What’s to be Thankful For? Part 7

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Counsel.

Supply must meet demand. The universities across Canada and the United States that have responded to the demand are simply humming. They are busily producing graduates of Counseling Psychology programmes because of a growing need out here among us Western ‘grab the world by the tail’ people. What is the need? What is the demand that is causing such feverish activity and producing so many jobs?

We need counsel. More than that, we need counseling. Whether it is our fast-paced culture, the loss of a supportive community, or unknown influences upon our mental health, the insecurity of life as we know it is getting to us. We’ve lost our identity and our sanity feels not far behind. We need someone to help us find our way, someone to give us hope that life can be joyful, occasionally happy, or at least bearable.

Living three millennia ago, the psalmist David manages to pen words contemporary to our situation. His concern is not that he grapple with the high-speed changes of technology and culture. He has other worries on his mind, primarily invading armies from without, and insurrection from within. Yet David knows the human condition. He experiences the mental upheaval of wrestling with life’s dilemmas, and he points us in the direction of their resolution.

“I will praise the LORD who counsels me,” he declares; “even at night my heart instructs me” (Psalm 16:7).

God counsels, day and night. That piques our interest. Your first question, if you are like me, is to ask, “How does He do that?” We don’t hear His voice; we don’t sit in an overstuffed chair in an office with “God, Registered Clinical Counselor (RCC)” on the door, describing to Him the stressors in our life and our feelings regarding them, while he takes notes.

Isaiah, God’s mouthpiece in the eighth century B.C. prophesied, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor…” (Isaiah 9:6). Those words speak of Jesus, the promised redeemer of everyone who looks to Him for recovered relationship with God. And Jesus has a wealth of information to tell His followers about the counseling role not only He, but also the Father and the Holy Spirit perform. Pour over the gospel of John, chapters fourteen through sixteen to hear many references to the counseling work of God.

“And I will ask the Father,” explains Jesus to the twelve disciples who would watch His crucifixion hours later, “and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16).

“He lives with you and will be in you,” Jesus continues, opening His disciples’ minds to this means of counsel they had never before experienced; the Holy Spirit would indwell the core of each of their beings–and not only theirs. He is ever-present today in those who allow themselves to be indwelt by Him. He is endlessly and unfailingly urging and encouraging right thoughts, right responses, and right actions in us.

Not to belittle the important job RCCs accomplish in providing a listening ear and sounding box for us to get some traction on problem solving techniques. But God goes deeper. He has access into our heart and soul and is able to lead us from despair to hope. “Search me, O God,” adds David in another psalm (139:23,24), “and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” I need that good counsel and I’m thankful for it. How about you?

(Photo Credit: “Harpers ferry by moonlight” by Robert Hinshelwood – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a51235.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harpers_ferry_by_moonlight.jpg#/media/File:Harpers_ferry_by_moonlight.jpg)

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What’s to be Thankful For? Part 6

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PLEASURE.

True or False: God says pleasure is sin. T ___: F ___.

Pleasure is one of the most commonly misunderstood subjects relating to Christians. If we refer to someone as a ‘Puritan’, what is implied? We’re saying they are against pleasure. Let’s face it, Christians are generally characterized as people who think pleasure is a sin, so they avoid pleasure, or at least appear to avoid it, and are called hypocrites if they are found to have participated in any form of it.

As we have been exploring the sixteenth psalm, we have discovered some surprises. We have found that God is a safe place to take refuge; His mastery is good for us; His followers are a family that brings delight to one another and glory to God; worship of God protects people from entering into idolatry; and those who entrust themselves to Jesus have security for eternity. To all this, the psalmist, David, adds another grace for which followers can be thankful.

“The boundary lines,” he explains, “have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance” (Psalm 16:6). What David means is that God created us to experience and appreciate pleasure—real pleasure, not the cheap, gaudy, penny-candy type but true, soul-deep spirit-maturing pleasure. God also created us to bring pleasure to Himself. Pleasure, in fact, is God’s idea. It is His domain. That is why there are so many references to words like “rejoice” and “be glad” and “blessed” found in Scripture. Corrupted pleasure is what God rejects because He knows the ultimate harm that results from its practice. Corrupted pleasure is theft; it is stealing forbidden fruit for its immediate gratification only to find ourselves unable to enjoy any healthy fruit thereafter. It is the apple laced with poison Snow White’s deceptor gleefully offers her hapless victim.

