Sharing the Gift of Thanksgiving

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by Linda Rex

As I was driving through the Tennessee countryside this morning, I was soaking up the inherent beauty of the fall colors in the leaves of the trees and the deep blue of the clear sky. There is such a sense of God’s presence and nearness in his creation, especially when the plants, trees, animals and earth are just being who they were created to be. And how cool it is that we, as human beings and God’s creatures, get to be a part of reflecting God’s glory!

Last night I participated in a discussion at the Highland Heights Neighborhood Association meeting in which we talked about being aware of and sensitive to the needs of the people in the community who are marginalized and forgotten. In the light of this, as a neighborhood group working to improve our community, we asked the question, “Where do we go from here?” and “What can we do to help?”

Truthfully, there are people down the street from our church who live every day in such poverty and squalor they are not able, even if they wished, to soak up the beauty of the Tennessee countryside. They live in housing which is uninhabitable by modern standards, and have little hope for anything better. How, in the midst of the struggle of daily life, can they enjoy the best of life? What does it mean for them to just be who they were created to be? Is it even possible for them?

And indeed, how are they any different from you or me? They have this existence they have found themselves in and they, like you and me, seek to do the best they are able to along the way, trying to find and create life in the midst of death and poverty and struggle. They, like we do, breathe the same air, need the same food and water we do, and long to love and be loved, for that is what they, like we, were created for.

It would be easy to say, for example, that a particular group of people being considered last night as being in need were not part of our neighborhood therefore not a part of our responsibility. But indeed, we must never forget we are neighbor to each and every person in this world in our Lord Jesus Christ. In him we are connected at the center of our being to every other person who exists, no matter whether we like them or not. There is a core relatedness which Jesus Christ created in us and in himself which demands we treat each other as brothers and sisters, not as strangers or aliens.

And this is hard to do, because we as human beings are broken. We have addictions, mental and emotional and physical illnesses, and quirks which make us unpleasant people to be around. We have character flaws which sometimes make it unsafe for others to be around us. We have generational and personal habits and ways of being and talking which do not line up with who we are created to be in Jesus Christ, and they divide us from one another.

This morning I was looking at some photos from around the world taken over the last year which illustrated something significant which happened on that particular day. Most of the photos told the story of people in the midst of struggle—of war, refugees, destruction, natural disasters—all the ways in which people were wrestling with their desire for life in the midst of death and loss. Here and there was a picture of someone celebrating or worshiping, but they were few and far between.

It seems, apparently, struggle is a part of the human existence, whether we like it or not. Poverty, displacement, homelessness, and war plague us no matter where we live. Jesus said at one point, “…You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:8 NLT). There is a reality about our human existence and it is we do not live as we ought and we do not treat others as we ought, and so people end up living in ways they were never meant to have to live. Our human existence today is a reflection of how we seek to find life in the ways which only create destruction and death, and of how our earth is broken and reflects the harm we humans have done to it over the centuries.

It is no wonder the youth of our day sometimes feel a sense of despair and hopelessness. What kind of future do they have to look forward to? And what about our marginalized neighbors who expect to only see more of the same in the years ahead? What hope do they have?

I believe this is where we run into a fundamental flaw in our thinking as Christians. We see all this and can say, things are so bad we must be near the end of the world, so Jesus is going to come and punish all the bad people and establish his kingdom. This conveniently places everything back into the hands of an angry God who will deal with all this stuff so we don’t have to. It removes any need for us to encounter and deal with on a face-to-face basis the suffering of our neighbor right now, today, in our everyday lives.

I thought it was instructive last night that the heads more than once turned towards our end of the table and it was indicated that the churches in the neighborhood were expected to do something about the problems in the neighborhood. At the NOAH meeting, I heard the city officials say the non-profit organizations were the ones who ought to be solving the homelessness problem. Why do communities turn to God’s people with the needs of those who are homeless and poverty-stricken rather than to the government? What is it they believe we have and can do which cannot be found elsewhere?

At this point, I’m not really sure. But I do know this—when God goes to work in a human heart and mind, things change. When God goes to work in a community, things change. When God goes to work in a family, a church, an office or a city, things change. And one of the biggest changes to occur is a change in human hearts and minds.

It seems at times God doesn’t care as much about the poverty of our circumstances as he does about the poverty of our soul. The path to new life is through suffering and death, whether we like it or not. When he goes to work though, as hearts and minds are healed and renewed, circumstances in peoples’ lives change as well.

We as Christians need to realize the magnitude of what we bring to the table in the situations we face in our neighborhoods and in our world. We may have no power to fix the problems faced directly. But we do have the power of prayer and the community of faith. We do have the ability to walk with people through their times of darkness and to share with them the Light of life. We do have the ability to ease their suffering in some ways, even though in other ways we are impotent in being able to help.

