Feasting on Thankgiving

Helpful reminder here from Desiring God:

When God commands us “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) he does not want some mere spiritual courtesy from us. It’s not like he needs our meager words of thanks or he’ll feel bad, like grandma might have. I believe God does feel bad if we don’t express gratitude. But what he feels is not self-pity because we didn’t make him feel good for doing something nice for us. He feels grieved for us because we are missing the point and therefore missing true joy.

God’s command for us be thankful is a prescription of healing for the disease of our soul-crippling selfishness. It is an invitation to us to see the glory of God’s grace that is everywhere and, for the Christian, is infused into everything (Romans 8:28). It is an invitation for us to leave behind the spiritual poverty of our sin and selfishness and receive, through the cross, “the immeasurable riches of [God’s] grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). The command for us to be thankful is God commanding us to experience the deep joy of true gratitude for all God promises to be for us in Christ forever. It is a profoundly kind command.

Christian thanksgiving is a feast of joy for the soul. It is savoring what is most satisfying to us. It is eating “the food that endures to eternal life” (John 6:27).

That is what this week’s feast of food is all about. The food many of us will enjoy is not meant to be the focus, it is meant to be a finger pointing to the abounding grace of God (2 Corinthians 9:8) that is enveloping us like a flood. The food meant to help us really taste joy. The feast is meant to help us really feast.

So, in the words of the old table blessing, “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.”

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“In”, “Of”, and Trail Mix

There are two words that are both applicable to the place of the Christian in relation to the rest of the world:

“In”, and…

“Of.”

Jesus said both words about His brothers and sisters when He was praying for us in John 17:

“I have given them Your word. The world hated them because they are not of the world, as I am not of the world. I am not praying that you take them out of the world but that You protect them from the evil one” (John 17:14-15).

Jesus did not pray that we are taken out of the world, but that we would remain in the world. And yet while we are “in”, we are not “of.”

“Of” meaning of the same kind or sort. We are not “of” because we have been made something wholly different. Sure, at first glance, we might look like we are “of” but we’re not. Just because we’re “in” doesn’t mean we’re “of.” It helps me to think about this dynamic in terms of trail mix.

Now I have a hypothesis: Very few people in the world really like trail mix.

Sure, they say they do, just like they say they like to camp, but most of us really only eat trail mix for one reason: It contains M&M’s. Before we crack open that bag of peanuts, pretzels, raisins and chocolate we check the ratio between the candy and everything else because we’re in it for the sweets. In fact, most of us start by picking those multi-colored nuggets out first and sometimes throw away whatever is left.

We can do that because trail mix is what it says – it’s a mixture. The candy is “in” the mixture, but it’s not “of” the mixture. The candy is still candy even though it’s mixed in with all the fiber rich stuff.

Like that bag, believers in Christ are mixed into the world. And like the candy in the trail mix, Christians must retain their distinction even though they’re mixed into all other kinds of work, life situations, and overall culture. But Christians aren’t only meant to be in this mix of the world; they’re meant to influence the world they’re in.

We are meant to use our influence to count for what matters.

Funny thing about that bag of trail mix – even though there are all different kinds of things in the bag, it all ends up tasting at least a little bit like chocolate. The sweetness has flavored everything else.

That’s what Christians do, too. We mix with the world, retain our distinction, and we end up flavoring every situation we are in with our influence.

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Here’s the Best Christmas Ad You’ll See This Year

I don’t know what Sainsbury’s is, but I immediately want to shop there. Well done.

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The Most Ironic Part of Thinking About God

Where do you start if you want to learn about God? Do you start in nature? Do you begin with great philosophers of the past? Do you consider a poll of popular culture? Do you bring together the common beliefs from the major religions of the world? Most of us, when we want to think about God, start with ourselves.

There’s an old adage that says, “God created man in His own image; man has been returning the favor ever since.” There’s a nugget of truth in that statement.

Our pride has tricked us into believing that we are the center of the universe. The sun and the planets revolve around us, and what really matters is what we think, feel, and believe. We are the starting point for everything including God. Consequently, in most discussions about God, we assume ourselves to be at the center. We look around at what we like and dislike, what we deem to be good and bad, and transfer our opinions onto God Himself.

And that is the most ironic part of theology.

