Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Pre-Work

I’m realizing more than ever how necessary and appropriate the act and discipline of thanksgiving is to preparing us for the Advent season (which begins this Sunday, December 1, 2013)

Preparing to receive Jesus as he gives himself to us and not how we expect him;

Preparing to receive Jesus in the company of other hungry disciples, shipwrecked at the stable;

Preparing to receive Jesus with humility, being brave enough to admit that we have no idea what is going on, even after all these years;

Preparing to receive Jesus as the way, the truth and the life of God.

Preparing to receive Jesus in wonder, adoration and in joy.

Thanksgiving is necessary “pre-work” for this work of receiving Jesus. Not just the holiday of Thanksgiving, of course, but the actual act of giving thanks, being thankful, offering thanksgiving for what is good, holy and true. When I say necessary pre-work, I don’t mean it merits us anything, but that thanksgiving carves out and prepares a place for Jesus to be born in us, just as room was made in a stable in Bethlehem. We give thanks for what is good in and around us, for what does not come from us. This requires a certain childlike humility, and as it happens, humility is the basic requirement for recognizing Jesus in the way he reveals himself to the world. Otherwise, we will miss him, leaving us to fend for ourselves in Black Friday lines and shiny packages, in overeating and lopsided football games. We remember that most people, throughout history, have missed him.

Two writers have become travelling companions with me as I do this preparatory work, so I wanted to quote their wisdom here and reflect on it a bit. Their words are unique in that we don’t usually hear things like this at this time of year. I hope you will see what I mean.

First, from the poet John D. Blase:

“Here’s a thought. I share it on Monday because it might take a coupla days to seep deep and if that’s the case then come Thursday you could be ready. I believe this Thanksgiving Day that God has a message for you and me, for all of us really. I don’t know whose voice you imagine God’s voice to sound like (maybe Morgan Freeman or Maya Angelou) but in whosoever's voice you think God sounds like, God says directly to you:

‘I AM so thankful for you.’

If we say that God loves us, and there’s at least a fair number of us who claim to believe that, then why would it be a stretch for God to be thankful for us? Just imagine this huge Camelot-style roundtable and everybody’s seated there and instead of the usual okay-now-tell-one-thing-you’re-thankful-to-God-for exercise, we all sit stunned while God goes around that mythic table and says ‘I AM so thankful for’ and names us, every one, by name, or nickname depending on how God feels in that moment?

That the voice of Love in the universe, and I believe there to be such a voice, were to pause on Thursday and say ‘I AM so thankful for Meredith and Winn and Mark and Ann and Leah and James and Jan and Holly and Michael and Anne and Kent and Pam and Boots (nickname) and Richard and Abbey and Sarah and Will and Don and Ingrid and Mary and Amy and Scout (real name) and…’” (Facebook post by John D. Blase on 11/25/13)

This idea blows my mind! Of course, the idea of God giving thanks leads us to ask, “But, who does God give thanks to??”

We forget that God is a Trinitarian fellowship made up of indescribably rich persons of power, love and goodness. It makes perfect sense that the members of the Trinity give thanks to each other. Jesus gave thanks to God the Father while on earth in an overflowing demonstration of the life and goodness of God caught up in Himself (Matt 11:25-30; 26:26; Mk 14:22; Jn 6:11).

What if, as part of this Trinitarian thanksgiving, you and I were included in God’s giving of thanks?? I am undone with the thought. This is where I want to live! If we are dwelling in this kind of reality, then we can safely navigate all the pitfalls that usually come with the holidays: toxic relatives, shopping lines, traffic jams, painful longings, deep disappointments and elusive joy. Amidst it all we can be grounded in God’s Trinitarian fullness, overflowing from eternity into time in the form of a baby in a dirty feed trough. This is peace and goodness to be thankful for!

The second quote comes from the late Dallas Willard.

“The emotional life of these children of light is deeply characterized by love.They love lots of good things and they love people. They love their life and who they are. They are thankful for their life—even though it may contain many difficulties, even persecution and martyrdom (Matthew 5:10-12). They receive all of it as God's gift, or at least as his allowance, where they will know his goodness and greatness and go on to live with him forever. And so joy and peace are with them even in the hardest of times—even when suffering unjustly. Because of what they have learned about God, they are confident and hopeful and do not indulge thoughts of rejection, failure, and hopelessness, because they know better.” (Facebook post from Dallas Willard Center for Spiritual Formation on 11/25/13, emphasis mine)

The reason this quote is so meaningful to me is that the idea of “being thankful for my life” is profoundly foreign and even offensive. Offensive, at least, to my habitual self-hatred which I have cultivated and held dear, especially during the holiday season when there is so much ammunition for self-hatred! We gain weight, say something stupid, make stupid purchases, get our hopes up and feel utterly foolish when those hopes are dashed, we blow up at store clerks and “idiot” drivers, we get back with our families and feel age 9 again, responding to everything with the immaturity of that 9 year old, we traffic in shame and guilt and then wrap it all up and expect something different than self-hatred to come out on December 25. Lord, have mercy.