The greatest thing we can do for others is to offer them a relationship of love and grace in which Jesus Christ is the center. We can come alongside others and share in the divine Paraclete’s ministry of counsel, intercession and comfort. We can share with others the blessings we have received from Abba so they may also experience the joy of thanksgiving as we do. We can work to help others to be and become those people God created them to be, so they may begin to enjoy the best of life, which is living in loving community with God and one another.

This is my heart and desire for the people of Tennessee, and for all people, for that matter. And I know it is also the heart and desire of our members at Good News Fellowship. We have been given our Abba’s heart of love and grace and we want to share it with others. We want all people to be overwhelmed just as we are with the overflowing joy of thanksgiving for our Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have given us true life in their presence both now and forever.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for giving us all we need for life and godliness, and for drawing us to yourself by your Son and in your Spirit, so we each and all may participate with you in a communion of love and grace both now and forever. Renew in us your heart of love and grace so we may love others with your perfect love and forgive as we are forgiven. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.

“For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.” Colossians 1:9–12 NASB

The Seduction of Ingratitude

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Colorful pumpkins and mums--fall's here!
Colorful pumpkins and mums–fall’s here!

by Linda Rex

Recently while I was having one of those days when all I could see were the issues and struggles which come with trying to make ends meet, I had a small epiphany. I say small, because I know I have had this revelation before, but it never seems to have a lasting effect on my psyche.

It occurred to me, as I struggled to work out how I was going to manage to do this, that and the other thing, that I was so busy trying to hold everything together that I wasn’t thanking God for how he has held everything together for me all these years. It’s not that I haven’t thanked him over the years as he has held me and rescued me over and over, and it’s not that I haven’t been aware of his provision and support all these years. It’s just that, in the midst of those particular struggles of the moment, I was forgetting God’s faithfulness and love for me.

In reality, God has carried me through some very difficult and painful times over the years. He has helped me through some impossible situations, and has healed some excruciating hurts. He has provided for me when I had nothing and blessed me beyond my expectations. I have every reason to believe God is going to do for me now what he has done for me before.

But sometimes, in the midst of a particular time of struggle, it can be really hard to see what is true about Who God is for me in the midst of the darkness which surrounds me. It is as though what I am going through becomes the lens through which I see my life, God, the world and everyone around me. It’s as though I’ve put on dark lenses on a cloudy day—everything is dimmed and it’s hard to see any light of any kind.

I can find myself in the midst of ingratitude and not even realize it. It’s as though ingratitude, or not being thankful for what God has done for me or given me, sneaks up on me while I’m busy going about the business of living my life, solving my problems and getting my life in order. I’m working on moving forward with my life, when what I need to be doing is pausing for a moment to look back, and to reflect on what God has done, is doing, and will do in my life, and to thank him for loving and caring for me.

It’s important for us to take time to reflect, and to ponder the reality of the ways in which God’s life intersects with our life and how we, moment by moment, participate in the divine life and love. When we take the time to think back to look at what God has done and to thank him for it, what becomes the central focus of our mind and heart becomes gratitude, rather than worry, concern or fear. When we accept the truth of God’s faithfulness and begin to trust he’ll care for us as he’s cared for us before, we are filled with hopeful gratitude rather than anxious concern.

Gratitude in many ways is a spiritual discipline. It is a spiritual discipline in which showing gratitude to God opens us up to the work of the Spirit as he builds within us a heart of humility, dependence upon the Father, and hope and trust in the love and grace of God. Practicing the spiritual discipline of gratitude enables us to take off the dark lenses which dim our view and enables us to experience the reality and blessings of God’s kingdom of light. The more we express our gratitude to God, the more we sense the bright light of God’s presence and peace, and have hope for the future in the midst of our difficult circumstances.

One of the ways to practice gratitude as a spiritual discipline is to keep a journal of thankfulness. Those who have done this, and I agree with them, say practicing the discipline of writing down several things they are thankful for every day enabled them to have a more thankful and hopeful heart and mind. There is something to be said for intentionally making the effort to express our gratitude to God for the big and little things of life which both bless us and cause us to struggle.

One of the things which can be challenging to do as a spiritual discipline of gratitude, is praying for our needs, wants and concerns from a point of view of gratefulness and trust rather than in a tone or attitude of despair. I have been finding myself apologizing to God lately for assuming that somehow he isn’t going to come through for me—what kind of God do I or we believe God is? It sure makes a difference in our approach to the problems of life and our prayer about them.

Ingratitude can sneak up on us in so many subtle ways. If all we do is assume God doesn’t care about us or isn’t going to help so we have to beg and plead for him to intervene, it seems perhaps we need to pause and reflect on the reality we are still breathing air and there is still an earth to live on and the sun is still shining. It may be difficult to do in the midst of a crisis, but we need to remember Who God is—the One who joined us in our humanity, shared our broken existence, and died and rose so this world is not the end. There is so much more to life than just this!