C.S. Lewis writes of corrupted pleasure in his satire “The Screwtape Letters” where we hear demons describing their attempts to “encourage humans” to become hell-bound. Keep in mind that the “Enemy”, from Screwtape’s perspective, is God.

“Never forget,” (writes the demon Screwtape), “that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.”

Pleasure is God’s invention. And pleasure must have its boundaries—for our good, not to kill joy but to expand it. The psalmist confirms this by observing that “the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” All true pleasure has boundary lines that protect us from falling over the edge into an abyss of corrupted pleasures that destroy us.

Pure pleasures that come to us from God leave no regrets. Not one. They fill us with life and spirit-health and a compassion for others to experience the same pleasures. They are the pleasures of enjoying God’s creation, of loving Him with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind, of loving others as ourselves. They are the pleasures of living by God’s standards of justice and goodness, even when it hurts us, and of seeing others we love being healed by God and enjoying His pure pleasures too. We inherit these God-focused pleasures now in tidbits as we can manage them, and in greater portions as we experience them in God’s presence throughout our day. Like rich, fresh and healthy fruit they feed us and help us stay on the heavenward path toward Jesus, “who, for the joy (pleasure) set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). That is what God-given pleasure appetizes us for—eternal life.

Now we are able to answer the question in a new way. True or false: God says pure pleasure is God’s gift and inheritance for those who come to Him. T: ___; F: ___.

(Photo Credit: “Calvados Apfel 0596” by Harald Bischoff – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Calvados_Apfel_0596.jpg#/media/File:Calvados_Apfel_0596.jpg)

What’s to be Thankful For? Part 5

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Part 5: Security

Family. Physical and Mental Health. Career. Finances. Happiness.

Make a mental checklist. How many of the above spheres of your life are performing at one hundred percent their optimum? Which of them could take a turn for the worse and begin a downward spiral at any moment, heedless of your most determined efforts to the contrary?

If we’re honest, we will admit that while we have some control over the circumstances of our lives, things can go south all too quickly. Marriages struggle. Health fails. Worries plague our psyche. Unforeseen events sidetrack careers; finances plummet. Regardless of our best attempts at making our one chance at life work well, security seems to elude many of us. Life is a precarious and shaky arrangement at best and nothing is really secure against the wind and tide of the unexpected.

David, the psalmist, speaks hope into our situation by penning some simple but profound words in the fifth verse of Psalm 16.

“LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure.”

Did we catch the first and last words of this statement? ‘LORD’ and ‘secure’. They stand like solid bookends bracketing his life. David, king and mighty protector of the Hebrew people camped on Promised Land surrounded by mightier nations wanting the land, recognizes where his security comes from. It comes from God.

“LORD” he addresses God. That is an English word for the Hebrew name Yahweh. It was a name expressed by God half a millennium before the psalmist, designating God’s eternal existence and being. It means, “I AM WHO I AM”, or just “I AM” for short.

This somewhat incomprehensible name speaks of the vast self-determined nature of God who cannot be fully understood by His creatures; so He simplifies His name to the most basic of tags, “I AM” or LORD.

But how does God’s name affect or effect our security?

There are two parts to it. “You have assigned me my portion and my cup,” begins the psalmist. In other words, ‘The food on my plate has been grown, cooked and served up uniquely for me, as has the drink in my cup’. God, the all-powerful and compassionate One knows exactly what conditions and situations make us most prone to turn to Him and rely fully upon Him. For some it will come within a tender and loving home environment. Others will need to experience the tough knocks of life before they are ready to see God as their loving Father and accept Jesus as their Redeemer. The point is, becoming bitter with our portion in life is counterproductive. Using it for our ultimate and eternal advantage by letting it turn us toward God is what God intends for our good. It’s who He is. It’s embedded in the name “I AM”. Take note, God does not make anything bad happen—He is the giver of only good and perfect gifts—but He is uniquely capable of transforming bad situations into settings that bring eternal good. Just look at the cross.

