Monday, November 21, 2011

Heart-Deep Thanksgiving

Psalm 136:1 reads, “O give thanks to the Lord for he is good, and his steadfast love endures forever.” Sounds simple enough, but is it as simple as it sounds.

You ever seen the movie Shenandoah? Jimmy Stewart plays the lead—the head of a farm family torn by the tensions of the Civil War, a war creeping ever closer to their farm. It’s a fine film. And one of my favorite scenes is Jimmy Stewart’s blessing over a family meal. Gathered round the table the family bows to pray and Jimmy Stewart gives thanks … sort of:

"Lord, we cleared this land, we plowed it, sowed it, and harvested. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn't be here, we wouldn't be eatin' it if we hadn't done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for this food we're about to eat. Amen."

Huh? You’ve got to work pretty hard to find the thanksgiving in that prayer. Sometimes you have to work hard to find the thanksgiving in our prayers too. There’s a part of us that has a hard time saying thank you to God and really mean it. There’s “Thank you, God … but why didn’t I get more?” There’s “Thank you, God … but why didn’t I get something better?” And there’s “Thank you, God, but what took you so long?” See what I mean? Our thanks to God—and even others—is not always heart-deep.

Perhaps we could learn something about giving thanks from the Japanese. In an article entitled “The Parent of All Virtues,” Mollie Hemmingway writes, “The Japanese sometimes accept gifts by saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ The subtext is, ‘I’m fully aware of my debt to you. I can never repay it.’” Wow. That’s gratitude—a deep awareness of debt, a realization that payback is neither necessary nor possible.

Are we not all debtors to God and his grace? How do we pay back salvation? We can’t climb up on the cross ourselves. How do we pay back that grace that is sufficient for every need, that strength made perfect in your weakness, that peace that passes understanding when everything around you says, “Panic!” We can’t pay it back. Such mercies are pure gifts of God given freely out of the vast storehouse of his abiding love for you and me. I know it’s hard to believe. I know it sounds almost too good to be true. But the Bible bears it out. All you can do—all any of us can do—is just say, “Thank you.” Giving thanks without equivocation, without reservation, without qualification, is really the only way to give thanks to God.

So in this season of Thanksgiving, count your blessings, and give God thanks—heart-deep thanks—for the many blessings you can’t earn, don’t deserve, and could never repay. You don’t need to do somersaults and cartwheels. You don’t need to recite God a poem or sing him a song. A “thank you” is really all God’s looking for—a thank you from the heart.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Swimming Against the Tide

I’m not one to wear my faith on my shirt or stick it on my bumper. T-shirt and bumper sticker theology leave so very much to be desired. I mean, really, has the Great Commission come to that? But I did see a T-shirt once that sent a message with which I quickly concurred. The caption was simple: “The Christian life.” The picture was a shirt full of fish swimming in one direction, and a single fish swimming in the other—“The Christian life.” What serious follower of Jesus has not felt like that single fish on the T-shirt—swimming against the tide, going against the flow, feeling so very alone in living one’s faith in Jesus Christ? The woman at the office, the man at the Country Club, the kid at school—swimming against the tide. Even in our so-called “Christian nation” it’s not easy to follow Christ against a flow of thinking and talking and living that creates such a strong tide of resistance.

You think you’ve got it bad? Let me introduce you to one of my new heroes. His name is Abdou Diallo. I met Abdou while spending a few days in Senegal. For the last several years teams from our church have invested ourselves in a wonderful little village in northeast Senegal. Though getting there makes it seem like it’s about twenty miles past the Great Commission, God told us to adopt that village and invest our lives and His love there. The people are friendly, kind, and hospitable to a fault. They are also Muslim. We consider them our family and friends. They consider us to be family and friends as well. Our main contact through the village is a man named Ameth, and he is an absolute jewel: so helpful, so kind to us, such a servant to our needs when we are there. We love him greatly. We love the village too. There’s one big problem though: they speak a lot of Wolof, some Pulaar, and some French, and handful of them (like Ameth) speak a little English. Being Americans, however, about all we speak is English (and a few Wolof greetings we tend to butcher beyond recognition).

Enter Abdou Diallo. On our four trips to the village, we have had different interpreters. This time we had Abdou. He lives in Dakar and speaks Wolof, Pulaar, French, and English—amazing. On the way out to the village, I asked him if he was Muslim or Christian. And that’s when he told me his story. Like most West Africans, Abdou was raised Muslim. Yet he had no peace in his life. At a very low point in his young life, he had a dream or a vision in which a person appeared to him and told him that the grace and the truth are in Jesus. Being a Muslim, he already had great respect for Jesus, but he considered Jesus to be a prophet and not the Son of God. That vision changed his thinking. When he found those verses in the Gospel of John that described Jesus as being full of grace and truth, Abdou gave his heart to Jesus. “Jesus changed my life,” he said. And it cost him too. Aside from his mother (who remains Muslim) and a brother who has since also become a follower of Jesus, Abdou has been largely disowned from his family, including the loss of his family inheritance. And since Jesus-followers compose only about 1% of the population of Senegal, he often feels very much alone. He did find a church in which he actively participates. And he continues to grow in his faith—learning more of Jesus and sharing Jesus at every opportunity. This is a bare sketch of his testimony, but you get the idea. You remember that T-shirt with a school of fish swimming one way and a single fish swimming the other? That single fish is Abdou. Yet he swims against the tide without complaint, without bitterness, and without fear. As you can imagine, our team got very attached to him on our trip.

So I wanted to share a bit of his story with you. Would you pray for Abdou? Would you pray that God would meet the needs of his life as he swims against the tide? Would you pray that Jesus would give him courage, peace, and opportunities to quietly share Jesus with his many Muslim friends and neighbors?

Oh, and would you do something else? Would you ask God to give you the grace to swim against the tides in our own culture that would so subtly and quickly sweep you away from Christ? Yes, it might cost you something. No, it’s not easy and it’s not the path of least resistance. But this is what Jesus calls us to do: “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Following Jesus means swimming against the tide. And if God can give Abdou what he needs to make that swim, God can surely do the same for us.

Dive on in … though a bit swift in the wrong direction, the water’s fine.