The Thanksgiving Conundrum

I’ve been thinking today about how “Thanksgiving” has been made a holiday instead of it simply just being a way of life. We all know that Thanksgiving was a British marketing endeavor to exploit the new world and make an international holiday of tasty food since their cuisine is was so bad. It just took a little longer to catch-on than the marketing groups thought because their trans-Atlantic internet speeds were so slow. ¬†ūüėČ

Actually, one of the common sentiments that I’ve heard in these last years (mostly from my American friends and family) is that¬†Thanksgiving¬†has lost its meaning and significance. Sadly to many, Black Friday has become black everything. Stores now stay open incessantly. Families don’t eat together. Restaurant dining instead of family gathering is the new thing. Meals are inhaled because football (versione Americana) is starting. And worst of all, many people find it difficult to list more than one thing for which they are thankful. The culture has shifted, and for many, that’s difficult turkey to swallow.

The Conundrum

The conundrum is if we are a self-absorbed culture, we can only be thankful for what we achieve and what we take. Also, the only person we really desire to give thanks to is ourself, but we’re not satisfied with that person, ever. Yet, the reality of gratitude is that¬†giving thanks demands acknowledgment of another, greater person who has acted favorably on your behalf.¬†Said differently, if we struggle to give thanks, it’s simply because we’ve adopted our culture over the Christ story and we’re too auto-centric.

Christocentric people are Thanksgiving people.

The affectionately called¬†Pilgrim Fathers¬†were repeatedly ridiculed and threatened by their ship’s crew for their thankful worship. As an insult, they were called¬†Psalm-singers¬†because of their gratitude toward God while they sang with the waves both smooth and rough on their passage. What was so “awful” to the mariners was the Pilgrims’ pursuit of Christ together which manifested in a communal gracious spirit over difficult waters and sicknesses.¬†How could they have been so thankful when we have abundance and complain so much about it?

Thanksgiving for a Christian is not just something we say, it’s a mark of who we are. It is a vocal realization of favor, toward us, from the Father. Favor comes in pleasurable forms like blessing and not-so-pleasurable forms like discipline. But¬†it’s all from God, and it’s all good. So, now you have a huge list for which to be thankful.

But here’s the underlying motive:

Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Three times in verses 15-17, thankfulness is mentioned and connected to Jesus. In verse 16, a fair understanding would be that when the message of Christ (the Scriptures) is given a royal priority and permeates God’s children then wise teaching, correction, all kinds of Spirit-borne songs, and thanksgiving is going to result. In fact, seeing that Jesus is enough and filling up with him will literally¬†draw gratitude out of you¬†toward God. Gordon Fee wrote it well, “The focus is not so much on¬†our attitude toward God as we sing, but on our awareness of¬†his¬†toward us that prompts such singing in the first place.” [God’s Empowering Presence, p. 655]

The best way to be un-thankful is to get so distracted (turkey, football, 75% off sales, whatever…), and turn inward so that we have no fresh vision of the anointed Christ. We will be isolated, materially contented, spiritually lazy, wayward, song-less, and simply ungrateful toward God and others. I once had a self-assured guy come to my church for a while and one of his complaints was, “I don’t know why we have to sing songs anyway.” Sadly, he would skip our music times. Also, sadly, I think he only had a¬†notion of what it meant to know the real Christ Jesus.

If you know Christ, then enjoy filling the air with thanksgiving today (and perpetually) as the Father draws it out of you. In Christ, it is who we are.

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Communities of the unburning bush

The Lord himself ‚Äď who is who he is ‚Äď has bound himself inextricably to his people.

Immanuel: the-with-you-God

 

That key phrase caught my attention in a smaller but similar way to Moses noticing an unburning bush. I’m currently enjoying a read through the newly released work,¬†Covenantal Apologetics by Scott Oliphint. In chapter 2 (Set Christ Apart as Lord), the author draws special attention to the essence of who Jesus Christ is and claimed to be. Jesus is the embodiment of the I AM that spoke to Moses in the Sinai desert. Rejecting Jesus is rejecting the I AM (Yahweh). Here is the quote in context and then a brief application.