The second part of the psalmist’s observation is, “you have made my lot secure.” We are prone to think our lot in life is up to us. ‘Be born with it or work hard to get it,’ says our culture, ‘but don’t be surprised if someone stronger tears it away.’ God’s gift of Himself for us is very different. We cannot earn it, nor can we be too far-gone to receive it. And once we have it—that is, the forgiveness and new relationship He offers through His Son and His Spirit—it is eternally secure. “No one can snatch them out of my hand,” promises Jesus.

This verse is amazing, really. It has the power to transform our thinking and our living. The confidence inspired by God’s direct participation in our lives gives us a peace and comfort nothing–absolutely nothing—else can provide. Who wouldn’t want that? That kind of security is surely something to be thankful for.

Thank you, Father, LORD, the Great I AM, for assigning each of us our portion and our cup. We trust that You know exactly the portion and cup we need to be drawn to you. Thank you for making our lot secure. We entrust our lives and our eternal well-being to Your care.

What’s to be Thankful For? Part 4

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Protection.

The best jobs come with the best employee benefit packages. The perks engage, reward, and energize us. “A disengaged employee,” observes one benefit broker, “costs an organization approximately $3,400 for every $10,000 in annual salary”, while, “engaged companies grow profits as much as 3X faster than their competitors.”

Granted, relationship with God is not exactly a company. We’re not employees, per se. But we may think of it as an organization, or more precisely, and organism; there is a Head and there are members; there are goals and there are benefits. In his letter to the believers in Corinth the Apostle Paul says, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

In Psalm 16, the psalmist David has begun listing for us some of those benefits. The first three benefits we noticed were all positive. They described blessings gained by followers of God. The safety of God’s refuge, the goodness of God’s lordship, and the delight of being in a family of believers are definite benefits.

Verse four, though, takes a different tack; it describes a protection against a negative influence: “The sorrows of those will increase who run after other gods. I will not pour out their libations of blood or take up their names on my lips.” In those days, libations of blood were animal sacrifices, and “tak(ing) up their names on my lips” referred to appeals for help from the gods of nature, power and fertility.

The psalmist describes the harmful effects on people who turn away from relationship with God—who blatantly reject Him, stubbornly avoid Him, or passively ignore Him—in exchange for what they assume will get them what they want. There will be gods in everyone’s life–if not the true God, it will be “other gods”. If it is the latter, the psalmist mourns, there will be sorrow. In fact, the sorrows will increase by degrees the longer individuals persist in running after other gods.

We’ve all seen it. This world is full of the sorrows that result when God’s ways are discounted: families become dysfunctional, relationships destroy rather than refresh, accomplishment of goals leaves an emptiness, and minds and bodies suffer the marks of the harm that results when people make anything but God their gods. War ensues.

Jesus mourned over the sorrow His own people brought upon themselves by their stubborn refusal to believe that He was God in the flesh, and by their determination to run after the gods of legalism, political zeal, pride, and self-satisfaction. “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city,” records the gospel of Luke, “he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes…because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you’.” And sometime earlier, records Luke, Jesus lamented over Jerusalem saying, “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” God, who sees and knows all, is saddened to see the sorrows people bring upon themselves by turning away from Him toward anything else for their hope.

What is the solution? Wisdom. We need to be careful to choose wisely who and what we worship. Our lives have more significance than we realize, and our purpose to live joyful lives can only be accomplished by giving ourselves entirely to God. He is the only One capable of handling such a precious commodity with complete integrity. He alone can turn lives from encountering increasing sorrows to experiencing increasing joys. And that protection is something to be eternally thankful for.

(Photo Credit: “Stonehenge Summer Solstice eve 02”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stonehenge_Summer_Solstice_eve_02.jpg#/media/File:Stonehenge_Summer_Solstice_eve_02.jpg)

What’s to be Thankful for? Part 3

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Saints.

As if the safety of refuge in God and the goodness of Christ’s Lordship were not more than enough to fill our hearts with thankfulness, the psalmist continues to describe blessing number three: the delight of knowing fellow believers.

“As for the saints who are in the land,” observes the psalmist David, “they are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight.”

A strange and eclectic array of pictures comes to mind when I hear the word saints. Tales of unusual men and women of the past millennia venerated for their high degree of holiness seem to limit the scope of who can be referred to as saints. But Scripture speaks of saints somewhat more simply.

