Sunday, November 27, 2005

Being thankful

I learned how to be grateful a couple of years ago. I think it may have had a lot to do with who I was spending time with. (Or NOT spending time with.) Attitudes are infectious, and I'm embarrassed how easily I was infected by so many bad ones. In retrospect I can see that ungratefulness is the result of a basic outlook on life, and I think it's impossible to be grateful while one holds that outlook. It goes like this… "Life is so unfair to me. I never get what I deserve. People always treat me unfairly. No one is looking out for me."

Having been in a house that was saturated with those thoughts, and having come out of it into a better attitude, I can see some big advantages to being thankful. Here are the ones I have recognized.

  1. The single most important part of being thankful is that is points to God. Once one gives thanks, the question must be asked: to whom are we giving our thanks?
  2. It keeps us humble. If we are thankful for what we have, that means we are admitting that what we have comes from outside of our own merit. An ungrateful person will buy a new car and say "I earned this car. I deserve it!" A grateful person will recognize that they are blessed to have a job and the ability to purchase and drive a car. Once we get it out of our head that life owes us something we can recognize all the gifts that surround us, and realize that we don't deserve any of it.
  3. It keeps us positive. I'm sure you've heard or read at some point about all the medical studies that say our attitude determines a lot about our health and well-being. I would say that any behavior that gets one closer to God's truth will have a positive result. If we say that everything we have is ours by right, whenever we get anything we are just settling a score. We consider good things as a zero, as though we started with negative 100 and when we get what we want we finally have reached 'acceptable' status. But a grateful heart recognizes that nothing is ours by right. So everything we get –starting with our beating heart and breathing lungs- is a gift. So it creates a positive balance in our mind.
  4. It helps us to be kind. When we consider our interactions with people from a thankful attitude, we will display love and kindness. Ungrateful people don't bat an eye when a waiter gives exceptional service, someone holds a door open for them, or their spouse cooks them dinner. Because after all, life is so unfair that these little niceties are just bringing them closer to a balance.
  5. It helps us to be generous. Getting what you don't deserve puts you in the mood to give to others whether they deserve it or not.
  6. It helps us to conserve. Clearly an understanding of things we have as gifts rather than rights will encourage us to use what we have wisely. To do otherwise shows ingratitude.
  7. It helps us deal with catastrophes. Both on a personal level and on a worldwide level as well. Modern liberal political systems, (despite their many advantages) have ingrained in us the thought that we have a certain amount of intrinsic rights. This is a wonderful thing for a government to believe and practice, but in the bigger picture, beyond a government's moral responsibility to its citizens, what rights do we really have? Look to nature for the answer to that. Look at the animal kingdom that doesn't have complex social structures to guarantee them freedoms and liberties. Nature tells us we have NO rights. Death is around every corner. The weakest of the heard get picked off first. The smallest don't get mates. The weather kills them indiscriminately. Fortunately for us God breathed His life into us humans, and thus created us like Him. So we have a responsibility to each other to keep our societies different from the way the animal kingdom works. But without that gift of spiritual life, we would be in the same boat as the alligators, bears, and dragonflies. So when a hurricane destroys a city, why do we blame God and say it's unjust that innocent people died? Does God owe us safety? Does He owe us health, happiness, or stability? Nature shows us that none of these things are ours by right. By God's grace we are alive. And by His mercy our local volcano isn't burying us in lava, the local fault line isn't ripping open swallowing us all, and tornados aren't sucking us into oblivion. And on a personal level, His grace keeps our home safe, our marriages strong, our jobs secure, our children healthy, and our limbs intact. Knowing this helps us when one or more of those things goes away. How many do we still have? When catastrophe strikes, a grateful person will be thankful for what they still have, and approach the problem as an opportunity to learn and grow from it. Giving thanks for our trouble is one of the best ways to grow spiritually and emotionally, exercising our ability to be thankful in all things.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

People and purpose

Here is one of those verses that polite Christians always skim by and try not to think too hard about:

Romans 9: 21Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?

It's been several weeks since my ex wife has called. That always puts me a little on edge. I get to wondering what it would be like if she never called again. I think of the relative peace that my boys experience without the crying on the other end of the line, and broken promises made again and again. Empty proclamations of love with no action to back them up. I don't see how that can be good for my sons. But then, there are a lot of things I can't see, and isn't that what faith is all about? It brings to mind the scene in Lord of the Rings where Frodo first finds out that Gollum is tracking them…

Frodo:

[Frodo sees something some distance away. He hurries towards Gandalf, and sits beside him.] [To Gandalf]: There's something down there!