Covenantal Apologetics by Scott OliphintThe revelation that Moses has of what is really the unburning bush is, in part, designed to reveal to Moses both of these truths [wholly satisfied God alone is who he is and also commits himself to his covenants]. The fire, which represents The Lord himself, is in no way dependent on the bush in order to burn. The fire is, in that sense, a se. It does not need the bush for fuel; it is able to burn in and of itself. But it is also with the bush. It could easily appear on its own, because it is in need of nothing to burn. Or it could appear beside the bush. Instead, it is linked inextricably with the bush, even as The Lord himself ‚Äď who is who he is ‚Äď has bound himself inextricably to his people.

One of the unique and glorious truths of being knit together by the Gospel in community is the presence of the wholly satisfied God. That presence is what sets redeemed friends apart from any other form of community in this world. Moses must have seen a billion bushes but only one like the I AM’s. Similarly, the people of our cities will see tens of thousands of friends, families, and homes but what makes all the difference is the connected lives of unburning believers. I desire my home to stand out like that, and the fire has already united with me because he loved me first.

We might ask, “Where’s the sign? You know, the unburning house or unburning church so people will be shocked out of their shoes?” The answer is to look into the ordinary and the mundane which contains the extraordinary (like the ordinary manger holding the Creator and Redeemer of the universe). This is using the eyes of faith to see the hidden, blazing reality.

One day, the I AM himself took off the sandals of his desert pastors and washed their feet (Jn 13). There, he showed us how to be an ordinary bush but ablaze with transformed hearts. After all, he is seeking people who worship him in spirit and in truth. Are we not a people bearing and reflecting the image of the sovra-natural God who in no single way needs us but loves and binds himself to us? Instead of consuming us for what we rightly deserve, he is now revealed through us; converting the ordinary into the remarkable.

The Principle of Breaking Fresh Bread

The Italian word Panificio means ‘bakery’ and therefore a baker is called a panettiere. One of the Italian charms is the local bakery strategically situated within nose-shot of every bread-lover on the peninsula. Each bakery must have the following three components to put bread into society: fresh ingredients, the fired ovens, and the artistry of the panettiere himself.

Fresh ingredients worked together through the ovens of prayer to break fresh bread with others.

In our ministry, we try to teach this metaphor as a guiding principle for how we gather together and share the Word and life of Jesus in our Gospel Communities. In other words, our LifeTeams (small groups) strive to live-life-out-together-in-Christ and will seek opportunities to bring the Bible into the fullness of life and its rhythms. The Bread is so fresh and filling that we are eager for opportunities to share it. On a side note, some might ask if this is done in our “weekly meetings”? Yes, however, I would like to emphasize that learning Jesus happens not only in our meal gatherings but can and should happen everywhere, and at all various opportunities.

So, here is the principle in short (shorter than when I would teach it):

Every maturing disciple of Jesus is a panettiere; one through whom the Bread of Life will share himself to others.

Firstly, therefore, utilize the fresh ingredients available to you through healthy personal exposure to the Word, accountable questions, the preaching & teaching of God’s Word that you hear, Bible stories, sermon application, studies that are Cristo & Gospel centric (not just helpful how-to’s), devotions, praise, pastoral articles, training materials (such as Porterbrook), and specialized guides that are produced through the ministry.

Secondly, remember that having good ingredients is not enough to share the freshness of warm bread. A lump of dough is neither compelling nor tasty. These ingredients have to be worked-together into your life and be “fired-up”. Your heart and life is the furnace through which the bread is given. Are you engaged in an active walk with Jesus? Are the ovens of prayer lit? Pray through the people all around you and the fresh Word you’re sharing with them.