David’s Hebrew use of the term ‘saints’ means ‘holy ones’ and is the same as the Greek word used by the New Testament writers in several of the epistles’ salutations. Sometimes they say “to the saints in Ephesus” or “to the saints in Philippi”, and sometimes they say, “to the church”, “to the holy and faithful brothers”, or “to God’s elect.” The salutation in Peter’s second epistle rephrases the word saints with the broadest description when he says, “to those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours.” So saints are people who have accepted Christ’s atoning forgiveness, have received His righteousness by faith, and consequently are acceptable in God’s eyes. That is the process of becoming ‘holy ones’ in God’s economy.

David, the psalmist, most likely did not understand the full prophetic meaning of his words when he thanked God for “the saints” and foresaw the glory of their position and the delight of their society. That seems to be the way God works throughout Scripture. He layers deep truths into the words He impressed Biblical writers to inscribe.

So we today who call ourselves followers of Christ, who have received the new birth of our spirits into the Father’s family, and who are daily submitting ourselves to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, are saints. We are part of an amazing organism of diverse people with a unified purpose whose main characteristic is love for God and love for one another. These are the saints the psalmist foresaw. These are the ones who reveal God’s glory by living their lives on earth with a different purpose.

Now we may not always feel a sense of delight when we are with other saints—not if we are only looking at surface appearances. Saints aren’t perfect, at least, not yet. Saints are projects in process, an enterprise of proportions only God could conceive, create, and bring to eventual culmination.

Jesus places a very high value on the body of believers—on saints. He considered them ‘to die for’. And that is the source of the delight of knowing fellow believers. It’s not that they are noteworthy in and of themselves. The delight is in the realization that each saint, each Christ-follower, has been endowed with the presence of God’s Spirit and is the object of amazing grace. The body of people—of saints—who will complete the family of God and be part of God’s plans for a new heaven and a new earth still has vacancies. God is delaying His final end-times plans until the full number of saints is satisfied. What that means is that He wants as many saints as possible. He delays the closing days of this dying earth so that as many people as will accept His invitation will become His saints–we who read these words included.

What’s to be thankful for? We can be thankful for God’s gracious invitation to be part of the impossible glory and delight of being saints. Thank you, God.

(Photo Credit: Painting by Fra Angelico Retrieved from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fra_Angelico)

What’s to be Thankful for? Part 2

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Good Lord!

The turkey has been consumed, the guests have gone home and the routines have returned. Is that all there is to thanksgiving? Thankfully not. Gratitude is something that can be an integral part of our lives—we just need a reminder every now and then. There are those studies done by psychologists that reveal how thoughts and acts of gratitude have more positive impact on our overall sense of wellness than any other medical intervention. That’s impressive. But the writer of Psalm 16 takes us even deeper than that. He’s saying that the attitude of gratitude (pardon the rhyme) is the surface of something much more foundational to the infrastructure of our being. When the object of our thankfulness is our Creator, we secure for ourselves a wellness that goes beyond mental and physical health.

“I said to the LORD,” continues the psalmist in verse two, “‘You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing’.” David is showing us how to thank God for the goodness of His lordship in our lives.

Is it good to be under the lordship of God? What about the freedom and autonomy our western culture tells us is our right and entitlement? David, the author of this psalm, was king of the Hebrew nation. He led the realm and had all its resources at his disposal. Yet he was able to confirm that there is no thing in this life remotely good compared with the lordship of God. And he does not speak alone. If there is one theme that runs riotously throughout Scripture, it is that eyewitness experiential accounts of the lordship of God show Him to be delightfully, utterly, one-hundred-percent good for people.

God’s incarnation as a man in the person of Jesus Christ gives us a more focused view of both His lordship and His goodness. No one who has read the historical details of the life of Christ denies that His life was lived with utter goodness. He was a good son, a good brother, a good friend, teacher, healer, and miracle-worker. His death brings us unending life and relationship with the triune God and opens up to us a world and eternity of good.

But there is one catch to the goodness Christ offers us. It is tied to our response to His requirement that He be lord and master of us. He lets us mull over that decision. He gives each of us the freedom to try out the options the world offers: we can try to be lord of our own lives—making our own decisions, living by our own wits, ruling ourselves by our own version of ethical behaviours. We can let someone or something else lord over us—materialism, education, sexual/gender/family re-inventions, fame, popularity, etcetera. It’s a long list. But if we could imagine and extrapolate any of those lifestyles through to the end of our lives, would we actually say with a grateful sigh, “I’m so glad I gave everything I had for those! They were truly good for me!” Not likely.

