September 12th, 2013
“I’m officially Jewish, but in the same way Olive Garden is Italian. In other words, not much.”
A.J. Jacobs is the editor-at-large for Esquire Magazine whose self-deprecation (see above) is only one reason people love his writing.
As writers are wont to do, Jacobs prefers to immerse himself in a subject before he authors a single word. To see what it felt like to aspire to the heights of knowledge, he devoted an entire year to reading all 32 volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica. The modern phenomenon of outsourcing led Jacobs to relegate nearly all the daily tasks of his life–from responding to emails to reading his children bedtime stories–to paid personal assistants. One year he wondered what it would be like to speak only and all the truth. So he submitted to the practice of Radical Honesty and ended up writing an essay entitled, “I Think You’re Fat.” (Of his immersion projects, Jacob found this one the least enjoyable.)
One of his more recent and notable projects was to devote an entire year to living biblically, at least as he understood it. The project resulted in a book nicely summarized in a TED talk he gave soon after it was published. You can listen to the talk to hear all he did to conform his life to what the bible taught, though you’ll soon notice that his effort operated under certain assumptions about what it meant to live “biblically.” In other words (and not to develop this point too much lest it derail my intention for invoking Jacobs), to be a Christian is to read all of Scripture through the lens of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. That means that some of what is commanded in the OT is understood in a different light given both Jesus’ teaching and His work. Living biblically therefore means appropriating what God has said in view of all that God has said. But that’s a deeper subject for another day.
Jacobs ends his talk by sharing some of the takeaways from his year long subscription. As you’d expect, some stereotypes he had of bible-believing people were nuanced if not replaced, while others were confirmed. Sometimes you get the feeling he was guilty of confirmation bias–where you interpret new information as corroborative of your preconceived notions even if it means leaving out other information that would disconfirm them.
But the takeaway that stood out to me most, and which I think has relevance to the beginning of our foray into a vision for “faithful presence,” is what Jacobs learned about the practice of gratitude. For one, that it’s just that: a practice, a decision, a discipline. Gratitude can be synonymous with a feeling of deep satisfaction, but often such satisfaction isn’t found until one determines to de-clutter their frame of reference of all that is unsettling in order to take note, and take hold, of what are the genuinely fortuitous things–the salutary things that were not promised and yet have been gratuitously delivered. From life itself to the simple unsolicited kindnesses that find their way into our moment, these are the artifacts of our existence that we sometimes have to dig for and brush off to see them in all their stunning relief.
So that threadbare adage of “counting your blessings” was more than just a way to subdue the griping instinct. It in fact reveals–as it did to Jacobs–some deep wisdom about ourselves: that when we identify what is good, beautiful, and true of our moment a kind of mini-transformation of our moment occurs. The choice to cherish brings a boon to our otherwise baneful moment. And I believe the immersion project in gratitude constitutes one more step in the direction of living faithfully present, in that gratitude toward God frees us to love one another and our world.
Sure enough, in this morning’s reading from the Daily Office in Psalm 50, it ends with this:
The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!
The way of obedience in gratitude redounds unto salvation. Salvation from the discouragement that tempts us to despair.
Jacobs began to understand that in part. May we (I) proceed to learn that in fuller measure.
For the first year of our marriage my wife would attest that she could’ve put Alpo in front of me and I would’ve eaten it. There was no dish of hers I would not eat. Flattered as she might’ve been, in those early days when you’re less inclined to offer complaints, my wife was somewhat quietly put off by how I responded to her cooking. She could plainly see my appreciation of it via the plate almost literally licked clean. But what mildly offended her was my instinct then to offer a verbal affirmation of the meal with a simple “it’ll do.”
I get now why she would’ve thought I was damning her with faint praise. However in my mind the appeal to understatement was intended to extol not belittle her cooking. I don’t remember where I’d picked up the habit of uttering succinct and subdued affirmation (a habit I suspect many of you would prefer I recovered in my sermons), but I thought the diminutive praise would come across as that sort of non-verbal adulation that the recipient cherishes even more than had words been spoken.
I was wrong. She didn’t know me well enough then. I didn’t know to make myself plainer. We were, in those days, not quite present to the fuller truth of who each other were–that is, not clued, keyed, or dialed in to our more understated characteristics. Until we came to know one another with more precision, we’d continue to confuse or infuriate one another. (as if those days aren’t over!)
What’s the point of my little story?
We gave the 30,000 foot overview of faithful presence last week. This Sunday we begin the first of three sermons on what it might mean to live faithfully present to God.
My first stab at that idea is to argue that being present to Him is first of all being present to the truth of who He is.
And among the truths of who He is, one storyline of the bible confirms that this God means to be with us. Not simply one who exists, or One to whom we are accountable, but a God who is with us, present to us.
So we’ll look at two texts–Exodus 33:1-20, 34:5-8 and John 1:14-18–that have to do with God’s interest in and path to being present to us. We’ll see what’s true about that interest and plan, and what it means for us in seeking to be present to Him.
And in case you hadn’t seen last Monday’s announcement, we’ve entered into formal agreement with Fairmeadows Baptist Church and for the forseeable future will be worshipping, praying, building community, nurturing our kids, and planning our way at their facility. We’ll gather this Sunday, September 15th, at the new (old) start time of 9:30am.
(PARENTS: if you and your school-aged kids are staying for 2nd hour, we’ll have them meet my wife at the back of the sanctuary to lead them to Sunday School. During that 2nd hour, the kids will be introduced to the Elams (Lloyd and Breanna) and the Gladdings (Kevin and Marisol), whom the Session is considering for ongoing care of our elementary-high school students. Part of the time will give the kids a chance to do their own Q&A with the couples. Christy will lead in a lesson for the first part. Then you’re most welcome to come in at around 11:30 to be part of the Q&A.)
Asking you to pray for (and eagerly inviting you to share what you find yourself preoccupied with in these days)
- for little Seth Jones, grandson of Neal and Jane Peterson, who’s back at Children’s Hospital with significant pulmonary issues. If you’d like to be of help to him and his family–either providing a meal, sitting with Seth at the hospital, or rendering aid for his other 5 siblings,–please send an email to [email protected]
- for our new relationship with Fairmeadows Baptist Church–that it would be mutually encouraging and edifying
- for Don and Helen Johnson in his ongoing battle with ALS
- for our covenant children as the Session considers how to both provide for their nurture and moreover to assist parents in that nurture
The peace of the Lord be with you,