Participating in the Psalms IV: Thanksgiving Edition

Often the writers of the Psalms aren’t just trying to teach us about God, but they are trying to share their experience of Him.  As in Psalm 96 and 100, included in earlier posts, Psalm 136 opens with encouragement, or even instructions, to join the Psalmist in thanksgiving:

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
     for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods,
     for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
     for his steadfast love endures forever” – Psalm 136:1-3

All 26 verses of this Psalm end with the phrase “for his steadfast love endures forever,” following something about God that is worthy of praise and thanksgiving.  This constant repetition is a reminder that it is “his steadfast love” for His people that drives His acts of creation, His works in history, and ultimately His death on the cross.  His works are all done by a person, for a people.  What God really desires is relationship with us. We are not alone in the universe.

Giving thanks only makes sense if someone exists to thank, who is good, and has the power to provide what we are thankful for.  If creation is a mere accident, if wicked acts are never corrected and righteous acts are never rewarded, and if mankind can only hope in themselves, there is no reason to give thanks to someone, or something, else.  Many religions seem to acknowledge this, giving personality and reverence to created things – trees, the sun, the harvest, and so on – but in Christ we can know the Person who is behind it all, and who actually is a Person that loves us.

Therefore, today give thanks to the Lord who is good, and is above any god or lord of this world.  As we celebrate Thanksgiving today in the United States, be thankful above all else that Someone exists to thank, that He is good, and that He has the power, and love, needed to care for His people.  Now and forever.

Amen.


Earlier posts on Participating in the Psalms are here, here, and here.

Thanksgiving is Good and Fitting

Since 1942, the United States have celebrated a holiday for Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of every November.  For Christians the holiday is a time to remember the source of their blessings, regardless of how large or small those blessings seem.  In Ecclesiastes 5:18-19, the Preacher recommends celebrating and enjoying our material things, and recognizing God as the Giver of them all, including the work needed to produce and prepare them:

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God.

However, as the Preacher wrote, even those with good jobs and plentiful possessions may find it difficult to truly enjoy them.  It is “good and fitting”, but it is also “the gift of God” to find joy in the now instead of chasing things we don’t already have.  It does not come naturally.

For many, time and events make each Thanksgiving different.  The company around the table may have changed.  The meal may be different.  The means of providing the meal may be different.  The familiarity of tradition may have been shaken by the pandemic and other circumstances.  Much has changed, and much will change.

Therefore, focus on the Giver behind the gifts you have, and seek contentment with thankfulness that He has provided everything you need. For now, and in eternity.  You are in good company.

What are We Willing to Leave on the Cutting Room Floor?

From earliest times, debate has raged over whether God’s word can be taken literally.  Since the serpent asked, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?[1] people have debated if the world was created in 6 days.  If Moses really parted the Red Sea.  If Jonah really spent 3 days inside a great fish.  And so on.  Talk about whether the Bible means what it says often focuses on the miraculous events within.

But what about verses like Ephesians 4:29?  “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”  When Paul wrote that, did he literally mean “no corrupting talk,” or just to aim for less crude language than the average person?  Did Paul mean each word needs to “fit the occasion,” or to repeat whatever catchphrase seems to work in most situations?  Did Paul mean everything we say should “give grace” to others, or is it ok if sometimes we want to look good or appear gracious?  Do we need to always build up those who hear us?  Did Paul “actually say” what he wrote in Ephesians 4:29?

Failure to meet our ideals
does not mean that
we should change them.

We might reply that this is an impossible standard, but Jesus in Luke 18:19 said “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”  In that one statement, Jesus testifies that no one is good (everyone misses the mark), and also that He is God in the flesh, come to save us from failing to meet the standard.

So yes, Ephesians 4:29 should be taken literally, but we should also take literally that only Jesus can meet the standard, and that He did meet the standard.  Failure to meet our ideals does not mean they are the wrong ideals and that we should change them.  Holiness is holiness.

G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy that “it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful. But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitless.”[2]

In film editing, “the cutting room floor” refers to pieces of physical film that (in pre-digital times) were cut out of the movie and left lying on the floor.  When writing this blog, one of the hardest things to do is to cut out parts or phrases I care deeply about, but sometimes it’s necessary, because my words aren’t always Ephesians 4:29 words.  Finding these failures can be fruitful if I learn from them and move closer to the ideal.  In real-time, daily conversation it’s even harder, but to take Ephesians 4:29 literally, we all have to figuratively ask:

What are we willing to leave on the cutting room floor today?