Yet over and over again, followers of Christ who have spent their lives learning to submit to the lordship of Christ say something like this: The leadership of Christ is so good, there is no experience like it. He is good to us, He is good for us, and He is good in us and through us. His goodness creates an entirely new environment in which we live.

So the psalmist is right when he proclaims, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.” Life won’t necessarily be easy. Difficulties do not disappear from the lives of those who submit to Christ’s lordship. But He promises to transform us through every situation to make us like Himself, true and good to the core. That is truly something to be thankful for: we have a good Lord!

(Photo Credit: “Red autumn leaves” by Jim – http://www.flickr.com/photos/alphageek/57100167. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Red_autumn_leaves.jpg#/media/File:Red_autumn_leaves.jpg

What’s To Be Thankful For? Part 1

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Safety: Psalm 16:1

           It is Thanksgiving in Canada. For most, that means a day off school, a day off work with pay, or a day with double-time-pay for those who must work. For many, it means family time. For some, it’s a time to appreciate all the good things in our lives. Those aren’t bad things. But isn’t it more than that? Are those without family, without holiday, or without many of this world’s material blessings exempt from giving thanks?

Here’s a little history lesson: Thanksgiving did not start with the pilgrims in America or with Frobisher or Champlain in Canada. It didn’t even begin with harvest festivals in old world Europe. It began several thousand years earlier among a tribal people, a minority group living in the Middle East, who had been the recipients of God’s loving intervention in their lives. And not only in theirs. Many other people groups with whom they interacted contained individuals who also experienced God’s intervention and found their lives transformed. We have the recorded and preserved ancient writings from that time. Thanksgiving was practiced even then. But it was not a general, miscellaneous thanksgiving. The act of gratitude did not stand alone, divested of its object. Thanksgiving was always focused upon God – it was gratitude for things only He can provide, and gratitude for His gracious character.

The Hebrew psalmist king David wrote a beautiful psalm of thankfulness in the 10th century B.C. that is worth considering. It can be used as a pattern for directing our thoughts today toward thankfulness for God’s provisions for us.

“Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge,” (Psa. 16:1) begins the psalmist in what appears to be more request than thanksgiving. As David’s psalm unfolds, he has something foremost on his mind. He begins by invoking safety. He has come to God, his only source of refuge for the troubles he faces. From this perspective of placing God foremost in his thoughts, all of David’s expressions of gratitude are directed to God. It’s a great place to begin, and for us it is no different. We need a place of refuge from the storms and challenges of life, and there is no refuge like God. Yet in appealing to the refuge God provides, those who come to Him find a great surprise. Our fears are replaced by gratitude. Not general gratitude, but very specifically toward the One who has ceaselessly striven for our ultimate good. In Him we are finally safe.

We are safe from the chaos of an unknown identity. He calls us His children and Himself our Father. He explains we are made in His image and are of inestimable value. Though we have been prodigal sons and daughters, we see Him running toward us, arms outstretched, the moment we turn from our rebellion to Him. That’s safety in a Father’s arms.

We are safe from the just consequences of that rebellion because another paid the price with His own life on a cross. Life after death is the gift we receive instead of death after life. We yearn for immortality and Jesus was willing to move heaven, hell and earth to offer it to us. That’s safety in a Saviour’s name.

We are safe from powerlessness to temptations. God has provided His presence in our lives, strengthening us and providing “a way out, so that (we) can stand up under it” (I Cor. 10:13). And we are safe from stagnancy and from an ineffective life. God Himself works in and through us to accomplish works of eternal value (Phil 1:6; 2:13). That’s safety from defeat.

As we begin the exploration of thankfulness we are drawn to realize that the central object and figure in our gratitude is God. Without God, our gratitude is nothing more than wishful optimism. If there were no One to thank, to whom would we be grateful? But there is One, and so many do thank Him. So let’s “give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done” (Psa. 105:1).

(Photo Credit: DimiTalen [[File:Pompoenen.jpg|thumb|Pompoenen]])