Why Thanksgiving is More Important Than Christmas

Happy Thanksgiving! This is a shortened version of a post I did for David C. Cook’s Spark ministry blog. You can read the whole article here: Why Thanksgiving Is an Important Response to God’s Gifts. 

Train our kids in Gratitude

As parents, we must both teach and train our kids in the spiritual discipline of gratitude. One of the most important disciplines we can master is thankfulness. Thankfulness is so telling because it reveals much about how we view ourselves and God.

“One of the most important disciplines we can master is thankfulness.”

Growing up, we didn’t have much money, but we had much for which to be thankful. Even though I was very grateful in most situations as I got older, I started to view my walk with God in such a way that I felt God was lucky to have me. I was thankful, but so often, I was thankful for the wrong things.

I can still remember the day the me-centered version of my faith came crashing down. It was horrible, it was painful, and it was beautiful. I realized for the first time that my salvation is a work that Christ has done for me, not a mental decision I make. I realized that the works I do are through the grace that He provides.

When you understand that everything we have is because of all He is, you understand He owes us nothing! He owes me nothing! I owe Him everything! Out of this understanding, we can indeed be grateful for all we have. We live in a state of perpetual gratitude because we didn’t do anything but respond to His calling and receive the gift that He gave.

Gratitude vs. Entitlement in Thanksgiving

When I see Jesus as my everything, I tend to operate from a place of gratitude. The minute I know what I have done I find myself living in a place of entitlement. When I don’t get what I feel that I deserve, I get angry at the person I feel owes me. I did that. I now understand more and more the freedom gratitude brings because God owes me nothing, and I owe Him everything.

Pastor and poet George Herbert understood that even a grateful heart was a gift and a work of grace. Herbert closes his poem entitled Gratefulness with these two powerful stanzas.

“Wherefore I cry, and cry again;

And in no quiet canst thou be,

Till I a thankful heart obtain

Of thee:

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;

As if thy blessings had spare days:

But such a heart, whose pulse may be

Thy praise.”

Herbert says that he desires that gratitude would so fill our hearts that our hearts will pulse with praise. That thankfulness from us would be the reflexive response to God’s empowering grace.

Christmas and Easter are gifts that we do nothing but receive. Thanksgiving is our right and necessary response to so great a salvation.

 

Lewis on the Need for Better Stories.

Kids need stories.
 
We live in a culture where kids have heard more scary things than they ever did growing up. Kids know more about the sadness in the world than ever before. We see the outworking of this in the anxiety and worry in our kids at a younger age and in a more intense fashion than has ever been seen. Kids are hearing news stories of murder and watching violence in the halls of their schools. Our kids are being sexualized at a younger and younger age and as a result, are losing their capacity for friendship. As adults in their lives, we so often feel helpless.
 
Our reflex as parents to protect our kids from sorrow is to shield them from the world. This is no good either. This does nothing to prepare them for future sorrow. It creates naive adults who don’t have the skills to cope with sorrow or identify and challenge the evil that they see all around them.
 
I side with Lewis. When asked about protecting kids from evils that would frighten them. Lewis believes that we should both protect our kids from the evils of this world and prepare them for the evil in their world, he said this:
 
“Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can’t bear to think of. Or they may mean that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism, and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu [State Police in the USSR] and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise, you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.” – C.S. Lewis
 
Since your kids will face cruel enemies the way to help them is to prepare them for those enemies. We do this by telling them stories of knights who had courage in the face of danger. We tell them that this world is not all there is. We remind them that God came into the world and made himself small.
 
The internet has made every sorrow around the world local. Our kids are bombarded by social media hot takes, and 24-hour news that manufactures disasters. Because disasters are what keep viewers glued to the news channel of their choice. Kids don’t need news they definitely don’t need social media. What kids need is for us to tell them stories, read them stories, and help them discover their own stories.
 

Tell your kids stories.

One of the best things you can do for your kids is to tell them your story the good the bad and the ugly. Challenges you faced and how you overcame those challenges. Tell them how you came to faith in Christ. The greatest gift you can give your kids is to tell them who they are and how to live in the place and in the story God has for them.
We think what our kids need is stuff, phones, video games, and vacations but what they need most is place. They need to know the stories about where they have come from they need to know their place in the history of their family and in the history of redemption. Tell your kids your story and teach them how to communicate their story to others. If you do not give your kids the grounding of the story of your family they will seek a story in lesser things. Rehearse with your kids the victories and the sorrows that have made you and your family who they are.

Read stories to your kids.