The Spirit is available to remind us of God’s real presence in every situation. Jesus shares every difficulty with us—and he puts the resources of heaven at our disposal. He is still Lord over the universe and holds all things in his hand—and his love is unmistakable—he has proven it in a way which cannot be reversed or retracted. And he will not quit until he finishes what he has begun in us and in all creation.

The Light has come. So we need to take off our dark glasses and revel in this truth—God’s got it! Whatever it is in this life which we struggle with is only a light and momentary difficulty. In the end it will be seen as just a bump in the road in our journey of life with Jesus in the Spirit. So we thank our Abba, Jesus and the Spirit for their faithful love and grace, and move on with grateful hearts.

Abba, thank you. Thank you for understanding and being patient with us when we forget to express our gratitude to you for all you are and all you do in your great love and mercy. Thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit, and for the big and little ways in which you care for us moment by moment. Grant us grateful hearts and minds, and make us alert to the ways in which we give ourselves over to ingratitude so we can turn from them and turn back to you in praise and gratitude. Through Jesus, our Lord, amen.

“Do you see what we’ve got? An unshakable kingdom! And do you see how thankful we must be? Not only thankful, but brimming with worship, deeply reverent before God.” Heb 12:28 MSG

Hanging on to Stuff

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Fall in Arkansas
Fall in Arkansas

by Linda Rex

One of the most difficult tasks that come with a loved one dying can be going through their belongings and dealing with the things they leave behind. This can be extremely difficult, especially when so many memories arise with each item we handle.

It’s amazing how much a person or a family can collect over the years! Sometimes it’s just the things of daily living, or the important papers or documents. But then again, it may be stuff—things that were useful at one time, but no longer have any use or value.

The memories and feelings that are attached with such items can have more pull on us than we realize. We may hang on to these things because of the fear if we let go of them we will lose everything we associate with those items. Sometimes the loss of something dear when we were young causes us to hang on to similar things when we are older, even though we really don’t have any use for these items.

I remember one time many years ago when I was still married, my husband was doing tree cutting as a way to help with our income since he was out of work. We were called by a man who lived in a quiet cul-de-sac in our small town, so we went to cut his tree. While my husband was up in the tree and I was spotting and praying he wouldn’t fall, the man whose tree he was cutting and his neighbor struck up a conversation. Since they were standing right next to me, I really couldn’t ignore what they were saying.

They got to talking about what they owned and what each other had. Early on it became a contest as to who had the most and best of whatever it was they had. The irony was that nearly everything they named, my husband and I couldn’t afford to own. I guess I could have been insulted, but instead I felt sorry for them. They felt having the best and most of these things was what was necessary to their self-worth and self-esteem, and what was necessary for their happiness.

This came to mind the other night when at our small group we were talking about a famous man who hid all his money in the mantel in his house. By the time it was found after his death, it was moth-eaten and useless. To me that is a good example of the transience of human wealth and property. In our affluent society, so often we don’t know the difference between what we want and what we need.

And sadly, as I have learned over the years, all such things are useless in the face of death and dying. When a person dies, they leave all these things behind. And then who gets them? The answer to that question has divided and destroyed many a family and relationship.

And I think that is what is crucial in this whole discussion. When it comes to the things we own, or the things we hang on to, how do they impact our relationships and the people we love? How do they impact our community and our neighbor?

Many wealthy people are wise enough not to give their children everything they want or to give them large sums of money when they are young. They realize how destructive affluence can be to a person’s character and well-being. When a person understands that money is a tool that can be used for good and that with wealth and abundance comes responsibility and duty to one’s fellow man, then wealth is not such a dangerous thing to have.

But that is a different discussion. Here we are considering the reality that someday the person who is wealthy will have to pass that wealth on to someone else. Everything we own in this life cannot be carried with us into the next. We cannot fill a pyramid with food, luxuries and people to bring with us into the life to come. It doesn’t work that way.

Through all this sorting, I’m being reminded again to narrow down my belongings and my activities to what is really essential and useful for this moment. This is the spiritual discipline of simplicity. Some things are just not important in the grand scheme of things, while others are worthy of our focused attention and devotion. May God grant us the grace to discern the difference and to choose only what is most important. And may he enable us to let go of all the rest.

Lord, we thank you for the abundance with which we live day by day. Thank you for providing us with so many wonderful things, but most especially for the people you bring into our lives—our neighbors, our friends, and our families. You shower your love on us daily. Grant us the grace to see it and always be grateful and generous with what you give us. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, we pray. Amen.

“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—A time to give birth and a time to die; …” Ecclesiastes 3:1–2 NASB

“And He told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.’ “ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Luke 12:16–21 NASB