[1] Genesis 3:1
[2] Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy (1908).  P. 163.

We’re All in Different Ruts Together

Dear fellow travelers,

Saint Augustine wrote in his Confessions “for it is one thing to see the land of peace from a wooded ridge….and another to tread the road that leads to it.”  Often along that road we get stuck in a rut, but what is a rut?

According to Dictionary.com, “rut” is a noun meaning: “a furrow or track in the ground, especially one made by the passage of a vehicle or vehicles” or “a fixed or established mode of procedure or course of life, usually dull or unpromising: to fall into a rut.”

The second meaning comes from the first, earlier meaning.  On dirt roads, vehicles create a rut along a repeated path, and the vehicles that come after find it easier to follow the path of least resistance.  Therefore, without someone intervening and repairing the road, the rut gets deeper and its harder for any vehicle to avoid the rut.  The second meaning is a metaphor of people doing the same thing.  It’s easier to do what others have done before, or to continue what you’ve already done before, especially if repeated for a long period of time.

However, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25)

Life often feels like this. Photo by Aubrey Odom-Mabey on Unsplash

The Diversity of Ruts
Over time, I have found many ruts to get stuck in.  In my earliest memories I was already in a rut of passive Christianity, going through rituals that didn’t mean much to me.  As a young adult, I was in a different rut as a visibly vibrant church member, doing things like leading Bible studies and worship services.  Later, I was in a rut of private faith, studying the Bible and praying nearly every day but rarely talking to anyone else about it.  At other times I’ve been ruts of tribalism, comfortable practicing religion as acceptable to “my tribe,” whether a political tribe, a denominational one, or many others.

There were times in my life where I looked like a Christian but wasn’t, and also times where I was a Christian but didn’t look like one.  There were times where some people approved, and there were times when other people approved.

Much of what I’ve done has been potentially “good,” at least in appearance, but in all cases there was always something not quite right with it.  J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that “There was an Eden on this very unhappy Earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.’”  We’re stuck somewhere we’re not meant to stay.  Each of our experiences is different, and the wrong paths I’ve been on are not always the same wrong paths you’ve been on, and what was wrong for me might be right for you.  But for many of us, ruts are comfortable.

When people, like vehicles following a rut in the road, follow others, it doesn’t “feel” risky.  But when in a rut, new ground is never uncovered, and new paths are never found.  There is no fruit of the Spirit from staying in a rut, doing something because someone else did it or because it feels “normal.”  God’s people grow in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control[1] as they find and follow His path for them, not by accident, by routine, or by doing nothing.

What may be less obvious is that the right path I should be on is not the same path you should be on.  As I’ve written, “Each of us is an intricate matrix of beliefs, at different levels of truth and of conviction on every possible topic.”  We all try to follow the same Shepherd, but we’re all in different places and He has different paths for all of us.  A person can be a passionate, sincere believer with characteristics from any or all of what were my ruts, while I may by grace have avoided the ruts of others.

Compelling, Clear, and Charitable
Why am I writing this?  I picked up a few new followers this week, thanks to a post of mine being shared by Mitch Teemley (please visit his amazing blog!) and wanted to publicly thank him and to welcome any new readers!

Here, inspired by Ephesians 4:15, try to write posts that are “Compelling, Clear, and Charitable” as explained in this earlier post.  I try to write posts that “stir up my readers to love and good works.” (Hebrews 10:24).

It’s easy to use doctrine to criticize.  Luke 13:26 and elsewhere criticize public faith if done incorrectly, while Matthew 6:4, 6:6, 6:18 and elsewhere describe sincere religion as private, done in secret.  Politically, God’s people were exiled from the Promised Land because they used God’s institutions for their own purposes, but in exile were told to honor God in ways that benefit the nations they lived among.

Likewise, the people in the many ruts I’ve been in are often in conflict with each other.  For example, “visible” Christians can get frustrated with “private” Christians, and in fact make it more difficult for them to get out of it.  Strangely, I find myself often in conflict with past and current versions of myself.

If I write about a situation that feels like one you’re currently in, you might get offended because to you it’s not a rut.  It might be your true path.  Or you might be offended because the rut is comfortable and too deep to see out of.  It’s sometimes easier to see someone else’s rut than your own, especially if you’re in the same ditch together.  The ditch may be comfortable to both of the people in it.

