but I think the seven traits of narcissism the authors list make sense. Other descriptions that come to my mind in reading their list include egotistical, judgmental, self-centered, user of others, show-off, deserving, and demanding.

Not to be guilty of being judgmental myself, but I think all of us are aware of some celebrities (certainly not all) who exhibit these traits to some degree. And hopefully as Christians, even though we don’t always act like it, we know that worship is not about us, but God.

The issue of narcissism, however, is not just about worship and celebrities. The traits listed by Pinsky and Young show up in the lives of those who are not celebrities and in lots of places beyond worship. You and I may even exhibit these traits ourselves at times. I know I do.

Narcissism is the opposite of one of Jesus’ best known and oft quoted list of qualifications to be one of his followers: “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’.” (Luke 9:23). Being a disciple of Jesus is about getting oneself out of the center, being willing to make sacrifices, and imitating Jesus.

The Apostle Paul presents a similar challenge in his letter to the Philippians:Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests (only) but each of you to the interests of others (2:3 and 4). Sounds like the opposite of the seven traits of narcissism, doesn’t it?

Perhaps I should reverse the order in the title of this blog from me, you, and everyone else to everyone else, you, and me? What do you think?

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