When Everything Means Nothing

Thank you God for everything in this world.

Such was Gabe’s rush to pizza prayer before dinner last night. I followed up with with some “thanks-for-everything” means “thanks-for-nothing” motherly instruction.  Be specific, boys. God wants to hear the details.  Thank Him for two good times you had today.  

Then, this morning the AM talk show was abuzz with Hillary’s Benghazi “non-apology, apology.” During her interview with Diane Sawyer earlier this week, Clinton took “full responsibility” for the the tragic events at the US Consulate. (http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2014/06) When the host asked Senator Ron Johnson about the apology, he took her to task, claiming that such broad brush regret was no regret at all. 

What, he asked, is she saying she is responsible forShe just wants it all behind her. What about Benghazi does she really take responsibility for? Johnson queried.  For reducing the number of troops in Syria?  For failing to respond to calls for help? What exactly is she taking responsibility for? 

In the span of 12 hours from Gabe’s dinner time grace to the morning talk exchange, I was reminded twice. Be specific. 

Apologies, like thanks, are best well-defined. Sorry for everything is nearly as bad as Sorry if you’re angry, or Sorry if you feel hurt. None are truly healing confessions; for you or the offended. Own up. Specifics means more.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together in 1938 while sharing his life with twenty-five vicars in an “illegal” seminary on the border of Germany and Poland. The last chapter of the book, “Confession and Communion,” impressed me when I first read it more than a decade ago and shape me still.

Besides telling why it is easier to confess to God rather than a sister or brother, and what’s wrong with self-forgiveness, Bonhoeffer explains why confession of specific sins is so important.

People usually are satisfied when they make a general confession. But one experiences the utter perdition and corruption of human nature, in so far as this ever enters into experience at all, when one sees his own specific sins. Self examination on the basis of all Ten Commandments will therefore be the right preparation for confession.  Otherwise it might happen that one could still be a hypocrite even in confessing to a brother and thus miss the good of the confession.  p. 117

Sorry I lost my temper before church last Sunday.  Sorry I didn’t wait for you to finish your thought before I butted in.  Not, Sorry for everything. 

Specific matter when we give thanks, too. I thank Jim that he got the shirts right out of the dryer before they wrinkled and that he surprised me with my favorite hot-fudge sundae, with chopped nuts.  Not, Thanks for everything, Hon.  

I suspect it means more to God when Gabe thanks him for the fun lunch we ate in Bryce’s treehouse and these yummy chocolate straws than for everything.  In everything give thanks, Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church. Yes! But not in one breath. You know: Count your blessings, name them one by one…

The Sweet Psalmist knew nitty-gritty; he thanked God for enemies stumbling, well-dug pits, forgiveness and answered prayers.  

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart. I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.  Psalm 9:1

Ann Voskamp’s best-selling, One Thousand Gifts, is a probing, reflective description- and prescription-of thanking God in specifics.  

In counting gifts, to one thousand, more, I discover that slapping as sloppy brush of thanksgiving over everything in my life leaves me deeply thankful for very few things in my life….I testify: life-changing gratitude does not fasten to a life unless nailed through with one very specific nail at a time.  p. 57

It’s in naming the details, I think, that we actually magnify the Lord with thanksgiving. Microscopes magnify contours of a finger tip and scales on a hair. Thanking God in specifics makes Him look bigger, magnifies Him, for all who hear the thanks.

So I recount some specific gifts: a warm June breeze and a lovely Luna moth, an honest exchange with quiet son and a sneak-out-of-bed kiss from the other one. I thank God those things. Not for everything, but for those things.

Because I’m learning, In thanks as in confession, everything means nothing.

Game On, Grumble Monster!

A heart that is full of grace and goodness wi

thin will bear a great many strokes, and never make any noise, but if an empty heart is struck it will make a noise.