Because of this diversity of ruts, being charitable is harder than being clear or compelling, but it is infinitely more important.  On the other hand, on a blog where I don’t know many of my readers, charity at a personal level can be impossible.

Now, Not Yet
We must try.  In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commands God’s people to “make disciples of all nations.”  We all experience failure on this mission, but the only way to guarantee failure is to not try at all.  If I an Compelling and Clear here, I might have succeeded, but at something other than discipleship, for myself and for you.  If we have not love, we are nothing.  In addition, Proverbs 27:17 describes discipleship as “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”  This verse is sometimes quoted with a smile as if it’s always rainbows and sunshine, but the verse is describing the violence of one piece of metal scraping bits off another piece of metal.  In the metaphor of this post, it might be describing the work needed to dig out of a deep rut.  Here, I make a humble attempt to make a better disciple of myself, but also to (hopefully charitably) share what I’ve learned in a way that helps others find their own path that is not a rut.

Even blogging may become a rut for me – it might have already – but it helps me move out of past ruts.  The path of comfort and of least resistance is appealing.  The temptation to create a new path defined by resistance to my past ruts is also appealing.  I may steer clear of Scylla and crash headlong into Charybdis.[2]  For now, I take comfort that God has used my past ruts to teach me what I didn’t know at the time and wouldn’t have learned otherwise, and that Paul encourages us all to use whatever diverse gifts we have: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” – Romans 12:6-8

When we arrive finally in the eternity we have been craving, Jesus will completely and finally pull all His people out of their ruts, and each will blaze their own perfect trail as an untainted bearer of His image.  Future me (and future you) will all be vibrant members of God’s family, constantly worshiping God in private prayer and public work, while perfectly manifesting the political Kingdom of God in a new heaven and new earth.  While the road between here and there is full of ruts, God is faithful and will get us there.  He promises that every rut we currently are stuck in is temporary, and also that in eternity the path of righteousness we should be on will be as easy and comfortable as our current ruts promise to be but fail to deliver on.  The good we did imperfectly in this world will be done perfectly there.

And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.” – Revelation 21:21

There are no ruts in that road.

Welcome to my new and old fellow travelers.

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Galatians 5:22-23
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Between_Scylla_and_Charybdis

Joseph’s Example of Kindness

November 13 is World Kindness Day, which was established in 1998 by the World Kindness Movement.  The idea and importance of kindness is of course, much older, as well as the struggle to find real kindness.

The very first book of the Bible, Genesis, has an interesting tale of kindness in the story of Joseph, son of Jacob.  His is a long and complicated story, but in Genesis chapter 40 we find him jailed on false charges.  In prison with him were two men – a baker and cupbearer – who had also been imprisoned by Pharaoh.  Joseph had been wronged by an unjust ruler, and the other two “committed an offense.”  All three probably felt resentment toward their government because of what might have been arbitrary treatment.

I think underappreciated verses in the story are Genesis 40:6-7, which read:  “When Joseph came to [the baker and cupbearer] in the morning, he saw that they were troubled.  So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in custody in his master’s house, ‘Why are your faces downcast today?’” (emphasis mine)

Note the word “today”.  These were men in prison.  You’d expect that “downcast” is their default mode, their everyday mood, but Joseph noticed something different about this day.  Either Joseph: 1) made the prison a place where people aren’t downcast all the time, and/or 2) noticed and cared about when people are more downcast than usual.  He wanted to help the situation right in front of him, even though he had his own share of problems.  I thought about this when watching the movie Shawshank Redemption recently and how Andy Dufresne sought to give others hope, especially in the scene involving the record player.

From this act of kindness, stemming from attention to the world around him and being in tune with God’s character of compassion, Joseph learned about the dreams of these other prisoners, which opened the door to his freedom, and later many other blessings.

Joseph was not seeking escape or success or revenge and was therefore focused on the needs of others.  Even before his time in prison, Joseph had suffered many wrongs, but he was able to still look outward and keep his eyes open for opportunity to express God’s love to those who need it.  God did not owe him any blessing, but Joseph surely was blessed, and later all of Israel shared in it.

In Joseph, we have an example of God’s love in action.  Today, many are stressed and downcast and need Jesus, the great comforter.  Be kind, not because it’s World Kindness Day, but because “Love is patient and kind” (1 Cor 13:4a).  Seek to bless others and you may find escape for your own downcast spirit.