One of the best ways you can get your kids to live is a different story is to expose them to better stories. Do family worship with your kids and read them the series in the Bible the story of God’s love for them in Christ. It is only through the lens of God’s big story of his redeeming love for your kids that they will understand every other story they read.
Once your kids can read start giving them good books to read. Books that are filled with virtue and goodness, with tales from other worlds that help them live rightly in their own. Our world has lost the value that classic works of fiction can do for kids. We teach them to read so they can get into college and get a great job. The purpose of reading is not that. If gainful employment for the next generation is the goal of literacy we have lost our way. Our kids may succeed in business but will do so with an impoverished soul.

Help the discover their story. 

With scripture as the foundation and your family history and classical stories as a framework, your kids will be equipped to understand and make sense of a world gone mad. When your kids understand who they are and more importantly whose they are they will not fall in love with lesser stories. Our children will be able to translate every experience in the vernacular of story. They will learn when to be brave and when to fight another day. Your kids will meet cruel enemies in Juinor High or on the field of battle. If they have no idea of heaven they will despair at the pain in this world. If your kids do not know of brave knights who fight dragons they will turn and run when they need to protect those who are weak.
 
C.S. Lewis was right kids need stories. In our, world of impoverished imaginations, our kids need them more than ever. Start telling them stories today.

25 Years in the Same Place

What I have learned by twenty-five years of staying in the same place

This summer has been crazy like most summers. It was so busy that an important milestone was passed, and I missed it. I just realized this week that this is my 26th summer in the same place. For some of you, that sounds unattainable. For others, I’m just getting started. It has been a battle, and it hasn’t always been easy. Growing up, my family moved every three to six years. It wasn’t awful. I made some good friends and learned things I couldn’t have learned any other way. But the thing that was hard for me my whole life was that I never had a place to go back to. A place that defined me, a place I called home.

We came to Utica, New York, and stayed for twenty-five years in the same job at the same church and have lived twenty-one years in the first house my wife and I bought. We have made a life and have old friends. We have cried lots of tears and have laughed till we cried. We raised kids away from family, and it wasn’t easy. My wife worked from home so we could give our kids a home and a place. Somewhere that is imperfect, but when our kids close their eyes when they are forty, they all will have the same picture of the home. They will remember the same church and old friends.

In a hyper-connected world, we think we are shaped by what we know, who we know, or who’s posts we like most often. Instead, what shapes us is particular places and particular people. Our culture has become more connected and more transient than ever. We don’t allow place to shape us. We are shaped by the time and place where we have been sovereignly planted. What job you work for is not an accident. The neighborhood where you buy a house is not an investment; the town where you become a part is not a fluke. These communities of time and place are the tools God uses to chisel and chip away at the unformed exterior of which only God can see the beauty of what it will become.

We see jobs, homes, and communities as tools for personal fulfillment and happiness. When we view a home as an investment and a job as a career, it shapes us. We move to a bigger house because our kids want their own rooms; what our kids need is proximity. They need to be forced to respond right in proximity to community, not retreat in the face of adversity to their curated spaces. What we need isn’t a new job; it’s to fight for joy while being misunderstood. It’s to do the right thing when others don’t. Remaining in a particular place forms your soul in a way that career advancement never can.

When you stand still in the middle of a world, gone crazy, you proclaim that your priorities are not shared, you bear witness to a different set of priorities that have shaped your loves.

Eugene Peterson was asked, “What do you like best about being a pastor?” The question came from a young woman, Stephanie. “The mess,” he said. A group of seminarians from a nearby school—there were ten of them—had asked him to lead them on a thirty-six-hour retreat. They were about to graduate and enter into the vocations they had just spent years preparing for. For three of them, being a pastor meant starting over in a second career. They wanted to spend a couple days in prayer and conversation as they anticipated what was ahead of them.

Petersons’ answer, “the mess,” was unpremeditated. It stopped the conversation. But sometimes, a spontaneous response reveals something important that had never surfaced just that way before. But mess wasn’t quite the right word. He backpedaled. “Well, not exactly a mess, but coming upon something unexpected that I don’t know how to handle, where I feel inadequate. Another name for it is miracle that doesn’t look like a miracle but the exact opposite of miracle. A slow recognition of life, God’s life, taking form in a person and context, in words or action that takes me off-guard. Theologian Karl Rahner was once asked if he believed in miracles. His reply? ‘I live on miracles—I couldn’t make it through a day without them.’ Still another name for it is mystery. Pastors have ringside seats to this kind of thing. Maybe everyone does, but I often feel that pastors get invited into intimacies that elude a more functional and performance way of life.”