The Lord has been doing a new work in me in the past year and a half, and a deep part of that work is learning to be thankful for my life as it is and not as it should be. I am able, in Jesus name and in the power of his Kingdom, to look at all the painful areas of my life (past, present and future) and bring them out of darkness and into the “kingdom of the son he loves” (Col 1:13-14). I can learn to be thankful for parents who failed me, for authority figures who abused and manipulated me; I can learn to see the good that God has brought into my life through loneliness, suffering and physical pain. In Willard’s words I hear the whisper of the Bethlehem Jesus, who loves to dwell with the lowly and broken, saying, “My grace is sufficient in all these points of weakness, sin and excruciating pain. Trust me with them, because I am all you need and I am aboundingly good. You are a gift, from me, to the world.”

This aspect of “giving thanks” prepares me for Advent in bringing all of my life to Jesus as he reveals himself, not the strong, choice, good-looking parts, but the real parts: broken and sagging and empty and dysfunctional. This is the “neighborhood” that Jesus moves into, day after day after day (Jn 1:14).

To wrap this up, remember friends, as you feast with friends and family, to make sure you feast on God’s goodness expressed through Jesus. Take time out to receive the thanksgiving of God that he sings over you (Zeph 3:17)  and allow this to translate into thanksgiving for yourself and your life! That’s a meal worth waiting for and a meal worth sharing!! Bless yourself, bless others, bless God.

3 Because your love is better than life,

   my lips will glorify you.

4 I will praise you as long as I live,

   and in your name I will lift up my hands.

5 I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;

   with singing lips my mouth will praise you. (Ps 63:3-5 NIV)

Here are some more Scriptures that have been on my mind recently regarding these things:

13 For you created my inmost being;

   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

   your works are wonderful,

   I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you

   when I was made in the secret place,

   when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;

   all the days ordained for me were written in your book

   before one of them came to be.

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!

   How vast is the sum of them!

18 Were I to count them,

   they would outnumber the grains of sand—

   when I awake, I am still with you. (Ps 139:13-18 NIV)

Col 1:9-13

9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Col 3:15-17

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Life Change for Couples: A Book Review

Life Change for Couples

Christian marriages need all the help they can get. Books on marriage abound, and it’s hard to think of anything unique or fresh that needs to be said. I think James Reeves has succeeded in saying something fresh and helpful, which is what draws me to his workbook, Life Change for Couples. The book originated with another book entitled Life Change for Every Christian and Reeves found it helpful to apply the same principles to marriage relationships.

Using the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous as a template, Reeves brings couples face to face with a variety of issues that tend to fragment their relationships with their spouses. Some Christians may be turned off by this feature, thinking the steps as only applicable to “addicts” of various kinds. I think it worthwhile to explain why I think this is a wrong conclusion to make. It was actually a drawing point for me personally, because I believe that the 12 steps in general reflect well what churches should be about generally. Too often, words like “change” and “transformation” are thrown about in the church without any clear pattern or path to follow in actually seeing it take place. The steps provide a reliable path to follow in seeking transformation in a variety of relationships and settings. Dallas Willard highlights this point beautifully.

“Another illustration of the "general pattern" of personal transformation is provided by Alcoholics Anonymous and similar "twelve step" programs. . . . A desirable state of being is envisioned, and an intention to realize it is actuated in decision. Means are applied to fulfill the intention (and the corresponding decision) by producing the desirable state of being: in this case, abstinence from alcohol and a life of sobriety, with all the good that that entails. The familiar means of the traditional AA program—the famous "twelve steps" and the personal and social arrangements in which they are concretely embodied, including a conscious involvement of God in the individual's life—are highly effective in bringing about personal transformation.” (Online article, “Living A Transformed Life Adequate To Our Calling,” found at

In practical terms, it must be remembered that this is a workbook best suited for a small group made of married couples who have agreed to go through this process together. It can be done individually, but the results will be less profound I think. Also, the role of group facilitator is vital in helping the group stay on task in a balanced and life-giving way. A wise and gentle group facilitator can help apply the “steps” to particular situations. If read individually, there should be some basic background in Christian counseling and/or biblical recovery for this purpose (i.e., not for beginners). The chapters follow the general pattern of introduction, introspection and interaction.

Prior to getting into the specific steps, Reeves lays the groundwork for couples by showing the relationship between emotional and spiritual maturity, particularly through concepts like integrity and gratitude.

The greatest strengths of this workbook are threefold:

1) The focus is on each individual’s own behavior and is not about changing another person’s behavior, often the pitfall in marriage counsel.

2)  Related to #1, there is the assumption that everyone is broken and wounded and in need of the healing of Jesus, in community with his people. Too often marriages fail simply because there is no support and accountability from trusted Christian friends.

3) The workbook provides a well laid out plan, a way to deal with marriage issues that wisely navigates the painful realities of daily married life. Not all plans or paths are equal, but I think this approach holds the most overall value to the majority of married couples.

For these reasons, I recommend use of this workbook to help couples strengthen their marriages and find healing for the areas where they are experiencing brokenness. It could be a real lifesaver!

Thanks to Kregel Publishers for a review copy in exchange for an unbiased review.