Giving Thanks Even After Thanksgiving

If you’ve ever brought pepper spray to a Walmart on Black Friday and used it to “get ahead,” you might be a redneck. Feel free to steal my joke, Jeff Foxworthy.

If you get honked at, shot at, sprayed at, or trampled over the next few weeks, you were probably out shopping for Christmas gifts. I don’t know when it happened, but sometime between the Pilgrims’ celebratory feast thanking the Native Americans and God for their generous provision and the advent of Santa Claus, Rudolph, and Frosty, we Americans have lost sight of the meaning of the holidays. How do many of us go from thanking our loved ones for all that we have one day to camping outside to get $20 off a t.v. that no one wanted two days ago?

Jesus broached this subject when He encountered ten lepers in a small village between Jerusalem and Samaria. In those days, any defect on your skin made you a social outcast and you could not live in the city or approach anyone without yelling, “unclean!” to indicate that you had an infectious skin disease. They were used to being ignored and neglected, but they were still human and naturally gravitated towards fellow lepers for support and love.

The ten lepers “stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:12-13) They must have heard about Jesus’ healing of other lepers. They called out to Him using a term normally used by disciples. “‘Master’ denotes one who has authority consistent with miraculous power” (Green, NICNT, p. 623). Their request was also significant: “mercy is generally regarded as a divine attribute” (p. 623). In other words, the lepers called to Jesus and asked Him to be healed, knowing that He had the authority from God to do so.

Notice what happened next.When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice.He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.The once close-knit community of lepers immediately divided, each going back to their former social divisions: Jew and Samaritan. The Jewish lepers went back to Jerusalem, presumably to the Temple to have their priests look at them and declare them clean. The Samaritan leper headed towards the Samaritan temple, but when he saw he was healed, he went back to the High Priest to thank Him.

Nine of the lepers didn’t get it. Jesus came not merely to free us from the bondage of sin, but also to free us from the bondage of social caste systems that we have put in place in misguided attempts to keep us “safe.” The walls between Jew and Samaritan, slave and master, black and white, male and female, mentally ill and “sane,” rich and poor, national and foreigner, Michigan and Ohio State fan, and countless other categories have been destroyed by the advancement of the kingdom of God. When Jesus healed the lepers, He was giving a vivid picture of the freedom we now have to overcome prejudices and racism and come together as a community of believers rather than go to our separate places of worship and community. When Jesus asked, “Where are the other nine?” He was probably wondering how ten lepers who had been together because they needed each other to survive could so easily separate themselves so quickly.

Jesus asked a followup question. “Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Only the “foreigner” had figured out who Jesus really was. Only the “foreigner” had embraced the freedom in Christ to come boldly to the feet of Jesus after he previously only dared to call out to Him from a distance before his healing. Certainly the Jewish lepers would have thanked God for their healing, but because they did not return to thank Jesus for their healing, they had not fully understood that Jesus was indeed God in the flesh. They had been cleansed, but they had not been saved. It is like they took a shower in the mercy of God, but went right back to rolling in the mud of generations of social disease and racism. They might actually have been worse off than before; at least when they were lepers, they were free to accept all nationalities and creeds into their community. After they were “cleansed,” they neglected to take it a step further and be cleansed from the very caste system that had made them outcasts in the first place.

Jesus was not berating the Samaritan for being a “foreigner.” Instead, He praised the Samaritan, saying, “Rise and go; your faith has saved you.” All ten were “cleansed,” but only one was “saved.” Thanksgiving didn’t save the Samaritan, but it was an indication of the saving faith that he now had by recognizing the true identity of Jesus. By thanking Jesus, He was acknowledging that Jesus is God.

Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be over. As we enter the holiday season, we should act out our faith by being inclusive rather than shunning all who do not look like us or believe like us. Rather than creating dissension when someone writes Merry Xmas instead of Merry Christmas or steals the baby Jesus from the manger scene, greet people warmly with mercy and forgiveness just as Jesus does for you. Rather than denouncing everyone for being greedy consumers, give generously especially to those who don’t deserve it because that is what Jesus does for you. And rather than correcting everyone by saying Merry Christmas when they say Happy Holidays, say “thank you” and wish them the same as they wished you. Like the Samaritan leper, Christians should be known for their attitude of gratitude rather than just a bad attitude.

Suggested posts to get you in the Christmas Spirit:

Away With the Manger

The Real Meaning of Christmas

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All Dogs (and even cats!) Go To Heaven

  Growing up, my family always had pets. Dogs, cats, birds, fish, hamsters, ponies, spider monkeys – Ok, maybe not all of those; I mean, wouldn’t it be ridiculous to have a pet hamster?!

When one of them died, we lost a family member. Inevitably someone would ask, “Will we see her again in heaven?” It was then that I learned of “doggy heaven,” a place where dogs could run free without leashes and there would be no more fleas, no more fences, and no more mailmen trying to get into the house through the mail slot. Ah, if only I was a dog! Doggy heaven sounds like a doggone good place to be.

Just like the stories of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Beyonce’s pregnancy, I was skeptical. Was this just a place made up to comfort ignorant kids or will we get to see our beloved pets in heaven when we die?

Unfortunately the Bible doesn’t say much about this subject. Since the intended audience was humans, that makes sense, but since I loved my mutts and can’t really imagine being completely happy without them, I dug deep into the obscure passages with this question in mind.