Gandalf:

It's Gollum.

Frodo:

Gollum?

Gandalf:

He's been following us for three days.

Frodo:

He escaped the dungeons of Barad-dûr?

Gandalf:

Escaped. Or set loose. He hates and loves the Ring. As he hates and loves himself. He will never be rid of his need for it.

Frodo:

It's a pity Bilbo didn't kill him when he had the chance.

Gandalf:

Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of the Ring.

So who am I to say that my ex wife's role is simply a bad thing? She has been living a lifestyle where death is likely to happen at any time. Yet God in His mercy has kept her alive. That tells me she has a purpose. Some part yet to play in the lives of my children. Just as Frodo couldn't conceive of the purpose Gollum had, and how absolutely necessary he would be in the completion of his quest, I can't see why my ex is still kicking around. But "Even the very wise cannot see all ends." And I'm not even very wise. So I'll just have to stick to my faith in God, that He does have a plan and a purpose for my family. And apparently pain and broken promises are a part of that. If Frodo could have wrestled the author's pen from his hand at that point, he would have rewritten the part where Bilbo stays his hand. Gollum would be dead, and only at the end would he find that he had lost because of it. My question is if I wrestled the pen out of the hand of God, what would I do? The answer is that I have learned not to. I'll let Him be the author and finisher of my faith. I'll let Him be the potter that creates people the way He sees fit. I'm not going to complain about my role, or anyone else's.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The times we live in

Here's what I find most interesting about the times we live in. No, it's not the moral decline or scary political climate. History has seen far worse before. It's the information availability and its societal distribution. In other words, who has the info and who doesn't and why. Here's the weird part: anyone with internet access has access to a virtually unlimited supply of information. And yet, with this overwhelming supply comes an interesting reaction. Rather than absorbing as much of it as we can we tend to ignore it because take it for granted. I don't know how a T.V. works, but I know I could find out in less than a minute.

Exacerbating this issue is the fact that no one could conceivably learn even a fraction of what there is to know about so many fields of study. So we rely on experts to tell us what to think about any particular field. Our technology has grown so immense that we have no other choice. Food production, medicine, psychology, politics, religion, conservation, history, economics, etc, etc. Who could possibly know enough about all these fields to make an educated stand on them all? And yet almost everyone has a stand on them.

This is only possible by listening to the experts and determining which one of many conflicting views on a topic sounds best to us. So these experts are now given the power to shape society, because society cannot possibly study every issue enough to make informed decisions on their own. Information is being consolidated into smaller and smaller areas. Not because it's unavailable to the masses, but because they lack the education to unravel the sophisticated technological reality of these developing fields.

Our reliance on experts grows more and more as our technology grows. And so to does our hopelessness for keeping a consistent worldview because our opinions on so many subjects are being shaped by philosophical and political systems outside of our knowledge.

Information has always come through filters, whether it was the philosophical bent of the reporter, the unrecognized but powerful non-verbal form of its delivery; and of course the last filter being the recipient of that information. Every person has biases that give extra credence to some facts and dismiss others. But I think we are at an unprecedented level of information filtering because of our reliance on experts, and most people don't even acknowledge that it occurs. They are content to back whatever opinion they have on any matter with some authoritative expert's testimony. Everything from, "A new ice age is going to happen soon!" to "Free trade agreements will destroy our economy!" to "Religion is the cause of all war and hatred in the world!" Should one be so inclined they could spend the years of time it would take to become educated enough to actually fully examine these claims, but it's much easier to just recite the 'information' that sounds good to them and matches their philosophical disposition.

Besides having unprecedented access to unprecedented amounts of information, we also have unprecedented access to entertainment of all kinds. I'm no history expert, (note the nod to the last paragraph) but I can't think of a time where a society had so much of its recourses committed to entertaining themselves. I certainly can't complain too much… my livelihood is based on that fact. But you have to wonder what kind of an effect that has on people. We have instant access to almost anything on the internet. We have movies on DVD and cable, more free music than we could ever listen to, the ability to call and chat with anyone anywhere, amusement parks all over the place, malls for shopping everywhere, and the list could go on and on.

It's an interesting time when the vast majority of information available is ignored by a society that instead gears its energies towards placating their whims.

So how does one navigate the ocean of filtered information and limitless entertainment? It seems to me that there is no way to do it on your own. It seems to me that we need some sort of a navigator that is outside of it all. Someone who doesn’t filter information or seek to placate us. A transcendent being that can speak directly to us and guide us on a level that information and entertainment don't reach. Because on our own, we are left to be swept away by any current or wind that takes us.