Gratitude and Attitude

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We have a funny little saying in our household: “Gratitude and Attitude.”

I came up with it one day while my husband and I were shopping. Early in our relationship I learned that my husband reviles shopping, especially in malls. One day we had to go to a department store to get him new jeans. While he was trying on a variety of pairs in the dressing room, I ran back and forth to return pairs he didn’t want, exchange sizes, and find better styles. I thought I was doing a great job, and frankly, it was quite a bit of work. So when I returned to the dressing room with another armful of jeans, and he let out an audible, “Uuuuggghh,” I pointed my finger at him and stated, “Gratitude, sir. Gratitude and attitude!”

I realize that most people don’t spout self-help maxims in the middle of the menswear department at Macy’s, but that’s beside the point. In that moment, I saw a direct connection between the amount of gratitude we express, and the attitude we present to the world, and I decided share that realization with the fellow shoppers in our vicinity. 

The gospel of Luke depicts a similar scenario in chapter 17, verses 11-19. The text states, On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’ When he saw them he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, ‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ And he said to him, ‘Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.'”

So ten men receive healing from Jesus, but only one returns, and he begins “praising God with a loud voice.” The man also happens to be a Samaritan (for more information on the relationship between Jews and Samaritans, read this article). Jews and Samaritans had a virulent relationship; yet, after receiving healing, the Samaritan comes to recognize and praise God.

His attitude changed. In the moments of healing, the Samaritan transformed from a man who was outcast and begging, to a man who was joyful and praising. 

The other nine did not return. We don’t have the ability to know how they felt, or how their attitude and outlook changed after their healing. We do know that they chose not to return to offer gratitude and praise God, though.

So may we instead emulate the Samaritan today. When you feel something bothering you and getting under your skin, take a step back, and perhaps whisper “Gratitude and Attitude.” Choose to be grateful today. Because while everything may not be perfect in any of our lives, each of us has something or someone we can be grateful for. And that one word of gratitude can change how we encounter and praise God in the world around us.

God and Weddings

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My wedding day was the best day of my life thus far. I have heard so many wedding horror stories, and have even witnessed weddings in which the bride and groom are stressed out, strung out, and ready for the whole celebration to be over, so they can get back to their normal routines. Our wedding was the opposite. It lasted about 5 days, and every moment was way better than we ever could have hoped.

A few months before the wedding, someone imparted this rather macabre wisdom to me. She said, “the only moments in your life that everyone you love will show up for you at the same time will be your wedding and your funeral. So enjoy this one.” I know, it’s pretty dark. But in a strange way, I took it as an encouragement to soak in each moment of my wedding week.

The Bible contains so much wedding imagery, which made a lot more sense to me after my wedding day. The wedding day I enjoyed was the closest I had felt to experiencing heaven — the elation of proclaiming my love for my husband in front of God, while surrounded by every person who has helped shape who my husband and I are, and who led us to where we were in that moment. It felt holy and sacred and the closest to the renewed world God ultimately promises us.

As I read Luke this week I found another instance of wedding imagery that also contained a directive that I think most of us can appreciate. Verses 7 through 11 state, “Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.'”

Jesus uses wedding imagery to discuss the joy and honor of humility. I think this is why I love weddings so much, and was able to appreciate my wedding day as much as I did. Weddings are a time for us to witness and celebrate the love of two other individuals. Most of us would never dream of making someone else’s wedding day about ourselves — instead, we take a posture of servitude, lifting up the bride and groom and caring for them in a variety of ways. From blessing them with gifts for their home, to picking up flowers and cupcakes, to holding the bride’s dress so it stays beautiful and spotless. We love to honor others, and the bride and groom, for that one day, get to receive the celebration of those who love them the most.

In the biblical text, Jesus insists that we take that lowest of places at an honoring event such as a wedding, so that we may then be asked to take a higher place by the host. Isn’t that a posture we can take every day, though? Humbling ourselves, serving others, looking out for their needs, and trusting that one day we will experience the honor and love that we continue to give as well. So may we experience life today as a wedding banquet, lifting up those around us, treating each moment as a time for solidarity, and recognizing the love and honor in our midst.

Who’s To Say?

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I was watching the news last night (a dangerous thing to do these days) and listened to a number politicians espousing their very staunch, determined views about an array of national and international issues. What struck me most was the tone with which they spoke. It seems to me that the strong-willed resolve they portray to the nation and to one another has at least encouraged, if not catalyzed, the polarization and stark divisions in our country and the world.

In his latest stand-up, The Comeback Kid (streaming on Netflix), one of my favorite comedians, John Mulaney, discusses how adults actually have far more leeway than children have when it comes to giving concrete answers. He argues that when children have to answer “True/False” questions, they should have a third option, which is, “Who’s to say?” While most adults employ the “Who’s to say?” option fairly regularly, I realize that politicians simply don’t have that luxury in the current political climate. But can you imagine it? If politicians received a question about immigration or foreign policy, and they simply shrugged their shoulders and responded, “Who’s to say?”