When I was in my twenties, I thought the key to success was recognition and struggled when it never came. The miracles and the mysteries of life are seen not in the spectacular but in the ordinary. The ordinary looks like us showing up for our friends without being asked when they are hurting. When we remain when everyone leaves, when we stand in the middle of a world wracked by anxiety as a non-anxious presence, when we allow the people of God in the place, God has placed us to be the tools that shape us more and more into the image of God. Stay in your small house, work through the offenses caused by family and friends, and don’t think that that next job will make you happy and whole. Allow yourself to be shaped and formed by time and place.

Eugene was right. We want spectacular miracles, and those do happen, but most often, God’s miraculous work is A slow recognition of life, God’s life, taking form in a person and context. Twenty-five years of staying have taught me that God most often works and speaks in the every day and the mundane. That when you stay, you proclaim God’s grace, not your spectacular ability, is what makes you and what keeps you. My plea to you is to stay in your small house on your small street in your small town near your small church and love the people God has placed in your life to form you into his image for his glory alone.

Helping Kids Deal with Sorrow and Death.

One of the more difficult things I have had to do in my years of pastoral ministry is talk with kids about death. Explaining death and sorrow to kids has a profound influence on kids and a refining influence on us.

Recently a friend of mine gave me a book to read written by Jonathan Gibson entitled The Moon is Always Round. The book tells the story of his family dealing with the loss of their baby at 39 weeks. Dr. Gibson, a professor of theology, explained to his three-year-old son the goodness of God through a powerful metaphor of the shape of the moon we can see versus the shape the moon is always.

Dr. Gibson would often ask his son what is the shape of the moon and he would respond that it was a crescent; his dad would ask, what shape is it always? His son would reply, “Dad, the moon is always round.” Dr. Gibson would ask what does that mean? His son would say, “God is always good.”

What a profound metaphor. To have a metaphor that is biblically faithful and continually available is a gift and mercy. There is a part of the moon that we can see, the sorrows we face, but no matter the shape, the reality is that the moon is round because God is always good.

What Gibson is saying is that we see the face of the moon as half, full or crescent. But the shape of the moon we can see is not always the shape of the moon. The moon, no matter what we can see, is always round. He uses this illustration to show us that we don’t always see everything God is doing. We see parts but what we can’t always see is what is really true. Just like the moon’s shape never changes, God’s nature never does either. The moon is always round, and God is always good.

In a recent podcast, Jonathan Gibson recounts the conversation that led to the creation of his book. I highly recommend it.

Talking to our kids is important because death and sorrow are unavoidable and inevitable. We live in a culture that avoids death, but even in our greatest sorrows, we can and should point our kids to the goodness of God.

We live in a world that deifies youth and runs from death. We live in a culture obsessed with cheating death because they are convinced that this life is all there is. We have this idea that God is limited if he exists at all, but we are limitless because of medical advancements and scientific discoveries. Scripture tells us the truth that we are limited. Our days are literally numbered by God, and God is limitless in his care and in his person.

Christians fall victim to this thinking because the materialistic secular worldview is the air we breathe. C. S. Lewis said that everything in this life is marked by death. In A Grief Observed, Lewis talks about how his life was marked by the death of his wife.

“You tell me, “She goes on.” But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back. . . . But I know this is impossible. I know that the thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get. The old life, the jokes, the drinks, the arguments, the love-making, the tiny, heartbreaking commonplace. On any view whatever, to say “H. is dead,” is to say “All that is gone.” It is a part of the past. And the past is the past and that is what time means, and time itself is one more name for death.”

Lewis is talking about something he had grown to understand because of the love he had for his wife. That death is pervasive that death will eventually claim everything and everyone we love. The problem is not if we will die but when. This is not something you hear much about in our modern culture. We don’t want to admit that we are dying and the thing we love will all pass away. Death reminds us that this world is not our home that this world is not all that there is but we avoid death in the hope that death will avoid us.

Matt McCullough in Remember Death, points to the power of life over death. Death’s power has been destroyed and even had its hold turned back on itself because of the resurrection of Christ. McCullogh says, “Jesus draws our attention to the grave to break our attachment to foolish hope in false gods, but not to pull us back from joy. He would rather return the good things of life to their proper place in our minds and hearts: they are gifts, not gods.”

