Monthly Archives: November 2011

The perils of gratitude

“For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”  – John F. Kennedy, 1961

“What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”  – Psalms 116:12

As we celebrate Thanksgiving and enter the treacherous waters of the Christmas season, I think it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider one of our species’ most disruptive and dangerous spiritual enterprises: gratitude.

JFK beautifully paraphrased Luke 12:48 when he said, “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”   This understanding makes an “attitude of gratitude” a very dangerous proposition.  Because acknowledging our blessings just might make us realize that we’re not living up to our service potential.  

Where gratitude really gets dicey is when we shift our focus from what we HAVE – which essentially confuses God with Santa Claus anyway – and start thanking God for what we ARE.  Acknowledging God’s blessings in making us who we are forces us to evaluate how we got here.  And thoughtful analysis of this question strongly suggests that human beings are God’s preferred instruments of grace.

Let’s think about this Biblically.  Did God REALLY need Moses and Aaron running around waving a shepherd’s staff in order to send the ten plagues?  Did God REALLY need Samson to knock down the Philistine palace?  Did God REALLY need Elijah whooping and hollering in order to set fire to a sopping wet sacrifice?  Did a God that could part the Red Sea and send manna from heaven REALLY need Jesus going around actually TOUCHING lepers in order to heal them?

The short answer: hell, yes.

Imagine if Mary had only been considering her material blessings that day when Gabriel barged in on her unannounced:

And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”

But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was.  Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.  And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

Then Mary said to the angel, “Couldn’t my dad just write you a check?”

If money is the instrument of God’s grace in this world, then all we would be expected to do in the service of humankind is redistribute some of our material wealth.  But if human beings are the instruments of God’s grace in this world, we are morally obligated to be the same for someone else.

Having worked for several years with some of the poorest of the poor in our country, I find it difficult not to see most misfortune as a function of, “There, but for the grace of God.”  Grace, in this metaphor, is not a slick, shiny “thing” like a good job, a high IQ, or the means to write fat checks so we can feel good about other people doing the heavy lifting.  No, I mean grace as a God-given desire to translate the blessing of our selves into blessings unto others.

Without my parents, my husband, my brother, a small, earnest army of teachers and mentors, and a big, crazy army of friends and coworkers I wouldn’t be in a position to serve because I wouldn’t know how.  They have been the grace of God in my life.  These people are everywhere in the world. 

To them, and for them, may we be truly grateful.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2011

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Golden boy…or golden calf?

When the people saw that Elway was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Reebok and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us.  As for this fellow Elway who brought us up out of San Diego…then, the next year, out of Miami…we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Reebok answered them, “Go thee to NFL.com and click on ‘Shop Now.’  There shalt thou see the Denver Broncos link.  Link, therefore, and makest thou a customizable jersey inscribed with the name of thy god and his most sacred number: 15.   And, lo, if thusly thou shalt act, even now shalt thou be blest with 15% off…and free shipping.”  (Exodus 32:1-2, ESPN Paraphrase Edition)

I’m not much of a pro sports fan, but I’ve been intrigued by Tebow Mania.  For you non-sports fans, allow me to bring you up to speed:

  • Tim Tebow is a second-year NFL quarterback who played for Florida State and was the first sophomore – and first home-schooled athlete – to win the Heisman trophy
  • He’s the son of Baptist missionaries and was the subject of a pro-life Focus on the Family commercial broadcast during Super Bowl XLIV
  • In 2011, the NCAA instituted a rule banning written messages in players’ eye black because  a few players, including Tebow, had been writing Bible verses on their cheeks

At first, devotion (and vilification) of this QB seemed like your normal, run-of-the-mill hero worship (and hero stomping.)  Kind of a hazing ritual, Denver’s way of welcoming you to the team.  Then, more and more people started tuning in to Broncos’ post game shows – because you can always count on Tebow to give a brief witness whenever the Broncos win.  His official website features a verse of the day (although, Tebow fans, if you’re reading this, please drop The Tebe a line and ask him to hyperlink the verses to www.biblegateway.com so I don’t have to look them up myself.)  Then, of course, the Tebowing started.  (You know you’re popular when they turn your name into a verb.) 

Still, I thought all of this was just an interesting sociological study until this morning when I learned that Tebow fans all over the country are spending $96 on official NFL fan jerseys featuring Tebow’s number…and the name of Jesus.*

After getting the initial “WTF??” reaction out of my system, I got to thinking about what the Tebow phenomenon says about Christians.  And I came up with three things.

First, it’s hard to be in relationship with a jealous deity who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  The human brain can’t get around all that; consequently, God can seem a little, well, abstract.  The Israelites experienced this disconnect from God as something intolerable.  I think that’s why they begged Aaron to make them something – anything – that they could see and touch and experience as divine.  I can’t speak to the psychology of ancient people, but did they really think the calf WAS God or did they just need a tangible reminder OF God?

Today, our discomfort with God’s abstraction more popularly expresses itself as atheism, agnosticism, or frostily intellectual forms of Christianity that don’t allow passion to stir discontent.  But some Christians experience that discontent as the Israelites did – hence the Tim Tebows of the world.  He’s here, he’s now, he’s in our living rooms every Sunday, for heaven’s sake.  And he speaks a language that resonates with the converted – he reminds us that God is still out there.