All of these thoughts came to mind as I read Mark 13 this week. Verses 32-37 state, “32 ‘But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 33  Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. 34  It is as if someone took a trip, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge, giving each one a job to do, and told the doorkeeper to stay alert. 35 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak. 36  Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping. 37  What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert.'”

The verse starts with “But nobody knows…” In political and religious discourse these days I hear very few people stating, “nobody knows.” Even when dealing with the Second Coming, which Jesus specifically addresses here, I hear a lot of people writing and talking confidently about their knowledge that we’re actively facing the End Times, or that the End Times will never happen, or that they know something concrete about the matter.

The text tells us that we don’t know, so we should stay alert. Not that we don’t know, so we should start studying and postulating and calculating; rather, that we should stay alert. Jesus says that even he doesn’t know when the end times will happen. It’s like a divine “Who’s to say?” But we are told to stay alert, to stay focused on God, and to trust that God knows God’s perfect timing. So may we step back today, may we feel humble today, and when facing questions in which we cannot know all of the answers, may we stay alert and offer a simple, “Who’s to say?”

Spiritual Insurance

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My mom got a speeding ticket last week. When she got home, she shared that she had even seen a police car and reminded herself to slow down, but her speed crept up again and another cop pulled her over. I can fully relate to this experience — I drive with a heavy foot. While my mom and I reflected on her getting the speeding ticket, we both noted that rather than staying at or below the speed limit, we drive on the border between fast and too fast. We want to stay on that boundary line between over the speed limit and ticket-warranting speed, instead of staying within the lawful and safe range.

In Mark 12 Jesus witnesses the inverse of that mentality. Verses 41-44 state, “41 Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. 43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44  All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.'”

Rather than giving just enough, the bare minimum, the woman gave all that she had. And Jesus honored her for it. 

Recently, I have heard some pastors discussing spirituality in terms of insurance. They claim that we do the bare minimum of some of our spiritual practices in an attempt to reassure ourselves that we have attained heaven insurance. But let’s be honest: saying a few words, or even running to an altar does not a life with Christ make. It’s the transformation of our hearts that aligns us with the Spirit and will of God — and that requires all of us. Not a one-time gift, or a bedtime prayer, but the continuous rhythm of a life with Christ that centers our hearts, our spirits, and our minds on the One who offers eternal life now and forever. 

So may we not walk through our Sabbath today like my mother and I drive, speeding over the limit, while holding back just enough to not get caught; or like those who go through their minimal spiritual practices just to reassure themselves of God’s favor, while never actually devoting themselves to follow after Christ. Instead, may we resemble the poor widow, having the confidence and strength to give all of ourselves to worship the One who remains with us always, to the very end of the age.

April 15th: Tax Time

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Taxes are an especially controversial topic in the current presidential election. I have little interest in spouting my political views on this blog, but I think that most people can agree that the 2016 election has sparked energy, concern, and even anger and anxiety among many in the United States and around the world. And one of the biggest topics on the table is taxes.

In Mark 12 Jesus addresses the topic of taxes and our political and spiritual responsibilities. Verses 13-17 state, “And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.”

‭‭With a cursory reading of this text, we see Jesus saying that what belongs to someone should be given to them. In this case, it is a coin that bears the image of Caesar, the Roman Emperor. He also says to give to God what is God’s. Without digging deeper, we can get stuck wondering and postulating “What is God’s?” But if you look at the language Jesus chooses to use, he actually specifies quite clearly what belongs to God.

In verse 16, Jesus asks, “Whose image and inscription is this?” The Greek for “image” is εἰκών (where we get our English word, icon). The Greek translation of Genesis 1:26-27 uses this word twice: “26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.’ 27 God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”

So after we realize that Jesus wants us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, we learn what truly belongs to God: everyone who bears God’s image. Just as we pay our monetary taxes to those to whom they belong, Jesus calls us to give ourselves to the One whose image we bear.

Staying On The Vine

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My husband and I have a large potted plant named Marjorie. Trust me, I know how crazy that sounds. But we don’t have a dog, and we’re not in our baby-phase  yet, so that leaves us caring for vegetation.

Neither of us are great at keeping plants alive — I am atrocious, actually, and my husband does his best. So each summer we drive Marjorie up to Minneapolis, where my father-in-law revitalizes her. We then return her to Nashville and she slowly dies throughout the rest of the year.

I couldn’t help but think of Marjorie when I read John 15 this week. In it, Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you.Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit” (v. 1-5a).