It’s ironic because with every other subject, we are ready and willing to admit what we do not know. We might not know how to change the oil, bake a cake, or assemble a bicycle, and yet in none of those cases, do we assume that we somehow have that knowledge inside of us. Instead, we look outside of ourselves in order to learn. To grow. To discover.

Except with God.

In this study alone it seems we assume that we, ourselves, are the source of truth. And in this study alone do we have this capacity of self-deception.

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What’s Better Than Jesus Beside You?

JD Greear answers that question:

When it comes to the Holy Spirit, most evangelicals fall into one of two extremes.

Some seem obsessed with him, relating to him in strange, mystical ways. Their experiences with the Spirit always seem to coincide with an emotionally ecstatic moment — triggered by a musical crescendo, the wail of the electric guitars, or that point at the end of a sermon when their pastor goes on an alliterated roll.

Other Christians react to that perceived excess by neglecting his ministry altogether. They believe in the Holy Spirit, but they relate to him the same way they relate to their pituitary gland: grateful it’s in there; know it’s essential for something; don’t pay much attention to it. There certainly isn’t a sense of the presence of God with them, or a living, moving, dynamic Person. I was like that for many years. For me, the Holy Trinity consisted of the Father, Son, and Holy Bible.

Yet Scripture indicates that God has always desired a close and personal presence with his people. He walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the Garden, dwelled among his people in the pillar of cloud and fire, and descended upon the Temple of his presence. The Israelites even gave him the name Jehovah Shammah, “the God who is there” (Ezekiel 48:35). Now through the Holy Spirit, he is closer than ever — God in us.

Read the rest here.

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Repentance Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Jared Wilson:

In Jesus’ day, the Jewish world was fractured into factions, each of which sought to usher in or live out the kingdom of God in its own way. The promised land was owned and ruled by Rome, and everybody had a take on how God might overthrow the oppressive occupation and establish the kingdom of heaven.

The Sadducees sold out theologically and collaborated with the pagan rulers for political and financial benefit. The Pharisees sought to live peaceably within the cities, in Rome but not of Rome as it were, obeying the laws of the land but seeking as diligently and rigorously as possible to apply the Mosaic law to every minute detail of life in the hopes their works might merit them deliverance. The Essenes hightailed it out to the wilderness, became hermits, embraced gnosticism, withdrew and battened down the hatches. The Zealots kept taking up arms, wanting to usher in the kingdom of God through the power of the sword.

When Jesus’ cousin grew up into this tumultuous landscape and answered YHWH’s call upon his life, he went out to the Jordan River, the historic borderline of deliverance for Israel, the line Joshua had led them across from desert wandering into the Promised Land. And when he got to the Jordan, John didn’t begin conspiring. He didn’t amass arms, begin a grassroots political campaign, urge rigorous law-keeping, or preach any of the other myriad ways his countrymen were seeking to establish the kingdom. He simply said the kingdom was at hand and if anybody wanted in he would be more than happy to dunk them in the river.

“Repent!” he called. And “Repent!” his cousin, our Lord Jesus, called after taking the reigns of John’s burgeoning kingdom community.

The way into the kingdom life is the same way out of worldly life — death. As baptism illustrates, the way into the kingdom is the way of death, burial, and resurrection.
Go to a new place, this action commands us. Leave the old one. Abandon it and its ways, its self-idolatry in the guise of spirituality.

Today’s Essenes are the gnosis-exalting hip churches and the law-exalting fundy churches, each preaching legalism of a different sort and rendering different sorts of people untouchable. They advocate withdrawal from either “church people” or “the world,” as if true kingdom enlightenment exists in an ecclesiological utopia hermetically sealed off and protected by either their cultural savvy or their cultural avoidance.

Today’s Pharisees are people like me, desperately trying to please God through our stuff, our merit, our actions, sincerely wanting to apply God’s Word to our life but always slipping down the slope of applying our life to God’s work. We trust our behavior, our church programs, our well-turned phrases. Today’s Pharisees are the promoters of the entertainment-driven, self-help preaching, program-trusting whitewashed tombs we arrogantly call churches.

Today’s Sadducees are the politicians who use churches, Christians, and the language of Scripture to achieve power. And they are the ones who help them, believing if the right man were in the right role, God would “heal our land.” They believe the kingdom of God can be spread through politics, networking, the right policies, the right strategies, the right legislations. They are the churches who sell out to celebrities and powerful personalities.