The problem is that our idols keep God “out there.”  That’s why the prophets and apostles spent so much time pulling their hair and pointing their fingers and shrieking at the top of their lungs about the things we use as understudies for God.  Let’s be serious, here.  God doesn’t care if you have a statue of Pele on your mantle any more than God cares if you have a miniature replica of the Lombardi trophy in your china hutch.  What God cares about is whether or not your interest in that item keeps you from fully experiencing a relationship with God in a daily and direct way.

Secondly, it’s hard to wait for the kingdom.  Now, Christians aren’t exactly in agreement about what “kingdom of God” means.  Some of us believe it’s a heavenly reward for a life well-lived, whereas some of us believe it’s our God-given charge to work toward peace, justice, and stewardship in this life.  Either way, we’ve all got a long wait before we reach it.  And as any child counting the days off until Christmas will tell you with grave authority, waiting sucks.

The Tebows of the world don’t make us wait.  The outcome of this week’s ball game is, at most, seven days away…except during the off-season.  I think that’s why some of us keep subordinate idols in reserve until our actual idols get back to training camp.  (For example, Colorado Rockies boy-of-summer Troy Tulowitzki can stand in for Tim Tebow!)

Thirdly, I think a lot of us, not just Christians, are sick to death of the excesses and perversions of celebrity (even as we greedily scan the tabloids for the latest scoops on Jennifer Aniston and Newt Gingrich**).  We’re tired of watching millionaires and billionaires in sports and Hollywood duke it out over huge pieces of the collective pie.  We’re tired of the temper tantrums, the sex scandals, the domestic violence, the drug abuse, and society’s apparent disinterest in holding anyone with wealth and fame accountable.  (Forgetting, that we ourselves are the society that should be doing that very thing.)  We’re tired and we’re jaded.  Then here comes this fresh-faced, likeable, morally upright football player.  He’s such a breath of fresh air in a suffocating landscape of greed, violence, and decadence, we can’t help but sit up and take notice.

I have to admit to being a bit wearied by Tebow’s evangelizing during every locker room interview and his frequent, public descents to one knee.  But in the interest of science, I did check out a website listing all the verses he’d so infamously scrawled on his cheeks for college football games.  Here’s a sampling:

  •  “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)
  • “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  •  “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” (Colossians 3:23)

Nothing threatening or damning here, but some of the finest examples of the universality of the Christian message and, in its purest form, our hope for the world.  Maybe the kid’s on to something.

I don’t know anything about Tebow and will take his cue when he recently said that it’s beyond us to know the inner workings of someone else’s heart.  But I will say that fame and spectacular wealth are corrosive – they cushion people from the raw realities of life and numb us to each other and to God.  So, a word of caution to those who act like they’re worshiping at Tebow’s altar – you’re feeding the flame that topples saints.  Don’t make a golden calf of this quarterback.

I mean, it’s not like he’s Elway.  He doesn’t even have a golden arm.

* I can’t make this stuff up.  Check it out:  http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/blog/shutdown_corner/post/Tim-Tebow-may-be-OK-with-8216-Jesus-8217-jer?urn=nfl-wp12021

** Not to imply that they’re a couple…although I confess that if a tabloid ever breaks that story, I’ll be the first in line to read it.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2011


Big week, little blog

I feel like I won the Israelite lotto!  Except instead of scoring an eternal covenant with Yahweh, the land of Canaan, and a truckload of dietary restrictions, I’ve been a) admitted to seminary,1 b) taken “under care” by the Presbytery,2 and c) granted some sweet financial aid to stave off destitution for at least another six months. 3

So, now that my anxiety is temporarily assuaged, I have found it impossible to come up with an insightful or even mildly interesting blog post this week.  I’ve got a great idea for Thanksgiving and a couple more for Advent, but nothing for this week, which strikes me as positively pitiful considering what a great week it’s been.  I did give momentary consideration to discussing the spiritual significance of the Occupy movement, but decided that comingling religion and politics in this blog is too treacherous, even for me. 

Then I remembered the ancient wisdom spoken by Ten Bears in that classic documentary, Dances with Wolves:

“When one can think of nothing to say, it is a time to be silent.”

The most beautiful justification ever spoken by man for sitting calmly atop the writer’s block.

So, I’m copping out at less than 400 words and no particular message today, except to say thanks. 

1 Obviously, no one on the admissions committee knows about this blog.  Or, significantly less likely, everyone on the admissions committee knows about this blog and finds it theologically astute, intellectually stimulating, morally thought-provoking, and milk-spewing-out-your-nose hilarious. 

2 This is basically the PCUSA’s way of saying, “We’ll not only support your bid to become a minister when you grow up, but we’ll do everything in our power to ensure that you succeed,” but “under care” is a WAY funnier way of saying it.  More on being “under care” in subsequent blogs.

3 A big shout out of enormous thanks for Sem1’s generous financial aid, a delightful token of welcome from the Presbytery, and a scholarship from one of the local Presbyterian churches.  Everyone will be getting REALLY nice thank you cards from me asap.  (My mom reads this blog, so I want to assure her that my social niceties ARE intact.)

© Marian the Seminarian, 2011


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