Jesus is the vine, we’re rooted in him, and God is the one caring for us all. When we’re attached to the vine we receive the nourishment, refreshment, and protection that we need, and the further we detach from the vine, the less we produce.

It strikes me that Jesus didn’t, in this particular text, mention the seasons and how they impact vines, branches, and us. Looking back on my spiritual journey, I can identify certain ebbs and flows in the amount of connectedness I felt to the vine. Some phases of my spiritual life have actually mirrored Marjorie’s: I had a spike in how energized, connected, and faithful I felt, which was often followed a few months later by a phase of spiritual chill, dehydration, or exhaustion.

I have experienced those feelings of “belonging to the vine” after positive and uplifting events, such as conferences, camps, and retreats, in which I am able to focus on my relationships with God, others, and myself. I have also entered into phases of deep closeness with God in the midst of trial and anxiety. I obviously prefer the former rather than the latter, but regardless, it never ceases to amaze me how quickly God revitalizes me when I draw close.

Last week my husband attempted to water Marjorie, and realized that she had become derascinated — she basically un-vined herself. We now face the task of re-potting her. I can think back on phases of my spiritual life when I had essentially felt derascinated. The beauty of the John 15 text, though, is that it reminds us that “my Father is the vineyard keeper.” Regardless of how unrooted we become, how unsure and distant and far away we feel, God grafts us back in, reconnects us, and nourishes us back to life. So remain near, and know that the closer you stay, the deeper your roots will grow, and the more fruit you will produce.

Another Women’s Day

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Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I was busy reflecting on a post that had nothing to do with women’s rights. Frankly, I didn’t feel very compelled to write about how awesome women are on International Women’s Day — the world pretty much had that covered. I would prefer to write about the strength, dignity, and fortitude of half our population everyday; so I am deeming today, March 9th, “Another Women’s Day.”

Perspectives on the relationship between the male and female gender have become so polarized, particularly in the current American cultural climate, that I find it difficult to talk across the gender spectrum about objective realities impacting women today. Biological women make up 52% of our country, yet our representation continues to remain sorely lacking on international and national bases. And frankly, just look around you: every person that you see came from the womb of a woman. Not that men don’t play their part, but the life force that keeps this operation running starts and ends with a woman’s womb. So today, on “Another Women’s Day,” I think we should honor the unnamed women.

BibleGateway recently compiled this list of Unnamed Women in the Bible. Take a look at the length of the list — it really is telling of how many women made the biblical narrative move forward, yet never received credit for their work. I wish I had the space to tell the stories of every unnamed woman in the text (and perhaps I will in a future series), but today I at least want to lift up one of them. She shows up in Matthew 26 (if you really want to follow along, you should pull up the entire chapter).

At the start of Matthew 26 the chief priests and elders plot to kill Jesus — we start off with a group of men trying to destroy him (v. 1-5). And then enters the unnamed woman. Jesus is visiting with Simon in his home, when a woman enters with an alabaster jar of really pricey perfume, and she pours it on his head while he’s dining. The disciples gripe about her, saying that they could have gotten a lot of money for that perfume and given it to the poor (v. 6-9). Jesus then defends her, saying, “Why do you make trouble for the woman? She’s done a good thing for me. 11 You always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me. 12 By pouring this perfume over my body she’s prepared me to be buried. 13 I tell you the truth that wherever in the whole world this good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her” (v. 10-13). Jesus essentially creates a legacy for her, honoring the good and sacrificial work that she’s done, and notes that, in the face of the disciples’ inability to understand his impending sacrifice, this one unnamed woman gets it.

After Jesus makes the proclamation about the unnamed woman, the rest of Matthew 26 goes on to contrast the weaknesses of the men who surrounded Jesus with the faithfulness of that unnamed woman. We have Judas betraying Jesus in v. 14-16, then Jesus calling Judas out on his betrayal in v. 17-25, predictions of Peter denying Jesus in v. 26-35, the disciples falling asleep while Jesus prays in Gethsemane in v. 36-46, Jesus’ arrest led by Judas in v. 46-56, doubt and false judgment by the chief priests and council in v. 57-67, and finally, Peter’s denial in v. 69-75.

The only person who acted honorably and faithfully (apart from Jesus himself), and who seemed to “get” what Jesus was doing in this chapter, was the unnamed woman. The rest of them either remained passive characters in the text or actively betrayed, denied, slandered, and/or harmed Jesus.

I’m not in the business of denigrating men to better the image of women; I am in the business of honest accountability. If that ends with women looking great and men looking less so, that’s on them.  More importantly, though, we ought to give credit where credit is due. And in this situation, the unnamed woman deserves so much admiration for her intellect, her tenacity, and her faithfulness. May we all strive to live with the boldness and clarity of this powerful and faithful woman.