Many people point to Ecclesiastes 3:19-21. Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” Many would say that this proves that people go to heaven (“rises upward”) and animals just cease to exist and go “down to the earth.” This passage doesn’t prove anything. Read the whole book! The writer is speculating. He is trying to find the meaning of life. He is looking for answers. He has tried everything he knows and still wonders if “all is vanity.” He asks “who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” because he doesn’t know. In other words, he is asking the same question we are; he is not answering any questions.

Isaiah gives us a picture describing a new heaven and a new earth in chapter 65, which is very similar to Revelation 21. “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.” (Isaiah 65: 25) Some might say that this is all a metaphor, but the context seems more practical than metaphorical. In the new heaven there will be no more infant deaths or war or weeping. They will build houses and plant vineyards and reap their fruit rather than have someone else invade and take their houses and drink their wine. So when Isaiah speaks about wolves and lambs eating together rather than the wolves eating the lambs, it makes me think that this is literal rather than figurative.

The most compelling evidence to me of animals in heaven is Romans 8:19-23. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Paul is talking about all of creation: animals, plants, water, everything that God created. When Adam sinned, creation was subjected to the consequences of “the curse,” which didn’t just increase the workload for men and pain in childbirth for women, but also affected snakes and the ground (“Cursed is the ground because of you” Genesis 3:17). So when Jesus comes back and the curse is lifted, the frustration and groanings that all humans and creation alike have experienced will end.

At first glance, I was suspicious. I’ve heard humans groan – like pretty much every time a politician speaks – but I have never heard creation groan. Or so I thought. But think about it. If you didn’t have a voice box, then you couldn’t groan and make the sound that we would expect to hear. But the absence of a voice box doesn’t mean that you can’t groan. In the same way, creation is groaning all the time, but we cannot perceive it because it doesn’t have a voice.

So what does creation’s groan sound like? Every earthquake is a groan. Every hurricane is a groan. Every wildfire, mudslide, flood, tsunami, tornado, and blizzard is a manifestation of the groaning of creation over the oppression that it feels from the curse of sin and death placed upon it after Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Douglas Moo defines the groans as “frustration at the remaining moral and physical infirmities that are inevitably a part of this” life. (The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT, p.519)

Just as creation groans, so do we. We “groan inwardly” every time we get sick or a loved one dies or innocent boys are molested or a miscarriage of justice occurs. We eagerly await the day when none of these things plague us anymore. And so does all of creation.

For those who are still not convinced, ask yourself this: where do all the animals, precious stones, gold, and fruit mentioned in Isaiah 65 and Revelation 21 -22 come from? Will God create all new ones or will He redeem them when He officially adopts us as children of God on Judgment Day?

Both creation and humans have been groaning for the day when the curse is lifted and all are finally free; it stands to reason that all of creation will be in heaven with us. And since creation was subjected to the curse through no fault of its own, it will also benefit from the lifting of the curse. Why would creation groan for something that leads to its immediate destruction? (which would be the case if the final judgment only applied to humans)

Next time you groan, try not to dwell on what made you groan; try to dwell on the One who made you and made your pets and created all of creation and made it possible to see each other again one day.

Glimpses of Heaven

When tragedy strikes, many find it comforting to say, “God is in control.” They don’t mean that God caused the tragedy; there’s little comfort in that. They mean that somehow, someway, in the midst of hopelessness and despair, God has a plan and everything is going according to plan.
Without getting into the whole “God didn’t cause it, but He allowed it to happen” – an argument fraught with ginormous holes – I want to focus on one key element that is often overlooked in the discussion: God’s plan.
I believe the biggest stumbling point is a false understanding of what God has been planning since the beginning of time.
In order to begin to understand God’s plan, we should start with the end in mind: where does God want us to be after we die?

Almost universally, people who believe in the existence of God also believe in the existence of “Heaven” or “paradise” or “The Olive Garden.”

But what is heaven?

If you ask others, you will get some interesting answers. Some think we will be in the clouds strumming harps with angel’s wings on our backs. Others think it will be much like the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve sinned. I was told when I was a kid that it would be one long eternal church service.
None of those ever sounded appealing to me. Church services were long enough and heaven would be even longer?! That sounded more like hell to me.
I have never liked dirt. It is dirty and when it gets wet it is muddy. And then the worms and insects! Don’t get me started on dirt. Telling me I was going to grow a garden in heaven just like Adam made me want to wash my hands repeatedly just thinking about it. I can feel the dirt stuck under my fingertips right now.
Luckily for me, this is not what God has planned for any of us. His plan since the beginning was to reveal Himself to us in a deeper way than He ever had before. Adam was not supposed to run an eternal apple orchard. Adam needed to leave the Garden of Eden so he could understand God in a whole new way. This was the plan all along.
Think about this: how would Adam ever understand God if the only life he ever knew consisted of talking animals on a farm that never had weeds, drought, or enemies? With an easy life, when would he ever need God? And how would he ever understand God’s attributes? Without evil, he would never understand God’s holiness. Without pain, he would never understand joy. Without injustice, he would never understand grace and mercy. Without sin, he would never understand forgiveness and love and redemption and reconciliation.
When we start to dwell on the “here and now,” we start to get into trouble. God does not want you to be happy right now; our misery and disappointments are merely indicators that all that this world has to offer will never be enough. Only God can satisfy. As we seek to know Him more, we will catch a glimpse of what He has planned for us: a more complete understanding of Him than we could ever imagine.

When friends betray us
When darkness seems to win
We know the pain reminds this heart
That this is not, this is not our home

Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
And what if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near
What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy
And what if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are Your mercies in disguise
(from Blessings sung by Laura Story)