One of the best things you can do to your kids is to take them to funerals, take them to visit people in the hospital, and talk to them about the reality that one day you, as their parent, will die. We live in a culture that is so unprepared for the reality and eventually of death that they don’t know how to live. The church in North America doesn’t talk about death. As a result, far too many Christians are filled with fear of their deathbed. This is a fear that should not be for a Christian. We have a sure and certain hope. Because your days are numbered because you belong to God, we do not have to fear. Nothing can take us from this life until God says we are done. When God says we are done, nothing can keep us.

How to talk to your kids about death?

  1. Tell your kids the truth. – In the podcast I referenced earlier, Dr. Gibson does not lie to his son. He doesn’t give him false hope. He tells him the truth and points his son to God’s goodness. “What shape is the moon….always?”
  2. Don’t speak for God; point them to God – God is always good, but what he does will not always make sense to you and me. There are mysteries that we will never fully understand. Don’t tell your kids what God should have done. Point them to the Word and teach them to trust God more than their eyes can see. 
  3. Do not minimize difficulty or simplify God’s glory or majesty. It is easy and tempting to give our kids pat answers to difficult questions or too difficult problems. Point them to the majesty of God. Remind them of what Mr. and Mrs. Beaver told the Pevenacy kids in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe that God is not safe, but he is good. In trying to understand why people die and how people die, it’s important to remind ourselves that God isn’t safe, sin is real, but God is always good.
  4. Point them to the comforts of God and the assurances of scripture. – Another well-meaning but pernicious lie people tell kids after the death of a loved one is “God didn’t do this.” This may make them feel good for the time being but will inevitably produce insecurity, anxiety, and fear. If the devil’s ability to take life is more real than the power of God to preserve it, we are all in lots of trouble. In Deuteronomy 32:39, it says, “Now see that I, even I, am He, And there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; Nor is there any who can deliver from My hand.” This should not cause anxiety but give us great comfort because nothing can take us from God hand.

How do we live lives marked by joy in our present moment and filled with hope for the future? We realize that this life is but a foretaste of the glory to come.

“Jesus’s death and resurrection have purchased freedom to enjoy what you have even when you know you’re going to lose it. Enjoy your vacation even though it’ll be over in a flash. Enjoy parenting your preschoolers even though they’ll be grown in the blink of an eye. Enjoy your friendships. Enjoy your marriage. Enjoy your productivity at work. Enjoy whatever health you have left in your body. Of course these things won’t last. Yes, it will hurt when they’re gone. But they don’t have to last to be wonderful. They are delicious, God-given, God-glorifying appetizers for the hearty and satisfying meal that’s still to come. They are true and worthy foretastes of the banquet spread for all peoples. And Jesus saves the best wine for last.”

Matt McCullough

What Every Kid Needs

What kids need most is joy. We must give them joy that only comes from treasuring Christ. We must give not give them the empty happiness of distracting entertainment but joy that is engaging joy that is substantive and joy that is gospel-saturated. 

Galatians 4:19

My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!

Our kids are being formed the only question is by whom and into what?

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.
– Blase Pascal
It’s jarring but true. Even people who hang themselves are seeking happiness because they can’t find it in this life. The American obsession with happiness is destroying the soul of America not because joy is wrong but because of where we believe happiness can be found. The church is no exception to the lure to find happiness in things that can be shaken. Joy our heart longs for can only be found in the person and work of Christ alone.
In the kid’s ministry movement, we have spent so much of the last 20 years trying to bring happiness to kids but often at the expense of joy. Happiness is a feeling. Joy is a person. We obsessed over our kids answering this question “Did you have fun?” We measured attendance but not life change.
I have become convinced that what kids need more cool environments, creative curriculum, and happiness is leaders who are committed to their joy.
What does a leader committed to the joy of the kids they lead look like?

1. Kids Leaders who lead with the gospel as central, not gospel as peripheral.

The gospel as peripheral is when we limit the message of Christ crucified to gospel Sundays and Easter Sunday rather than the lens by which we teach each lesson. To see Christ in all of scripture is God-given. His Spirit opens our eyes to see Christ. If you do not treasure Christ above all else, you will be tempted to opt for lessons that teach morality minus Christ’s transforming power. You will be tempted to lead pragmatically, doing what works and draws kids even if it is devoid of your reliance on God’s spirit. You will settle for happiness when your kids need joy.

When we are committed to their long-term joy we will communicate God’s plan and purpose for the world and them in a way that is exciting and fun. We will stop asking “Did you have fun?” and start asking “What did you learn about God today?” As leaders who are committed to our children’s joy, we must be committed to their long-term joy which is at times in opposition to short-term happiness. We settle for fun saturated entertainment with a little Jesus thrown in at the expense of the joy that Jesus as central, Jesus as precious, and Jesus as Beautiful can only bring. Kids are adrift in a virtual world being literally entertained to death. What kids need is a rutter that only the joy of belonging to God submitting to his word and living within the hope the Gospel provides.