Thirdly, panettieri (bakers) become better at their craft over time. Walking in the Spirit with others really starts to hone listening skills and become story-formed. People with a vibrant and loving relationship with Jesus will notice that they will be able to share many more Gospel insights into the lives of others around them. They will carry with them the power and perfume of Jesus. Also, they will mature in their discernment in how to lead their gatherings to be more Cristo-centric. What I mean is that a godly panettiere does not just study to pass information along to people; they share the bread of their very lives.

So, in summary, to serve well in a Gospel Community a believer needs to be gathering fresh ingredients (which there is an abundance of when you learn where to look) that the Father is placing into your life. Then, those ingredients must be kneaded together in the cucina of your life and brought through the ovens of prayer. And finally, break fresh bread as the Spirit leads you into the abundance of His opportunities from gospel gatherings to grocery shopping. This can be done through stories, authentic conversations, and real-time examples of the Gospel in action (like parenting or colleagues or neighborhood problems etc.)

If you noticed, I did not emphasize a heavy reliance upon professionally produced Bible studies. While I’m generally not opposed to them, I find that they tend to produce a ‘sterile’ environment of information-passing because people naturally lean-on the material and look-at it and talk-about it. These are all things that we want people to engage in around Jesus. Often, our studies can simply distract us. Worse, they can mantle and mask many of the real needs and problems under a veneer of Bible information resulting in Pharisee-formation more than disciples of the living Christ. So, beware of becoming “Bible-study-centered”. We tend to¬†make meetings out of studies and compartmentalize them away from our daily lives.

Are you enjoying Christ today?

Stir the Beans – Pray Together

Sherlock Holmes “had his man” and was just about to reveal to Watson who the culprit was when he froze, literally. My wife paused the YouTube movie and exclaimed, “Hold that thought, I gotta’ stir the beans.” The delicious perfume of what proved to be a high-octane, bean soup was wafting from our kitchen through the city. One minute longer, and the aroma would have ceased to be a pleasing perfume. Are you catching my drift? In every good minestra, you have to stir the beans,¬†even when murder hangs in the balance!

When cooking-up church life together, it holds true that we will neither have mission nor discipleship without prayer. Prayer is missional and to be missional means praying. Discipleship is also soaked in prayer.

Serenissima Prayer Wheel InitiativeFrom the above illustration, it follows that sitting beans are burnt beans. So, my challenge is simply mix-it-up and release the flavors. Whether in triads or small teams or through prayer initiatives as a corporate body, strive to practice various and creative times of communal prayer. Try to pray as much with others as you do alone.

Right now at Serenissima, our ministry is holding one of our annual prayer initiatives. It’s called¬†The 10 Days of Prayer¬†(more info here) and lasts until the 27th of May. Basically, we as a church body cover the clock in prayer; 24 hours each day for 10 days. We do this by having people volunteer to pray for 1 specific hour of their choosing for each day. We also provide a prayer guide which is full of requests and helps for prayer.

This has been a fabulous way to stir-up prayer in our midst! Yes, it’s important to pray on our own, continuously (1 Thess. 5:17). However, we¬†really turn the heat up in our devotion when we are in a group of 30-50 people, all on mission, passing the prayer baton hour-by-hour, and sharing our insights and experiences. To put it simply, our church — our holy minestrone — needs this right now.

Why, it’s elementary, my dear Watson — stir the beans!

hours for prayer

What Makes Your Church Attractive? Part 1

I’d like to share a couple of minestre on how God has made the church attractive and how we can mess that up by following a bad definition of the word “attractive.” Much has been written on the subject of missional vs. attractional church, so my addition here is simply practical in nature. My approach is that we should not throw-out the word attractional, but re-define it and understand it as a function of mission. Here’s what I mean:

"Coming Attractions"

We all desire inspiration in our lives, and we ache for wonder. Inspiration and wonder are misty synonyms describing that we truly long for God himself; that clear connection with the Divine. Our natural problem (3-letter word beginning with s¬†and ending with n), however, is that while we seek for wonder, we want to find it everywhere else apart from Christ [Rom 3:11]. Showing mankind his awesome kindness and attracting¬†us away from destruction, God gave himself to us in Jesus Christ — the central attraction of the universe!