Today’s Zealots are anybody and everybody who thinks the kingdom comes with signs to be observed: elections, placards, T-shirts, debates, attendance, programs. Or worse: bombings, shootings.

All of it, idolatry. All of us, idolaters.

And Jesus says to us every day, all day, as he said all day every day then, “Repent!”

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

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“Thank You I’m Not Like That Pharisee”

Maybe you remember the story Jesus told. Two people, as different in their stature as they were in the condition of their hearts.

The first one, filled with himself, spent his time thanking God that he was not like all those other people – the greedy, the sinners, the adulterers – pretty much everyone else. He thanked God for this, though we are left wondering if God was his true audience.

Standing next to him was one of those other people. He didn’t raise his eyes toward heaven, but instead had a true assessment of himself. His prayer was far less articulate: “Have mercy on me. Turn your wrath from me—a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). He was one of those people, and he knew it.

Jesus followed up His story with the punch: “I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).

To put it another way, humility is not an option. Every mouth will eventually be closed; every chest will eventually be beaten; every knee will eventually bow. Humble yourself now or be humbled by God later, but humility is coming nonetheless.

Now here’s the thing – we can look at this story and learn many things. We can learn, for example, that the fashion and nature of our prayers goes a great way in being a window to our hearts. We can see our true desires, our true belief in who God is and what He does, and our true assessment of ourselves by looking at our prayers.

But here is the true irony: The Pharisee in the story thanked God that he was not like the tax collector.

I read this parable and immediately thank God that I am not like the Pharisee.

Pride takes many twisted forms, and at the end of everyone is the same cry when we recognize the path we’re on: “Have mercy on me, God, a sinner before you.”

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Open the Door to Halloween

From Desiring God:

How you spend Halloween may reveal a good deal of what you think of sanctification.

There is a chain of inseparable realities in our local churches that shape the way we look at the costumes shuffling down our streets and knocking on our doors this Friday night. The first reality, as Jeff Vanderstelt explains, is the fluency of gospel proclamation in our communities of faith. We want to be churches that proclaim the gospel to one another, believers to believers. And then, building off this reality, it’s inevitable that we begin to share the gospel with those who don’t know Jesus — that is, if we understand sanctification.

It is easy for us to get locked into Christian bubbles and soon lose contact with those who desperately need to know the good news. And it’s easy to mistake sanctification to mean separate from the world instead of separated for God’s work in the world. But Christians, says Vanderstelt, are truly called to move toward need, and be in the middle of the brokenness. We are not of the world, butwe are sent into it.

Like Jesus, we are called to “move into the neighborhood” (John 1:14). We can take the “normal rhythms of life and do them in such a way that the world takes notice of our generosity, love, and care.” And that might start with Halloween, as Vanderstelt explains in this three-minute video:

When Halloween Demands a Gospel Explanation from Desiring God on Vimeo.

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True Recovery Cannot Escape Confrontation

There’s a part of Moses’ story that often gets lost in the midst of climbing the mountain of God, performing miracles in Egypt, and leading a train of captives out of bondage. Before all that, Moses spent forty years in the desert. And I suppose that in those forty years, he learned something about routine and hiding.

Before his time in the desert, Moses had great dreams, too. Educated and indoctrinated into the royal family of Egypt, Moses was raised in luxury. Despite that, he harbored aspirations of returning to his people as a great leader. In fact, he was so convinced that this was his destiny and God’s purpose for his life that he killed an Egyptian taskmaster hoping to incite a rioting army of slaves to follow him. It didn’t work.

Instead Moses ran from Egypt as a fugitive in disgrace. But the place he ran to is particularly interesting. He ran to the desert, just like me. Dry. Isolated. Frayed at the edges. The desert was a good place for both of us, just two guys living a life of “should have beens.” Moses undoubtedly had lots of questions, maybe some anger, probably some bitterness. Spiritually Moses was in a dry, dry place. He was in a place filled with doubt and anxiety and sin; he was in a place far from the refreshing waters of the Lord.

Where better than the desert for him to gaze at the sky and ask, “I thought I was the deliverer? Why have you abandoned me? Why have you given me this vision for my people and then taken it away?” Where better than the desert for him to lose himself in the routine? Where better than the desert for him to forget about everything that might have been?