How do we practically keep the Gospel Central in our lives and ministries? 
1. Read books about Jesus, not just leadership. The church in North America is obsessed with leadership. The church does need strong leaders, but it needs those leaders to be obsessed with Jesus.
2. Know the core tenants of our faith. Understand the theological framework of the church that you serve.
3. Know the core doctrines of our faith and use those as a filter for the curriculum you use and adapt accordingly.

2. Kids leaders who provide environments where can connect kids to a loving, caring adult.

Your primary job is not to love kids. I know that may shock you, but it’s not. It’s to empower, train and disciple the parents and leaders who will love and teach kids. This is not a size issue but a priority issue. If you have a church of 50 or 5000, you need to train leaders to lead and love kids. You can not be the only loving, caring adult, but your love for kids and passion for the gospel should compel you to train others to do this work alongside you.
The benefit of a loving adult is more positive than you could imagine. Barna has done research along with Awana, and the findings are staggering. 

The advantage of your kids having a loving caring adult in their lives is not even close.

3. Kids leaders who connect kids to a multigenerational community of faith that lives by faith.

What kids need more than a multi-sensory experience is a multigenerational community. Kids need as much, if not more than slick creative videos and energetic young leaders, is an old saint who shows up to tell the bible story and loves Jesus. Someone who has experienced the losses and joys this world has to offer and has found Jesus sweeter still.
Kids need a faith that is lived by their leaders and experienced by them. Of course, they need to know about God, but they also need to be known by God.
How do we do create a multi-general community of faith? 
1. Find sweet old saints and have them come to tell the Bible story.
2. Organize a generations dinner at your church and have kids hear stories of faith from the oldest members of your church. Play games together and create new memories together.
3. Create opportunities in your services, camps, and events where you allow kids to connect with God in a meaningful way.
4. Help train parents to lead their kids in making their homes like a little church. To do devotions and model proper handling of scripture.

4. Kids leaders who obsess over their Christlikeness

We all will agonize over something. For example, we will agonize over our church’s size or the production value of VBS. We can agonize over those things, and some experts would say you must agonize over those – the apostle Paul tells us that what we must agonize over is the Christlikeness of our kids and leaders.
Galatians 4:19

My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!

Why isn’t this the normative task of Christian leaders and godly parents? Why are we not in anguish over the Christlikeness of our kids? I think it is because we have idolized success and trivialized holiness.

Eugene Peterson’s riveting opening salvo in his pastoral classic Under the Unpredictable Plant discusses this very issue, and it’s worth quoting him at length.

Vocational Holiness

“The idolatry to which pastors are conspicuously liable is not personal but vocational, the idolatry of a religious career that we can take charge of and manage.
Vocational holiness, in deliberate opposition to career idolatry, is my subject. Personal holiness, which is the lifelong process by which our hearts and minds and bodies are conformed to Christ, is more often addressed. But it is both possible and common to develop deep personal pieties that coexist alongside vocational idolatries without anyone noticing anything amiss. If the pastor is devout, it is assumed that the work is also devout. The assumption is unwarranted. Sincerity in a carpenter does not ensure an even saw cut. Neither does piety in a pastor guarantee true pastoral work.
My impression is that the majority of pastors are truly good, well-intentioned, even godly. But their goodness does not inevitably penetrate their vocations. The pastoral vocation in America is embarrassingly banal. It is banal because it is pursued under the canons of job
efficiency and career management. It is banal because it is reduced to the dimensions of a job description. It is banal because it is an idol – a call from God exchanged for an offer
by the devil for work that can be measured and manipulated at the convenience of the worker. Holiness is not banal. Holiness is blazing.
Pastors commonly give lip service to the vocabulary of a holy vocation, but in our working lives, we more commonly pursue careers. Our actual work takes shape under the pressure
of the marketplace, not the truth of theology or the wisdom of spirituality. I would like to see as much attention given to the holiness of our vocations as to the piety of our lives.”
Eugene Peterson
This is the job of pastors, leaders, and parents. We will obsess over something, be it career, image management, social standing. Those each have their proper place but don’t deserve our obsessive attention. We, like the apostle Paul, must obsess over the right things. The one thing parents and leaders must obsess over is the Christlikeness of our children. We must not give up. We must not relent until Christ is formed in them. My fellow pastors, let’s obsess over that.