Then, God placed his wonder all around us in the creation (which testifies about God passively day-by-day) and also called a people from out of the world to show his “excellent perfections”¬Ļ¬†(the Church which testifies about God actively day-by-day) [Rom 2:4]. God chose and called the Church to be his living demonstration of his own wonder, beauties, and glories.¬†Therefore, the Church¬†is attractional by the nature God gives to her — to be an active, representative community of the excellencies of God.¬†The Church¬†is not attractional to True Wonder as a recreational or entertainment-propelled society.

Can Man Market God?

The instant we try to better our worship methods for the reason of attracting people and not for the rendering of  more beautiful and holy worship which God deserves from his people is the very moment we become unfaithful witnesses of the living God.

Psalm 50:2

We stoop-down into a marketing competition that says, in essence, be attracted to us through your appetites. We’ll sing and say what you like.¬†It is also the moment we begin¬†using God more than adoring him.¬†Our focus is off in this kind of thinking and performance because we are working to put on a good show in the name of God. Presently, our western cultural forms have pushed Christianity and the serious consideration of the biblical God to the margins of society. However,¬†winning people back¬†is not done through techniques that try to make the all-beautiful God more consumer-friendly. Rather, God is radiant when he is celebrated and magnified as good and all-together lovely by his devoted people.¬†More on how that looks in my next minestra…

That God’s Church, in Scripture is represented as Christ’s house or temple, and as his raiment and ornament, and as a golden candlestick, etc., is wholly constituted of those saints that are his jewels, that are the spoils of his enemies, that were once his enemies’ possession, but that he has redeemed out of their hands.¬≤

¬Ļ¬†Jonathan Edwards used the description of the¬†‘excellent perfections’¬†of God on display through his church. I borrowed that word picture from him.
² The Essential Edwards Collection,  
On Beauty, p. 98

Church Beautiful

Have you been reading any good books lately? Reading is an art-form that is sometimes dry and uninspiring and at other times a cascade of wonder and insight. I don’t really talk about what I’m reading when it’s been a bit dry, but lately, it’s been very good. So, after a lengthy pause due to many reasons, I write again. (inspiring background music starts here)

(inspiring background music abruptly finishes here)

I re-started to read a good book by Jonathan Wilson called Why Church MattersIn it, Wilson speaks often to the practices of our worship and community. He writes a section on the beauty of worship which touches on the fact that God cares about the beauty of our worship. God desired the unblemished, spotless, and best of the lambs to be offered to him and he chastened Israel when they offered him second-rate, leftover lambs because they were making money on the good ones. Even the presentation (the beauty) of the lamb must point to the one, true Lamb to come. And so it is with us.

Wilson describes beautiful worship first as a plural “we” and keeps the people of God as a whole in mind. In other words, we need to reflect deeply on what we practice as our worship. Second, he says, “Beautiful worship means worship that is shaped by and participates in the telos (the final goal; end of all things) given by God…” This means that it is summed up in the Trinity and has the look of Jesus all over it. Beautiful worship is therefore a people who love God alone.

And then he shares a number of “not beautiful” errors in our worship. Here’s a Gospel and community one:

Another way that our worship is “not beautiful” is our failure to reflect the work of God among all peoples. Our one-color, one-culture, one-class churches are ugly to God. They do not embody the practices of that telos — the redemption of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation…

The beauty of the gospel, its attractiveness and persuasiveness, is in part the glorious reality that in Jesus Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (Gal. 3:28). The ugliness of the church is that very little of our practice bears witness to this beautiful, heartrending truth. God have mercy on us. God transform us by your grace.  {p. 46}

Lord Jesus, please help us to be your missional body that revels in your beauty found in the in-gathering of the peoples of the Earth.