Context is everything.  New context infuses new life into the old, the familiar. Hanging an old rose acrylic on new wall in our new house was the painting’s revival. It’s part of the rational for dating one’s spouse, too. Spiffed up and conversing over bruschetta in the restaurant’s dim lights transforms my daily Jim into my date James.  Also a resurrection of sorts.

 So with a familiar text, reread in its unfamiliar context.

Here’s the familiar text:

No temptation has seized you except that which is common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape that you may be able to endure it. 

Now here’s the context to which Paul addressed his encouragement:   

9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.  11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.  12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.  13 No temptation has seized you, except which is common to man…

You may have known 1 Corinthians 10:13 by heart. But did you know the context?

Without the context it,  I had mostly attached “no temptation” to others’ temptation to sexual immorality or my own temptation to gluttony, or generically to theft or lying.  With context, I now see a much more pernicious and tempting temptation: the GRUMBLE MONSTER!  He is AKA: complaining, bellyaching, whining, fault-finding, murmuring or griping.  One and the same. To the Israelites wandering through the wilderness it was a crime punished with, well, um, destruction.


 Do everything without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…Philippians 2:14-15

In the walls of my secular workplace, I’m convinced that there is no other single attribute, or rather, lack thereof, that could distinguish me as a light-of-the-world, child-of-God.  The absence of complaining, not to mention the presence of thanks and praise, in the face of increased work demands, more rigorous performance reviews, and challenging co-workers shines.  Conversely, there is no more direct route to the underside of a basket than griping with the group.

As it is with a vessel that is full of liquor, if you strike it it will make no great noise, but if it is empty then it makes a great noise; so it is with the heart, a heart that is full of grace and goodness within will bear a great many strokes, and never make any noise, but if an empty heart is struck it will make a noise.  When  some men and women are complaining so much, and always whining, it is a sign that there is an emptiness in their hearts.  If their hearts were filled with grace, they would not make such a noise. * 

Are you a noisy, empty vessel? Does your “great noise” betray an empty heart?  Or when you feel wronged, when you are struck, do you make noise?  Do you bad talk your boss, squawk about your spouse, whine about your workplace demands (domestic or outside) demands?  We must be watchful, lest we disgrace our Father’s name.

Take heart: God promises a way out!

Tempted and tried, we can cling to God’s promised deliverance: no more than we can handle or a way out. In his 1658 treatise on “Temptation,” John Owen urges us to consider: 1)  The faithfulness of the Father, 2) the grace of the Son and 3) the power and efficacy of the Holy Ghost.  And all these are engaged for the preservation of such persons from the hour of temptation.  

God who is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made; including the promise to preserve us in the hour of temptation.  His very nature is faithfulness. The Father who remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself. 

Christ the Son whose whose grace is sufficient. Who himself has suffered when tempted, is able to help those who are being tempted.  It’s the marvelous grace that kept watch over our lips and transformed the grumpy thoughts into grateful thoughts.

Ann Voskamp in One Thousand Gifts impacted my understanding of gratitude. Far from being encapsulated in an isolated thank you note, gratitude it is a discipline to be nurtured, cultivated.  It’s a way of seeing. Writing an actual list of a thousand gifts, was to her the nail driving out another nail.  It was her way to apply Erasmus’ wisdom to a discontented spirit. One habit is overcome by another habit.

It is painfully hard to resist complaining.  From puckered baby faces spitting out orange mush, to elders bewailing achy bones, complaining is endemic to our kind. But it needn’t destroy us!

With patient practice, and the efficacy of the Spirit’s power, thanksgiving kills grumbling.  The Spirit strengthens us with power in our inner being where Christ dwells by faith. Not a spirit of fear, but power, love and self-control.

God promised to his help when we’re tempted (old promise), including temptation to grumble (new context). Patiently pressing on, in faithfulness of the Father, the grace of the Son and the power of the Spirit assure victory in the face of temptation.

Game on!  Go on out and get that Grumble Monster!

*Rare Jewel Of Christian Contentment, Jeremiah Burroughs, p. 29