He ran into routine—a routine of tending sheep, an unceasing monotony that lasted four decades, but a great place to get lost and avoid engaging in those questions. No longer was he cooking up great schemes about how to get back into the proverbial promised land. But God took it on Himself to invade the routine of the prince-turned-rebel-turned-shepherd and force him to stop hiding.

Moses went from the prince of Egypt to the bottom rung on the socioeconomic ladder, and he spent the next forty years of his life feeding sheep. And watering sheep. And protecting sheep. I don’t know a lot about shepherding, but I would guess that it’s pretty boring. Day after day, staring at the backsides of sheep for forty years. But on the plus side, he didn’t have any daily reminders of what his life was “supposed” to be like. He had hidden, and he had hidden well. Maybe he had even talked himself into believing that he had recovered from what had happened in his life and had moved on to a regular, everyday existence. Moses had created a new normal for himself.

But then, on a day like any other, when the questions that had driven Moses to the desert in the first place had long since been pushed down into the pit of his soul, he chased a sheep up a mountain and everything changed.

A fire. A bush. A voice spoken on holy ground.

Moses was suddenly engaged by God. And isn’t that always the way it happens? We trick ourselves into believing we have recovered when all we’ve really done is hid in the desert. But God is content to wait us out and then eventually to come storming into our lives all over again. We can never really hide from Him.

Something happens. We read something that should in no way make us as upset as we get. We see something that jars us emotionally. We smell something that reminds us of a time long ago. We encounter a bush on fire, and suddenly the wounds of the past—or at least those we thought were in the past—suddenly come to the surface. God finds us out because part of any type of recovery means confronting those issues and questions that drove us to the desert in the first place.

Taken from my book, Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal: A Boy, Cancer, and God.

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Let Me Introduce You to Smallgroup.com

I love being a Sunday school teacher. At our church, we don’t have Sunday school classes divided by ages; instead, we rotate the focus of the classes about three times a year. Right now I am team-teaching a class walking through the parables of Jesus in the gospels, and it’s rich.

Every week.

Each week that I teach I get to stand in front of a room of thoughtful, faithful people who want to know God’s Word and follow it at an increasingly vigorous level. The conversation is always stimulating and more times than not, I walk out of that room feeling like I learned and was challenged more than anyone else in there.

But being a Sunday school teacher is hard. It requires prayer and preparation, study on top of study. I want to know when I walk into that room that I’ve prepared and thought through not only the content itself, but the most engaging way to present that content in order to inspire good and reflective conversation that leads to real life change in someone.

Because it’s a hard job, I’m thankful to not only be able to use, but have worked to develop, a tool that has dramatically impacted the way I teach.

So today I want to introduce you to a website that the team I work on here at Lifeway has been working on very heavily for the last 9 months.

Smallgroup.com is an online tool for creating and distributing custom Bible studies in minutes. Our team has built a customizable library of more than 1,000 studies (with up to 50 more added each week) from all 66 books of the Bible and on more than 200 topics. At smallgroup.com, you can log in, create a church profile, change the look and feel of your study template, and then begin to plan your teaching series. Once you choose the study that fits your text or topic, you can then further customize it with your specific teaching points, language, and illustrations.

Because I’ve been involved in the development of the site, I’ve also been able to use it for this season of preparing for my Sunday school class. And it has greatly helped. For the Sunday school teacher like me, it means that I never have to start from a blank sheet of paper again. Instead, it means that because I know the dynamic of my class, I can edit the study as little or as extensively as I need to.

I, along with our team, believe that because of the quality of the content at the site, its extensive nature, and how easy it is to make it your own, that smallgroup.com could literally change the way people in churches all over the world study the Bible in their classes or small groups.

If you’re a Sunday school teacher, it means you can put together a whole class based on any topic or text you’d like and make it your own.

If you’re on a church staff where you write small group guides for your leaders, it means you can align the content to your pastor’s sermon series in minutes.

If you’re a pastor, it means you can help your Bible more personally discuss your sermon ideas in a transformative way.

If you’re interested, you can actually try out smallgroup.com right now. The site is currently in an open beta test, so it’s not completely finished, but you are invited to try it for two weeks. This is a chance for you to kick the tires and see how it can help you create custom Bible studies in a fraction of the time it would ordinarily take you. Just head to smallgroup.com and “try is now for free.” I think you’ll like it.

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